Things Fall Apart

Things Fall Apart

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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.

Our Votes, Our Guns shows that the conflict was not ideological or "ethnic" at base, but rather about power and greed. In Meredith's account, after Mugabe crushes his early rivals, the breathtaking scope of his government's corruption dominates the story. From the beginning, efforts at land reform were hijacked by officials who parceled farms out to cronies or simply kept them for themselves; veterans' pension and compensation funds were systematically looted; and private business was ensnared in a web of kickbacks, dirty contracts and intimidation. In 1998 Zimbabwe dispatched troops at great expense (estimated at $1 million per day) to Congo, ostensibly to prop up the highly dubious regime of Laurent Kabila. The primary motivation, however, appears to have been to allow army and government officials a crack at the rich spoils of yet another war, in the form of mining and import concessions handed out liberally by the grateful Kabila. Meredith quotes army Col. Tshinga Dube saying at the time that "there are fortunes to be made in the Congo…. So why rush to conquer the rebels?"

Lately, whenever dissent looks unmanageable, the government unleashes its "war veterans" (many of whom are too young to remember the revolution). A favorite diversionary tactic of Mugabe's is to play to resentment of whites, and to encourage and even pay these bands of young men to invade large, white-owned farms. This has had little effect on the skewed distribution of land–a small minority of white commercial farmers holds most of the best land, to say nothing of the estates held by the ruling elite–but it makes for good political theater. Other frequent whipping boys are Britain, gays (Mugabe once described the British government as a bunch of "gay gangsters") and the foreign media.

Periodic assaults on the press and judiciary began in the late 1980s. Journalists and editors who exposed corruption were fired, jailed and tortured. Judges who stood up to Mugabe and his henchmen were threatened. In March of last year the beleaguered independent judiciary was finally broken when the High Court's Chief Justice was forced out and replaced by a more pliant member, and the Court's membership was increased by fiat from five to eight, with Mugabe supporters brought in to fill the new seats.

The book's jacket suggests, unoriginally, that Our Votes, Our Guns is "essential reading for anyone who wants to understand today's Africa." It is a fast-paced and readable account, mainly of "why Mugabe is a really bad man." But while this is certainly a rich subject, it is hardly a novel insight, or the key to "today's Africa." The continuity of violence in Zimbabwe's history is what comes across most strongly in Meredith's book. Readers unfamiliar with the country's history will be struck by how little is new in the current, stolen election, as well as in the much-publicized campaign of expropriation and intimidation that preceded it. But Meredith's portrait of Mugabe is at once too thin and too narrowly focused. We are left with little understanding of Mugabe's transformation from idealistic, principled revolutionary to unstable despot, and little sense of why a nation born in such promise has come to such a desperate pass.

The book's early chapters portray Mugabe's intelligence, his tenacity and his hard-headed commitment to the cause of liberation. Why did this admirable man turn to the very tyranny he sacrificed so much to overthrow? Meredith documents this transformation but does not explain it. The result is that Mugabe's fall from grace comes to seem almost inevitable, as if promising African leaders are doomed to become power-mad kleptocrats. At the same time, by focusing so relentlessly on the misdeeds of Mugabe as his cronies, Meredith offers a relatively simplistic vision of the country's plight, in which a group of venal politicians is all that stands between Zimbabwe's people and social justice.

Indeed, Our Votes, Our Guns has the feel of an "insta-book," churned out in response to a growing international outcry over stepped-up land invasions and campaign irregularities. Events tumble by with little analysis; the voices of "ordinary" Zimbabweans are conspicuously lacking. And it's difficult to say how much research Meredith, a veteran British journalist who has written six previous books on politics in southern Africa, actually did for the book; there are no citations, and we are rarely told if quotes come from interviews conducted by the author or from other sources. (The one private citizen we hear from at any length is a white farmer named Cathy Buckle, who fled the country in 2000.) The result can be numbing–a litany of crimes that is horrifying but not terribly illuminating. By way of explanation for the "tragedy of Zimbabwe," we are given, essentially, one man's "monstrous ego."

