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IA-Forum Interview: Assistant Prof. Elke Zuern

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International Affairs Forum: The current economic crisis in Zimbabwe has prompted some to consider this the beginning of the end of President Mugabe’s rule. Although economic hardship and austerity is not new to Zimbabweans, will it bolster opposition enough to end Mugabe’s reign, which has lasted since 1980?

Elke Zuern: While the economy in Zimbabwe has been decline for over a decade, the current crisis is completely unprecedented in Zimbabwean history. Zimbabwe, under Mugabe, had one of the best education systems on the continent, still demonstrated by its high literacy rates, and was a food basket for the region. Today Zimbabwe faces a food crisis; 80% of the population lives below the poverty line; life expectancy has plummeted to 37 years for men, 34 for women, the lowest in the world. Inflation is over 100,000%. Millions have fled the country to neighboring states, an estimated two million to South Africa alone. Remittances from many refugees now provide vital resources to those still in Zimbabwe.

The central question as to whether an opposition candidate can defeat Mugabe in the coming elections depends on two factors – the unity/division among opposition candidates and the conditions surrounding the elections themselves, essentially how free and fair the actual elections are. If Mugabe continues to effectively work to divide the opposition and continues to employ violence and vote rigging, and all signs point in this direction, he will easily “win” re-election.

IA-Forum: Mugabe has largely attributed his country’s economic decay to “sabotage” by the West, in particular the UK, through economic sanctions. Do you think drawing on the ills of colonial rule still has merit in influencing people’s political alignment within Zimbabwe?

Zuern: Mugabe continues to attack his opponents as stooges of Western powers. Most recently, he accused the UK in general and Citigroup in particular of backing Simba Makoni’s (Mugabe’s former Finance Minister) presidential bid. While such arguments may provoke disbelief, even laughter, in the West, the memory of colonialism and settler rule in Zimbabwe is still strong. Zimbabwe gained independence only in 1980 and its neighbor, South Africa, suffered under legal apartheid until 1994. This does not mean that Zimbabweans uncritically accept such arguments; those who support the opposition clearly reject it. But we must not underestimate the general resonance of this argument in the region. When leaders in the UK or US criticize Mugabe and demand that he step down, this actually reinforces some of his arguments of outside intervention and possible neo-colonial ambitions.

IA-Forum: Is allegiance to Mugabe inextricably linked to a sense of nationalism that accompanied his rise to power? Is this nationalism still a prevalent force today?

Zuern: In 1980, Mugabe, as the leader of ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union), became the first Prime Minister, later President, of independent Zimbabwe. The fact that Mugabe is a liberation hero and played a central role in the struggle for independence cannot be underestimated. This is true despite the atrocities that ZANU committed in Matebeland against supporters of its rival party, ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People’s Union), shortly after independence. Mugabe has silenced discussion of the massacres, arguing that to publicly address this history would undo the peace settlement of 1987. The fact that the gross violations of human rights and war crimes that occurred here did not generate more debate in Zimbabwe outside of the region where they occurred, demonstrates the combined influence of early post-colonial nationalism and the strong grip of ZANU-PF (Patriotic Front, formed in 1988 when ZAPU was merged into ZANU).

IA-Forum: While Mugabe was celebrating his 80th birthday, former Finance Minister Simba Makoni declared that he would not form an alliance against Mugabe in next month’s elections. Will this drastically reduce the chances of defeating Mugabe at the polls? Is a coalition necessary for the opposition to take power?

Zuern: The answer is yes and yes. While one faction of the MDC has backed Makoni, Morgan Tsvangirai and his MDC supporters have not. This means that two key opposition candidates will run against Mugabe. Mugabe has consistently made life exceedingly difficult for opposition parties. The MDC split in 2005 was a product of a debate as to whether the party should contest elections in an environment of violence, intimidation and vote rigging. The current election season has already seen evidence of the same tricks. Opposition leaders have been arrested for holding gatherings deemed to be illegal by the police and have been denied access to public media. ZANU-PF leaders and the police chief have gone so far as to vow to crush the opposition with force if necessary, employing the violence in Kenya as an excuse to crack down on any protestors.

IA-Forum: Despite economic decay and the fact that Mugabe’s electoral victory in 2002 was plagued by fraud and rigging, other African countries have not intervened. Could this be because Mugabe is still respected as an African leader who helped break down colonial moulds, or is it more a reflection of national imperatives?

