On a clear spring afternoon in Harare in mid-May, South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, paid a call on Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's beleaguered dictator, six weeks after Zimbabwe's tumultuous elections on March 29 in which opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai claimed a clear victory over Mugabe. Mbeki had been largely silent as Zimbabwe descended into chaos. In mid-April, while Mugabe's handpicked Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) refused to release the final vote count, and Mugabe's War Veterans marched through the streets in an intimidating display of force, Mbeki had stood hand in hand with Mugabe outside the presidential residence in Harare and denied that the country was in “crisis.”
In recent days, however, as evidence grew of widespread beatings and killings of supporters of Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Mbeki had found himself under attack in the press and at odds with members of his own party leadership. Jacob Zuma, the chairman of the African National Congress and Mbeki's likely successor to the presidency of South Africa, had criticized the delayed vote count and said that an April raid on MDC headquarters made the country look like “a police state.” The Johannesburg newspaper Business Day revealed that Mbeki had several years earlier ignored a report by two South African judges describing widespread cheating by Mugabe's ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU- PF), in the 2002 parliamentary election. Now, with the electoral commission's official results showing that Tsvangirai had defeated Mugabe by 47.9 percent to 42.3 percent—necessitating a runoff election—Mbeki faced mounting pressure to support a free and fair second round.
And yet, when Mbeki stepped off the plane on May 9, it appeared to be business as usual—smiles, embraces, and hand-in-hand stroll across the tarmac. At their State House meeting, according to those close to the proceedings, Mbeki gently prodded Mugabe to declare an early date for the runoff. Then he suggested, diplomatically, that Mugabe should find a way to end the violence. It didn't matter who had instigated it, Mbeki said. Mugabe controlled the police and the army, and they could stop it.
Mugabe told Mbeki that the situation was under control, and that Zimbabwe's own laws would deal with it. The tone of the meeting was “chilly,” I was told by one close observer; but Mbeki made no demands, and left without receiving any commitments. Since then, Mbeki has kept his distance from Mugabe. “It appears that he's washed his hands of the whole thing,” the source said.
Mbeki's inaction is hardly surprising. Since Mugabe initiated his catastrophic “land grab” in January 2000, turning over four thousand white-owned farms to putative veterans of Zimbabwe's independence war and to cronies, the South African president has failed to address forthrightly both Zimbabwe's subsequent economic collapse and Mugabe's many human rights abuses. Clinging to an ineffectual policy of “quiet diplomacy,” Mbeki stood by as Mugabe accelerated his violent land reform program. He then said and did little as the dictator unleashed thugs to intimidate voters and stuffed ballot boxes to guarantee electoral victories for Mugabe's ZANU-PF.
Mbeki has given the dictator and his inner circle political and diplomatic support in many forums, including the United Nations, even as the rest of Zimbabwe's population suffers the consequences of economic collapse. Over the past eight years, agricultural production in Zimbabwe has fallen by four fifths, unemployment has risen to 85 percent, inflation has risen to an annual rate of more than one million percent, and three million Zimbabweans have fled the country. (The current population is estimated to be 12 million.) Most, ironically, have gone to South Africa, feeding the xenophobia that climaxed on May 19 in an explosion of violence. Since then dozens of people have been killed and more than 25,000 displaced.
After a week of silence on that issue, Mbeki on May 26 denounced the xenophobic attacks as an “absolute disgrace.” By then, however, his stature inside South Africa had sunk to a new low: party elders sharply criticized him for being out of touch, and the Sunday Times, a leading Johannesburg newspaper, called for his resignation in a front page editorial. “Mbeki has demonstrated that he no longer has the heart to lead,” the Times said.
Theories abound about what may bind Mbeki to Mugabe: a reverence for the Zimbabwean dictator as the last living founder of the African liberation movement; personal distaste for Tsvangirai; a reflexive suspicion of the MDC as an agent of Western governments; fear that an MDC victory could embolden the opposition in South Africa and undermine the ANC. (“Mbeki is a 'scion' of liberation movements. There is no way he can dump President Mugabe at this critical moment,” said Campion Mereki in an opinion piece published in Zimbabwe's Herald newspaper, the ruling party's mouthpiece.) Whatever the case, Mbeki's seeming blindness toward widespread intimidation of MDC voters, displacements of thousands of people, and the terrorizing of teachers, election observers, and party activists has undoubtedly worsened an already desperate situation. It is now “next to impossible,” according to one top-ranking MDC official I spoke to, that the second-round election can be carried out in a free and fair manner.
