Blogs > Cliopatria > Power and Politics in Zimbabwe and Namibia

Mar 30, 2005 12:23 pm

Power and Politics in Zimbabwe and Namibia

On Monday Hifekepunye Pohamba took over the Namibian presidency, replacing the only head of state the country has ever known, Sam Nujoma. Nujoma was the leader of the South West African People’s Organization (SWAPO) from the 1960s, and as with so many of Africa’s revolutionary leaders, he was well positioned to become the country’s first president fifteen years ago. There was a time when Nujoma appeared ready to follow another familiar path of his revolutionary brethren. Whispers from Windhoek indicated that Nujoma wanted to amend the Namibian Constitution to allow the president to run for another term, perhaps unlimited terms. But Nujoma, under immense pressure internally as well as from his neighbors, decided not to pursue the amendment, and in recent elections Pohamba won the vote and thus the events of today will probably make the agate-print sections buried deep in the New York Times. Pohamba has already come under some criticism for choosing to keep many, indeed a majority, of Nujoma’s cabinet members, thus making many believe that he is “The Old Man – Mark II,” a puppet successor to Nujoma and not his own man willing to chart a new course.

How the Namibian situation will turn out remains to be seen, but any peaceful transition of power by democratic means in Africa deserves our attention. Of late there has been a lot of lip service paid to a renewed era of democracy as a result of the tenuous undertakings in the Middle East. And as always, while the West’s gaze is fixed on another hotspot, events play out in Africa with barely a hint of our recognition. The media will briefly interrupt its Schiavo Saturation on Friday to discuss the previous day’s elections in Zimbabwe only to turn away within hours once another child falls into a well or when pictures emerge revealing that John Travolta’s hairline is not what it once was or that Angelina Jolie’s is not what it looks to be.

But Thursday marks a vital moment in Zimbabwe, and one that will probably result in more disappointment. Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s own revolutionary hero-turned president, except that unlike Nujoma he seems to be taking this President-for-life stuff seriously, has in recent months made it seem that he was more conciliatory in the past, that things will progress fairly this time around. This is nonsense, in part because too much of the opposition has long since been crushed, scared, or bought off, but mostly because the demagoguery and intimidation and frauds continue unabated.

Rhetorically, Mugabe is in rare form. He has been referring to opposition leader Morgan Tsvagirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) as the “Blair-run MDC,” a reference to Tony Blair and alleged neo-imperial perfidy that still somehow plays in some circles in Bulawayo and Harare. “You will be lost if you vote for the opposition,” Mugabe avers, “because it would be as good as voting Blair into power.” Mugabe is not alone in his Blair-bashing, as a recent pop song in the country attacks Blair as well, referring to a toilet used in Zim villages invented by and bearing the name of its inventor, who happens also to have the name “Blair.” The lyric goes: “The only Blair I know is a Blair toilet.” Mugabe has also been using scare tactics based on homophobia, invoking Blair’s assertion that Great Britain might someday have a gay Prime Minister and using that as a springboard to court the worst bigotry.

If making Tony Blair somehow part of ZANU-PF’s campaign is an attempt to invoke fears of Ian Smith’s white supremacist regime and thus to shore up his support by reminding (and reminding, and reminding) Zimbabweans of his role in driving the white colonists from the land, some of his other tactics have been even less subtle and more loathsome. In a country with serious food and gas shortages, with an inflation rate of 400% (the opposition likes to point out how upon independence 1500 Zimbabwean dollars [Z$] could buy a car. Three years ago it could buy a bus ticket. Today it can buy a nail) Mugabe’s supporters are using food as a way to reward supporters and punish those who support the opposition. One report indicates that the distribution of maize in villages has been directly tied to one’s political affiliation.

There was a time not long ago, in the years surrounding independence, when Zimbabwe was referred to as the “jewel” or “breadbasket” of Africa. Those days are long gone, replaced by uncertainty, violence, starvation, and thus Mugabe’s ability to use the basic staples of existence as a lever against those who would call for democratic change.

