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Zimbabwe and the Prospects for Nonviolent Political Change
United 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 collapse.

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.

Obstacles to Change
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 of "re-education."

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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