In Meredith's account the British government and international institutions appear chiefly as the frustrated voice of reason, pressuring Mugabe to clean up his act. And there can be no doubt that Mugabe's regime is culpable for the devastation it has wreaked on the country. But these actors frequently have shown considerably more interest in promoting a neoliberal Zimbabwe than a democratic one, supporting Mugabe with loans and international credibility as long as he followed their (often socially disastrous) economic dictates.

During the two decades after the transition to majority rule, Zimbabwe offered the odd spectacle of a nominally Marxist-Leninist and militantly "Third Worldist" government generously funded by donors and foreign lenders. Initial progress was encouraging. In the 1980s the infant mortality rate dropped from 86 to 49 deaths per 1,000 live births, the immunization rate hit 80 percent and life expectancy rose from 56 to 62 years. Primary school enrollment doubled, and literacy rose by a substantial margin.

In 1990 Mugabe reached an agreement with the IMF on a loan package and structural adjustment program. Rapid trade liberalization, cuts in social spending and privatization of government-controlled sectors of the economy led to extremely high interest rates, stock market instability, currency speculation and a dramatic upsurge in inflation. Between the cuts, the financial turbulence, the AIDS pandemic (which began to hit southern Africa at that time) and severe droughts in 1992 and 1995, Zimbabwe's gains of the 1980s were dramatically reversed. By 1995, manufacturing output had shrunk by 40 percent from 1991 levels, and the standard of living of the average Zimbabwean worker fell even further.

By early 1999, government coffers were nearly dry, and the IMF returned with another bailout package conditional not only on an end to land invasions and the adoption of "good governance" provisos similar to the ones Mugabe had consistently flouted in the past, but also on additional cuts in social spending–policies of a type Mugabe had complied with before. In this event, the stipulations included an end to price controls and luxury import tariffs–among the only measures Mugabe had taken in recent years to lift some of the burden of crisis off the poor. By 2000, Mugabe's government was devoting 38 percent of export earnings to servicing the external debt.

African leaders have made efforts to regain a measure of bargaining power with international institutions, notably the New Economic Partnership for Africa's Development, launched in 2001. The brainchild of Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo and South Africa's Thabo Mbeki, NEPAD embraces neoliberal economic orthodoxy but is attempting to alter the rules of the development game by linking aid to "good governance" standards that are set and administered by African governments. African leaders, led by Mbeki, are hoping that "quiet diplomacy" will convince Mugabe either to step down or create a government of unity with the MDC. (Publicly, however, they are declaring the elections to be "free and fair.") If this fails, NEPAD's credibility may be fatally damaged.

Our Votes, Our Guns tells an important part of Zimbabwe's story. However, readers seriously interested in Zimbabwe's prospects might also turn to any one of a number of books by local activist/intellectuals–such as Brian Raftopoulos and Tsuneo Yoshikuni's Sites of Struggle: Essays in Zimbabwe's Urban History (Weaver); Keshia Nicole Abraham, Patricia McFadden et al.'s Reflections on Gender Issues in Africa (SAPES Books) and Richard Werbner and Terence Ranger's Postcolonial Identities in Africa (Zed Books)–which offer more nuanced pictures of the region, its problems and its resources for positive change.

Patrick Bond and Masimba Manyanya's Zimbabwe's Plunge: Exhausted Nationalism, Neoliberalism, and the Struggle for Social Justice (Africa World Press) is particularly notable. Bond and Manyanya argue that even a well-governed Zimbabwe will be hard pressed to overcome the region's history of uneven development and the crushing pressure of international debt. They note that the MDC has been forced to turn for financial support to white business and conservative allies abroad, potentially compromising its stated commitment to the interests of the trade unions and poor majority. (Supporting their suspicion is the fact that before the 2000 parliamentary elections the MDC shifted dramatically to the right, promising that if elected Tsvangirai would implement the most stringent structural adjustment program yet.)

Yet Bond and Manyanya also chronicle the emergence of significant progressive forces in the country and in the region. These include the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development and other groups, united in the Africa Social Forum network of social movements, that are committed to scrapping the international debt as well as promoting participatory economic development and a vision of "good governance" that goes far beyond NEPAD. Bond and Manyanya provide a better sense than Meredith does of the enormous obstacles facing Zimbabwe–even getting rid of one "ogre," as many of his early opponents described Mugabe, clearly won't be enough. But sobering as their analysis is, it gives us more reasons for hope, as well.

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