Building vibrant and tolerant democracies
By Sisonke Msimang, OSISA Executive Director
At one particularly dispiriting point while we were working on this edition of Openspace, there were at least seventy-one activists in detention across Zimbabwe, being held on a range of spurious charges. The most bizarre set of charges starkly highlight President Mugabe’s desperate desire to cling to power. In mid-February, 45 activists, who were watching video footage of the Egyptian uprisings and discussing the meaning of the events for Africans living under similarly undemocratic conditions across the continent, were arrested. Some of them were beaten and tortured. All of them were held for weeks – the women at the infamous Chikurubi Prison, and the men at Harare Central – and initially charged with treason. Among them were two OSISA grantees.
For weeks, this group of law-abiding citizens, comprising street hawkers, HIV positive activists and young people affiliated to workers movements, were incarcerated in appalling conditions for doing what millions of people around the globe had been doing every evening since the dramatic events that led to President Ben Ali’s hasty departure from office began to unfold in Tunisia. They were guilty of having watched CNN and talked about it. Eventually, a magistrate dismissed the treason charges against all but the six ‘leaders’. However, in brutally breaking up a peaceful meeting and locking up the group, the message from those wielding real power in Zimbabwe was clear: do not even think about gathering in any city centre to protest. Those who try will be crushed.
It is already obvious that the once engaged international community is no longer interested in Zimbabwe. With North Africa burning, and with seventeen elections planned for 2011, a few illegal arrests and detentions will not garner much attention outside the region. Indeed, short of a Gaddafi-style assault on the common people, Zimbabwe will make few headlines this year.
What is most ridiculous about the treason charges and the detention of the ‘Egypt 45’ is that Mugabe need not worry about being overthrown by fed-up demonstrators – even though ninety percent of Zimbabweans are jobless. Memories of the violence that accompanied the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2000, 2002, 2005 and 2008 are fresh, while South Africa and Botswana still offer an escape route. And Mugabe now rules in coalition with the former opposition,Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Coincidentally, the ‘Egypt 45’ were arrested as the Inclusive Government was marking two fractious years in office. Or perhaps it was intentional, another clear message from the securocrats, this time to the MDC: you might be in Cabinet but we are in charge.
It is our assessment that few Zimbabweans will be eager to take to the streets in the manner that we have seen in North Africa, and before that in the early 1990s in Eastern Europe. Even if they did, the likelihood that the military would step in to protect citizens, as they did in Tunisia and Egypt, is minimal. The armed forces
of Zimbabwe are loyal to the President and to the Generals.
With this background, the trajectory we foresee for Zimbabwe in 2011 is a bleak one. There is reason to fear that the deeply flawed constitution-making process may be legitimized by a referendum that approves a new constitution. This constitution, like the elections of the last decade, will be so compromised by the harassment and intimidation of last year’s ‘consultative process’ that it will not be a legitimate document in the eyes of the people.
Post-referendum, we may then see an emboldened ZANU-PF ‘win’ an election that will have been contested in an environment that differs very little from that of 2008’s stolen elections. If this happens, and in the next few years Mugabe eventually succumbs to the fate of all human beings (despite what fearful Zimbabweans might think), then we may see in Zimbabwe, what we saw in Ivory Coast after the death of Houphouet-Boigny. Factionalism will tear ZANU-PF apart and the MDC may be unable to regain its footing. The country that was once the breadbasket of Africa (as Abidjan was the Paris of the continent) will descend into
violence and mayhem (as Ivory Coast did after Houphouet-Boigny).
Only the Southern African Development Community (SADC) can avert this scenario. That SADC has so far played a
less than impressive role in averting crises of even the most minor kind – whether in Zimbabwe or elsewhere – provides little comfort. But the recent meeting in Livingstone of the Troika on Peace and Security at least suggested that SADC might be taking a more interventionist and constructive approach. We can just advocate and see.
This Openspace examines the crisis in Zimbabwe from a range of angles. The events in North Africa have demonstrated that anything is possible when people work together to challenge illegitimate regimes.But if pro-democracy activists across southern Africa have learned anything in the last decade, it is that we cannot underestimate the staying power and survival instincts of President Mugabe and his cronies.
As a foundation, our efforts will remain consistent – to provide support to organisations that seek to build a peaceful and democratic Zimbabwe, based on open society values: good governance, transparency and accountable leadership. Given the forces lined up against democracy and tolerance in Zimbabwe, we certainly have our work cut out for us.ShareThis