Despite this fear-mongering, there is still a vibrant opposition, although one gets the sense that much of the MDC is whistling through the graveyard, brave in the face of intimidation and a playing surface titled decidedly against them. The MDC is not alone in its opposition, as groups such as Zvakwana have emerged to give Mugabe a long overdue retirement. So too have some church leaders. Nonetheless, one wonders if this will be sufficient. ZANU_PF leaders have indicated a confidence that they will garner two-thirds of the vote, a dispiriting thought. But there may also be more than a little false bravado in these statements. It is clear that Mugabe long ago tarnished what was once a well-deserved reputation but that now is associated with thuggery.

And so we return to Namibia. Today that country underwent a transition to a new leader. However imperfect, however one University of Namibia political scientist might want to refer to the transition as “something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue,” it still represents a change. Indeed, Pohamba campaigned on a platform of continuity, so it is unclear why some observers are surprised, never mind outraged, that he would carry through on that promise, which in and of itself does not have to be portentous. The Namibian elections were not categorized by gross violations of the most rudimentary of democratic standards. people were not provided or denied food based on their politics. However imperfect, the Namibian transfer of power stands in stark contrast with the ongoing situation in Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans will go to the polls on Thursday. Not much will have changed come Friday. Namibia might not represent the ideal, but for Zimbabweans, it must look pretty close.

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Derek Charles Catsam - 4/1/2005

Guys --
I'm out of town and don't have lots of time to respond. Chris is holding fort pretty well and so we'll let him be our resident Zim expert until I can stop being derelict (which was, incidentally, one of my nicknamesin high school).
Actually, I do not disagree with the gist of your last assertion Chris -- I think that what is going on in Zim is so different in degree that it might well be a difference of kind, but as a general rule I know that electoral abuses within democracies, including our own in the US, is more common than we'd like to think. I'd also assert, however, that the degree does make a difference -- that whatever abuses happen within the US are so insignificant almost always that the good that does prevail ought to stand as a sign of the rerlative health of our democracy. Despite the disaster that was 2000, and I am surely the most critical person of all of the Rebunkers about 2000, what is remarkable is that as a society that values the rule of law and that has procedures to forestall anarchy, we dealt with a hugely flawed system as well as could be expected. The difference in some parts of the rest of the world is that Zim is only a society of laws until Mugabe decides that he is above the law, or that he is the law. Then trouble brews.
As for the rural-urban schism in Zim, Chris hits some of the most salient points. Also, however: It is simply easier to use both carrots and sticks in rural areas. It is easier to control the flow of information. It is easier to dispense the sorts of favors that will garner support. In rural areas, the opposition knows it has a larger target audience. And possibly a more educated one. And possibly one more easily mobilized. Plus, on top of all of that, it is easier to operate as opposition in the shadows in Bulawayo or Harare than it is in rural villages where strangers are easily noticed, where it is easy to trace what people do, where they go, how often and why. It is for precisely this reason, for example, that the apartheid government would internally exile sdome folks (like Winnie Mandela, for example) to rural places like the Eastern Cape. Despite that area beinga hotbed of resistence, it is easier to keep an eye on someone in Cradock than in Cape Town.
These are tentative answers to very good questions. By the time I am back Tuesday, we may well know a lot more than we do now.

dc, from San Antonio

chris l pettit - 4/1/2005

the link you posted was not working when I tried it...but I think I found what you were getting at.

Mugabe's support in the rural areas comes from a variety of areas...and I am sure DC will have his own good interpretations as well and am counting on his help in answering...have to do with a couple of factors:

1) Lack of quality education and the extent of propaganda and misinformation put out by the Zanu PF. It is in these areas that individuals are still convinced that the confiscation of the lands from the white farmers and redistribution policies were a positive for the country. It is not that the confiscations were is the way in which they were handled that was a travesty. Certain groups in the rural areas still insist on looking at the issue in terms of race and colonialism (which does need to be discussed, but not in the way they are doing it) and therefore allow Mugabe to continue to live off his revolutionary image from 20 years ago. The propaganda paraded by the Zanu PF continues to frame the issue in anti-colonialist rhetoric, and the poorer educated of the Zimbabweans tend to buy into this rhetoric because they have no other information.

combine that with...

