Zim Democracy: A Long Way To Go

People queue to vote in Harare March 16, 2013. Image by: PHILIMON BULAWAYO / REUTERS

In the many attempts to define “democracy,” a simple one, devised by economist Joseph Schumpeter suggested that it be encompass a system where voters first elect their representatives and the representatives themselves would choose what they think the best policy is.  Voters are free to decide on their representatives and they can be demanding. If parties fail to deliver they would lose votes on the next elections.

In the case of Zimbabwe, choice in representation is quite limited, as the ZANU-PF regime uses intimidation and violence to prevent candidates from the electoral process.  For those brave enough to participate, even winning an election does not guarantee your ascendency to office or protection from “War Veterans” whose loyalty to the regime has been secured through many years and promises of gifts, land and political office.

Zimbabwe and its government, gaining majority rule in 1980, styles itself as a parliamentary democracy, when in actuality, it is a one party dictatorship.  Robert Mugabe, head of government since independence (also President since 1987), has controlled policy in the country singlehandedly for almost 30 years under the “Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front” banner or ZANU-PF, There are claims that his ZANU-PF party has rigged elections in his favor using voter intimidation and violence.  Mugabe’s domestic policies, namely his land reform initiatives, which have displaced revenue generating white farmers, are blamed for the food shortages and runaway inflation of the Zim Dollar.  Zimbabwe is effectively a one-party system, and all other parties besides ZANU-PF hold very little popular or political sway.

The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by Morgan Tsvangirai is an opposition party that has faced persecution at the hands of Mugabe’s forces.  Tsvangirai won the 2008 presidential election outright, but a run-off election was called, as the results were not recognized by Mugabe. Intimidation against MDC supporters caused Tsvangirai to back out of the run-off race, but showing in the polls prompted him to return from exile to contest the election and Mugabe would eventually be forced to submit to a coalition government.  Mugabe is accused of stacking minister posts in his favor, retaining key cabinet positions. In some respect, Mugabe is, in a twisted way, displaying Schumpeter’s competitive structure of democracy in the gifting of political appointments, land and other arrangements to loyal supporters (for long term retention of power).

A major issue, outside of a fair and safe electoral process, is the number of women in elected positions.  Netsai Mushonga, who coordinates the national Women’s Coalition, described it as “scandalous.” Women, who make up 52 per cent of the population, hold few influential positions in Zimbabwe’s patriarchal society. Currently only seven of the 40 members of the federal cabinet are women. Of the 69 ministers, 12 are women; well under 20 percent representation.  Zimbabwe now has its first female Vice President (and one of the few in Africa) and the government has made small efforts to enhance the status of women by placing them in some key posts in politics and business. However, the power structure in itself appears invalid, due to token adherence a Southern African Development Community (SADC) protocol on gender and development, a joint agreement mandating that women should hold equal positions to men in both public and private sectors by 2015.         Prompting one activist to say: “This government is not a product of the will of the people, but SADC’s.”

Due to the crises that affect the country and the political repression that has occurred in its wake, there is hope and opportunity for more women in political positions in Zimbabwe.  Many strong female leaders have emerged.  Included among them are Jenni Williams and Jestina Mukoko, who have been victims of political imprisonment and torture for challenging Mugabe’s regime.  They are vocal activists of human rights in Zimbabwe, and are widely popular.  The fact that these new leaders are coming forward and being developed (albeit, “trial-by-fire”), bodes well as the country is preparing for new leadership, and possibly, parity between the sexes, post-Mugabe.

“Top-down” changes in male-dominated politics have occurred, beginning with Mujuru being named Vice President in 2005.  In light of the Zimbabwe’s economic crisis and current political crossroads, the former Minister of Women’s Affairs called “for zero tolerance to violence against women and girls,” adding, “violence has negative socio-economic implications. Violence is unacceptable as it dehumanizes the victim and the offender. It’s a sign of weakness.” She was criticized however for avoiding the subject of “Jestina Mukoko and other women such as Concilia Chinanzvavana, who were…abused in prison by the Mugabe regime. Mukoko, who chronicled state sponsored human rights abuses, was beaten and tortured for three months, and her detainment became “one of the most prominent examples of…Mugabe’s refusal to restore human rights in Zimbabwe.” Oftentimes challenged as for being a puppet of the Mugabe/ZANU-PF government (which does include women in its MP positions) Vice President Mujuru is in danger of being ousted due to political infighting.