If Mugabe wins the election on June 27, his victory will represent, in part, the last, desperate gambit of a regime that long ago lost any shred of legitimacy. But it will also demonstrate how the possibility of genuine electoral change turned into a continuing nightmare—a nightmare of open, repressive brutality—thanks, in large part, to the refusal of Mbeki and other African leaders to intervene (with the exception of Ian Khama of Botswana, who has provided quiet support for Tsvangirai). This abdication of responsibility bears consequences not only for the future of Zimbabwe under the apparently unhindered violent rule of Mugabe, but also for the possibility of some minimal kind of multinational African concern for protecting democratic processes and human rights.
The current crisis in Zimbabwe was set in motion last fall, when Mugabe, who commanded guerrilla forces in a six-year independence war against the white-minority regime of Ian Smith, and who has ruled the country since independence in 1980, announced that he would run again for his country's presidency. Until that time, it was widely assumed that Mugabe, who is eighty-four, would retire to a $15 million villa in the northern suburbs of Harare in mid-2008, and pass on power to one of several possible heirs in waiting, including Vice President Joyce Mujuru, a former independence war hero known as “Comrade Spillblood.” His candidacy was ratified at an extraordinary party congress in December 2007, despite subdued protests by senior party officials who, according to news reports, called the vote a “fraudulent process” marred by “blatant intrigue and manipulation.”
At the time, Mugabe's reelection seemed all but assured. It was widely assumed that the ZANU-PF would resort to the same tactics—voter intimidation, ballot-box stuffing, and falsified tabulations of the final vote count by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission—that it has used in three previous elections this decade against the Movement for Democratic Change, led by Tsvangirai, a former trade unionist. Tsvangirai said the MDC was a “liberal” party, committed to restoring civil rights and ending corruption.
As the election neared, Mugabe's prospects for victory began to dim. In February 2008, Simba Makoni, a British-educated economist and secretary for economic affairs of the ZANU-PF, announced that he was making an independent run for the presidency. He accused the ZANU-PF of failing to deal with the country's deepening poverty, and of fueling hyperinflation through the uncontrolled printing of Zimbabwean dollars. Makoni was then expelled from the ruling party and denounced as a traitor, but his breakaway candidacy was the first evidence of disaffection at the top of the ZANU-PF.
At about the same time, the MDC, which had been weakened by a split along tribal lines in October 2005, began showing renewed vitality. On March 11, 2007, Tsvangirai had been grabbed by police and savagely beaten with truncheons and iron bars; he suffered a concussion and several fractures. “His left arm was shattered, he had seven stitches across his skull, his entire body was black and blue,” one of his advisers, a former British army officer, told me. “The combination of the beating, and the physical and moral courage he showed, won him the sympathy of the nation.”
Thus there was a sense of possibility in the air when I arrived in Zimbabwe three days before the March 29 election. As on three prior visits, I came in on a tourist visa: the government had banned almost all Western journalists from entering Zimbabwe to cover the elections. On the way to downtown Harare, I passed a mile-long row of campaign posters for Mugabe: unsmiling visage, eyes hard behind thick frames, fist raised, the slogan proclaiming “Our Nation. Our Sovereignty”—a reference to the ruling party's now- shopworn argument that the Movement for Democratic Change was a puppet of Great Britain and the United States, and sought to roll back Zimbabwe to the days of white-minority rule. Every one of these posters, I saw, had been defaced by a splatter of black paint. (The Herald that week announced a citywide manhunt for those who did it.) I checked into the York Lodge, a colonial-style guest house tucked into the outskirts of town, which was filled with both Western correspondents and staff members of the National Democratic Institute, a US pro-democracy organization that was quietly training independent election monitors ahead of the vote.