2) the amount of exploitation and manipulation of key industries, media outlets, and other areas of authority by the Zanu PF, and it ensures a populous that has little or no reference to the actual status of either the country, or their own lives. Many Zim people in the rural areas still believe that there has been a bumper crop and that there is plenty of food available because they are unable to get actual statistics and such on the situation. Those figures who are in key positions are bribed, community leaders are only given government foodstuffs if they agree to support the Zanu PF, and opposition supporters are intimidated, starved, and are unable to get any information out due to the dominance of the state over news agencies and the economic system.

This being said...the "support" of Mugabe in the rural areas is rather overstated. It is true that, because of the factors above, the Zanu PF have support...but that is like saying that the Bushies have support because of their rhetoric about the WMD and propaganda efforts through their control of private media (as one Serbian diplomat remarked to me, it reminded him of state TV under Milosevic). In truth, individuals know of their inability to get food, the worthlessness of their currency, the inavailability of gas and other "needs"...and want a change. They also are intimidated and denied food, health care, etc, if they voice their opposition. The "improved" turnout that is being reported is still woeful...and tough to really ascertain given the amount of voter fraud taking place. Many individuals voted several times, and ballot stuffing was although opposition supporters were out in larger numbers due to reduced violence, by no means was it a large number of those who would actually vote opposition in objective circumstances.

The interesting thing is that...and this I noted above and is something DC and I differ on (i think) that what is happening (outside the violence and vote stuffing) is the same thing that happens in elections all over the world...and is really prevalent in US elections. The violence and the vote stuffing are the things on the is the grey stuff and manipulation that really makes the difference...the propaganda, miseducation, and subtle intimidation and influences that really influence the outcomes. it is easy to condemn the extreme stuff...but how to deal with the stuff that really makes the difference when we are so reluctant to condemn it in situations that we support (see Georgia and the former Soviet "revolutions)? That is why I talk about consistency...


Oscar Chamberlain - 4/1/2005

This <a href->;CNN World </a> gives a fairly recent update.

A Zimbabwe 101 question. What makes Mugabe's support in the rural areas stronger?

chris l pettit - 4/1/2005

The NYT article on the elections was surprisingly refreshing and at least somewhat accurate. I liked the focus on the hope in the opposition and much of the country. I do think that it was rather overly positive, given that the locations of the two reporters were at areas where the ZanuPF is a) strong due to several factors, not the least of which is heavy exploitation and b) therefore able to put on a show for the few members of the foreign press that were allowed in. I do have a question over how the NYT got two reporters into the country and what concessions were offered...i guess just take the story with a grain of salt. The monitors that my human rights employers had in the country are now back in Johannesburg and submitted their first comprehensive reports. They were situated in many rural districts where the intimidation and fraudulent tactics would have been at there there reports are probably skewed a bit in the other direction. The violence, thankfully, was down significantly from 2002, however, killings and beatings are not the only forms of intimidation...the threat of violence, especially if it is done in a physical manner, can be as effective. I thought it was telling in the NYT article that the reporters were able to readily interview the ZanuPF supporters while the opposition supporters tended to shy away. Retributions against those who supported the opposition are commonplace.

Overall, the NYT piece was not too bad. We will have to wait and see regarding the counting and voter rolls. If the MDC does score a resounding victory (meaning garnering enough seats to control Parliament) I will be amazed, as our sources were questioning how this was possible (and if it was just a brave face). That being said...i for one am hoping that it happens. It will not change the probelms with the elections...or legitimise them in any way...but will show the persistence of the Zim people and their determination to make a better life and nation.

The unfortunate part is that if the elections would have been fair, the MDC would have dominated parliament...and they might have the 2/3 majority...even with Mugabe selecting 30 seats beforehand. Now, even in the best (and unlikely) circumstances, they MIGHT have a tiny majority.

More as I get soon as the reports go public I will provide fuller details on specific polling areas.


