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Despair and fear in Zimbabwe on the eve of yet another problematic election


Tony Reeler is a senior researcher at the Research and Advocacy Unit and co-convener of the Platform for Concerned Citizens. He writes in his personal capacity.

Living in terror would be a good description of the experience of vast numbers of Zimbabweans over the past 23 years; the experience of living in an environment where political violence backed up by endless intimidation and threats accompany every election.

On the eve of its 2023 elections, Zimbabwe sits largely in despair. This is not apathy. Neither is it cowardice. Despair is much deeper than either of these trite epithets. Too often, despair is just another way of describing depression, and depression is one of the common consequences of living in terror.

This has been comprehensively documented by a very courageous civil society, a civil society that is now facing draconian laws under the Private Voluntary Organisations Act and the “Patriot” section of the Criminal Law Amendment Act.

A good illustration of the depth of despair comes from studies on the mental health of Zimbabwe’s citizens.

In 1991, an epidemiological study at the Primary Care Clinic in Harare showed that 24%-28% of those attending the clinic were suffering primarily from psychological disorders. In 2006, an unpublished study showed that this had risen to 39% of primary care clinic attendees.

The biggest contributory factors were the number of experiences of violence a person had. There was also the startling finding that the risk of suffering from a psychological disorder increased by 14 times when a person had property confiscated, an obvious consequence of Operation Murambatsvina. But it is important to remember that property destruction has been frequently reported during elections.

The human cost of elections in Zimbabwe is unknown in its extent, but is likely to be considerable. The most probable effect of this is despair.

The deployment of thousands of young men around the country under the Zanu-PF-affiliated NGO Forever Associates Zimbabwe cannot be benign. It will be viewed not only with suspicion by most citizens, but also with fear.

The fear is amplified by the endless hate speech and the massive vote-buying. As one speaker at a recent conference put it, the election has become a “market”, with the spending of vast amounts of money to ensure that people vote for Zanu-PF.

But what will be the consequence if the vote doesn’t follow the money? What will happen to the people who accepted the money and the gifts? Will the sellers of favours just shrug it off when they lose, or will there be retribution?

However, despair is not merely induced by terror. It is also a result of the whole process of an election, and the endless disputes over the results, and the fact that Zanu-PF has never officially lost an election.

Even when it does lose, as it did in 2008, there is no prospect that the party will concede and a change of regime takes place.

That could have happened in the 2008 election had the region and the continent pressured Zanu-PF to concede. But no one did this. It took the monstrous violence of the presidential re-run to create a government of national unity rather than a change of government. As one experienced journalist stated, the violence in the re-run was only possible because SADC and the African Union did not intervene while the charade over the recount took place.

Constitutionality of the 2023 election

There is an even bigger problem in this election, which relates to its overall constitutionality.

There are multiple aspects to this.

First, the constitutional basis for this election is dubious. This is because the effect of the 2017 coup, and the Chiweshe judgment on section 212 of the Constitution has not been comprehensively understood. The judgment and its effective endorsement by the ConCourt effectively alters the Constitution.

An attempt to appeal against this judgment was dismissed.

According to the law, any State of Emergency and deployment of the military must be invoked by the president and endorsed by Parliament, and any State of Emergency must be specific about place and time. However, in 2017, it was the military who imposed a national State of Emergency, presumably under section 212 to defend the Constitution, and this has not been formally revoked.

By in effect amending the Constitution to allow the military an untrammelled right to intervene in civilian affairs, a de jure State of Emergency was declared by the army. That State of Emergency has not been subsequently revoked by the executive and Parliament.

Thus, even the 2018 elections can be viewed as possibly unconstitutional: who was the constitutional authority mandating the election — the president or the military? 

A future government will have to do something about the amendment to the Constitution deriving from Chiweshe’s judgment: no self-respecting country can live with a constitutional right for the military to decide on its own to intervene in civilian affairs.

It is remarkable that such a serious state of affairs has received so little attention in the past five years, especially from a government seeking so hard to restore its international reputation.

Irregularity and intimidation: The pre-election process

The second problem, or set of problems, relates to the entire pre-election process. All the indicators are that this election is far from conforming to regional or continental best practices for holding elections.

The range of problems has been covered in multiple policy dialogues. The issues have ranged from the problems of an opaque and contested delimitation — even by Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC)  commissioners themselves — the endless wrangling over the voters’ roll, and the enormous number of court challenges of the ZEC’s management.

Political culture in Zimbabwe

However, the future will have to address the even more difficult problem of the political culture in Zimbabwe, as Musa Kika put it in a recent article in Daily Maverick.

At a recent Sapes policy dialogue, Kika expanded on the reforms that are necessary, arguing that there is a need to:

  • Deal with the legal and administrative issues arising from past elections. For example, an analysis of the recommendations made by all observer groups to the 2018 elections — national, regional and international — indicated more than 100 separate and distinct suggestions for meeting best practice standards.Most have not been addressed.
  • Develop a proper transition arrangement for elections. This requires a mediation strategy to deal with disputed elections and probably requires guarantors, including SADC.
  • Address the political culture by ensuring full compliance with the Constitution, the laws and all regulations. This will be crucial to building confidence in elections and in the possibility of change.
  • Deal with polarisation. Overcome the rush to litigation and the failure of mediation: many problems in elections can be managed through effective mediation. It will be important to move from personality-based to issue-based politics.
  • Political parties must become democratic: they must become accountable to their own members to create confidence in the citizenry that they will be accountable in government.

Tragically, it is too late to address any of these concerns. The reforms suggested above will have to wait for the result on 25 or 26 August, and the country will once again start the whole tedious business of proposing and fighting about electoral reforms.

However, elections are lotteries, and, while the rhetoric is already claiming a landslide for Emmerson Mnangagwa and Zanu-PF, the big question is whether the voters will overcome despair (and terror), not succumb to the blandishments of rampant clientelism, and turn out in huge numbers to defend their right to be free agents.

However, there may be a more serious consequence of these elections: how the electorate responds if the outcome does not reflect their will.

As mental health experts know, despair usually means being depressed, but depression is also the pathway for deep, suppressed anger: anger that Zimbabweans cannot express through protest or demonstration. However, anger cannot be suppressed forever, and there are too many examples in recent history — in South Africa in 2021 or in north Africa more than a decade ago — that show this.

This was the point made by Musa Kika at a pre-election conference held by the Electoral Resource Centre, and the need for SADC and the AU to pay careful attention to the need to ensure regional stability. 

As Kika pointed out, “It is precisely in the interest of neighbouring and regional powers to respond to embedded polarisation and electoral violence as well as contested elections. If stability in the SADC region is a priority, a vicious cycle of coups and revolutions should always be avoided.”

If the outcome reflects yet again a flawed process, to what extent will the national, regional and international observers pay attention to all the flaws that have been comprehensively demonstrated over the past two years? Or will they once again repeat the usual litany: there was an election, many people voted, there was a clear winner, and nothing more needs to be done?

Or will the regional and international community at last see that Zimbabwe has reached a “Lancaster House” moment, and serious talking needs to begin? DM


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