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Why there won't be a North African revolution in Zimbabwe
Professor Brian Raftopoulos, OSISA
June 30, 2011

Given the economic and political convulsions that have marked Zimbabwean politics for the last decade, it is not surprising that the momentous events in North Africa have been internalised and constructed in contested ways by the major political players in Zimbabwe. With the Zimbabwean landscape torn by the polemical rupture between the redistributive language of the Zimbabwean African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), which has monopolised the legacy of the liberation struggle, and the two Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) factions and the civic movement, which were formatively shaped by the politics of human rights and constitutionalism from the 1990s, the complex events of the Maghreb have resonated differently within Zimbabwe.

Mugabe's ZANU-PF has responded with renewed coercion of opposition and civic leaders and combined this with the launch of its campaign for the next election, which could take place in either 2011 or 2012. Soon after the events in Tunisia and Egypt, ZANU-PF organised a form of pre-emptive demonstration and violence demanding a greater indigenization of the economy. This action and its accompanying demand need to be understood within the context of the attempt by Mugabe's regime to construct the 'sanctions' or 'targeted measures' imposed by the European Union and the United States on key ZANU-PF figures as a regime change strategy, which amounted to broader economic sanctions against the people of Zimbabwe. The anti-sanctions campaign has thus become the central focus of the party's strategy not only to win the next election but also to mobilise popular opinion to give the impression that the real heirs of the events in North Africa are not opposition forces but ZANU-PF itself. In this scenario, the popular uprisings in North Africa have been interpreted as struggles against authoritarian regimes propped up by Western imperialism and thus share a common vision with ZANU-PF's anti-imperialist message.

In the words of one of its key media messengers, Tafataona Mahoso:

"In what ways can the anti-sanctions launch be compared and contrasted with what people have been trying in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen and Libya? The answer is imperialism, made up of the imposition of neoliberal corporatist policies expressed in our region as structural adjustment programmes; made up of the unilateral NATO-driven security programme called the 'war on terror' in the Middle East and masquerading as Africom in the rest of Africa; made up of the global financial crisis and Western efforts to prescribe responses to the crisis for other regions of the world; made up of the myth of 'change' and 'democracy' which tries to substitute mere words for real work, production and livelihoods; and made up of strenuous efforts to impose and maintain the Western media template on the rest of the world."

Furthermore, as one of ZANU-PF's chief ideologues, Jonathan Moyo, writes, the fight against the 'regime-change sanctions' strategy is the latest in a long-line of anti-colonial struggles to 'reclaim' the right of 'indigenous people' to the resources of their country. Thus, the battles against the colonial regime were continued in the land struggles of the post 2000 period and currently find their embodiment in the fight to impose majority indigenous control over the entire economy. Key to this final struggle, cast in a Fukuyama style 'End of History' gambit, is the intent to mobilise the youth as the key beneficiaries of the process. In Moyo's words:

"In the same way that the armed struggle in the Second Chimurenga was necessary to fulfil the objectives of the first Chimurenga against colonialism, the transformation of the ownership of the majority equity in our economy through indigenization is necessary as an expression of the Last Chimurenga to complement the economic gains of the third Chimurenga against neo-colonialism...

The...key factor of the Last Chimurenga is that its demographic content is defined by young Zimbabweans, most of them in their teens, twenties and thirties and others in their forties who are not only in the trenches of the struggle for economic empowerment through indigenisa- tion but also who, along with their offspring, are the main beneficiaries of that struggle."

In such articulations, the battle for democratisation and human rights in North Africa is either ignored or denigrated as a foreign, Western agenda. Moreover, there has been selective coverage of the events in North Africa with limited coverage in the state media of the events in Libya compared to the much wider reportage of the events in Egypt and Tunisia. Because of the close relationship between Mugabe's regime and Gaddafi, the state media has largely parroted Gaddafi's interpretation of the popular demonstrations in Libya as a Western- sponsored ploy to effect illegal regime change. Once again in Jonathan Moyo's words, "evidence abounds showing that the US and its European allies wish that what is happening in Libya could happen in Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Southern Africa where former liberation movements are in power."

Armed with such interpretations of these events, the ZANU-PF state arrested 45 activists in early March 2011 who had gathered to watch a video on the North African protests. 39 of these activists were later released but the rest have been charged with treason. Aside from this incident, there have been two bogus campaigns calling for mass protests through social networking websites, which have predictably come to naught. This is because whatever the similarities in the authoritarian regimes confronting the peoples of North Africa and Zimbabwe, there are also crucial differences.

The 'Egypt moment' in Zimbabwe occurred in the late 1990s when a strong alliance of trade unions and civic forces confronted the Mugabe regime in a series of strikes, stay-aways, demonstrations, the creation of a vibrant constitutional movement and the formation of a strong, national and multi-class opposition party, which effectively challenged the ruling party at the polls throughout the 2000s and in 2008, against great odds and a long history of state violence, defeated the party of liberation in the elections. The decisive difference between the current events in North Africa and the situation in Zimbabwe was the role of the military, which in Zimbabwe effectively blocked the popular vote from being translated into a change of state power.