I attended Tsvangirai's last rally, in Chitungwiza, a dozen miles south of Harare, before 15,000 MDC supporters at the city's football stadium. Stylishly attired in a tan panama hat and a white Cuban guayabera covered with a green palm tree motif, Tsvangirai, who is fifty-six, addressed the excited throng in Shona, the main tribal language of Zimbabwe, punctuating his speech with riffs in English. He led the crowd in Shona victory chants and traditional Zimbabwean songs; at the end of his thirty-minute talk, he danced a celebratory two-step across the podium, bobbing, weaving, and spinning as the crowd roared. Tsvangirai is a charismatic campaigner and the mood of the crowd was jubilant.
One man I interviewed, Patrick Nyengera, had just returned from his birthplace, Gokwe, in rural Midlands province, and had been astonished by the disenchantment shown for the dictator there. Rural areas in the north, central, and eastern regions of Zimbabwe had long voted overwhelmingly for Mugabe's ZANU-PF, which controlled the distribution of food as well as information, and terrorized opposition supporters during past electoral campaigns. But “now it's gone over to the MDC,” he told me. “Mugabe made so many promises and none of those were kept—there is no dip for the cattle, no food, the shops are empty, they are closed. There's nothing to buy. Support for him is just dropping away. There are some Mugabe supporters out there, but just a few.”
Early on the morning of election day, March 29, I met Tsvangirai at his house in Avondale, a leafy suburb a few miles north of Harare's city center. Tsvangirai, dressed now in a peach-colored guayabera, led me to a picnic table beside the swimming pool in his rear garden, and we sat beneath the shade of a gum tree. He was calm and confident, pledging to create “a government of national unity” as soon as he was elected, assuring me that top ZANU-PF officials and military commanders would be pensioned off and would not be prosecuted for crimes committed during the Mugabe era. “That reassurance is very important, because there are people in the military and in the ZANU-PF, with all their ill-gotten wealth, who feel very insecure.” Tsvangirai told me that he would extend forgiveness even to Mugabe, who would be allowed to retire to his Harare villa, there to finish out his days as “a failed founding father of Zimbabwe.”
I asked Tsvangirai if, should Mugabe steal the election, he would consider it a personal failure. He shook his head emphatically. “I feel proud that we've managed to build a movement that has confronted this dictatorship relentlessly in spite of the resources they have poured against us,” he told me. But he did not want to dwell on the possibility of failure. “You see people in a [police or military] uniform now, and it's just a uniform,” Tsvangirai told me. “All of a sudden people are so confident, so happy about this victory. In people's hearts, they know that this regime has to go.”
As it turned out, the MDC had one powerful, and often overlooked, weapon in its effort to unseat the dictator. Before the 2005 parliamentary elections, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the fourteen-member group of countries in the region, had wrested from the state-controlled Zimbabwe Electoral Commission a key concession: vote counts would be posted outside every polling station in the country, guaranteeing an unprecedented transparency in the electoral process. During the voting in 2005, however, the government had reneged on that agreement, often locking opposition polling agents and monitors inside the polling stations to prevent them from reporting the results.
But in the runup to this year's elections, renewed pressure by SADC leaders, including Mbeki, forced the government to promise to comply with the guidelines. (The ZANU-PF was confident that it maintained enough control over rural Zimbabwe to win even in a transparent vote.) This was, in fact, one of a handful of instances in which Mbeki has tried to check some of the dictator's worst abuses. He also urged Mugabe—without any visible effect—to modify both the 2002 Public Order and Security Act and the 2002 Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, draconian pieces of legislation that stifled almost all public criticism of Mugabe. In the weeks before the election, the Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network (ZESN), an independent monitoring group, mobilized eight thousand poll observers at nearly every polling station in Zimbabwe, and the MDC deployed thousands of its own loyalists, most armed with Kodak disposable cameras and cell phones.
The first signs of an electoral calamity for the ruling party came just hours after the polls closed. Late that evening, I drove past the headquarters of the ZANU-PF, a twelve-story tower on the edge of downtown Harare. There were a few lights on in the windows, but no other sign of life: “If the regime had won, you'd see celebrations going on here,” a local Zimbabwean journalist I was riding with told me. The following morning, MDC poll observers reported that half a dozen members of Mugabe's Politburo, including the widely despised justice minister, Patrick Chinamasa, had lost their parliamentary seats; the ruling party remained silent. Hours later, the ZESN was privately telling Western diplomats that Tsvangirai had won a decisive victory, possibly with as much as 55 percent of the total. (MDC leaders forecast a 58 percent victory early on, but those projections were based on a largely urban sampling, and thus proved to be inaccurate.)
