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Zimbabwe's Elections and Political Change in Southern Africa

by Ambassador Michelle D. Gavin

One needn’t have a preference among the 23 candidates who contested for the presidency of Zimbabwe last summer to find the overall result of the elections deeply disappointing. What had been billed as a chance to turn the page on Zimbabwe’s international isolation, economic collapse and politics of fear instead exposed continued political violence, the unwillingness of the powers that be in the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) to create a genuinely level playing field for political competition and elites’ overall contempt for average citizens. But while all of this makes it tempting to write off hopes for meaningful change in Zimbabwe, it is possible that the country is only at the beginning of a long and slow transition—the same process of reimagining the underpinnings of the state that is underway in many of its southern African neighbors.

Zimbabwe’s Missed Opportunity

Zimbabwe’s July 31 election day last year was peaceful, but the periods before and after the polling were plagued with problems. While there were some encouraging signs—Zimbabweans enjoyed greater political freedoms in the lead up to the elections, and international observers were welcomed rather than shunned—a lack of transparency around the voters roll undermined public and international confidence in the process. No effort was made to give people of the massive Zimbabwean diaspora an opportunity to vote, despite their constitutional right to do so. The state media, which dominates the airwaves and is the only source of information for many rural Zimbabweans, was almost comically biased. Perhaps most problematic, the military leaders who seized power in the November 2017 coup encouraged, sometimes explicitly, a popular assumption that they would never let the opposition seize power regardless of the electoral outcome.

After the polling stations closed, that subtext—that the military would tolerate or suppress dissent as it saw fit, regardless of the law—became text. On the streets of Harare, where protestors had gathered to object to the process they believed lacked integrity, seven people were shot and killed by soldiers; scores more were beaten, whipped and even stabbed with bayonets. The crackdown continued, as army units raided the homes of opposition supporters, raping and beating them, and forcing opposition leaders into hiding.Whatever the “new dispensation” is, it is not genuinely democratic, and it relies on the same type of political violence that propped up its predecessor.

This point was driven home in January of this year, when a fuel price hike prompted widespread protests led by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. The state responded with brutality and a draconian communications black-out that lasted for several days. Seventeen civilians were killed; scores more were shot, beaten or raped; and hundreds were rounded up and arrested without any evidence linking them to violence or wrongdoing. The fallout continued into March, as security forces arrested opposition members of parliament, accusing them of treason and of inciting violence during the fuel price protests.

The New Winds of Change

Yet over time it may prove impossible for President Emmerson Mnangagwa to govern as Robert Mugabe did. Mugabe commanded respect and wielded authority because he sat atop a structure that could claim to have delivered the Zimbabwean people from the grotesque injustice of minority rule. There is a reason he mobilized “war veterans”—some genuine, some not—to overcome resistance to his policies and even to execute his crimes. His fundamental source of legitimacy was inextricably tied to the liberation struggle, and challenges to his authority were always cast as betrayals of that struggle’s basic principles.

But staking claim to the mantle of liberation leader is not likely to be a sufficient strategy for mobilizing voters and projecting political legitimacy going forward. As is true of many other African states, Zimbabwe’s population is tremendously young. Over 70 percent of Zimbabweans are under the age of 30 and have no memory of the Rhodesian era. Expecting them to reward ZANU-PF candidates with loyalty and gratitude because of the changes that came to the country in 1980 seems a dicey bet, particularly since over 70 percent of Zimbabwe’s population today is living in poverty. Youthful voters are probably more interested in hearing about economic development and job opportunities than decades-old military and political victories.

Indeed, Mnangagwa’s constant refrain that under his leadership Zimbabwe will be “open for business” was an attempt to capture these voters and to stake claim to a new kind of legitimacy, based on delivering prosperity. But currently ZANU-PF is not built to be a party that promotes prosperity for more than the few. It is structured to enrich a small elite that will, in turn, protect its economic patrons. The state of Zimbabwe’s post-election economy, with its currency crisis, massive unemployment and unsustainable government interventions, is the product of ZANU-PF’s brand of politics. The government is attempting to introduce necessary economic reforms, but without real budget transparency and the dismantling of patronage systems, these efforts can only temporarily address the symptoms, not cure the disease that ails the country. To genuinely change course in a bid to help a broader swath of Zimbabwean citizens would be to risk losing the support of the securocrats who keep the party in power.

