How Can Zimbabwe Be Saved?

Zimbabweans living in South Africa protest Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's rule
Zimbabweans living in Johannesburg, South Africa protest Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's rule, Sept. 29, 2002 (Photo: AFP). 

Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them, it is said. I was pondering this maxim recently and wondering why so few commentators have picked up the obvious fact that Zimbabwe is replete with lessons from its own struggle for liberation that have application today. The South African experience also is salutary.

The Rhodesian and South African regimes had by the mid-1960s closed off all avenues of peaceful protest against their narrow exclusivist rule. The Suppression of Communism Act in South Africa in 1950 and subsequent laws directed against the African National Congress and Pan-Africanist Congress made civil protest impossible.

Defiance campaigns and demonstrations against the pass laws that had been a feature of civic protest in the 1950s proved impracticable after 1960, as the machinery of the state was mobilized to crush protest of any sort. The result was the formation of underground structures as revealed at the Rivonia trials. [The 1963-64 trials of 10 anti-apartheid leaders in South Africa, which sentenced Nelson Mandela to life in prison.—WPR]

In Southern Rhodesia, the Law and Order (Maintenance) Act, passed in 1960 but extensively amended thereafter, which suffocated dissent, and the refusal of the Rhodesian Front regime to countenance democratic reforms led to an exodus of young Zimbabweans who were organized outside the country in what eventually became the Patriotic Front.

Today we are witnessing the suppression of civic protest on much the same scale. Many would argue that conditions are in many respects worse than those prevailing in the 1960s. The government has declared war on the democratic opposition; it has subverted the justice system and made legitimate protest impossible. Twenty-nine members of the National Constitutional Assembly were arrested and detained over the weekend for doing nothing more than exercising their constitutional right to demonstrate for a new constitution.

The Public Order and Security Act, little different in form and content from the Law and Order (Maintenance) Act, makes it an offense to denigrate the president who, as head of government and the ruling party, is a major player on the political stage who doesn’t hesitate to denigrate his opponents.

Another law passed this year, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, seeks to prevent the press from performing its watchdog role on behalf of society.

Thousands of Zimbabweans are leaving the country every year because it is governed by a party that has destroyed their job prospects and made it an offense to complain.

But while some comparisons are valid, with important lessons to convey, the situation today is obviously not identical to that of 30 years ago. There are now 10 times as many Zimbabweans living outside the country as there were at the height of the liberation war in the late 1970s.

Under Ian Smith, the economy held up well despite sanctions. Today
it is a wreck, and 7 million people face starvation.

Despite such adversity, there is fortunately no possibility at present of a civil war along the lines of the insurrection that took place here after 1972, in which 30,000 lives were lost. The main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), is committed to peaceful and democratic means in its quest for change.

But the nation is being dangerously divided along a number of lines. Anybody under 30, apart from a handful bought by the ruling party, is likely to support the opposition. So are urban residents who are mostly not amenable to the facile blandishments—not to mention insults—of the president and his party. People living in towns with access to information (the real sort) know how national resources have been squandered by what one writer to our Letters column this week describes as a “kakistocracy”—government by the worst people. The residents of Harare and Bulawayo know perfectly well that President Mugabe is anything but a national savior.

Educated people are overwhelmingly opposition supporters. Nobody with a modicum of intelligence is going to swallow the daily diet of puerile propaganda put out by the ruling party. Go to any campus and ask students what they think about ZANU-PF and they will frankly tell you.

This unanimity of views is hardly surprising. The political process at present consists of nothing more than ZANU-PF attempting to break out of the rural cul-de-sac to which it was confined by the electorate in 2000. It is trying to beat and buy its way out of that political exile by the abuse of state power, including selective food distribution. At the same time it is illegally crushing dissent. That is a recipe for strife. No government can indefinitely sustain its tyranny by resort to force.

So what do we do? How does a democratic movement committed to civic values, including parliamentary and judicial due process, confront a regime that holds those values in contempt and is prepared to use force to prevent peaceful mobilization? The obvious answer is to put tens of thousands of people on the streets, as the South African mass democratic movement did in the 1980s. What is needed is a critical mass that cannot be bludgeoned into submission.

This is not going to be an easy business. The police clearly have orders to break up even the smallest gathering despite the fact that freedom of expression and assembly are constitutionally guaranteed. The problem is compounded by the fact that Zimbabwe, unlike South Africa, has no culture of civic protest. The images of South African clerics and trade union leaders marching peacefully arm in arm through Johannesburg and Cape Town in the 1980s are unlikely to be repeated here. Can you imagine our cowardly prelates from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference or the Zimbabwe Council of Churches venturing out of their episcopal burrows?

We need to do more to lay a civic foundation before street protest can succeed. Civic awareness can take a number of forms, from advocacy of a democratic constitution to worker education. Lawyers, academics, students, trade unionists, and business people all have a role to play.

Cowards and collaborators with ZANU-PF’s tyranny need to be exposed as such. As the regime’s legitimacy inexorably evaporates—as is currently happening—and its incapacity to deliver necessities like food or fuel is revealed, civil society will be better placed to mobilize the masses who have already, in 2000 and March 2002, demonstrated resistance to despotism. Those taking to the streets will understand what they are doing there and will respond nonviolently to police provocation. Events this week in Venezuela, where the people are confronting another populist demagogue, should be instructive.

This is a learning process. But it has to be undertaken. The sooner the better. Ask yourself as 2002 draws to a miserable close: What organization am I a member of that is working for change? What have I done this year to make a difference?

The author is editor of the Zimbabwe Independent and World Press Review’s 2002 International Editor of the Year.