Zuern: Mugabe has very effectively silenced much regional opposition with his rhetoric of neo-colonialism and suggestions that his critics have succumb to colonial influences. While the African Union has underlined the need to support and even monitor governance through its peer-review mechanism, this mechanism remains voluntary and African states are understandably hesitant to endorse a principle of intervention into the domestic politics of their neighbors.

IA Forum: Why does South Africa continue to pursue “quiet diplomacy” with the Mugabe regime?

Zuern: South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki has repeatedly been frustrated by Mugabe. Mbeki’s diplomatic attempts to create some form of coalition government have all failed. When he has threatened sanctions, Mugabe has called his bluff. The problem for Mbeki and a number of other Southern African leaders is, in part, the MDC. The MDC which enjoys the strong support of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) is allied with some of the most powerful critics of the South African government. South Africa’s own trade union association the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) has supported ZCTU and the MDC and denounced ZANU-PF. Within South Africa, COSATU has also supported Mbeki’s rival, Jacob Zuma who is now the President of the ruling party while Mbeki remains President of the country. While the economic policies of the MDC seem to defy those of ZCTU, Mbeki is clearly hesitant to endorse any increase in trade union power in Southern Africa.


IA Forum: Do you think rapidly deteriorating living standards are enough to erode Mugabe’s support base, mainly in the army and police?

Zuern: There was speculation that Makoni would receive the support of key ZANU-PF defectors including the military, but this has not been forthcoming. Vice President, Joyce Mujuru, who some had expected would endorse Makoni, has publicly called upon citizens to vote for Mugabe. Her husband, Solomon Mujuru, a former head of the armed forces has also failed to publicly support Makoni. The police chief has threatened to use live ammunition against opposition supporters, and the head of Zimbabwe’s prison service, a retired major-general, has ordered his officers to vote for ZANU-PF. These factors, supported by patronage and violence, and the fact that no opposition candidate is likely to win the presidential election, make it very difficult for army and police officers to publicly support any party other than ZANU-PF.

IA Forum: There are currently thousands of people fleeing Zimbabwe in search of necessities abroad. How do you think this massive movement of people will affect support for the opposition?

Zuern: Zimbabweans overseas have worked to drum up support for the MDC, but they cannot address the rifts within the MDC itself. They can send money to support political organizations, human rights groups and their own family members, but they cannot vote. They have also been unable to press neighboring governments to take stronger action in demanding free and fair elections. The flight of millions of Zimbabweans might actually benefit the government as it acts as a bit of a safety valve. Those most discontented and able-bodied are most likely to flee. Among those who have fled are also MDC leaders and members who feared for their lives were they to remain inside Zimbabwe.

IA Forum: Support for Mugabe’s regime remains highest in rural areas. How have Mugabe’s land redistribution policies affected his support base?

Zuern: An estimated 70,000 families received plots of land through land redistribution programs between 1980 and 1999, but since 2000, Mugabe’s cronies have been the main beneficiaries of land reform.

Mugabe has, however, used other forms of patronage to encourage and even demand support from rural areas. His party has been distributing farm equipment and fertilizer over the past year and the present food crisis gives ZANU-PF the opportunity to deliver food aid to communities that support the party. The ward-based voting system means that voters must vote close to home. This makes it much easier for the ruling party to track its support to specific communities and respond with favors or threats. ZANU-PF has actually defined many rural areas in previous election seasons as “no-go” areas for the opposition. When the MDC did attempt to campaign, it was met with considerable violence.

IA-Forum: If Mugabe is victorious in the March 29th elections, and accusations of fraud ensue, do you think it is possible that Zimbabwe could be engulfed by violence, as was the case in Kenya?

Zuern: Kenya’s post-election violence provides both a warning and an opportunity for Zimbabwe’s leaders. Much of the violence in Kenya was arguably encouraged by actions, and at times lack of action, on the part of party leaders. Violence became a negotiating tool for Kenya’s opposition as it threatened to continue protests until the election results were reconsidered; members of the governing party alleged genocidal intentions in an effort to legitimate a harsh response. Zimbabwe has seen considerable violence against opposition members and supporters, including, for example, thirty assassinations during the 2000 election campaigns. The government has already noted the threat of post-election violence and vowed to crush it, arguing this might be necessary to avoid the bloodshed that occurred in Kenya. If the largely peaceful response to the brutal Operation Murambatsvina in 2005 (in which the government destroyed the homes of roughly half a million people) is any guide, Zimbabweans might well be too despondent to rise up against their government. Time and time again, the government has demonstrated its willingness and effectiveness in employing violence against any challengers; people will clearly take this into account before taking to the streets.


Elke Zuern is an Assistant Professor of Politics at Sarah Lawrence College.

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