Not since South Africa voted for Nelson Mandela in 1994 has an African election been so closely monitored. Nor has an outcome been so eagerly and anxiously awaited.
By Michael Holman
And seldom, if ever, can a ruling party have been so confident of winning re-election, despite a catastrophic record of nearly four decades of economic mismanagement, endemic corruption and contempt for the rule of law.
Yet this is the position of Zimbabwe as it goes to the polls (July 30). Looking on most nervously are the neighbouring countries of southern Africa, aware that the outcome and aftermath of the election is their equivalent of the canary that used to accompany coal miners working underground.
Just as the canary’s behaviour provided the miners with an early warning of the presence of poisonous gas, so the conduct of the elections and subsequent political activity will be treated as indicators either of a successful transition to democracy or a return to repression.
For potential foreign investors in the country, the outcome is also of great importance. For the first time in a generation, Zimbabwe’s mineral, agricultural and above all, human resources, offer an enticing prospect that could lift people’s living standards back where they once belonged – provided there is stability and reform.
Will Zimbabwe emerge like a geo-political Houdini, casting aside the shackles of dictatorship to serve as an inspiration to the region’s 275 million people and play a key role as a flourishing trade and transport hub?
Or is it destined to be trapped in despair, caught in a seemingly unending spiral of poverty, kept alive by foreign aid and UN food supplies?
On the face of it, the electorate might be expected to vote for change, despite the weaknesses of a fractious opposition that has yet to recover from the loss of its leader, Mr Morgan Tsvangirai.
His successor, Nelson Chamisa, an articulate 40-year-old lawyer with a touch of arrogance, has yet to prove himself in the violent and disputatious world of Zimbabwe politics.
But put yourself in the shoes of a peasant farmer in Mashonaland, the country’s most populous province and traditionally a stronghold of the ruling Zanu-PF party, which has dominated politics since independence in 1980.
The question for them is whether the generals, who last November engineered the overthrow of Robert Mugabe, would accept a change of government at the ballot box.
Their fear will surely be that the generals reject such an outcome and, whether from behind the scenes or by stepping out of the barracks, support a campaign of revenge and retribution, similar to the one that scarred the 2008 election.
At one level at least, Zimbabwe has changed for the better. The bleak despair which permeated the country has been replaced by hope – cautious and fragile, but hope, nonetheless.
Views are expressed freely and openly. Optimism hangs in the air. Campaigners for the MDC, the main opposition group, venture into Zanu-PF constituencies for the first time in years.
But Zanu-PF are fighting back. At rallies across the country, a single theme is hammered home by Mr Emmerson Mnangagwa, the man who replaced Mr Mugabe.“Zimbabwe”, he declares, “is open for business.”
The claim invites a cartoonist’s response, and an MDC supporter happily obliges. “Picture”, he says, “Mnangagwa as a householder, standing outside his home with a bucket of white-wash, and a sign saying ‘Rooms to Let’. But the walls are cracked, the roof is leaking. The drains are blocked and the garden overgrown. And down a potholed driveway advances a pair of bailiffs, clutching a wad of overdue bills.”
Opposition MP Eddie Cross sets out in a more mundane fashion the economic realities facing whichever of the parties wins office. “Our real GDP is probably above $50 billion (Sh5 trillion), but we only tax the formal sector – less than $20 billion and collect about $4 billion in revenues. But our population is probably 13 million and we spend $6,5 billion on trying (unsuccessfully) to maintain social services. That means our fiscal deficit is $2,5 billion or 63 per cent of revenue, 38 per cent of expenditure and 13 per cent of GDP.”
“It is a runaway train,” he warns, “and will derail if it is not brought under control. Massive inflation is just around the corner.”
Meanwhile land ownership remains at the heart of Zimbabwe politics.
In his inauguration address, no one was surprised when Mr Mnangagwa ruled out a return of the land confiscated from the country’s 4,500 white farmers: “Dispossession of our ancestral land was the fundamental reason for waging the liberation struggle. It would be a betrayal of the brave men and women who sacrificed their lives…if we reverse the gains we have made in reclaiming our land.”
But he failed to address the central concern of those who, while sympathetic to the principle of land reform, were critical of its implementation. Not only was it conducted violently; many of the farms were allocated to Mr Mugabe’s cronies, including the army generals who would later remove him.
Mr Mnangagwa did make one concession on land: “My government is committed to compensating the farmers from whom the land was taken.” But the farmers will not be holding their breath. The government lacks the funds to cover even modest compensation.
He also made an important concession for foreign investors in the crucial mining sector. Apart from diamonds, he allowed them to hold more than 50 per cent of the local entities conducting mining operations. The immediate upshot was a rise in the share prices of the few companies operating in the country.
Of far greater concern to those monitoring events in the country is the problem posed by the southern province of Matabeleland.
David Coltart, a Bulawayo human rights lawyer and former senator widely admired for his work as Education minister in a previous national unity government (from February 2009 to August 2013), has no doubt about Mr Mnangagwa’s role in the slaughter of civilians in the province in the early 1980s by the North Korean-trained members of 5 Brigade. At the time, Mr Mnangagwa, a former guerrilla, was head of the country’s Central Intelligence Organisation, and had access to the membership records of Zapu, then the main opposition party.
The impact of the deployment of the brigade was devastating. Zapu officials were singled out and summarily executed, effectively destroying the organisation for a generation or more. Survivors demand that the president admit his role in the atrocity, make a public apology for the slaughter of as many as 15,000 people, and agree on reparation in the form of new clinics, schools and boreholes.
A senior member of Zapu holds out little hope of this happening. [But some note that an explosion near Mr Mnangagwa while on a recent visit to Bulawayo might be a portent of further trouble…]
Either way, Zimbabwe may well have to live with an embittered people who account for one in five of the country’s 13 million population.
And Mr Mnangagwa, far from denouncing Mr Mugabe, reveres him: “He remains a father, mentor, comrade in arms and my leader … history will grant him his proper place and accord him his deserved stature as one of the founders and leaders of our nation.”
Seemingly unaware of the crippling cost of his predecessor’s dictatorship, he adds: “I have no doubt that over time we will appreciate the solid foundation laid by my predecessor.”
Mr Cross calculates that Mugabe embezzled an estimated US$80 billion in 37 years of control of the country, culminating in the theft of $21bn in diamonds from the alluvial deposits in Marange – equal to 8 times[pc1] Zimbabwe’ national debt.
The financial drain is matched by the loss of life and the flight of talent. Mr Cross holds Mr Mugabe responsible for the premature deaths of three million Zimbabweans, as life expectancy plummeted from over 60 years at independence in 1980 to 35 years, while at least a million Zimbabweans fled in exile.
Last night election observers from around the world were taking up their places at ballot stations around the country as voters prepared to make their choice. But the critical test will come after the observers have left for home.
Will the canary remain healthy – or will it be showing signs of distress?