Zimbabwe: Hoping for a miracle

Pambazuka News

Mary Ndlovu (2009-03-12)
Human rights activist Mary Ndlovu considers the possible outcomes of a four-week-old ‘unholy alliance between Zimbabwe’s former ruling party Zanu PF (Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front) and the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) into a ‘Government of National Unity’ (GNU). Already the GNU has survived the arrest and incarceration of senior MDC leaders, Zanu PF’s persistent failure to implement major clauses of the power-sharing agreement on which the government is based, and a car accident widely perceived as an assassination attempt on Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, which killed his wife.

Some have been critical of the MDC’s decision to enter into a power-sharing agreement with Zanu PF before a fairer compromise was reached. But, notes Ndlovu, with the countrywide collapse of public services – from schools to electricity, hospitals, water treatment and banking – many Zimbabweans on the ground believed it was necessary for the MDC to get inside the government to begin the process of reconstruction.

There is cause for pessimism. Zanu PF hardliners seem determined to sabotage the GNU rather than work with the MDC to build Zimbabwe. Some say the MDC has been able to accomplish little since its swearing-in, and that the longer they are unable make progress on disputed issues, the more they will lose credibility and attract criticism from former supporters. Others fear the MDC will be swallowed by Zanu PF’s culture of corruption and cronyism, with Mercedes Benzes rolling out for both boys and girls alike.

But there is also cause for hope. Optimists believe that the combination of the finance ministry and several important service industries are enough for the MDC to show the people that they are concerned and are prepared to commit themselves to work feverishly to begin the formidable task of reconstruction.

Moreover, adds Ndlovu, rumours abound that the military top-brass are using the detainees as pawns or bargaining chips to obtain amnesty for their crimes, afraid to rely on the forces they command. Optimists believe hardliners won’t be able to hold the country hostage forever, as subtle power shifts begin to show themselves on the ground with a large percentage of intelligence officers and lower-ranking soldiers said to be disillusioned with Zanu PF and welcoming of change.

Nevertheless, Ndlovu is critical of the MDC’s failure to make any attempt to mobilise people to demonstrate the departure of the old and arrival of the new, with the task left to others like students and civil society groups such as WOZA (Women of Zimbabwe Arise) to test the waters and push the police to take a position.

It is unclear whether Tsvangirai’s injuries and bereavement will create a dangerous hiatus, causing the promise of the GNU to dissipate. What we do know, however, Ndlovu contends, is that each small step will be difficult and concessions will only be won through determination, perseverance and belief that progress can be achieved. And that belief can create reality.

The unholy alliance between Zanu PF (Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front) and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has now lasted four weeks. It has survived the arrest and continued incarceration of a senior MDC leader, the failure by Zanu PF to implement major clauses of the agreement on which it is based, and now a tragic death which the majority of Zimbabweans believe to be a failed attempt to assassinate Morgan Tsvangirai. During the past week, following the death of Morgan’s wife Susan, the country held its collective breath. The questions tormenting everyone are how much longer and how many more shocks this government can stand.

A horse and a donkey can be induced to mate, but the offspring is a stubborn, sterile mule. Will the forced pairing of Zanu PF and the MDC last long enough to produce any offspring at all?

Attempting to predict the future in Zimbabwe is a risky proposition. Generally we have become accustomed to dealing in ‘scenarios’ – the various ‘ifs’ – starting with the best case and proceeding to the worst case. And over the years we have learned that it can always get worse, and it usually does. Nevertheless, it appears that the power-sharing agreement – for which the law has been contorted like a pretzel – despite all its blemishes, may yet rescue us for the time being from a worse predicament.

The MDC, in both its formations, had little choice but to sign and enter into a power-sharing arrangement with Zanu PF. Although many observers and even participants urged caution until a fairer compromise had been reached, the complete collapse of every service in Zimbabwe, from schools to electricity to hospitals to sewage and even banks, produced severe pressure from the ground.