Having been in office since the new government, elected in 1980 at age 25, Vice President Mujuru claims that “confidence is the reason most women not to seek political office,” fearful of entering a realm long dominated by men. The words ‘she’ and ‘her’ appear nowhere” in the Constitution, which makes no provisions for gender parity in representation; a matter which Jenni Williams hopes to address in constitutional reforms. Luta Shaba, director of the Women’s Trust, “Women want a new constitution that abolishes the first-past-the-post electoral system to enshrine proportional representation…Only through proportional representation can women, together with other previously marginalized groups, rise.”

There is discontent, still, after the recent power-sharing deal in Zimbabwe.  Jenni Williams, the head of Women of Zimbabwe Arise, believes that “nothing will ever come out of this deal until women are included.”  People like Luta Shaba, director of the Women’s Trust, contend that “only through proportional representation can women, together with other previously marginalized groups, rise.”  Rutendo Hadebe, deputy chairperson of The Women’s Coalition, believe that “the coalition will take advantage of the constitutional reform process to lobby for progressive provisions that will empower women and “close a past of inequality.””  There is cynicism, however, that the challenges of tradition could stand in the way.  Gladys Hlatswayo, of Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, says “We have heard these nice words before but, without political will, they do not mean anything…the power relations are uneven and reflect the power struggles of the general Zimbabwean society.” Williams feels that an even stronger female presence is needed in government to insure “that gender equality is clearly spelt out in the constitution. However, it must not only be gender equity, but also social justice.”


Mr. Mugabe blames his country’s crisis on sanctions imposed by the US and the EU, but the global consensus puts the blame on continuance of bad policy. Agriculture has collapsed since the embarked upon “land reforms” involving the expropriation of thousands of white-owned farms, which critics say he has handed over to his associates. Short-term, the economic situation looks grim, and the inflation rate in the hundred-million per cents. Less than two weeks after the power-sharing agreement, ZANU-PF, restarted their requisitioning of white-owned farms with little regard to an SADC ruling which regarded the “seizing white-owned property for redistribution to landless black farmers was discriminatory and illegal.” Barring drastic change, the 400 white owned farms face further troubles, but there is excitement that with new Prime Minister, and farmer Catherine Meridith, whose property has fallen under the target of ZANU-PF “War Veterans,” is optimistic, saying “I’m 100% confident that in five years’ time, I’ll still be living on this farm.”  Mugabe’s land reform and domestic policy have bankrupted a once prosperous nation. Zimbabwe, once the bread basket of half a continent, is facing acute food shortages and currently experiencing a drought, as well as regular cholera outbreaks.

Though having recently celebrated his 88th birthday, Mugabe remains firmly entrenched.  The global aim with the sanctions, media coverage, and international indignation, is that Mugabe will eventually be “shunned” from power.  Douglas Alexander, UK International Development Secretary, called Mugabe’s presence at a UN Food Summit meeting “obscene,” saying “I’m outraged by his attendance.”  He calls labels Mugabe’s “profound misrule” as the key factor responsible for the crisis, adding “I’ll neither shake hands with Robert Mugabe nor meet Robert Mugabe … This is not a man with any credibility or any contribution to a discussion on international food.” Currently, Mugabe is banned from European travel; his status as a respected African “leader” by Western leaders is more than twenty years in the past.  Every day he sits in power, his painfully short-sighted, incredulous policies and irreverent ramblings deprive the country of the real leader it needs. Instead of constructively addressing the issues at hand, (Mugabe) wastes his words placing blame on others, which is parroted through the ZANU-PF hierarchy, mostly with accusations against MDC, saying “Some people are contriving ways and means of making us collapse.”

When “the people who fled the violence have to face their perpetrators to cast their ballot,” you most assuredly do not have a safe and secure electoral process.  The documentary “A Ballot of Thorns” covered the violence and voter intimidation in the 2008 Zimbabwean Presidential election and its aftermath. The film starts with coverage of a MDC rally, which is broken up by armed ZANU-PF youth, characterizing the longstanding lack freedom in political choice.  ZANU-PF gangs beat and killed MDC supporters, and burned crops and homes in what became a “rural war-zone.” Tsvangirai called out the regime, saying that “Mugabe and his wife have been shedding cold tears by visiting MDC victims of political violence when his militia men are, in fact, the authors and perpetrators of the massacres.”  Yet Mugabe has been able to effectively spin that matter with the state media, broadcasting funerals of ZANU-PF members (who were victims of infighting) and purporting their killers to be MDC. Violence intensified as the election neared, with entire MDC families being targeted.  The film covers the impoundment of Tsvangirai’s campaign vehicles, and where he proclaims “It is nothing but harassment…When the leading contender is denied the opportunity to convey!”

