The bad news in today’s papers is that South Africa’s President Mbeki stopped in Harare (Zimbabwe), instead of going to the emergency meeting of the South African Development community in Zambia.
Zambia’s president, Levi Mwanawasa, had called the meeting to discuss the increasingly volitile situation in Zimbabwe after the Zimbabwean government keeps pretending they can’t count the votes that removed Mr. Mugabe’s party from office and gave a majority of votes to Mr. Tsvanagirai, the leader of the opposition party, the MDC (Movement for Democratic Change).
There were hopes that those from nearby African countries could persuade Mr. Mugabe to accept his obvious defeat in last month’s elections.
This hope was dashed when Mr. Mbeki, after his meeting in Harare with Mr Mugabe, issued a statement saying Zimbabwe is not in crisis.
Photo from the UKTelegraph (AP/Getty)
A little background here.
Although the various countries have different histories, both colonial and in ethnicity, there are strong ties between the various South African countries, which share a large Bantu majority.
Part of the ties are cultural similarities. The Bantu culture tends toward communual/socialist principals in their traditions. However, for the years before independence and the failure of apartheid, all these countries included the establishment of institutions under British common law. And the third ties is that most of the leaders are inspired by a socialist/Marxist liberation philosophy that fueled the fight for independence.
The result of the Bantu tradition of respecting the leader as the “sekuru” (grandfather) and the adulation by those inspired by the history of the struggle for independence has resulted in a lot of what in America is called “political capital”.
But the persistance of the British tradition of rule of law is also strong, especially among the bureaucrats and the business sector.
Older politicians like Mr. Mbeki identify with Mr. Mugabe as a liberator. But part of the support is practical: the danger is if Mugabe can be removed by an election, and British rule of law reinstituted, then not only are a lot of rulers in Africa at risk, but many of those in Mugabe’s government (e.g. the army, the police, and his “green bombers” militias) might be prosecuted under a new government for their abuse of civilians.
In past elections, Mugabe won much of the rural vote, due to a combination of respect for Mugabe as elder statesman, intimdation of opponants, rural villagers inthanks for his land reform, and rural villages knowing that if they voted wrong they would not be given food aid in case of drought managed to give Mr. Mugabe the majority.
What is different here is that even the villages are hurting with the economic collapse.
If there are rains, the small farmers can plant and live at a basic level like their ancestors, but there will be no hybrid seed and no fertilizer from the local governments, and no extra money to buy small things or pay school fees.
Teachers and medical personnel are given salaries, but with inflation, the salaries buy nothing. And many villagers have had their children return from cities, either from unemployment of because their houses and shops were destroyed by Mugabe’s “Operation put out the trash“, that in the name of slum clearance destroyed the middle class suburbs that voted against him in the last election.
Many of course have simply fled: the Zimbabwean diaspora is estimated to be a quarter of the population, and at least 2 million of them are in South Africa.
Most of the diaspora are actively against Mugabe, and have held pro democracy demonstrations in the US, the UK, South Africa and elsewhere. Alas, they were not allowed to vote in this election.
The number actually voting was lower than expected, either from people refusing to vote because they feared retaliation or because their votes were lost. And even though the counts tabulated from the small voting centers have been counted by the opposition and shown to be in their favor, the government has not released an official vote count.
Their tactics of delay is seen as a way to steal the election.
Government newspapers today released a document they claim proved the opposition planned to steal the election, and at least 15 Zimbabwean Electoral Commission officials have been arrested for “fraud”.
There are reports of violence against opposition leaders, and against civilians in villages that voted against Mugabe.
These tactics suggest Mugabe plans to openly steal a reelection, by intimidation. The MDC opposition is refusing to join in a runoff election, and has sought help by asking nearby African countries to pressure Mugabe to follow rule of law and leave.
The opposition so far has tried to avoid violence but is calling a peaceful general strike next week.
The most surprising thing in all of this is that even a close election where the opposition wins a slim majority (or even if it loses by a slim majority) in the face of a government monopoly on the media and open government intimidation of civiilans shows that the average Zimbabwean has a deep commitment to the democratic process.
Mbeki’s happy visit with his friend Robert makes this unlikely.
If Mbeki is replace by Zuma, as is expected in the near future, perhaps things will change. Zuma has openly supported Tsvangarai and the opposition MDC in Zimbabwe. However, Zuma himself has legal problems in South Africa, so it is unclear if he will be able to replace Mr. Mbeki.
So what happens today in Zimbabwe has larger implications in the politics of the entire region.