Staggering from pillar to post: Zimbabwe’s ‘unity’ government

Pambazuka News

Mary Ndlovu
Mary Ndlovu paints a desolate picture of the Zimbabwe of now and its political future: ‘The “Unity Government” has stumbled from pillar to post, ending for the time being, paralysed in the intensive or perhaps terminal care unit of the political hospital.’ Ndlovu takes us through the events of the last year and argues that ZANU PF’s tactics have shifted from the defensive to the offensive. Analysing the various options, such as calls for elections now, Ndlovu finds strong reasons to eliminate each. But she ends on a note of hope: ‘Debate on the constitution has… sparked considerable interest and determination to participate. Hopefully… a more active citizenry will eventually evolve, bringing promise of an empowered society which will develop new strategies to put in place a democratic government.’

February 2010 marked one year of Zimbabwe’s Government of National Unity. It also marked ten years since the ‘no’ vote in Zimbabwe’s constitutional referendum. Both seemed hopeful events at the time and produced genuine celebrations. But neither has brought the positive results hoped for. The referendum provoked an angry reaction from a Zanu PF determined to hold onto power, resulting in the land invasions, which ushered in a decade of descent into lawlessness, gross misgovernance, violent elections, economic collapse and impoverishment of the people. The ‘Unity Government’ has stumbled from pillar to post, ending for the time being, paralysed in the intensive or perhaps terminal care unit of the political hospital. It was foundered on the rock of Zanu PF’s tenacity when threatened with the prospect of losing power.

A year ago there were not great expectations for this government and many counselled the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) against entering it. Nevertheless, there was hope that some miracle might take place and we could have another chance at putting the nation on the road to economic viability, if not immediate prosperity. In the early days, Zanu PF seemed rather dazed, disorganised and took time to refocus and strategise on how to manoeuvre itself out of the box it found itself in. MDC’s control of the finance ministry stopped Gideon Gono in his tracks, depriving Zanu PF of the bottomless pit of funny money, which kept their patronage activities in place. The ministry of education got the teachers back to work and there was a gradual awakening of the economy. But without substantial financial inputs from international sources, which the -controlled ministries could use to bring some relief to the people and gain the confidence of fence-sitters, it would be unsustainable.

Meanwhile, Zanu PF took as its task to ensure that that foreign assistance, which would enable service ministries to function, would never come. While shouting loudly about ‘sanctions’ being removed, every action of theirs was calculated to make sure they stayed. They developed a strategy consisting of several components:

– Hang onto control of the security forces and the justice system, which are the ultimate power arbiters.
– Use these to harass the MDC at every turn and keep them occupied fire fighting.
– Use these activities also to prevent the restoration of the rule of law. Without a return to the rule of law the necessary inflows of budget support will not come to the MDC.
– Use the Zanu PF majority in the Senate to block any meaningful legislative changes.
– Develop alternative sources of income through exploitation of diamonds and other natural resources such as wildlife.
– Keep SADC (Southern African Development Community) on side by pretending to be negotiating the ‘outstanding issues’ of the GPA, while simply using this as a delaying tactic.

Gradually over the past months, Zanu PF has moved from the defensive to the offensive. They seem to have realised that neither South Africa nor SADC nor the AU is likely to make any meaningful moves to remove them from their illegitimate position of power and now are prepared to brazenly defy everyone.

The Roy Bennett trial on treason charges is only the highest profile of many intimidatory charges against MDC officials and supporters. Some have been acquitted by the courts; others have had their charges withdrawn, while some have received sentences. These threaten the MDC majority in the lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, they ensure that the MDC is occupied with such diversions and they also raise the price for those MDC members who are prepared to openly resist Zanu PF intimidation.

Zanu PF has meanwhile ensured that their control of the Senate is maintained, by refusing to appoint MDC governors to provinces according to a formula reached months ago. Governors have little power, but they automatically sit in the Senate. Six MDC governors in the Senate would not give the MDC a majority, but would certainly alter the balance and if some brave traditional chiefs decided to shift allegiance on any key issue, Zanu PF could not be assured of control.

