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Every March for the last four years, Pambazuka News has carried articles describing the situation in Zimbabwe and looking at options for the future. In 2006, is there any hope for Zimbabwe? What do developments such as the split in the Movement for Democratic Change mean for the future of the country? Can Zimbabwe be put back together again?

Every year since 2000, Zimbabweans have wondered: “Will this be it, will this be the year when it all ends, when Humpty Dumpty finally totters off the wall?” And if it is, what will it mean for each one of us, and for the nation as a whole – healing, restoration and return to “normality”, or deepened chaos, insecurity and catastrophe? We listen to talk about elections in 2008 and 2010 and deep down nurture a hope that there will be no more ZANU PF elections. But even deeper down we fear that even if there aren’t, things will never come right again, not in our life-times, unless we are still very young.

Several years ago, as Zimbabwe left the gentler rapids and began its headlong rush towards the precipice, some people declared loudly that we had reached the bottom and could now only go up. How deluded they were. We then began to hear an unfamiliar word tossed around by commentators – “meltdown”. We couldn’t really imagine what this might be, having associated the term mainly with nuclear reactors. When they overheat they meltdown, self-destructing in a spectacular display, lethal to anyone in the vicinity. Is this what happens when an economy or an entire nation melts down? Is this the year in which we will find out?

Certainly we know that the multiple crises which embody Zimbabwe’s millennium experience are intensifying, making life barely livable for the majority of the population. The crises have engulfed the working world, the learning world, the consumer world, the world of the supermarket and even of sport. The economy limps along, agriculture crawling, tourism virtually defunct, manufacturing crippled, and mining, the one still flickering light of the economy, under recent assault from government policies. Electricity comes and goes at will, water likewise in many places; fuel supplies (black market only) are erratic and prices exploitative. Schools are places of confusion, teachers demoralized, pupils unable to afford textbooks if they manage to pay fees, and only finding bus fare for half the school days. Courts barely function, police cells are filthy putrid hell holes, prisons even worse. The Commissioner of Prisons admits the entire prison system has no drugs as they have been stolen before reaching the system; prisoners simply die for want of treatment. Hospitals have no doctors, no medicines; their mal-functioning mortuaries overflow and the stench from too many bodies wafts through into some of the wards. All government “services” are riddled with nepotism, incompetence and corruption.

Living conditions are abysmal, with several families crowded into most houses, even in low density areas, each taking a room and sharing cooking and bathing facilities. It is hardly surprising that skilled personnel flee the country, not only for greener pastures, but for the opportunity to function as genuine professionals.

Year-on-year inflation has just reached the official figure of 782%. Imagine the daily trauma suffered by the working father who realizes he cannot pay for medicine for his sick child, the student in his final year who cannot raise the 1000% increase in fees imposed mid-year, the pensioner forced to sell his possessions in order to eat. And what of the estimated 80% who do not work? A thriving informal sector in which hundreds of thousands of people managed to survive through trading, cottage industry, deal-making, and personal services, was wiped out in June and July by brutal police attacks. A large percentage of them also lost their homes in the assault on the urban poor. Although many have resurfaced, enormous numbers had their livelihoods destroyed and will not be able to recover. How do they live in the environment which defines Zimbabwe today? Many don’t, and die quietly of malnutrition, exposure, cholera, pneumonia and broken spirits.

Is this it? Is this meltdown? While this is the question occupying most Zimbabweans, the more interesting question to political analysts and observers is what various actors on the stage are doing about the situation. Is there any hope of a solution emerging from this complete disaster?

Most governments confronted with such a situation, whether of their own making or otherwise, would either resign or scramble frantically to find solutions, but the Zimbabwean government is doing nothing of the kind. While blaming everyone from white farmers to the British Prime Minister and crowing constantly about the “turn-around” of the economy, our current band of ministers are fully occupied by two major activities:

1. Amassing wealth. This is done simply by pursuing purely private interests while in government offices, or more obviously, using their government contacts and positions to secure for themselves contracts, housing and land to which they arrange access. Price controlled goods in short supply offer welcome opportunities to make black-market fortunes.

2. Staying in power. ZANU PF must stay in power for two reasons: one is clearly to continue appropriating the little remaining wealth of the country for their own personal use. The other is to avoid the inevitable unpleasant consequences of their past and present illegal activities, should another government take power.

But staying in power takes a lot of effort when economic collapse has made the people so clearly discontented and desperate. It requires energy and resources to be channeled not to solve the problems created, but to systems of control: police, army and youth militia need support; tens of thousands must be given benefits for infiltrating “opposition” organizations and informing on others. Patronage must be supplied to the multitude of individuals whose loyalty is purchased, including the uniformed forces. The electoral machinery must be manipulated to ensure victories for ZANU PF, no matter what the ballots say. Operations such as Murambatsvina to disorganize the urban masses divert resources from elsewhere.