It is no surprise that windfall foreign investment has been Mnangagwa’s preferred imagined solution to the problem—help from abroad that would enable him to ease the economic hardship of his citizens and establish legitimacy as a provider of prosperity, all without ever reforming the structures that drove the economy to ruin over the past 20 years. While ZANU-PF may have understood the 2018 election as “an instrument of foreign policy” (as a government spokesman called elections) intended to trigger debt relief and woo investors, thus far the inherent tension between how the party maintains control and its effort to project a credible, peaceful and reformed image has been too great. The state could not maintain the illusion and the naked exercise of power simultaneously, and the illusion was shattered. Foreign investors could not fail to notice. The United States Congress noticed too and last summer passed updates to the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act that set out specific reforms required to trigger U.S. support for debt relief and an easing of pressure. In March 2019, the Trump administration renewed targeted sanctions on over 100 Zimbabwean entities and individuals.

Zimbabwe’s leadership finds itself wrestling with a dilemma, while Zimbabwe’s population has come to think differently about the country’s politics. Big shifts in the social contract are putting new demands on the governing class, and a shake-up at the top has whet popular appetites for more. For 38 years, Mugabe was the omnipresent leader of Zimbabwe, and for many, including Mugabe himself, it was difficult to conceive of the state without him. Now that he is sidelined and largely secluded, it is easier for Zimbabweans to exercise their political imagination and to envision all sorts of different possibilities for future leadership. That sense of possibility, so palpable in the euphoric days after Mugabe’s ousting in November 2017, may be easily intimidated out of existence. If Mnangagwa cannot deliver, he may not retain his office for long.

How Much Change Is Enough?

No two countries have identical histories or political climates, but many southern African ruling parties are coping with similar transitions from unquestioned dominance grounded in their vanquishing of historic foes to more competitive or, at least, more complex landscapes in which business as usual is insufficient to maintain control. South Africa’s venerable African National Congress (ANC) was nearly torn apart by Jacob Zuma’s spectacularly corrupt governance style, undermining popular confidence in the party of Nelson Mandela and setting for Zuma’s successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, a massive governance challenge. He must meet the increasingly impatient demands of South Africans for better delivery of government services and a more effective strategy to address inequality, while simultaneously restoring the confidence of foreign and domestic investors in the integrity of government. He has to reform his party and the way it does business while delivering real results countrywide to voters who are less swayed by party loyalty than ever before. If he fails, the party may splinter, and voters will not hesitate to look elsewhere for leadership.

In Angola, where former President Jose Eduardo dos Santos was at the helm from 1979 to 2017, the legitimacy of the ruling Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) derived not just from the party’s history of resistance to Portuguese colonialism, but also from its ultimate victory in the long civil war that ended in 2002. That the MPLA drove out the oppressors and ended the war was enough for a time. It is not enough anymore. New President Joao Lourenco has been taking steps—some tentative, some bold—to develop a new narrative in which his leadership is based on taking on some of the country’s endemic corruption and lifting more Angolans out of poverty. But he too must contend with a party and governing structures that were not created for these purposes, and with elites threatened by change.

Much of Southern Africa is engaged in a long-term experiment of ruling party reform, as elites try to calibrate how far they can go toward meeting popular demands for greater accountability, better service delivery and more economic opportunity without losing internal party support. Dramatic moments, like Mugabe’s ouster last November, will flare up occasionally, but more common will be governance changes characterized by fits and starts and sometimes glaring internal contradictions, as liberation legacy parties try to find a new footing and young populations press them for better, faster results.

For the United States, this means accepting that many regional powers will be largely focused inwardly for the foreseeable future, and that working with Southern African partners will require more intense understanding of local dynamics, as well as more careful listening to a variety of voices, than ever before. Some will argue that a warm embrace of whoever is leading a long=dominant party is a shortcut to influence and mutual rewards. This school of thought echoes President Mnangagwa’s exhortation to “let bygones be bygones.” But that is the old playbook, and the United States will need to resist that temptation and take a longer view. The ruling parties and their leaders are indeed important, but they are not singularly so, and they are not static. The nature of politics in the region is changing, and however hard ruling parties try to retain control, stability can be illusory as popular demands carry new currency.


Ambassador Michelle D. Gavin is the Senior Fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She served as U.S. Ambassador to Botswana from 2011 to 2014.


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