Derek Charles Catsam - 3/31/2005

Chris --
I'm just about to step out of town for four days, so I'll be scarce, but I wanted to point out that i haed heard about the clear ballot boxes, and while we do not want to be paranoid (do we?) it seems to me that there can be very few justiications for that aside from intimidation, even if only tacit (which, as I've been saying, is all they need now that the explicit in timidation has largely played itself out.)
Also, when you give us details later, even then, avoid using names. You knw that, but we want the info and will generally trust you that you are reporting what you have heard. Some of these people may well want or need to return, and it is not as if SA is itself that far of a remove.
Have a good weekend, and be our correspondent when it is safe to do so.

chris l pettit - 3/31/2005

I have recommended you guys to a lot of people here...and you can never tell who is reading what. I know it may be a little paranoid, but I recognize your popularity and scholarship. In addition, the scrutinizing of Western sources is very big both here in South Africa and throughout the region.

Just better to be safe than sorry...especially since I know your readership is substantial.

By the way...9 PM and voting is over with. More disturbing news involving the ballot boxes...most were clear plastic run by government officers so that opposition supporters could be identified. In addition, the number of deceased and underage voters on the rolls was staggering, not to mention those voting multiple times (in many cases military officers). A legitimate vote of any sort is just not possible. Violence was lower than past elections, but still prevalent. Exploitation seemed to take more sophisticated levels this time around.


Derek Charles Catsam - 3/31/2005

Look forward to seeing it -- and I can understand wanting to make sure your sources are safely on your side of the Limpopo before getting their names out publicly, even on this little old weblog.


chris l pettit - 3/31/2005

All I can really say is that there have been those individuals and organisations who have had people smuggled in or allowed in for different reasons who have reported violence. it is now 7 PM my time and we have had many reports all day coming in...granted not as many as there are of vote rigging and bribery, but still several reports. I would keep an eye on the M&G and independent really believe any US source on Africa? I didn't think so...

I just can't reveal my sources at the moment...give me a couple of days...


Derek Charles Catsam - 3/31/2005

Chris --
Here is an example of what we are talking about -- the Washington Post, among others, reports that there has been no violence (but that the opposition fears reprisal). That sounds resonable. Except that you have in fact reported to us here that there has been violence at and near the polls. What to believe? Well, I believe that there continues to be both violence and intimidation, and it will be very interesting to see, for example, the coverage in the M&G or in whatever independent media leaks from Zim in the coming hours and days.

Derek Charles Catsam - 3/31/2005

Chris --
Consistent about what? There is nothing connecting Zim and Israel in any meaningful way. I support liberal democracies coming and going, new, old, and aborning. I support israel because it is the only liberal democracy in the Middle east, whatever its problems. I support the creation of a Palesdtiniuan State not borne of the rhetoric, and more importantly, the actions, intended to destroy that israeli state. Again, wht this has me branded as some sort of whack-job in your mind is simply baffling.

I utterly agree with you on the facts on the ground in Zim. Our prescriptions differ, but i think w eboth would support nthe sort of external action if necessary that would have us branded as colonialists by Mugabe.

And yet the election monitors will claim to have seen real progress -- which, compared to previous elections will be the case, but improvement from, say, 2000 was almost inevitable. As I've said, the damage has largely been done. For the masses, intimidation simply has to be the threat of violence if violence has already been visited upon them. Most people have already been cowed, so it is not surprising that there would be less need to pummel them. Low turnout, after all, will favor ZANU-PF.
It will be a few days, but i would not be surprised to see a preposterous outcome in which Mugabe gets the 2/3rds he and his henchmen have been claiming they would get.


chris l pettit - 3/31/2005

My last comment was just to remind you to be consistent...which I have little hope for, but will keep prodding.