While pretending to co-operate in the constitution-making process, they openly insist that the ‘Kariba Draft’ – which leaves presidential powers virtually intact – must be the only draft to be debated. While others are beginning the process of free debate on all constitutional issues, militia have been remobilised in some rural areas to intimidate and make clear to the people that they must not be heard to support any position other than the Kariba Draft. Meanwhile, the process of constitutional reform has been repeatedly delayed by Zanu PF stalling tactics.

Recently there has been the indigenisation offensive. An act passed by the previous parliament provided for the prohibition of majority ownership of large businesses (over $500,000 in value) by ‘non-indigenous’ persons, but it had not been implemented. The publication by a Zanu PF minister of the regulations to implement the act seems to have taken everyone in the MDC by surprise. But it is a perfect instrument, which fulfils several purposes for Zanu PF at the same time:

– It promises a new source of patronage for Zanu PF cronies and sends the message that enrichment comes through them, not any other channel.
– It prevents the inflow of genuine investment or budget support, which would allow the MDC to facilitate the rebirth of the legitimate economy.
– It puts the MDC and the whole of civil society as well as the private sector on the defensive.
– It creates possibilities for the thugs and party criminals to come to the fore again as they did during the land invasions and the price control mayhem of 2008.

The civil service strike is the icing on the cake for Zanu PF. While it is apparent that their agents are provoking and enforcing to some degree, they did not need to be active in instigating it – the situation did that for them. And the result is the reversal of an important MDC gain: Schools are once again, for the third year in a row, no longer functioning for the benefit of children.

And another bonus if you look at it from a Zanu PF point of view is the disastrous rainy season, which has caused a write-off of crops in many parts of the country. The MDC will have to spend precious funds importing food and distributing it while Zanu PF can still interfere through the use of militia and party thugs.

In the past weeks, intimidation of civil society and media activists has been stepped up again with arrests, threats and even the summoning of WOZA (Women of Zimbabwe Arise) leadership by the two ministers of home affairs. Significantly, it was the MDC minister who was most aggressive in insisting that WOZA was acting outside the law, in spite of court rulings to the contrary; the tone of the meeting was definitely threatening.

And so we find ourselves on the verge of moving back to Zanu PF rule. They have in fact managed to take their half of government and make it work for them, even if it doesn’t work for the rest of Zimbabweans or for the economy as a whole. If the courts or police or businesses or civil service practices are corrupt, that doesn’t matter because ultimately Zanu PF’s entire operation is based on corruption. If they don’t control parliament, it doesn’t matter because they at least have blocking power and that paralyses parliament. Meanwhile, the MDC cannot move because they can’t get sufficient finances on board and they have no access to law enforcement mechanisms. The occasional standard operating procedure from Zanu PF, such as the appointment of commissions and ambassadors, does not change the ultimate power equation.

Any way you look at it, the situation for those who choose to remain outside the Zanu PF ambit is grim. The prospect is for continued poverty, a stuttering economy, a dysfunctional civil service, violence and even chaos. All of which benefit the power elite of the former ruling party.

So what do we do, where do we go, what is to be done? Unfortunately it is not looking like two steps forward, one step back, but the opposite – one step forward, two back. Some are calling for MDC withdrawal; a complete withdrawal this time, not simply ‘disengagement’ or a boycott of cabinet meetings. These people see that the marriage is no longer one of convenience but an arranged marriage, which has not worked out and perpetuates abuse of wife and children. Presumably those who call for withdrawal believe that this would force the hand of SADC and they would have to step in with a new solution. But those who call for MDC withdrawal have failed to show how it would benefit anyone.