The ZANU-PF, meanwhile, appeared to be stalling for time, desperately trying to avoid revealing the extent of the debacle in the making. (According to one report, the ZEC's first, secret prediction to the ZANU-PF Politburo mirrored that of the MDC: Mugabe would win 27 percent to Tsvangirai's 58 percent, with Makoni getting 15 percent.) After two days of silence, announcers on state-run television began appearing on air every few hours to read off the winners of parliamentary seats, three or four constituencies at a time; then the station returned to a surreal mix of US sitcoms, Japanese calligraphy shows, Chinese kung fu movies, even a 1970s documentary about the science of monkey behavior. The staff at my hotel sensed the regime's panic and were quietly ecstatic: “We're finally going to be rid of the old man,” one of them exulted. “At last we'll have salt, sugar, milk back on the shelves.”
Perhaps the most telling indication that Mugabe's grip was loosening, that the ruling party was in disarray, was the scene at the Meikles Hotel, one of the last bastions of luxury in the dilapidated capital. During my previous clandestine visits to Zimbabwe, the Meikles was a no-go zone, a favored haunt of the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), Mugabe's ubiquitous domestic spying agency. But now dozens of unaccredited Western journalists flocked here to attend daily MDC press conferences: despite initial anxieties about a roundup of reporters, it soon became clear that the CIO had little interest in such matters, at least for the moment. “The fear factor has eroded,” I was told by John Makumbe, a respected University of Zimbabwe political analyst and an MDC supporter. He was, for the first time, meeting openly at the hotel with pro-democracy activists, human rights workers, and foreign correspondents. “The CIO are still around, of course, but they are discouraged, disenchanted. They have lost the will to fight.”
There were reports that members of Mugabe's Joint Operations Command were urging the dictator to give up the fight, and that MDC leaders were involved in final negotiations with army leaders to guarantee them immunity from prosecution. On the evening of April 2, as I sat at the Meikles cappuccino bar with dozens of other reporters and activists, waiting for an MDC press conference to begin, CNN reported that Mugabe would step down that night: the Times of London correspondent displayed a text message from her desk in London: ZANU-PF SOURCES SAY MUGABE WILL GIVE UP POWER. Tendai Biti, the MDC secretary-general, told me that reports of an imminent deal were erroneous, but “there are people in Mugabe's court who have young children, debts, school fees, who are saying, 'Chef, you must go.'”
Mugabe himself, Biti believed, was losing the ferocious will that had sustained him through thirty years in power. “The courtiers are propping him up, but he is tired.” A few minutes later, in the ballroom, Morgan Tsvangirai appeared in public for the first time since election day to call the result “a vote for change and a new beginning...a vote for decency, tolerance, equality. We have no doubt we've won this election.”
But it is one of the hallmarks of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe that periods of relative calm and normality can be suddenly, even viciously upended. For days, the opposition—and the press—had been lulled into a sense of security. Mugabe's secret police were still on the payroll, but it was as if they had received orders not to intervene in the democratic process, but had been ordered, perhaps, simply to observe. Then, as has happened so often in the past, the atmosphere palpably changed. I flew out of Zimbabwe, via the southern city of Bulawayo, on April 3, after it became clear that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission, clearly under pressure from the ZANU-PF, was determined to drag out the vote counting for weeks. As I waited at Bulawayo's tiny terminal for a flight to Johannesburg, I was approached by an old friend, David Coltart, an opposition leader and one of two white members of Zimbabwe's Parliament, who whispered a warning that it was premature to drop my guard. “This place is crawling with CIO agents,” he said. Coltart, who was on his way to deliver a lecture at Oxford University, added: “You can't feel entirely safe until you're on the plane—in the air.”
