Thabo Mbeki, the South African president, likes to make the point that the world is obsessed with Zimbabwe because white farmers have been victims there. Mbeki’s argument is that there are many other African countries where black people are oppressed that are not even a blip on the screen of CNN or the BBC. Mbeki is wrong, of course. The worst victims of Robert Mugabe’s kleptocracy have been black folk, the poor people without British or South African passports whose only choice is to live, impossibly, with 165,000 percent inflation or to become illegal migrants in South Africa, and who have now been defrauded of the one thing that gave them dignity: their democratic rights.
Mbeki is wrong, too, about why Zimbabwe attracts the world’s attention. Certainly, dispossessed white farmers play well, particularly in the right-wing British media. But global interest spotlights Zimbabwe for reasons not dissimilar to those that drew thousands to the antiapartheid movement in the 1980s: it has become the symbol of a larger struggle, this time between an old African way of doing things and a new one.
Mbeki himself called for an “African Renaissance” early in his tenure. Well, one was happening just across the border, where a vibrant new coalition of civil society, working across old ethnic boundaries, coalesced in 1999 into an opposition that formed the first real challenge to Mugabe’s effective one-party state and heralded something of a post-neocolonial era in Africa. It had happened already in other countries–specifically, Kenya and Zambia–but there was a spirit to the Zimbabwean opposition that seemed particularly rejuvenating.
In the March 29 elections, if preliminary results posted at polling stations are anything to go by, a slender majority of Zimbabweans were willing to vote against Mugabe. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) under Morgan Tsvangirai won a clear plurality of the vote, although as we go to press it’s unclear whether this was an outright majority or there would need to be a second round. (There was a third candidate: Simba Makoni, one of Mugabe’s former finance ministers, who ran as an independent.)
What has been happening ever since–the ruling ZANU-PF’s refusal to release results and the “recounting” of certain marginal constituencies–is indeed a silent coup, as the MDC alleges. It is the ruling elite’s refusal to obey the will of the people and a ploy to allow the ruling party’s thugs to intimidate voters away from the MDC if there is a second round. That there is not–yet–carnage on the Kenyan scale (the MDC alleges ten deaths) is testament to the pan-ethnic sophistication of the Zimbabwean opposition. But the intimidation has begun: Human Rights Watch has documented a dramatic increase in torture and violence by the ruling party.
The perplexing thing to outsiders is how susceptible Zimbabweans have been to this kind of intimidation. Their courage during the Chimurenga, as the decade-long war of independence against the white-minority Rhodesian regime is known, is legendary: they were far more willing to go to war than were their neighbors in South Africa. And yet when the unions called a national strike to protest the delay in announcing election results, it was a flop: Mugabe’s security apparatus managed to hector nearly everyone back to work. The ZANU-PF government has proven far more adept at intimidation than Rhodesia’s white supremacist ruler ever was.
The truth is that a significant minority–more than 40 percent, it seems–voted for Mugabe. It is important for students of African democracy to grapple with this. Do Zimbabweans have some kind of suicidal millenarian impulse? Are atavistic loyalties stronger than reason? Or is it simply that old-fashioned two-step–brainwashing and intimidation–at play? Whichever, Mugabe is not universally reviled. His power is rooted in significant popular support.