The Zimbabwe election fiasco: Phantom South African loans and no date in sight

By Simon Allison 19 April 2013

Luckily for cash-strapped Zimbabwe, South Africa rescued the upcoming elections with a big loan that didn’t appear to have any strings attached. Except South Africa knew nothing about this rescue, and Zimbabwe’s elections are looking as far away as ever. By SIMON ALLISON.

Zimbabwe’s got a bit of a problem. It’s meant to be having elections this year (well it was meant to have elections last year, but they got delayed). This should, in theory, be a positive step for a country still reeling from the chaos precipitated by the last election. It should be the culmination of the long and often torturous political process which has gone a long way towards stabilising the country and improving its economy, as well as forcing the country’s two major parties to share power (some of it, anyway).

A referendum on a new constitution, held in March, was successful. The voting was largely peaceful, and the new constitution was overwhelmingly approved – even though it is a deeply flawed document. The constitution was the last hurdle that needed to be overcome before elections could be planned.

And elections are being planned. President Robert Mugabe has said the big day will be on 29 June, and – power-sharing or no power-sharing – he still tends to get what he wants.

So what’s the problem?

Money, of course. Zimbabwe hasn’t got any, and the little it could spare went towards conducting the referendum. “We essentially, for lack of a better word, raped the economy for the referendum,” said finance minister Tendai Biti, according to Zimbabwe’s NewsDay.

Elections are expensive – especially if you want them to be free and fair (or at least appear to be free and fair). There’s lots of equipment that must be bought, lots of staff recruited, lots of organising needed. Biti says that Zimbabwe needs $132 million (R1.2 billion) to pull it off properly, but just doesn’t have it.

This is not an unreasonably high figure. Britain’s elections in 2005 cost $122 million, and its 2011 referendum on voting systems was roughly the same. But even austerity budget-Britain has this in reserve, unlike Zimbabwe. So where is the money going to come from?

The obvious candidate is the United Nations, which has rarely been shy of funding democratic processes. Only one problem here: the UN wants to make sure those processes really are democratic. “It was clear that the [UN] team wanted a broader mandate… They kept talking about the security sector and media reforms, all sorts of euphemisms… and that we reject,” said justice minister Patrick Chinamasa this week, implying that the UN was attempting to “manipulate, infiltrate and interfere with” Zimbabwe’s internal processes. This ruled out the United Nations option.

Fortunately, a more amenable donor was found in South Africa – or was it? Earlier this week, Biti told journalists that South African had agreed to stump up $100 million (around R900 million) as a loan towards Zimbabwe’s election. This was the first time, however, the South African public had heard about it – and the South African government didn’t know anything about it either.

Lindiwe Zulu, international relations advisor to President Jacob Zuma and leader of South Africa’s mediation efforts in Zimbabwe, told the Daily Maverick that although there is an existing agreement for South Africa to lend Zimbabwe that amount of money, it is most certainly not for the purpose of holding elections. According to Zulu, this line of credit was agreed by Cabinet in 2009, and officials from both countries’ treasuries are still sitting down to figure out the modalities of the loan. She said that if Zimbabwe wanted help funding its elections, it would have to ask. “We have no such request on the table,” she said.

Which is perhaps fortunate, because civil society has been near universal in warning strongly against making any loans without exacting conditions being attached to them. “South Africa should not lend any money to a government that is largely run by a cabal of crooks,” said Good Governance Africa (GGA) in a statement in response to Daily Maverick questions. The Johannesburg-based research institution sent a team to Zimbabwe to monitor the referendum. “The chances for Zimbabwe of conducting free and fair elections with this money are very slim. It has not harnessed its security forces which continue to harass civic groups. Zanu-PF continues to dominate the electoral commission, making it impossible for it to hold free and fair elections.”

So where does this leave Zimbabwe? In trouble, with Zanu-PF officials already backtracking from the proposed June date, saying that September or October is looking more likely. But, if Zimbabwe is really intent on conducting an election free from international conditions around reform and fairness then there is a solution closer to home.

“Zimbabwe does have alternative sources for funding these elections,” said Good Governance Africa. “It continues to stifle growth and investment in its economy through its indigenisation programme. It also has considerable revenues from its eastern diamond fields, which are run by Zanu-PF, and do not reach state coffers.”

So, Zimbabwe, if you want elections, you might have to ask your politicians to dig into their own suspiciously deep pockets. This, however, seems unlikely to produce free and fair elections – which are looking as unlikely as ever before. DM

Read more:

  • SA loan to Zim torches storm on NewsDay
  • Being upfront about Zimbabwe loan will avert public anger on Business Day

Photo: Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe (R) and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai address a media conference at State House in the capital Harare January 17, 2013. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo


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