Understanding why Bob is still so popular

Zimbabwe’s opposition may be celebrating a historic win over President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF, but many people inside and outside the country are wondering how the election could have been this close.

How did Mugabe, who has reduced Zimbabwe to an economic and human-rights basket case, garner close to half the vote? Life for ordinary Zimbabweans is unbearable, with new government statistics leaked to the Mail & Guardian showing that inflation is now running at 164 900%.

Yet in the end, Zanu-PF pushed the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) to the wire, winning by large margins in a number of key constituencies. There may have been a gradual loading of the Zanu-PF vote but even the MDC estimates his share of the presidential ballot at 43%.

Mugabe’s mystique is a complex thing. In rural areas, and even among urban residents, his liberation credentials and black empowerment rhetoric, especially about land, still has resonance.

This year he handed out farm equipment to demonstrate his agriculture-driven economic rescue plan.

Among the urban middle class, Mugabe finds support from those who have benefited directly from his patronage.

Among resettled farmers, and many urban blacks, the fear of a return of white dominance is real. For thousands of blacks holding land seized from white farmers voting for the MDC is a risk.

And for many, Zanu-PF is more than just a party; it has been an institution, even a way of life, for decades. For many, voting for Mugabe was less about issues than it was a ritual and a tradition.

It is important to remember the role of armed struggle in the liberation of Zimbabwe. The army has been central to securing Mugabe’s rule and he has plied the top brass with plum farms and luxury vehicles.

The military plays a more public role in Zimbabwe than in many other countries. For example, it was in charge of the last farming season under a programme called Operation Maguta (bumper harvest), overseeing distribution of everything from seed to farm equipment and even land itself.

Most state enterprises are headed by either serving or retired army officials.

The Joint Operating Command is a council of Mugabe’s top security men, which sits every week and makes crucial decisions about everything from security to the economy. Chaired by Mugabe himself, it includes Security Minister Didymus Mutasa, but excludes much of his Cabinet.

The militarisation of civilian affairs recalls Mugabe’s statement more than three decades ago during the liberation war when he declared that ”our votes must go together with our guns … The gun which produces the vote should remain its security officer — its guarantor. The people’s votes and the people’s guns are always inseparable twins.”

When Mugabe’s rule was threatened by the MDC in 2000 he twinned electioneering, and the threat and exercise of violence. In 2002, as before the current election, he got his army chiefs to declare that they would not recognise an opposition victory.

In the rural areas, before both the 2000 and 2002 poll, his war veterans and associated militias beat up, maimed and killed suspected opposition supporters.

Rural people, especially in the east and north, have always voted for him. They felt the impact of the liberation war far more keenly than urban Zimbabweans as most guerrillas entered Rhodesia from Mozambique through Manicaland and Mashonaland Central.

Ian Smith’s soldiers beat them up, jailed and sometimes killed them for supporting the guerrillas. And if they were ever suspected of aiding Rhodesian soldiers, the guerrillas could be just as ruthless.

Villagers routinely slaughtered goats, poultry and cattle for the guerrillas — a crime for which they could go to prison under Smith’s laws.

So when war veteran leaders threaten to go back to war if Zanu-PF loses, the threat has a particular impact on rural people, particularly those born after 1965.

More crucially, Mugabe’s nationalist, anti-imperialist gospel is the only one heard on state radio, the only broadcaster to the countryside.

He is lying when he says the country is undergoing hardship because of Western sanctions, but most people believe it because they have no alternative source of news.

Zimbabwe’s only daily paper, the Daily News, remains banned after the government closed it for operating without a licence.

Eighty percent of Zimbabweans are unemployed and those who have lost their jobs can no longer support their extended rural families. The effect has been to throw more rural people on to the mercy of the state.

Reasoning is that the government of the day feeds you, you must support it. In addition, rural constituencies which have dared support the MDC have had this lifeline, including food aid, cut off. For many, supporting the MDC has become an unacceptable risk.

Also helping to explain Zanu-PF’s continued stranglehold over the rural vote is increased official interference in balloting.

In the current election the non-governmental Zimbabwe Election Support Network, noted the increased number of people being helped to vote.

Just before the elections, the Electoral Act was amended to allow police and electoral officials to assist illiterate and physically incapacitated voters.

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Jason Moyo
Guest Author
Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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