That same afternoon, Mugabe reasserted control and the crackdown on the opposition began. Police raided Haven House, the MDC's dilapidated headquarters in downtown Harare, as well as MDC suites at the Meikles, seizing documents, and arresting and beating up opposition members. At the same time, dozens of riot police and CIO agents surrounded the York Lodge, which I had checked out of only the day before. Two correspondents, The New York Times's Barry Bearak and the Sunday Telegraph contributor Stephen Bevan, with whom I had shared a car for the past week, were arrested on charges of “committing journalism,” interrogated, and imprisoned for four days. Tsvangirai, who had emerged from his safe house on April 2 to all but proclaim an MDC victory, was gone again. And hundreds of so-called War Veterans were mobilized by Mugabe and came out in full force in the streets of several cities.
Since then, the ruling party's tactics have taken an increasingly vicious turn. According to the Movement for Democratic Change, forty-three supporters have been murdered and hundreds injured in the past six weeks. Thousands have been forced to flee their homes in a drive reminiscent of Operation Murambatsvina, Mugabe's 2005 “slum clearance” campaign that destroyed the homes and livelihoods of 700,000 people, almost all of them MDC supporters. A report by the US State Department Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor stated:
Soldiers, police, war veterans and youth militia loyal to the ruling party have been deployed in rural areas throughout Zimbabwe to systematically intimidate voters through killings, beatings, looting of property, burning of homes and public humiliation.
On the evening of May 5, ruling-party thugs descended on three villages in Mashonaland Central province, a former Mugabe stronghold that had turned decisively against the dictator on March 29. Repeating a pattern that has been seen throughout rural Zimbabwe, villagers were summoned to a “reeducation meeting,” where they were forced to denounce the MDC and pledge their allegiance to the ZANU-PF. Then names were called, and those singled out were hustled into the darkness. “Next we heard the whips and screams,” a witness named Bernard Pungwe said, describing a night-long rampage that left six MDC supporters dead and dozens injured. “Every time someone screamed hard the chairman of the meeting would stop his lecture and say: 'Listen to the traitors, they are dying.'”
Particularly distressing to Zimbabweans have been reports that 2,700 teachers have fled or were evicted, while dozens of schools have been closed down and 121 are being used as bases for the ruling party's youth militias. One of Mugabe's achievements was opening up schools to poor blacks. Literacy rates rose from 2 percent in 1990 to 70 percent in recent years. Now Mugabe has been destroying the country's education system.
Throughout this period, the Southern African Development Community has remained largely disengaged. This pattern was established in the days leading up to the election, when the SADC's chief of mission—the only monitors whom Mugabe had allowed into the country—blandly praised the regime for preparing the way for a “free and fair” election, despite ample evidence to the contrary. (MDC campaigners, for example, were denied access to state-owned television and radio and to the official electoral register, which was packed with dead and fictitious voters.) SADC leaders met in Lusaka, Zambia, in April to discuss the deepening crisis, but broke up without making a public comment.
The most glaring silence came from Mbeki, who, as the leader of the region's primary economic and military power, rejected requests from the MDC to intervene on behalf of a free election. “There's a lot that Mbeki could have done that was not done, and [as a result he] caused a lot of damage,” I was told by George Sibotshiwe, Tsvangirai's spokesperson and close aide. “All we have seen publicly is Mbeki holding hands with Mugabe, and making trips to Harare to meet with ZANU-PF.”
Not every SADC leader has followed Mbeki's lead: Botswana's president, Ian Khama, has been quietly providing Tsvangirai with government planes and other logistical support as the MDC leader travels around Africa, attempting to increase pressure on Mugabe. (The Heraldcommented that Tsvangirai's MDC was criss-crossing southern African capitals, “all in a bid to slough off its white western skin for an African one.”) And Zambian president Levy Mwanawasa, the current chairman of the SADC, has been vilified as a neocolonialist by ZANU-PF officials for his outspoken criticism of Mugabe.
Indeed, as Zimbabwe's drama has played out, there has been a growing split among the southern African nations between the majority, made up of anticolonial national liberation leaders such as Mbeki, and a handful of heads of state who are more pro-Western. Besides Mbeki, other leaders who have refused to condemn Mugabe include Angolan President Eduardo dos Santos, Namibian president Hifikepunye Pohamba, and Mozambican President Armando Guebuza.
