Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

The past three weeks have seen an embattled Zimbabwean government unleash terror on its citizens. Mary Ndlovu believes that the last weeks have brought qualitative change to Zimbabwe that spells the end of Mugabe ‘s rule sooner than later. Change is coming, she writes, but it is not likely to bring us close to that goal. Rather it will be the first step of another very long journey.

Three weeks ago an embattled Zimbabwe government declared a ban on public meetings for three months. A week later, when a defiant opposition attempted to hold a prayer rally in a historic Harare suburb, government responded with brutal and calculated beatings of hundreds of opposition supporters, residents and stunned by-standers – resulting in two known deaths and many life-threatening injuries. Since then the world’s press and diplomatic communities have been in an uproar and newspaper editors have fallen over each other predicting the pending demise of Robert Mugabe’s 27 years of misrule.

Has Robert Mugabe’s game finally come to an end? Has he now gone a step too far for even his protectors to tolerate? Will the coming weeks see progress toward the genuine change so many Zimbabweans are longing for?

Opposition leaders have said so – we have reached the tipping point, claims Morgan Tsvangirai. Others are calling it the beginning of the end; Mugabe’s last stand. Not so hasty say the more cautious, it has happened before; we have had massive public protests; we have had government brutality and world condemnation before.

The Zimbabwean people are not ready to face the dangers of extended public protest, they say, and will likely again be cowed by the terror tactics of government. At this point, we do not even have a state of emergency; Mugabe still has many weapons in his arsenal, both literal and figurative. Mugabe may have been weakened, he may be down for the count, but he is not out, and could rise to his feet again.

The past weeks have indeed brought a qualitative change to Zimbabwe, with a significant shift in the balance of power between the forces which keep Mugabe in power and those which wish to remove him. Ultimately a government’s endurance rests on its success in maintaining a productive and healthy economy which delivers at least subsistence to the population. Mugabe has failed spectacularly in this sphere, with the economy in a state of contraction for the past seven years, and in free fall for the past year.

This collapse has effects which undermine his political support. Firstly, it makes it more difficult for him to dispense the largesse necessary to buy the continuing loyalty of the political and security elite, and to keep the lower ranks of the forces in line. Second, it makes the population, which has remained largely quiescent and submissive in the face of oppression, restive and prepared to risk more in confronting a hugely unpopular government which has destroyed their lives. And thirdly it has spill-over consequences in the region which are beginning to annoy and frustrate neighbouring governments.

Perceiving a weakening in Mugabe’s power base, opposition leaders in political parties, civil society organisations, student movements and churches, have taken their cue and demonstrated greater determination and willingness to come together to push him out.

Within the past weeks opposition elements have shown greater cohesion than at any time in the past few years, the people are less afraid, neighbouring governments are at last speaking out on the need for change, and the ZANU PF elite are themselves realising that they do not want Mugabe to continue in power any longer.

Add to this the alienation of the regular police, army and intelligence forces, and the increasing unwillingness of a previously tamed judiciary to play ball, and we do have a recipe for change in the near future. Most critical of these elements in effecting an early change, is the ZANU PF elite.

The opposition would take much more time to bring sufficient pressure to bear, but the ZANU PF hierarchy has seemingly realised that rather than squabbling about succession, their interests will be better served by working together to ditch their unpopular and ageing leader. That may be the only way they can save themselves, their positions and their misgotten wealth.

Certainly, Mugabe will not go easily. He is determined to hang on, and prepared to use any violent means within his grasp. In case the regular police waver in their support, he has side-stepped them by utilising youth militia and party thugs, with or without uniforms, to intimidate opposition forces by brutality, both targeted and indiscriminate.

Now he has declared that the traditionally loyal although also divided war veterans will form a reserve army. And a pact with Angola to provide police to support his rule is rumoured. Dissenters to Mugabe’s continued rule from within ZANU PF have the permanent threat of arrest and punishment for economic crimes dangled over them, and the implied threat of violence as well.

Clearly the food weapon will again be used against any who do not show their loyalty in another year of drought and scarcity. He is a master at splitting any social or political force which he does not control; in Zimbabwe he has split the churches, the political opposition, and civil society organisations; internationally he succeeded in splitting the Commonwealth and now there are signs that the Angolan alliance is an attempt to split SADC. Down he may be, perhaps, but certainly still fighting, with no intention of leaving the ring.

But Mugabe will eventually go, and it appears now that it will be sooner rather than later. If his own party supporters see him as a liability his days are numbered. Their loyalty has for some time been conditional on his ability to protect their criminal activities. With this becoming less and less possible, they have no reason to keep him in place. While it is useless to speculate on the timing, when Morgan Tsvangirai says that he will be gone before the end of this year, it is now believable.

Our focus then shifts to the question of how he will go, bringing us to consider the scenarios which could play out before us. We have reached the time of greatest hope but the time of greatest danger, because the way in which Mugabe goes is of utmost importance to the future of Zimbabwe and Zimbabweans.

There are two major issues – will it be a peaceful change, or will it be violent – and will the change bring progressive forces into power, or will it simply be more of the same?

Mugabe’s use of violence, denying non-violent means of resisting him, tends to provoke violence in response. Although all the opposition forces espouse non-violence, in the face of intensifying, irrational repression, it is possible that groups of dissenters will turn to violence.

The current sporadic use of sabotage tactics against police and civilian targets could be the work of agents provocateurs, but could also be the work of disgruntled opposition elements who want to do anything to express their anger. They are not a threat to the government, as they lack organisation and weaponry, at least at the present moment.

