From the July 2003 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 50, No. 7)


Mugabe's Grip Loosens

Sarah Coleman, World Press Review associate editor

In the past few years, President Robert Mugabe has exercised an iron grip over Zimbabwe even as his government’s policies have brought the country to the brink of collapse. But recent events show that his hold on power may finally be slipping. On March 18 and 19, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) organized a general strike that, according to Dumisani Muleya in the Zimbabwe Independent (May 2), “shook the ground under Mugabe as the populace responded to the strike call.”

A wave of government-sponsored violence against MDC supporters followed, but it didn’t stop the MDC from winning two by-elections in Harare on March 29 and 30, despite levels of intimidation that were described as “unprecedented” by the European Union.

Then, on April 18, marking the 23rd anniversary of Zimbabwe’s independence, the 79-year-old Mugabe gave a television interview in which, for the first time, he made references to his possible retirement and succession in the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). On April 23-25, another successful strike—this one organized by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) with backing from the MDC—paralyzed the country as strikers expressed disgust at a 300-percent government-imposed fuel price hike. 

The ZCTU’s strike and Mugabe’s interview were widely seen as defining moments. “Everybody, including Zimbabwe’s closest friends in the region, [is] now focused on regime change in Harare. When and how are the only questions,” wrote Iden Wetherell in the Zimbabwe Independent (May 2).

Talk of an “exit strategy” for Mugabe grew as the presidents of South Africa, Nigeria, and Malawi arrived in Harare on May 5 for talks with Mugabe and MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai. But while South African President Thabo Mbeki’s movement from “quiet diplomacy” to active engagement was hailed, many commentators agreed with The Financial Gazette’s Farai Mutsaka (May 8) that “the three African leaders have left the country as they found it—in a political stalemate that threatens to drag the country down the abyss.”

The trio’s attempts to broker negotiations foundered over Mugabe’s insistence that the MDC recognize his legitimacy as president and drop its court challenge of the 2002 presidential ballot. Tsvangirai demanded that state-sponsored violence against MDC supporters stop and that repressive anti-press laws be repealed. “It’s a case of two proud elephants who are in a brawl, and, as it appears, they wield more or less equal power and influence,” wrote Jack Zaba in the Daily News (May 6).

Despite the stalemate, however, the buildup of pressure on Mugabe was seen as an important development for the shattered country. “Whatever happens next, March and April of 2003 will go down as a turning point,” wrote Muleya in the Zimbabwe Independent (May 2). “Things will never be quite the same again.”

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