Another variation – and this also comes from Jacob Zuma – is to forget about the dispute between the partners in government and go straight for elections. This begs the question of how elections will be run by such a divided government. We have reached the point where external monitors are not enough. We have seen time and time again monitors, in various troubled countries of the world, paper over the cracks in order to avoid chaos and declare elections sufficiently satisfactory to be recognised as legitimate. Even Zanu PF has been calling for elections – which clearly indicates that they intend to ‘win’ them in the same way they have for years – by intimidation, cheating and violence. So unless there will be some kind of international presence to actually conduct the elections – not to mention to police the campaigning which would also prove necessary – the outcome is likely to be more of the same.

Rely on SADC? Certainly experience tells us that this is futile. Those who thought Zuma would be different are already being proved wrong – he does not use a language different from Mbeki’s. Pressure is indeed building within South Africa, but not sufficiently to force Zuma to shift. South Africa’s focus is now to get through the World Cup without disruptions, so we can safely discount any significant initiative and without South Africa neither SADC nor the AU (African Union) or any other international body will act.

Are we in checkmate? No, the king has slipped away again. Marx did not err when he predicted that elites in power do not give it up without a struggle; and this is surely what we are seeing being enacted in Zimbabwe. Once a dictatorship is entrenched in power and is prepared to use violence to sustain it, democratic processes have a poor chance of dislodging it. Have we been naïve? Have we underestimated the strength of the evil we confront? Probably the answer to both is ‘yes’. Democratic processes, however, had to be tried. Now, even with a little (but not much) outside help, it is safe to declare them failed.

So what next? Marx’s solution of armed revolution has not proven to be a satisfactory one by which to bring stability, peace and prosperity. There remain two other options – external intervention or peaceful resistance, or a combination of the two. Zimbabweans have yearned for external intervention from the South, but not even a slap on the wrist has come Zanu PF’s way, in spite of huge provocation and the damage being done to South Africa’s own social fabric by the presence of hundreds of thousands of refugees and economic migrants.

Similarly, peaceful resistance by Zimbabweans has been noticeable by its absence. The MDC has notably not even attempted to mobilise its members to demonstrate their anger, frustration and desperation at the way things are developing, in spite of knowing that they have support from the majority of the people and even many among the security forces. Civil society organisations, too, have failed for the most part to go beyond talk, talk, while enjoying salaries and perks far beyond those of even much of the private sector. Trade unionists are fragmented and disempowered, students have on occasion tried, but generally end up squabbling amongst themselves. Only WOZA has consistently mobilised street protests, yet without support from others they keep a flame alive but cannot make any impact on power relationships. Only if Zimbabweans are themselves prepared to take the risks required, would external forces be pressured to take action. No one says it is easy – but neither is it easy to see your children going without schooling, your middle-aged parents dying of treatable illnesses, entire families going hungry, while the Zanu PF elite display their obscene levels of wealth and have the gall to call it ‘god-given’.

Commentators continue to refer to the ‘squabbling’ of politicians of both parties. This is unfair, without casting blame where it is due. The organisers of the civil service strike have not been strategic enough to direct its effect to the real culprits and hence are likely to make their own situation, as well as everyone else’s, worse rather than better. To be sure, some MDC leaders and members are still more concerned about their own privileges of office, but as a party they have tried to put things right, tried to make the marriage work and been blocked at every turn by Zanu PF’s wily stranglehold on the levers of power and the unwillingness of the arranger of the marriage to come to the rescue.

And so we face an immediate future more cloudy and obscure that at any time in the past years. Zanu PF seems to have weathered the storm clouds around them and blown them back to the rest of us. They will perhaps thrive in the midst of chaos while the nation bleeds.

It is probable that the bleeding will continue for some time. But though prospects for improvement may not be good in the short term, for the medium term, perhaps there is hope. Some civil society activists have been effective in organising, at a local level, around service delivery and many people are prepared to participate at least in holding government accountable at some level. Debate on the constitution has also sparked considerable interest and determination to participate. Hopefully these activities will bear fruit and a more active citizenry will eventually evolve, bringing promise of an empowered society, which will develop new strategies to put in place a democratic government.

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* Mary Ndlovu is a Zimbabwean human rights activist.
* Read more by Mary Ndlovu.
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