/ 15 June 2008

The meaning of Zimbabwe’s next election

It was always going to end in tears — but I hadn’t factored in the thrush, anxiety attacks, depression and sleeplessness.

One after the other, these illnesses left me completely debilitated, unfocused and in search of something to believe in after March 29. For the whole month, like most Zimbabweans, I was physically and emotionally ill. I tried to stop watching TV. I began to hate the endless rumours; the attempts at political analysis from professors, so-called political analysts and ordinary pedestrians like me. Withholding election results defied all logic and every political-science textbook. Nobody had foreseen that one; nobody ever thought it could be done.

Finally the newscasts on Zimbabwe got fewer and fewer. Foreign crews packed up. Observers returned to their day jobs, and the political analysts moved on to other, more ”interesting” countries. I too went to Guatemala for three weeks, hoping that it would all go away and Zimbabwe would become normal. Thank God my South African cellphone could not roam there.

I even took to watching the news in Spanish. Not that I understood a 10th of what was being said, but it was a useful diversion. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama’s fight didn’t excite me in the least, but in Spanish it felt like a funny foreign movie. Then the result was finally announced. No fanfare; no outright winner. The earth didn’t move. I headed back to Southern Africa still hoping that some miracle would happen.

Three months later, we are back again in the state of uncertainty. We are lurching towards another pointless, hopeless and meaningless election.

One of my friends exhorted me the other day to be positive, that I must have faith. He told me that people like me are letting the nation down by not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel — his thesis being that the March 29 election proved that ”the owl has no horns” (Mugabe is unelectable, as another wisecrack put it). So, according to my friend, the end is in sight.

I envy these people with a bottomless well of hope, such a capacity to see light at the end of a very long but seriously crooked tunnel. The sleeplessness is back in full force, making me cranky and angry.

Pardon my cynicism yet again. Why does Zimbabwe need one more expensive election? To prove what? To whom? Is it to prove that we seriously believe in elections and what they mean? Or is it more to prove whose is the biggest? If the March elections were an indicator, it is all about proving whose ego and whose fist is bigger. How else does one explain Mugabe’s campaign message, ”Get behind the fist”?

If ever there were a moment I finally accepted that my country had gone ”down the drainage” (as that other sad presidential candidate called Towungana said), it was on the day Mugabe came out on TV to threaten us all with his fist. It was bad enough that the fist was the symbol on his campaign posters, all the way down the very long Samora Machel Avenue and across the whole country. It was worse when he and then his wife kept trying to convince us that somehow the fist had become the symbol of something positive.

Black-power symbolism of the 1970s and 1980s notwithstanding, when a leader thinks citizens do not deserve to be spoken to with respect and dignity, and that they need to be pummelled into submission or physically threatened — that is the bottom of the pits. And to prove Mugabe’s point, the fist has been supplemented by guns, whips, baton sticks and other forms of torture. It is truly hard to be positive and summon up hope.

No amount of political analysis prepared Zimbabweans for what we are going through now. So-called scenario planning didn’t go far enough. It did not help us at a personal level to figure out what we can do with each of those electoral scenarios. So, on the eve of one more presidential election, I need someone to help me fill in the blank spaces:

Scenario 1: Morgan wins, Mugabe loses
Please paint me a picture of how exactly the keys to State House will be handed over. I need a mental image to go by. Mugabe and Grace handing the keys over to Morgan and Susan; the police band playing in the background; ZBC TV playing the footage live from Rufaro Stadium? I need to see a copy of Mugabe’s concession speech, him wishing Morgan all the best, laughing his usual belly laugh.

Most importantly, I need to know into which sunset the military hawks will vanish. When all of these are clear, then I can do my personal scenario planning — move back home, find a school for my son, get a new job! As they say on aeroplanes, in the unlikely event that this happens, someone please wake me up!

Scenario 2: Mugabe wins, Morgan loses
Sadly, this is the only image in my head. And I am now finalising my personal plan (fingers crossed that the interest rates don’t keep going up in South Africa): move out of a flat; get a bigger house, preferably with workers’ quarters and a cottage — I will need space to house relatives, friends, neighbours and possibly complete strangers who are all looking for jobs and a safer place to stay. Find a cheaper supplier of antiretrovirals for ever-increasing ”orders”. Move my son to a cheaper (day) school so I can have extra cash to support my extended family. If xenophobia continues, consider moving to Mozambique or Ghana. Wish Kenya could stabilise … that would be the best option.

Scenario 3: Sanity prevails! Someone finds a round table!
This is my ideal scenario. Both Zanu-PF and the Movement for Democratic Change realise that this winner-takes-all mentality is getting us nowhere. These men (mostly) finally accept that none of them will have a country to rule over if we continue in the present vein; that it is not about winning — because nobody at the end of this election can truly celebrate ”winning” an election.

The citizens of Zimbabwe — in particular poor women — have lost so much of their dignity, faith and hope that it doesn’t matter any more who is proclaimed winner on June 28 (if, of course, that ever happens). So many people have lost their homes and their livelihoods that no little X will deliver back to them what they have lost, for another three decades. One more election does not make sense to a family sleeping in a United Nations refugee tent on the streets of Johannesburg right now. It is hard for a young woman whose life expectancy has been slashed to 34 by HIV, contracted as a result of political violence, to ratchet up enough enthusiasm for this election. But maybe let me speak for myself!

Unfortunately this third scenario doesn’t seem to be in the offing any time soon. Regardless of what President Thabo Mbeki thinks, I don’t see one side willing to talk to the other, preferring instead to go to the ballot, not very secret and neither free nor fair, by any measure. Or at least that is what we are told on the surface.

Once elections were about choosing one’s leader, someone whom citizens trust will have their best interests at heart. One can’t help wondering whose interests are being served by an election so violent and bloody. What are our politicians trying to prove, and to whom?

June 27 will find me as far away from Zimbabwe as possible. My body can not take any more sleeping tablets without collapsing. I am no longer putting my faith in the Southern African Development Community, the African Union or any so-called mediator. My heart cannot take more high expectations dashed day in, day out.

The only thing that will make me — and, I am sure, countless other Zimbabwean women (I know plenty, I can’t speak for men) — revive my faith in the rituals of politics and what they are supposed to mean is a nice round table where we talk to one another as equal citizens. For that I will even offer to make the tea, and learn how to bake!