McKenzie Wark on Mon, 1 May 2000 16:54:55 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Zimbabwe's Democratic Opposition and World Media

Mugabe: Wielding his own brand of power
Lesley Stern
Sydney Morning Herald

The clues to Mugabe's destructive behaviour, argues Lesley Stern, can be
found in Zimbabwe's post-colonial history of black majority rule.

Rwanda first, Zimbabwe next. Is this a viable prediction, or merely
alarmist? A Rwanda situation looks like a definite possibility, but it is
by no means inevitable in Zimbabwe. If it happens it will not be simply
because of another mad dictator spiralling out of control in the chaos that
is Africa; it will not simply be because Zimbabwe is igniting from within.
It will also be because the international media and governments have failed
to read the signs and act in appropriately pre-emptive ways.

Robert Mugabe might be mad, but he has engineered a highly orchestrated and
frighteningly successful campaign to retain power. His greatest achievement
is in getting the international community to conform to his own terms of
reference, to focus single-mindedly on the issues he has placed before
them: race and land. Extensive international reporting of the violence
perpetrated against white farmers has not been matched by detailed
attention to the equally barbaric and more numerous killing of blacks.

Australia rushes to the aid of white refugees as though there were no black
people dispossessed and endangered. The British Government, suddenly
concerned about the landless poor, adopts a sanctimonious tone, reminiscent
of colonial times. What is missing from such scenarios? History. And
politics, too. Certainly attention has been paid to the colonial heritage,
but what about the history of the past 20 years, the history of Zimbabwe as
an independent black nation, until recently a relatively stable and
harmonious country? I stress "relatively" because Mugabe's power has been
bought at a price. And in recent years his position has been less secure.

His recent referendum defeat and the prospect of pending elections have
panicked him. But is this just because he has lost popularity due to
suffering caused by the collapse of the economy through mismanagement? It
is true that he has lost popularity, but what has really worried him is
that this disaffection has been effectively mobilised by the emergence of a
broad-based opposition committed to democratic reform. Why has the West, so
concerned (correctly so) with condemning the breakdown of law and order in
Zimbabwe, given so little attention to democratic struggle within the
country, a struggle that preceded the wave of violence and, in a sense,
precipitated Mugabe's campaign of terror?

If Mugabe wanted to deflect international attention away from the
opposition, away from possibilities of constitutional change and reform
within the country, he has succeeded. But there are things that can be
done, beyond dealing with the fallout (taking in refugees) and beyond doing
deals with Mugabe about land (though the land issue must be addressed).
While there is still a chance of electoral process the international press
should listen to those Zimbabwean voices arguing, lucidly and
programmatically, for democratic change. We in Australia, as elsewhere,
should urge our Government to assist in paving the way for free and fair
elections, and to provide funds for election monitors, as well as
pressuring the UN to take a firm stand now - not when it is too late.

It might seem naive to pin one's faith on such simple democratic
possibilities when the situation seems to be spiralling out of control. But
the situation will always seem to be spiralling out of control on
television, which deals with tragedy and shock and horror as it happens
today. Yesterday is history. But attending to that history might pay off.

Being aware of potential dangers that have not been widely discussed, and
future possibilities, might assist the West in formulating a more adequate
and vigilant response, and acting on it.

ZANU-PF has been in power, unopposed, since independence in 1980. In recent
years a vocal opposition has emerged, based upon an alliance of the labour
movement, the churches, human rights groups, the student movement,
professionals, business, and the increasingly influential women's groups.

The largest and most significant party is the MDC (Movement for Democratic
Change), led by Morgan Tsvangirai. All the killings so far have taken place
in MDC strongholds and all those killed, except the policeman, have been
MDC supporters. Supporters have been subjected to a campaign of brutality
and intimidation: they have been abducted, beaten, and their houses

There is a real possibility, and Mugabe knows it, that the MDC could oust
ZANU-PF at the polls, or at least gain a substantial foothold in the
Government. In either event, there is hope for change but also real danger
of violent retaliation. Mugabe's hold over ZANU-PF is more tenuous than it
has ever been. A number of parliamentarians have announced their decision
to stand as independents, and a third of the House did not vote on the bill
to overturn clauses of the referendum (in which Mugabe was unexpectedly
defeated) which allowed for uncompensated land seizures.

The alliance between the leader of the so-called war veterans, Chenjerai
Hunzvi, and Mugabe is fraught and dogged by a bitter history.

During the 1980s Mugabe, through the agency of the Fifth Brigade, a special
army unit, waged war against the people of Matabeleland. Many thousands of
people were massacred or disappeared.

The Government has tried to suppress reports of the atrocities, and Mugabe
is clearly worried by the MDC's commitment, should it come to power, to set
up a truth and reconciliation process. The two killings on the Olds farm
are significantly inflammatory because they are the first in Matabeleland,
and it is widely believed that the Fifth Brigade has again been mobilised.

Most Zimbabweans desperately do not want ethnic war. It is not an
inevitable tragedy lurking around the corner, but it is a possibility.
Based on the lessons of Rwanda and East Timor let's act before it is too


Lesley Stern, an associate professor at the University of NSW, grew up on a
farm in Zimbabwe. She left the country in 1972 but returns regularly and
for six years has been working with theatre groups in Bulawayo, in

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