The process needs to be fair, and under ZANU-PF state control, that will never occur.  Before the 2000 election, the late Vice-President, Simon Muzenda, told the nation that “if ZANU-PF chose to nominate a baboon as candidate, then the people would have to vote for that baboon.”  The international community and SADC, regarding the 2008 election stated that the Elections “…did not conform to SADC Principles and Guidelines. However, the Election Day was peaceful. Based on the above-mentioned observations, the Mission is of the view that the prevailing environment impinged on the credibility of the electoral process. The elections did not represent the will of the people of Zimbabwe.” The SADC still declared the elections legitimately “free and fair,” forcing Mugabe into a power-sharing agreement, in which ZANU-PF and MDC would be forced into a compromise government, with Tsvangirai as a newly created “Prime Minister.”  However, this compromise was itself compromised by intimidation leading MDC to govern mostly in exile. 

Possibilities in achieving a democratic transition in the country comes from finding a way to hold actual free and fair elections under a neutral and independent electoral administration, according to the group Zimbabwe Democracy Now, which calls for widespread reform from the safety of the internet. They consider that “SADC as architect of the power-sharing agreement is directly responsible for resolving this potentially unstable situation.”  The group cites the numerous electoral failings of 2008 electoral process and offers a host of proposed reforms, suggesting that SADC “immediately take steps to enforce, as guaranteed, Zimbabwe’s transition to good governance and genuine democracy.” A new series of checks and balances and a showing of the “the political will of the African Union, of SADC and of the Republic of South Africa as guarantors” who “recognize that the misrule in Zimbabwe has already impacted negatively on the region, and threatens to cause further disruptions.” It is the SADC’s responsibility to “ultimately bring about the dreamed-of African Renaissance.”

Dictators can’t live forever, and there is hope for Zimbabwe in the passage of time. If not deposed, Mugabe will eventually die, and even if another dictator steps up and takes his place, in the long term, Zimbabwe has the resources and infrastructure (albeit, crumbling) for a successful transition to a functional democracy.  A report from the Harvard University Africa Policy Journal states that “the southern African country is in a perilous state of decline and could face a transition at any time. Waiting until the day after the fall of [president] Robert Mugabe could be too late.” The report predicts that “In political democracies, prolonged economic decline almost always sparks political change, through the ballot box or more radical confrontation on the streets.”

It is hoped that Zimbabwe can eventually make the peaceful transition into a legitimate democracy.  The country can only do so with fair representation in governance, including diaspora, whites and women.  While enticing individuals back to Zimbabwe may be far away, the work of NGOs could assist supporting women’s economic independence. Programs that ‘enable’ are necessary for the furtherance of women’s rights and economic growth in Africa and grow the pool of talented women leaders.  Activism such as that of Jestina Mukoko and other women’s rights organizations can, in turn, build upon that. Continued awareness will address the crisis of inequality by informing the world of these discriminatory practices. Ultimately, calls for equal gender representation, like in Zimbabwe, will one day, have women changing these laws for themselves. The empowerment of women in Africa could one day bring equality, both to a traditionally male dominated power structure & democracy in its governance.


Video: “A Ballot of Thorns.” Journeyman Pictures, 2009

Mpofu, Thulani. “Zimbabwe’s Women Feel Left Out of Power Deal.”  The National. http://www.thenational.ae/article/20090312/FOREIGN/394930035/-1/NEWS

The Zimbabwean.  “Women Join Hands to Fight Violence.”  http://www.thezimbabwean.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=19927&Itemid=109

Celia W. Dugger. “Zimbabwe Activist Released, In Victory For Opposition.” New York Times.  http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/03/world/africa/03zimbabwe.html?_r=1&ref=world

Kwidini, Tonderai. “Now To Share Power With Women.” Resource Centre for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. http://www.galdu.org/web/index.php?odas=3272&giella1=eng

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