Millions of Zimbabweans, who so badly wanted a settlement, believed that the MDC should take the risk of failing from inside a government rather than becoming irrelevant outside, and eventually the leadership, heavily pressured by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), heard that cry and acted. But now that MDC is inside the kitchen, trying to cook up a meal with the cupboards bare and Zanu PF holding the key to the larder, they are faced with a herculean task.

Zanu PF is not a homogenous lot, but it is not always easy to see where the different interests lie. Their overall target seems to have been to absorb the MDC in the way they did ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People’s Union) in 1988. Then they would use the MDC to attract support from Western donors to rebuild the economy, tell SADC that everything is now in order, and by holding the security apparatus and some key ministries such as justice and information, ultimately retain control. Then they could win an election either by rigging or violence or a combination, as is their wont, and continue on their merry path.

However, many in Zanu PF must have recognised that the MDC is quite a different proposition from ZAPU – with much more widespread popularity and greater foreign recognition – and that simple absorption would probably not work. Hence, there has been the last-ditch attempt by the hardliners to be so unreasonable in negotiation and obstructive and devious in implementation that the MDC would be frightened off and withdraw.

The MDC, however, declined to walk into that particular trap, forcing the hardliners to continue with a strategy to sabotage the power-sharing and render it a sterile mule. They have put several arrows to their bow: the ongoing detention of the abductees and Roy Bennett despite the obvious subversion of the law and the courts; renewed farm invasions; and the unilateral appointments of the RBZ (Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe) governor, the attorney general and all permanent secretaries in blatant contravention of the power-sharing agreement and the constitutional amendment. It thus appears to many that nothing has changed and that Zanu PF has won yet another battle through shrewd tactics and the support of South Africa.

There are signs of weakness, however. Rumours abound that the military top-brass are using the detainees as pawns or bargaining chips to wring an amnesty for their crimes. Could this mean that they are afraid to make use of the forces they command? Do they doubt their loyalty? Or do they realise that without easy money they cannot retain commitment of the numbers of apparatchiks required to hold the line in the face of widespread unpopularity. They may not in fact be in as strong a position as some MDC and civil society pessimists assume.

Among the forces ranged against Zanu PF there are indeed many sceptics. They fear a repetition of ZAPU’s emasculation after the 1987 Unity Accord. They note that Mugabe does not change, is devious and manipulative and a master tactician, and that he has no intention whatsoever of sharing power and will never do so willingly.

They point to the fact that those in control in the military will not give up as they fear retribution or prosecution for crimes dating back to the early 1980s. They believe that the many thousands of Zanu PF cronies, war veterans and militia, as well as intelligence operatives who support the hardliners, will be able to use manipulation, force and intimidation to keep them in power.

They point to the fact that the MDC has been able to accomplish little in the weeks since its swearing-in and the longer they are unable to secure the release of high-profile detainees, or make progress on the other disputed issues, the more they will lose credibility and attract criticism and abuse from former supporters.

They believe the US$100 paid to civil servants for February salaries is not sustainable and there is not enough funding to repeat this gesture even in March, let alone increase the amount.

They say that nothing has changed; the police continue to beat and arrest peaceful demonstrators, the courts still follow executive and even military orders rather than the law, the media is not free, the law is applied selectively and Mugabe can still count on his supporters to fork out cash for an ostentatious 85th birthday display of contempt for the misery of the people.

And many democrats have a deeper concern about the MDC. Not only will they accomplish little, they will indeed be swallowed by Zanu PF, not so much by its structures and policies but by its culture of corruption and cronyism. Signs are already there, as the Mercedes Benzes roll out for the boys and the girls. These could have been repudiated, as could the obsequious deference to authority figures, in favour of a puritan look for the bloated cabinet.

However, there are also optimists. They are the ones who supported participation in a government of national unity as the least unpalatable option. They can point to the fact that the government has actually been formed and has not yet collapsed. They believe that the combination of the finance ministry and several important service industries are enough for the MDC to show the people that they are concerned and are prepared to commit themselves to work feverishly to begin the formidable task of reconstruction. In spite of numerous disputed issues, they have already begun and have partially reversed some of the catastrophes of Zanu PF’s control, including exaggerated increases in service charges and the ongoing teachers’ strike.

