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and the Prospects for Nonviolent Political Change
States Institute of Peace
Special Report No. 109
August 23, 2003
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The late Masipula Sithole, a senior fellow at the United States
Institute of Peace and respected Zimbabwean intellectual, argued
recently that Zimbabwe was facing a "blocked transition."
Though the ruling party and the opposition Movement for Democratic
Change (MDC) have very different ideas about the values at stake
in the current impasse, continued stalemate is not inevitable. Sithole
set out several possible political futures for Zimbabwe, including
a preservation of the status quo, an election re-run, military interference,
advancing the electoral timetable, and mass action leading to regime
At the beginning of 2003
it appeared unlikely that any of these possibilities—other
than the status quo—would come to pass. Recent events, however,
suggest that changes may be underway. Three large-scale mass actions
have reinvigorated the opposition party and its supporters. Further,
there are increasingly critical comments from President Robert Mugabe's
allies in the region. In early May, three African presidents arrived
in Harare to discuss the ongoing political and economic crisis with
the president—and, significantly, with the opposition.
Unlike mass actions held
in 2002, a two-day work "stayaway" on March 18-19,
2003 called by the MDC to protest the government's human rights
abuses and its failure to ensure the security of its citizens was
supported with nationwide participation rates of over 70 percent.
A labor action followed on April 23-25, organized by the country's
major union confederation—the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions
(ZCTU)—to protest the government's unilateral decision to
raise the price of fuel by 300 percent. Again, there were high degrees
of compliance across the country. An even larger June 2-6
mass action virtually shut down the main cities of Harare and Bulawayo
for a full week, although this was met with a severe government
clampdown on all forms of perceived efforts for change.
These actions demonstrated
the strength of opposition support just as indications were emerging
from the ruling party that its grip on power is weakening. Despite
murmurings from South African leaders that ongoing dialogue is secretly
being held, both parties reject the notion that any formal talks
are taking place. However, there are (as of mid-July) tentative
advances being made by church leaders acting as intermediaries to
lay the ground for formal dialogue between the two parties. While
both parties appear interested, negotiating positions still remain
far apart and there remains high degrees of political polarization
at all levels. Economic conditions, particularly shortages of fuel,
electricity, and cash, make the bare functioning of the country
inconceivable without fresh infusions of foreign currency. While
a culture of respect for law and belief in democratic governance
persists within some segments of society, this could well deteriorate
if substantive political change is not forthcoming.
This report examines
the roles and strategies of key domestic actors in recent years
and provides insights into the possible nature of transition. These
are the players who will build Zimbabwe's peace—or continue
destructive patterns of polarization and conflict—in a post-transition
era. Their importance is underlined by this report's finding that
international pressure is not sufficient to yield peaceful change.
As the conclusion argues, international mediation must be coupled
with forms of domestic pressure if a transitional authority—the
preferred peaceful option—is to be attained.
Several contextual challenges undermine Zimbabwe's prospects for
peaceful change. These have worked independently and together to
produce the political impasse described above.
Politics as War
Due in part to a brutal colonial history and a prolonged period
of white-minority rule, violence is an established feature of Zimbabwean
politics. The 1896 Chimurenga (war of liberation), the first attempt
to throw off colonial rule, gave rise to a mythology and language
of war. In the second Chimurenga—the war for Zimbabwe's independence
from colonial rule (late 1960s and 1970s)—combatants used
typical guerrilla warfare tactics. The white-minority Rhodesian
government brutally retaliated and the war took an immense toll
on the population.
ZANU-PF came to power after independence in 1980 with over 60 percent
of the popular vote. These founding elections were flawed by irregularities,
violence, and intimidation—patterns that have persisted throughout
the post-independence era. Though ruling party structures have allowed
for a degree of participation, that participation has been rigidly
circumscribed. In essence, ZANU-PF has functioned as a hegemonic
party; it has attempted to blur lines between party and state and
to limit political activism outside the party.
The drive toward party
dominance was not merely pursued through the ballot box. In 1983,
the country's major opposition party, Zimbabwe African People's
Union (ZAPU), was accused of stockpiling arms and planning a violent
overthrow of the government. The government deployed the North Korean-trained
Fifth Brigade to the southwestern region of the country, Matabeleland,
to hunt down "dissidents." Up to 10,000 civilians, mostly
ethnic minority Ndebeles, were killed. A government-forced form
of "reconciliation" followed in 1987, and ZAPU merged
with the ruling party. Despite some formal inclusion of ZAPU leaders
in government, Matabeleland has, to the present, received a disproportionately
small share of government resources and development funds.
By the late 1990s, ZANU-PF's
control was slipping. Economic deterioration prompted rising popular
discontent. A public sector strike in 1996, a ZCTU strike in 1997,
and mass stayaways at the end of 1998 pushed a revitalized labor
movement to the forefront of politics. In late 1999, this labor
movement supported by a broad coalition of civic groups launched
the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Facing its first viable
electoral challenge, ZANU-PF responded with violence. As in 1983,
ethnic scapegoating and claims of violent destabilization from within
were used to legitimize state-sponsored violence.
Partly in response to
the "no" vote in the public referendum on the government's
new Constitution, an extensive land redistribution exercise followed,
accompanied by an intensive government propaganda campaign. Coined
"Chimurenga 3," the occupation and takeover of commercial
farms by war veterans and peasants, often with the direct encouragement
and material support of government officials, in many cases turned
violent. Those suspected of supporting the MDC were beaten, driven
from their homes, and forced to attend ZANU-PF rallies as a means
The June 2000 parliamentary
elections were preceded by large-scale violence and the internal
displacement of several thousand people. Violence continued throughout
2001 and intensified before the March 2002 presidential elections.
Though government never took formal responsibility for the violence,
the state openly encouraged such violence with rhetoric invoking
war and depictions of whites as a group as traitors, occupiers,
and colonial oppressors.
The violence and inflammatory
rhetoric did not cease with Mugabe's contested victory in the presidential
elections. Throughout 2002, government television and radio continuously
played a celebratory song for the land reform program entitled "Chave
Chimurenga." This roughly translated as "now it is war,"
which had blatantly anti-white overtones. At a recent state funeral
Mugabe launched a blistering attack against the MDC, accusing the
party of terrorism, comparing himself to Hitler, and concluding
that "those who play with fire will not just be burned but
will be consumed by that fire."
In this culture
of impunity, violent threats against the country's core democratic
institutions, including the judiciary, have become commonplace.
The late Chenjerai Hunzvi, a war veteran leader and member of Parliament,
said that "the judiciary must go home or else we will chase
them and close the courts indefinitely." The threat was followed
by a physical "invasion" of the Supreme Court in November
2000 by war veterans and supporters of the ruling party. No action
was taken against them by the state.
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