After waiting more than a week for official results of the March 29 presidential elections, Zimbabweans still do not know whether Robert Mugabe, the only leader most have ever known, will step aside or face his main challenger in a runoff.
Morgan Tsvangirai, candidate of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), claims he won the elections outright. Independent monitors say results posted at polling stations show Tsvangirai won but not by an outright majority.
Meanwhile, Mugabe’s ruling party, Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), has called for the Zimbabwean Electoral Commission to delay announcing results in order to carry out a recount of some parliamentary races.
The MDC portrays the recount request as a government effort to manipulate the results. While at first it welcomed a presidential runoff, it now threatens to boycott one.
Meanwhile, the country’s political landscape has changed dramatically. For the first time in 28 years of independence, ZANU-PF’s majority in parliament has vanished and its presidential candidate has lost the popular vote.
Dire economic conditions have caused this remarkable reversal of fortune for the party synonymous with Zimbabwe’s liberation from colonial rule. Food and fuel are scarce, inflation tops a mind-boggling 100,000 percent, and tens of thousands of Zimbabweans have fled to South Africa and beyond.
Blame for Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown over the past decade or so varies depending on political orientation. While the MDC and its western sponsors blame Mugabe, whom they portray as dictatorial, murderous and racist, supporters of the ZANU-PF government and many Africans across the continent charge former colonial power United Kingdom and its allies with crippling the country economically through sanctions.
It is no secret Mugabe has consistently challenged the agenda of capitalists in southern Africa from his days as a guerrilla leader fighting colonial rule to his more recent calls for pan-African unity against U.S. attempts to impose genetically modified crops on communities needing food assistance. Mugabe’s backers believe the west has been pursuing a vendetta against him for decades.
Over the past few days the corporate media has uncritically repeated opposition claims that the government is planning a “bloodbath” and employed racist propaganda that “gangs” of Mugabe’s loyalists were “invading” white-owned farms. In its blind support for the opposition, the west fails to condemn irresponsible, charged comments like the MDC’s assertion that a runoff would lead Zimbabweans “to the slaughter.”
Missing in all the so-called analysis is basic historical context. Before winning independence in 1980, Zimbabweans endured over a century of violent white-minority rule in the British colony known as Rhodesia. The most fertile land was stolen from African families and awarded to British colonists who held exclusive political and economic power. Liberation was achieved only through many years of military struggle led by ZANU-PF, supported by the Soviet Union and its allies.
In the first decade of independence, Zimbabwe was celebrated as a democratic, multiracial socialist country which provided its citizens with free education and health care. And, under Mugabe, Zimbabwe offered its total support to liberation movements in neighboring South Africa and Namibia, where apartheid remained entrenched thanks to Reagan’s policy of “constructive engagement.” Only through armed struggle led by organizations such as the South African Communist Party and backed by Cuban troops were the last African colonies freed from European colonial rule.
Development in Zimbabwe ended abruptly in the early 1990s, however, as the ZANU-PF government sought to implement the land redistribution agreement reached with the United Kingdom at independence. The Blair government reneged on its commitments, but Mugabe’s administration vowed to follow through with its promises to veterans and peasants to reclaim their ancestors’ land. At this point, the demonization of Mugabe in the west began, sanctions were imposed, and Zimbabwe’s former colonial ruler helped create and financially support the opposition MDC.
While criticisms of Mugabe’s often heavy-handed and sometimes erratic rule are warranted, this historical background and the realities of neo-imperialism in Africa must be considered when examining events in Zimbabwe today.
There is no doubt the majority of Zimbabweans, who face a daily struggle to survive in a collapsed economy, voted for change. But it must be pointed out that almost half the population, in elections declared free and fair by observers from the African Union, cast their ballots for Mugabe. Indeed, he remains a liberation hero at home and throughout Africa.
The people of Zimbabwe cautiously wait for the government’s next move. ZANU-PF concedes it has lost the elections but Mugabe’s government still refuses to make public the vote numbers, claiming the election process was so vast and complex that care should be taken in verifying the totals. As of press time, the MDC has petitioned the Zimbabwean High Court to force the Electoral Commission to release the official results.
Dennis Laumann (dlaumann@ memphis.edu) is associate
professor of African history at the University of Memphis.