And there are now beginning to be signs of change. What a pleasure to see queues of returning teachers outside the Ministry of Education office, even though there are monumental problems to overcome before schools operate effectively. Optimists believe that the hardliners won’t be able to hold the country hostage forever, as they see a subtle power shift beginning to show itself on the ground.

There are indications – again primarily rumours – that a large percentage of intelligence officers as well as lower ranking soldiers welcome a change and are disillusioned with Zanu PF. Reports are coming from some places of revenge attacks on Zanu PF cadres and sympathisers responsible for brutality during the elections of 2008. Once again, the police are not looking very hard for the perpetrators of some of these attacks; the only difference from a year ago is that this time it is Zanu PF victims they are failing to support. There is even a report of Zanu PF councillors in some areas deserting their party as a result of pressure from the electorate. At least three Zanu PF thugs have been sentenced for brutal assaults carried out during the election campaigns.

While these may be very few cases, amongst others of continued loyalty of the police to Zanu PF, in a situation like ours, rumour can sometimes be very powerful. Obedient servants need to be very alert to changes of the wind that represent shifts in power. Those who never were devoted loyalists, and others who are simply opportunists, now see that there are in fact new possibilities.

Many are carefully calculating the advantages and disadvantages. If power really does shift and they turn their faces too late, they may get caught behind a closing door. As we witness the release of detainees one by one, they are watching to see if this is a wayward gust or the sign of a coming storm. They are taking note that many Zimbabweans are no longer afraid of their former tormentors, openly demonstrating their new-found defiance. And if enough judge that the new will outperform the old, they will themselves create that shift.

The disheartening part of this whole story is that once again the MDC are failing to use the one weapon that could be a key factor in effecting that shift, their support among the people. Not a single attempt have they made to mobilise people to show that the old has gone, and that the new is on the way. Once again it has been left to others like students and WOZA (Women of Zimbabwe Arise)women and men to test the waters, to push the police to take a position. Where is the MDC on the ground? Where is the vision of democracy and popular participation that could dispel the muttering that the power-sharing is just a politicians’ game, by and for politicians without the people? Even the committed symbolism of hunger striking has been left to the principled in South African civil society.

Nevertheless, our only hope is with this strange aberration called a government of national unity. For all its weaknesses, for all its conflicts, the pushing and pulling, squabbling over issues important and unimportant, this creature now occupying political space in Zimbabwe is probably our only hope. If it fails, Zimbabwe will have failed and we would likely disintegrate into a nation of warlords and bandits. If it can hold together over the coming weeks and months, and make some small progress until an externally supervised election can be held, it will have done us a service.

Last week the voice of Jestina Mukoko was heard on BBC, recently released on bail. Others have emerged one by one and two by two from their prison cells, the vicious attorney general was being shunned by his own party members as he was sworn in to parliament, the Zanu PF minister who disputed the allocation of telecommunications to an MDC minister admitted that he was wrong but was ‘sent’, and it has been announced that the ‘principals’ have agreed on a formula for reallocating permanent secretary posts. Will these be the last concessions, merely gusts against the prevailing wind, or do they signal a permanent shift? Will Tsvangirai’s injuries and bereavement create a dangerous hiatus, which allows the promise to dissipate?

We can’t yet know, but each small step will be difficult and concessions will be won through determination, perseverance and belief that it can be done. Our focus has to be on the present, not the distant or even nearer future. At this stage no one can afford not to believe, including the international community whose assistance is essential. Americans have shown us that it is not too audacious to hope. Belief can create reality. The mule might still be sterile. But there is a bizarre custom amongst some Zimbabwean peoples, which might provide a more promising analogy: a rapist is sometimes forced to marry his victim and while the marriage may be intensely unhappy, a healthy child is frequently the result.

Miracles are not common, but they do happen for people who believe. If this hybrid government can pull through the horror, the anger, the distrust and despair of the past week intact, perhaps it can happen for us. Millions of Zimbabweans desperately need a miracle, and more and more are beginning to hope.

* Mary Ndlovu is a Zimbabwean human rights activist.