A more serious threat to government would be action by disaffected army units, with or without the connivance of senior military and political figures. Serious fighting could result if the army were to divide into units loyal to Mugabe and units loyal to other factions of ZANU PF, or acting independently. It might well lead to the removal of Mugabe, but could also usher in a period of civil strife and uncertainty such as has occurred in Cote d’Ivoire. It would probably also lead to international intervention of various sorts, which might or might not produce a satisfactory political resolution.

But experience in the rest of Africa shows that once weapons are used to promote the interests of individuals or groups, the results are highly detrimental to civilians at all levels, and the chaos produced is normally long-term, not short-term. Thus civil strife, or even a violent overthrow of Mugabe by his own soldiers can hardly be considered a desirable solution. Fortunately, it does not appear very likely, but is certainly a possibility.

The second scenario would be one in which opposition forces, acting on their own without support from the ZANU PF hierarchy, but possibly with assistance from within the police and army, were able to pressure Mugabe into resigning or fleeing as he sees his support base melting away. In such a case, opposition forces would be likely to call for international assistance in effecting a transition and holding new elections. A transition which is driven by popular mass action is desirable as it empowers the people to make the leaders accountable to them. Furthermore, it is likely to put in place a system of trial and punishment for perpetrators of violence and exploiters of the nation’s wealth, ending impunity for crimes.

But the truth is that the opposition in Zimbabwe would take many months to organise the people into such a powerful formation. Although the capacity of the combined opposition forces to pressurise Mugabe is probably underestimated, the main goal which unites them is to remove the man himself. Even if they were able to pull off an 'Orange revolution' which is always being held up as a model, their ability to deliver the dreams of the masses of Zimbabwe is highly questionable.

Elements amongst them which show a commitment to genuine participatory democracy and an economy of fair distribution of wealth are very weak. They have not shown that they have the will or the skills to replace a highly corrupt political and government structure which answer to the people’s needs.

Nevertheless, such a people driven change would be the most desirable, simply because it would remove the corrupt power structure of ZANU PF and hold it accountable for the destruction of a once vibrant nation and the immiseration of its people. We live in hope that it would at least produce something better than what we have been subjected to for the past 27 years.

The other likely prospect is a 'negotiated settlement'. This is currently being promoted, not only by Western governments, but also probably by South Africa and the majority of SADC. This position sees the opposition MDC as being too divided and too weak to effect the removal of Mugabe, making factions of ZANU PF opposed to Mugabe’s continuation in power critical to removing him.

The idea is to use some of his immediate subordinates in the party to broker a deal in which Mugabe is persuaded (or even forced) to vacate office in exchange for impunity from any form of accountability for his crimes against his people. Talks between ZANU PF and the MDC on a new constitution and arrangements for 'free and fair' internationally supervised elections in 2008, would follow, resulting in a new government taking office. It would then receive massive support from the IMF to resurrect the economy.

The first scenario is the most dangerous, the second the most desirable, but the third ultimately the most probable. If current reports of 'talks' can be believed, the second 'solution' may already be in process.

Much as we would like to see a change, we should not be fooled into believing that such an outcome will solve our problems. Since it relies on Mugabe’s lieutenants to remove him, it means they will remain in place; but they are equally guilty of the crimes of which he would stand charged. Unless they are also removed, impunity will prevail and they will keep the current corrupt anti-democratic patronage system in place. Moreover, can we trust SADC to supervise a transition? Who will repeal the oppressive legislation which ensured that recent elections could not be fair?

The same people who put it in place? Who will restore citizenship to those Zimbabweans who have been stripped of it and denied their vote? How do we install a new election machinery and overhaul the Registrar General’s electoral roll if ZANU PF leaders remain? And how can we trust those African governments which previously declared obviously flawed elections free and fair to guide us through new elections?

We may wish for a peaceful transition, but are we wise to again allow the perpetrators of massive human rights abuses to go unpunished? Many voices are raised to urge Zimbabweans to allow Mugabe to retire gracefully in order that we gain a peaceful transition. But does this mean we allow the establishment through which he perpetrated the abuses to continue as well? The lessons of history are that when there is impunity abuses continue. Such an outcome does not augur well for the future.

There is a danger in this scenario that we will see a sort of replay of 1979. At that time, when liberation movements had a complete victory over Ian Smith within their grasp, the international community intervened to prevent it, and force compromises whose consequences remained to haunt our independence.

Is this what is happening again? Will Western and Southern African nations intervene to help remove Mugabe himself, enforce compromises in the shape of impunity for perpetrators of human rights abuses, re-establish a safe environment for world and regional capital, and leave the people little better off than before?

The main difference, however, is that opposition forces in 2007 are much further from victory on their own, and history will not wait for those who are unable to seize the moment.

In spite of a history of 'people’s struggle' in Southern Africa, the outcome has almost always been the appropriation of the political process by the few. Deals are worked out between opposing elites which put one or the other or a combination in power.

In general, the need to deal with abuses is swept aside, international capital pours in to revitalise investment opportunities for the world’s entrepreneurs, and the people are fed an illusion that change has occurred.

Sadly, we must accept the truth that progressive forces have not yet evolved sufficiently to achieve power in Zimbabwe or indeed the region as a whole. A non-violent negotiated removal of Mugabe by elites in Zimbabwe and outside will at least break the current impasse.

We can only hope that it will open some cracks which the committed might use to create democratic space. In that space they must continue the struggle to achieve the vision of a just society. Change is coming, but it is not likely to bring us close to that goal. Rather it will be the first step of another very long journey.

* Mary Ndlovu is a Zimbabwean human rights activist.
* Please send comments to or comment online at