This split within the SADC was perhaps most glaring during the notorious “Ship of Shame” incident that unfolded while I was traveling through the region in April. During my stay in Namibia, local newspapers published extensive reports on the odyssey of the An Yue Jiang, a Chinese merchant vessel that was carrying thousands of tons of arms and ammunition to the Zimbabwean government—some of it, presumably, to be used by the army and police to put down opposition protests. After dockworkers in the South African port of Durban refused to unload the vessel, the An Yue Jiang attempted to drop its cargo at the Namibian port of Walvis Bay. But Namibian civil leaders and union pressure obliged the government—normally friendly to Mugabe—to deny the ship landing rights, and it was forced back out to sea.
After a several-week odyssey, however, ZANU-PF officials boasted that they had finally taken delivery of the cargo. The An Yue Jang reportedly unloaded the weapons in May in the Angolan port of Lobito. From there, the cargo traveled by train to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it was loaded onto regular military supply flights and flown to Harare. It was yet another example of how a lack of SADC solidarity in the face of Mugabe's abuses had emboldened and strengthened one of the world's most abusive regimes.
At this writing, there seems little question that, without coordinated action by African leaders in neighboring countries, the chances of a fair second-round election are virtually nil. The Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network has been crippled by police raids and intimidation of its volunteers, and won't be able to deploy many observers at Zimbabwe's nine thousand polling stations. The New York Times reported that the regime has terrorized thousands of teachers, many of whom served as poll monitors and sided with the opposition during the first round. “The teachers are terrified,” I was told by one Zimbabwean journalist. “They helped to run these polling stations, and many had their houses burned down as a result.” The army and police are expected to be deployed in far greater numbers than in March. And despite expressions of defiance, the huge displacements of population will make it difficult for the MDC to get out the vote. “People we've met in the hospitals have told us, 'we're not going to vote for people who beat us,'” I was told by a Zimbabwean journalist. “But the rural communities have been disrupted, and people may not be able to get to their polling stations.”
George Sibotshiwe, Tsvangirai's spokesperson, told me that the MDC was engaged in talks with the SADC, asking for the deployment of thousands of “unarmed peacekeepers” throughout the country. The African Union has also been consulted. “SADC has said that this election must be held under the security of the law,” Sibotshiwe told me. The question, he added, was whether they will back up their words with active election monitors. The performance of the SADC up to this point suggests that they will not.
On May 16 I caught up with Tsvangirai again at the Hotel Europa in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where he was to speak at an international conference of liberal party leaders, his final public appearance before flying back to Zimbabwe to carry on his campaign. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Hotel Europa had been called “the most bombed hotel in Europe”—a favorite target of the Irish Republican Army. Today, refurbished and frequently filled to capacity, it's become one of the most potent symbols of Northern Ireland's postwar renewal. In his talk Tsvangirai drew parallels between Northern Ireland's recovery and Zimbabwe's eventual “new era.” But Zimbabwe, he admitted, still had far to go to reach that point. Tsvangirai spoke of “a wave of brutality reminiscent of the worst days of evil during the Ian Smith Regime.” “No Zimbabwean,” he said, “is safe from the wrath of this vicious dictator.” Leaders in the region—particularly Mbeki—had an obligation “to speak out against Mugabe and his henchmen.”
When I talked to Tsvangirai at the end of his speech, I reminded him of our election-day meeting at his home in Harare. I asked him if he thought his life would be in danger if he went back to Zimbabwe. The regime was capable of anything, he replied, and “I'm as vulnerable as everyone else.” His words, as it turned out, were prescient. The next day, Tsvangirai was forced to postpone his homecoming after MDC secretary-general Tendai Biti said the MDC had uncovered a Zimbabwean army plot to kill Tsvangirai using a team of snipers.
As I write this, Tsvangirai has just returned to Harare, and the violence in Zimbabwe continues. In May, in another example of the widening split among southern African political figures over the Zimbabwe crisis, Pallo Jordan, an outspoken member of Thabo Mbeki's cabinet, told the ZANU-PF to “surrender power to the party that has won.” Mbeki maintains his silence.
Reporting for this article was made possible through a grant from the Nation Institute Investigative Fund.