What is really frightening is the amount of manipulation going on in ZIm. Since Mugabe and his cronies control the foodstuffs and many of the major industries, they basically are partaking in bribery and exploitiation to win the election. What is sad is that, if we were consistent, we would criticise the US elections, recent Iraq and Palestine elections, and many others (Russia, France) for the same things. When there are no choices, there is no democracy. When special interests are able to hijack an election, or a government is able to use manipulation and propaganda to influence the outcome, there is no democracy. It is a perfect example of the fallacy of the libertarian argument regarding civil and political rights without economic and social rights. If you are starving, and can only get food to feed your 6 children by voting Zanu-PF, what are you going to do? Yet we will not confront similar injustices regarding choice and manipulation in so many other places around the world (such as US meddling in Iraq and Palestine...or even having elections with all the terror and starvation taking place). Of course some will whine "what else can we do?" Secure real human rights and peace first, of course...but that would involve demilitarization, actually extending aid and letting of the tyrannical hold that the US and developed nations have on the World Bank and IMF, forgetting the whole war on terror and actually seeking peace (which would then allow for cooperation in rounding up terrorists on all sides...including state terrorists in Zim, the US, Israel, Russia, as well as individual terrorists). But we would rather go ahead and identify Zim as a negative while ignoring our own hypocrises and atrocities.

As of this morning, the Green Shirts were intimidating and beating people, which many will point to as the problem...but even if they were not...and the abuse is much less than when I was in the country in 2002 and 2003...the outcome would still be the same and the manipulation would be as bad. That is what must be addressed.


Derek Charles Catsam - 3/30/2005

Chris --
I have no idea what your last sentence means or what it has to do with my piece. If you want to assert that I am being disingenuous about Africa, fine. bring it on, say it, and let's see what's what. But if you think there is some disjunction or connecting link between this and other irrelevent issues, I'm not much interested. I have no concern with developing some overarching ideology to which I swear utter fealty. I believe in democracy and freedom from tyranny and I am consistent on that view in everything I write. Beyond that, I do not care what you think of this piece vis a vis some other axes you have to grind. i realize that anyone who disagrees with you on Israel is thus consigned not to be legitimate when they talk about things they actually know and care about, but the nice thing is that I do not need your imprimatur. I've no idea what your aversion to a two state solution in the Middle East is, and why that makes my views on Africa suspect in your eyes. But again -- I do not need the Chris Pettit seal of approval. And I find it mind boggling hbow you manage to bring in your pet issues to every discussion at rebunk and then claim that I am the one who is bound by ideology. Baffling. Amusing, to be sure, but baffling.

I wanted to incorporate the clergy protests, both the clergy speaking out in Zim and those in South Africa. And of course today COSATU spoke out against Mugabe to show solidarity with their cohort in Zim. I'll probably write something else about the elections in Zim in the aftermath, though I'll be out of town from Friday until Monday night. Mugabe will win (I hope I am dead wrong on this one), and that he might even have the votes to do so, but his legitimacy long flew out the window. It's easy to win elections once people are cowed or in prison. Democracy can be crushed long before elections that give a patina of legitimacy to a leader.


chris l pettit - 3/30/2005

I was at a conference in Windhoek a couple weeks back where this was the major talking point. It seems the debate was over whether to interpret a change in government in which much of the officials remained in their posts (this was before it happened remember) was a sign of puppetry or simply an attempt at cohesiveness and consistency. One would think that it would depend on which officials are kept in particular key positions, for example head of economic development or one of the other more important cabinet posts. As you rightly say, it remains to be seen...but at this juncture, I think the hopeful in the country are looking upon things in a positive fashion and thinking that the transition can be smooth and progressive. In addition...what sort of a "new course" is needed? Granted, Namibian governance has some problems...but at least the country runs smoothly, oppression and intolerance at kept at a minimum...people are given the ability to truly voice their opinions and actually have a diversity of choices (much moreso than in the US, I would submit)...particularly on the more micro levels.

On Zim...sheesh...I loved the articles and commentary about the clergyman who urged a peaceful revolution and the response from Mugabe...what a nut. Intimidation and oppression will be the norm again...with much of the population too afraid to vote. THe Green Shirts are active again, and the South African commission has been denied entrance. What is so unfortunate is that Mbeki and the ANC are going along with this rubbish on strictly positivistic terms (namely...they supposedly dont have legal standing to observe...BS...and so we wont challenge and white interpretation instead of real world implications). Sad really. Dont expect anything drastic on THursday.

That being said...we don't actually care about this on anything other than our own ideological angles do we? If we did we might be consistent in our complaints about other problems...