Chinja Maitiro! ("Change the way you are doing things!") is the battle cry of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the Zimbabwean opposition party led by Morgan Tsvangirai. The case of the recent presidential elections in Zimbabwe–which Tsvangirai was at press time still contesting–leaves no doubt that its slogan is apt.
Hopes were cautiously high until the end. In 2000, the MDC had two important victories: defeating incumbent Robert Mugabe's proposed changes to the Constitution in February and making significant gains in June's parliamentary elections. But this time, democracy didn't prevail. The run-up to the presidential election was marred by extensive violence (including the murders of at least thirty opposition supporters), threats of a coup by the armed forces if Mugabe were to lose and intimidation of the press and civic organizations. In the end, official results–which many nations, including the United States, have refused to recognize–showed 1.69 million votes for Mugabe, 1.26 million for Tsvangirai. Official results also showed Mugabe carrying areas of heavy opposition support by suspicious margins–recalling our own "Jews for Buchanan" phenomenon–and in some districts, more final votes than had been recorded as cast in the balloting process.
This is appalling stuff, but Martin Meredith's Our Votes, Our Guns: Robert Mugabe and the Tragedy of Zimbabwe makes it clear that stealing this election is but the most recent of Mugabe's sins. Not quite a biography, not quite a history of the young nation of Zimbabwe, Our Votes, Our Guns is best described as a catalogue of outrages. (The title refers to a remark by Mugabe in 1976, to the effect that the people's votes must always be safeguarded by their guns.) The book begins on a hopeful note, with the young Mugabe as a brilliant and disciplined leader in the revolutionary struggle against an Ian Smith determined to preserve the country, then Rhodesia, as the last bastion of white rule in Africa.
Settler rule was formally abolished by the Lancaster House settlement in 1979, which called for a provisional British governor and prompt elections. Mugabe was elected president in April 1980, full of conciliatory words about nonracialism and uniting to build a new nation. But things soon turned grim.
The revolution almost immediately devolved into a struggle for power as Mugabe tried to realize his dream of a one-party socialist state. Needless to say, socialism was not forthcoming: Mugabe and his ministers and friends promptly adopted the lifestyle of the departing white overlords, moving into mansions and buying Mercedes cars, while conditions for the rural poor–the vast majority–remained essentially the same. Within two years of the transition Mugabe also proved capable of Rhodesian-style political repression, unleashing the "Fifth Brigade"–a notorious special forces unit trained by North Korea–and other government and paramilitary fighters in a murderous campaign of state terror against Ndebele speakers in Matebeleland.
That southwestern province formed the base of support for ZAPU, an erstwhile rival guerrilla force turned opposition party. According to a March 1997 report compiled by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe, it is "reasonably certain" that at least 3,750 people were killed there over the course of the early 1980s; most were buried in mass graves. (The report characterizes this figure as a "conservative estimate"; other estimates put the figure as high as 10,000.) The same report tells of at least 10,000 people detained, some for extended periods, under brutal conditions. The total number of those tortured in mass beatings or in camps is "around 7,000." Untold others died of starvation because of food shortages or the loss of a breadwinner. Mass graves continue to be uncovered, prompting calls from the MDC and others for a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission.