Back to the future for Zimbabwe

Zanu-PF’s announcement at its December 2010 congress that only an election could chart a way forward for Zimbabwe signalled the beginning of the end for the Global Political Agreement (GPA) and the fractious coexistence of its inclusive government, now two years old.

Since then, there has been a significant increase in reported levels of violence, repressive state action, malicious prosecution of leaders of the Tsvangirai faction of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and civic actors, as well as increased levels of pro-Zanu-PF and anti-MDC state media propaganda.

Two weeks ago, the leader of the MDC, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, briefed South African Development Community facilitator Jacob Zuma on the deteriorating conditions, pleading for protection and warning that the situation was spiralling out of control and that the MDC may be forced to pull out of the government.

South Africa and the region have heard such pleas before, and some may remain suspicious that the MDC and its leader are crying wolf. The “body count” may be incomparable to other crises on the continent, but there is no escaping the fact that the house of cards Thabo Mbeki was instrumental in constructing in Zimbabwe is on the verge of collapse. Even if it does survive, it seems incapable of delivering a sustainable solution in its current configuration.

The GPA was intended to provide a platform for implementing reform that would lay the basis for the restoration of a legitimate democratic process in Zimbabwe. Seen by some as a betrayal of the popular vote and a reward for Zanu-PF’s violent campaign to avert a transfer of power to the MDC, the agreement has been described as “the only game in town” in the absence of any feasible alternative. It is a game, however, in which the odds have been heavily stacked in favour of Zanu-PF.

Indeed, from its inception, there was an obvious distortion in the balance of power in favour of Zanu-PF, especially because the party would retain virtually exclusive control over the security and criminal-justice establishment, and by extension the infrastructure of repression.

This has enabled Zanu-PF to manipulate and resist the reform matrix set out in the accord, leaving large segments of the GPA in a permanent (and unresolved) state of negotiation. Even agreements made between the negotiating teams and subsequently endorsed by political principals have, without explanation, not been implemented. The GPA’s internal monitoring and review mechanisms, designed to determine what is working and what is not and how to fix it, are essentially defunct. Violations are not sanctioned and those responsible for them have not been held accountable.

Dealing with violence and impunity
Zimbabweans are consistently told that they have the framework for resolving their differences and that failure to do so is primarily their responsibility. Of course, this is true, but it is a discourse that avoids an honest reflection on the import of the inclusive government’s power disparities and one that hides behind unsustainable notions of equitable responsibility for non-implementation. It is designed essentially to avoid having to hold Zanu-PF accountable and exposes how the SADC appears trapped in no-man’s-land between its increasingly contradictory roles of facilitator and GPA guarantor.

The most immediate and pressing challenge is to deal with violence and impunity, the partisan nature of security and policing concerns, and the associated breakdown in law and order. Most Zimbabweans have been affected directly or indirectly by political violence since independence and this situation has degenerated significantly in the past decade. There is a widespread lack of trust and confidence in state structures, which underscores the importance of a sustainable reform agenda that invests in confidence-building measures in state institutions, especially those responsible for preventing and remedying violence.

Lloyd Sachinkonye’s incisive review of political violence over the past 50 years in Zimbabwe, When a State Turns on Its Citizens (Jacana), has recently been published. It provides an essential overview of why and how violence has become an ingrained part of Zimbabwe’s political culture and what its consequences are.

It sets out Zanu-PF’s primary responsibilities in this regard, and explains why we should all be concerned about the weakness of the current reform process and the dangers associated with not reforming the security sector, not breaking the cycle of violence and accompanying systems of impunity. It has profound implications for human security in Southern Africa beyond the borders of Zimbabwe.

Further elections are inevitable, sooner or later, but they do not provide any possibility of solving Zimbabwe’s problems unless they are rooted in a tangible reform process that is put into action. The correlation between elections and violence in Zimbabwe is obvious and has contributed to significant numbers disengaging from democratic participation. Just more than 2,5-million Zimbabweans, less than 43% of registered voters (from a highly contested voters roll) voted in the 2008 elections — fewer than the numbers who voted in 1980.

The violent 2008 election campaign demonstrated how Zanu-PF could successfully coerce more than a million additional voters to the voting booths. Whether elections are held in 2011 or 2012, the question is not whether there will be intimidation and violence, but rather how significant it will be.

In this context, it remains to be seen whether the SADC will prioritise robust engagement with issues of political violence. Its track record makes it seem unlikely that it can or will exert more pressure on the recalcitrant elements swimming against the tide of democratic reform and, by extension, holding prospects for a sustainable solution in Zimbabwe to ransom.

As Sydney Mufamadi, one of the Mbeki’s facilitation team, pointed out at a civic briefing in Harare in 2009, “If one party decides to place itself beyond persuasion, there is very little you can do.” Can do, one might ask, or will do? The South Africans have made it clear they won’t publicly censure those they seek to influence. It’s a fine line to tread, especially when constructive engagement appears perilously akin to appeasement.

Piers Pigou is an independent consultant

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Stephen Chan
Stephen Chan works from Sydney, New South Wales. Helping business transform and embrace the digital economy. Working for SAP and living in Sydney Australia. All views expressed are my own. Stephen Chan has over 1886 followers on Twitter.

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