A substantial portion of legislation over the past few years has been repressive in nature; the constitutional amendment number 17 effectively nationalised land and made possible the denial of passports; the only Bill which has passed Parliament this year is the Education Amendment Bill, a mean-spirited piece whose prime aim seems to be to control, and therefore no doubt destroy, private education. Newly announced is another Bill to legalise government interception of telephone, email and postal communications, a practice previously declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile are they doing anything about the economic meltdown? A lot of verbal energy is expended in insisting that the crisis either doesn’t exist, or exists only in the imaginations of “enemies”, or crowing about the “turn-around” which is taking place.

Gideon Gono, the only government official who ever in any way seems interested in solving the economic problems seems to be on a lonely road to nowhere. All his attempts to manipulate exchange rates, interest rates, prices, money supply, and the banking sector lead us round in circles like someone lost in the desert. Each time we return to where we started, with our resources further diminished. His attempts to re-engage the IMF by paying off the outstanding loan have back-fired, fuelling inflation further with the printing of trillions to buy forex on the black market. Of course it flopped as the IMF understood that with current policies the Zimbabwean economy is not going to revive, and no new loan could be negotiated. Currently, in spite of the announcement in November that price controls would be lifted and the dollar would be allowed to seek its own market-determined rate, we still have price controls and already by January the exchange rate was controlled. We have effectively returned to yet another failed policy.

The fact is, that as long as government is not able to restore productive activity and seriously tackle corruption, then the economy cannot be rescued. Inflation is not the number one enemy, it is merely a symptom, produced by both absence of production and corruption. Corruption cannot be tackled because it is the life-blood of the patronage system which keeps ZANU PF in power and production cannot be restored without major injections of foreign investment, impossible without a return to protected property rights sustained by the rule of law. Government is meanwhile hopelessly divided on whether to retreat from the brink.

It is not only the succession issue which has created open paralysing splits within ZANU PF: while Gono woos the IMF, Mugabe launches tirades against them. While Gono, backed by Msika, says no more farms must be invaded, Mutasa declares that all whites will be driven out. While Gono tries to accommodate the mining sector, the party floats legislation to effectively nationalize half the industry. Government appears to have check-mated itself. There is no longer a free square to move to.

The opposition has a golden opportunity to capitalize on ZANU PF’s paralysis and the people’s desperation and misery. But how? The normal election route has been closed by fraudulent manipulation. Calls for mass protests have in the past met with a poor response from the people. And the opposition itself is now paralysed by division.

Although MDC had enormous support through the early years of the decade, its failure to translate its mandate into success at the polls or to lead mass protests has made many people sceptical of its capacity to bring about “a new Zimbabwe”. Not surprisingly, the malaise led to a split in the party. Popular opinion describes the split as a policy dispute about participation in elections for the newly created senate; however, it reflected rather a dissatisfaction with the leadership style of the President, Morgan Tsvangirai, with the issue of the senate being merely the specific point at which the Gibson Sibanda group chose to take a stand.

What we have now is two versions of the MDC, which have held separate congresses. While one faction retained Tsvangirai, the other brought in a new personality, Arthur Mutambara, a well-known student leader of the 1980’s, to breathe new energy and perhaps new ideas into the struggle against ZANU PF. While Tsvangirai has clearly retained the loyalty of a larger percentage of the party members, both factions draw support from all parts of the country, belying the myth that this is a tribal split. It is sad, and inauspicious for the future, that those choosing to part ways with Tsvangirai’s leadership were viciously attacked as tribalists and sell-outs.

Intolerance of differences of opinion, resulting in insults and name calling, is a hallmark of ZANU PF politics, and it is alarming when opposition members in both factions begin doing the same. The position is not helped by the fact that both insist that they are the real MDC and are already battling over party assets. But the split itself does not necessarily mean that political opposition is hamstrung. If the two factions can get over the divorce and allow each other to go their separate ways with renewed vigour, it could even be a positive development if they desist from attacking and frustrating each other and get on with the real struggle.

It is unlikely that the two factions will reunite – probably the best that can be hoped for is that they agree to a loose alliance. In terms of policy, Tsvangirai has called once again for massive street demonstrations. Mutambara’s faction has not ruled out any activity which will bring down ZANU PF, and includes both elections and street protests within their possible tactics; however they are yet to show the public their true colours in terms of policy and capacity.

