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Zimbabweans wait to cast their votes during the general elections outside Harare, Zimbabwe, August 23 2023. Picture: SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS
Zimbabweans wait to cast their votes during the general elections outside Harare, Zimbabwe, August 23 2023. Picture: SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS

Once again Zimbabwe has suffered through a rigged election accompanied by all kinds of serious abuses.

In Zimbabwe repression escalates at election time, but it is a constant feature of life between elections too. Indeed, the country is essentially a military dictatorship, one in which a wealthy party elite violently extracts wealth from society, leaving destitution and desperation in its wake. 

Vast numbers of Zimbabweans have fled the country, and for those who remain chances of finding a job are exceptionally slim. As in SA, there is an epidemic of heroin abuse among young men facing permanent unemployment. 

The governing Zanu-PF turned to brutal repression soon after taking power in 1980. In 1984-87 there was the massacre of 20,000 Ndebele people in Operation Gukurahundi, a crime against humanity for which there has never been any kind of justice.

In 1998 Zanu-PF took the devastating decision to support the tyrant Laurent Kabila in the Second Congo War. The Harare junta entered the war with its eyes on the same wealth of natural resources that had attracted the colonialists, and then Kabila duly rewarded Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, his family and his allies with contracts in mining and logging worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The financial cost of the war was borne by ordinary Zimbabweans — it destroyed the Zimbabwean economy — while the human cost was borne by ordinary Congolese.

The mid-2000s saw Operation Murambatsvina, with more than 2-million people affected when the state brutally destroyed shack settlements and removed informal traders from Zimbabwe’s cities.

The wider story of the endemic use of murder, rape and torture as weapons of political control is well known, especially at election time. Mugabe successfully stole elections in 2000, 2002, 2005 and 2008. The tyrant had support in various quarters, perhaps chief among them being the SA government. This is one of the ANC’s many shameful legacies. 

Those who supported Mugabe on the basis of the land occupations that began in 2000 fundamentally misunderstood that they were a desperate attempt by Zanu-PF to try regain political legitimacy. In many cases it then moved to ensure that its own people, often former military people, benefited from land reform, sometimes displacing the original occupiers. 

The entire SA Left, from the SACP to Cosatu and Abahlali baseMjondolo, took the position of supporting the popular struggle for land, including the occupations, while condemning Mugabe and Zanu-PF for their corrupt and repressive rule. However, for some reason the ANC was not able to understand that one could be simultaneously for land reform and against Mugabe and Zanu-PF.

Serious trouble emerged during the 2008 election. The results were not released for more than a month, and when they were eventually made public after court action it was announced that the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T), led by Morgan Tsvangirai, won 99 house of assembly votes, two more than Zanu-PF’s 97, while Arthur Mutambara's MDC-M faction had won 10.

A second round of voting was declared and Tsvangirai eventually withdrew after his supporters were hammered with severe repression. The electoral commission refused to accept Tsvangirai’s withdrawal and the elections went ahead. In classic dictator style Mugabe was declared the winner just two days later with 90% of the vote.

The 2013 elections were flawed too, but were claimed by Zanu-PF nonetheless. When Emmerson Mnangagwa came to power in 2018 via a coup it was a result of a power struggle within a military dictatorship, rather than in opposition to the dictatorship. There was no improvement in the country’s terrible suffering. Mnangagwa won just more than 51% of the vote in another dubious election later than year, and last week stole yet another election.

Unfortunately, as Frantz Fanon predicted, all of the former national liberation movements in Southern African have become repressive to some degree. The MPLA in Angola has the most blood on its hands, with up to 90,000 people massacred between 1977 and 1979 in response to an uprising from within against corruption and thuggery. And then, of course, there is the neo-feudal dictatorship in Eswatini (which Swazi pro-democracy activists still prefer to call Swaziland).

It’s a sobering reality that as much as the ANC represses grassroots activists it seems relatively enlightened in comparison to the regimes in Harare, Luanda and Mbabane, among others. Even during the real dangers of the Jacob Zuma years there was never a moment when it seemed that we might suddenly find ourselves under a military dictatorship. Our society was, including the democratic currents in the ANC itself, too strong for Zuma’s aspirations to put an end to democracy.

There seems no easy way out of the unbearable tragedy of Zimbabwe. Zanu-PF is unlikely to ever allow a free and fair election to remove it from power. But as people become angrier one cannot rule out the sort of sudden mass protest that drove the Arab Spring in 2011 and, in an earlier generation, brought down Erich Honecker in East Germany in 1989.

There is strong support for the pro-democracy movement in Swaziland from the mass organisations of the SA Left — the SACP, Cosatu, National Union of Metalworkers of SA and Abahlali baseMjondolo. Activists from Abahlali baseMjondolo and Eswatini’s People’s United Democratic Movement (Pudemo) travel between the two countries to offer support at each other’s political funerals and other events. 

Solidarity with Zimbabwe is more difficult because there is not an organised mass movement in that country that groups in SA can support. There have been impressive moments of solidarity here and there though. Most famously, in 2008 the now retired Anglican bishop of Natal, Rubin Phillip, alerted the SA Transport & Allied Workers Union about a shipment of Chinese arms headed for Zimbabwe shortly before the election there, after which the dockworkers refused to offload the ship. Dockworkers in Walvis Bay and Luanda followed suit, and the ship had to return to China with its cargo.

But as wonderfully encouraging as this moment of solidarity was there is no solidarity movement in SA with the power to rattle the military dictatorship in Harare. What we do have is horrific xenophobia within the ANC, the state and society in general. It is a terribly cruel irony that the lifeline the ANC threw to Zanu-PF after the 2008 election allowed the regime to entrench its power and continue to plunder the country. 

The least the ANC can do now is provide sanctuary for the many Zimbabweans who have fled to SA to escape political repression and economic catastrophe. The least we can do as ordinary South Africans is welcome Zimbabweans seeking sanctuary among us as our brothers and sisters, and to oppose xenophobia whenever it raises its loathsome head. 

But ideally we need to do more than this and work to build a strong consensus across the region in support of democracy and in opposition to all of the corrupt and authoritarian regimes that continue to blight our part of the world. To be effective that consensus must be rooted in popular organisations — trade unions, churches, social movements and the like. 

As welcome as statements by human rights organisations are, they just don’t have the moral and political power of popular organisations. We should be doing for the people of Zimbabwe what the people of the world did for us during the global anti-apartheid struggle.

• Dr Buccus is a political analyst.

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