At the current time, it is highly unlikely that any such uprising will occur again. The least important reason for this is the low levels of internet penetration in Zimbabwe. More fundamentally, the livelihood structure of the Zimbabwean economy has been completely deconstructed in the period of the crisis, with the formal working class effectively decimated. This has undercut a key constituency of the opposition movement. Moreover, there has been a movement of some 2 million Zimbabweans into the Diaspora, which has in some ways displaced the crisis at national level onto a broader regional and international plane. In addition, the land occupations of the post 2000 period have not only caused displacement and economic disruption but they have also created a constituency for ZANU-PF through the substantive numbers of Zimbabweans who have received land. Thus the Mugabe regime has countered the challenge to its sovereignty in elections, by calling on the legitimacy and sovereignty it claims from the legacy of the liberation struggle and by taking land from the former settler community. This conflict of sovereignties, underwritten by persistent state violence and coercion, has complicated the democratic struggles in Zimbabwe and made any simple comparison with events in North Africa, which have their own enormous complexities, untenable.

However, the impact of the North African events has been felt more indirectly in Zimbabwe, through their effects on the mediation by the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Prior to these events the South African-led SADC facilitators had for the most part followed former South African President Thabo Mbeki's mode of 'quiet diplomacy', which amounted to some level of criticism of the Mugabe regime behind closed doors, while providing that regime with regional solidarity in officials statements. For the past decade, Mugabe has been able to wield his anti-imperialist, Pan African rhetoric effectively in the region, and more recently to gather the region behind him in his attacks on the Western imposed 'sanctions' as a regime change strategy. Thus, the shield of SADC and the African Union (AU) was a central part of Mugabe's diplomatic strategy to avoid isolation.

In the aftermath of the events in North Africa and the Ivory Coast, the regional body took a much more critical approach to ZANU-PF. At the SADC Troika summit held in Livingstone, Zambia on the 31st March 2011, the organisation confronted Mugabe's obstruction of the Global Political Agreement (GPA) in a much more head-on manner.

Noting with 'grave concern' the political polarization in Zimbabwe characterised by the 'resurgence of violence, arrests and intimidation', the summit produced five resolutions:

  • There must be an immediate end to violence, intimidation, hate speech, harassment, and any other form of action that contradicts the letter and spirit of the GPA;
  • All stakeholders to the GPA should implement all the provisions of the GPA and create a conducive environment for peace, security and free political activity;
  • The Inclusive Government should complete all the steps for the holding of the election including the finalization of the constitutional amendment and the referendum;
  • SADC should assist Zimbabwe to formulate guidelines that will assist in holding an election that will be peaceful, free and fair, in accordance with the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections; and,
  • The Troika of the Organ shall appoint a team of officials to join the Facilitation Team and work with the Joint Monitoring and Implementation Committee to ensure monitoring evaluation and implementation of the GPA. The Troika shall develop the Terms of Reference, time frames and provide regular progress reports, the first, to be presented during the next SADC Extraordinary Summit. The Summit will review progress on the implementation of the GPA and take appropriate action.

The major import of these resolutions was that they broadly repeated the demands that had emerged from the two MDCs and the civic movement since 2009, and importantly refrained from any mention of the sanctions issue. Moreover, they appeared to be addressing the securocrats in ZANU-PF, who have been the main obstacle to a more democratic transition, particularly since the 2008 elections, and who also represent one of the key factions in the succession battle in the party. The SADC position was emphasized by words of the Chair of the Troika, Zambian President Rupiah Banda, who warned that a major lesson of the North African events was that the legitimate expectations of African citizens could not be taken for granted.

The immediate response of one of ZANU-PF's key spokespersons and strategists, Jonathan Moyo, was to launch a furious attack on SADC and the South African President, Jacob Zuma. In a statement that reflected the panic of the ZANU-PF faction that was hoping for an early election since the SADC position clearly presented a major obstacle to that strategy, Moyo ranted that:

"Zimbabwe cannot be expected to accept an intrusive SADC team of so-called officials funded by regime change donors to come and work in our country to plot the so-called electoral map with a view to ensuring that the forthcoming general election is decidedly organised in a manner that ensures regime change with President Zuma's endorsement simply because he has been used to make the ridiculous proposal. We will not allow that. Never ever!"

Sensing the extreme danger in alienating SADC, senior ZANU-PF officials quickly distanced themselves from Moyo's foolishness. The Minister of Foreign Affairs stated that the Zimbabwean Government "has never and will never attack SADC. We are friends and allies. If there was any attack, it was not from Government but from somewhere."

In his speech on the 31st anniversary of Zimbabwe's independence, Mugabe confirmed this conciliatory tone by a renewed commitment to the GPA, and an expression of gratitude for SADC's "continued support in our efforts at ensuring the unfolding implementation of the Global Political Agreement."


While Zimbabwe is unlikely in the immediate future to experience the kinds of popular struggles we have witnessed in North Africa, the effects of these events have nevertheless transformed the context in which the SADC mediation and the GPA are unfolding. In the present context, particularly in the light of Mugabe's deteriorating health, it has become much more difficult for SADC to provide the kind of regional cover that has granted the Mugabe regime the space it needed to obstruct a more substantive democratic transition in Zimbabwe. The recent demonstrations in Swaziland have added to the pressure on SADC to confront the authoritarian legacies in the region. However, the real test will be whether SADC has the political will to implement the Livingstone resolutions in the face of ZANU-PF's continued attempts to undermine those landmark decisions.

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