Many feel that now the time is ripe, and this time street protests may be successful. Since Tsvangirai has apparently abandoned national elections in spite of participating in some local government contests, he has staked his leadership on bringing people onto the streets. If he fails this time, he may not get another chance.

Some sections of civil society are also waking up to the desperation of the people and looking at ways to make a greater impact on government. The National Constitutional Assembly, Women of Zimbabwe Arise and the national students organisation are the only organizations that have so far succeeded in putting meaningful numbers in the streets to protest. But there are other stirrings. A new Christian Alliance has been formed from churches radicalized by the experience of tending to those affected by Murambatsvina; several meetings have taken place grouping various civic organizations and churches to find a collective way forward. If these combine with the efforts of both factions of the MDC, then perhaps a hitherto doubtful populace will come onto the streets in support.

And if they do? What is the mechanism whereby mass street protests lead to a collapse of the ZANU PF government? One of the reasons people have so far been reluctant is that they can’t envisage how mass protests will achieve their goals. Tsvangirai and others seem to believe that if masses of people get into the streets on a continuing basis, government will have no alternative but to capitulate and agree to a constitutional conference. A new constitution will be devised, followed by free and fair elections which will replace ZANU PF.

They are vague about the answers to important questions such as: What will make ZANU PF resign? Is power to be seized peacefully, and if so how and by whom? Who will be administering the country while the new constitution is written and elections organized? What legitimacy will any government have which is installed under such conditions? Is there a role for the international community?

All of this makes the assumption that ZANU PF will indeed give up. That is hugely unlikely. The government has given notice that it will crush any protests, and we have no reason not to believe them. Already we see signs everywhere of further repression – fake arms caches, road blocks searching for weapons everywhere, draft legislation to search our communications. ZANU PF will certainly fight.

To date there has indeed been harassment, arrests, torture and killings of opposition members. But to date there has not been any court conviction which has led to a lengthy term of imprisonment. Armed with new legislation with even stiffer penalties and new categories of illegal activity, if ZANU PF feels itself seriously threatened it will surely not hesitate to use every means to defend itself. As long as the police are prepared to arrest, the courts are prepared to refuse bail and to sentence, and police and army are prepared to use violence to suppress street demonstrations. Crushing of protests will be relatively easy for the government.

ZANU PF will only give up and run away in one circumstance: the law enforcement agents and soldiers on which they depend refuse orders to crush the protests. The economy can meltdown or blow up, but ZANU PF will only be defeated when meltdown strikes their own instruments of repression. Is this going to happen? We can’t yet know. The upper echelons of the services have been brought on board the ZANU PF train with the normal perks of patronage, especially farms, but there are signs of serious discontent in the lower ranks of the army and police, especially over their low salaries. How long will it take for the constables, the privates, the sergeants to decide that their interests are better served by listening to the people rather their bosses? No one knows, but when they do, that is when ZANU PF’s moment of truth will have arrived.

But supposing ZANU PF does give up the fight. That does not automatically mean the battle is won. The chaos of a collapse of government in the midst of economic meltdown and shortages of goods does not necessarily lead to the restoration of democratic practice. A disintegration of the law enforcement agencies would certainly lead to looting and lawlessness; who would restore order and how?

The army could easily fracture into rival factions or into gangs under political and military ZANU PF warlords who look after their own interests and live off the people. There is no magic wand to wave to ensure that pumpkins turn into coaches. We are in a very dangerous situation, and anyone calling for mass protests has the obligation to have a clear strategy for translating them into valid solutions. Certainly a concerted effort of all democratic forces is required, whether they be political parties, civic organizations or churches, but it will not be the easy walk to freedom that some would have us believe.

Once again we wait – wait to see what economic meltdown looks like and how many can survive it, wait to find out whether enough Zimbabweans are prepared to take to the streets to make their discontent known, wait for the inevitable intensified repression. And then wait to see what happens after that - a political meltdown to match the economic? A surrender by the government and turning over to some interim body to conduct new elections under a new constitution, or a fragmentation and disintegration into civil conflict?

The cracking of an egg does not always hatch a chick. Humpty Dumpty could not be put together again; perhaps Zimbabwe will not be so easy to put together again either. The tension of expectation is building as the people’s misery becomes unsustainable. Will this be the year, and if it is, will it hold hope for the future, or will we simply all fall down together?

* Mary Ndlovu is a Zimbabwean human rights activist.

* Please send comments to

* Previous editorials from Mary Ndlovu in Pambazuka News:

- Zimbabwe’s March: The struggle continues

- Zimbabwe’s March: Pambazuka News 105, 2003