Zimbabwe’s downtrodden wary of ‘free and fair election’ promise
People in Matabeleland who suffered badly under Mugabe are sceptical of new pledges
President Emmerson Mnangagwathe: denies any involvement in Gukurahundi massacres. Photograph: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters
Recent promises made by Zimbabwe’s new president that free and fair elections will be held in 2018 are viewed with suspicion by people in Matabeleland, a part of the country that has suffered greatly under the ruling regime.
From early 1983 to late 1984 government soldiers unleashed in the southwestern region by former president Robert Mugabe killed up to 20,000 Ndebele people, according to rights activists.
Suspected of being affiliated with a rival nationalist party called Zapu, the victims were seen as a threat to the ruling Zanu-PF by the former dictator.
Mugabe’s successor, the recently sworn-in President Emmerson Mnangagwa (75), was state security minister at the time and allegedly played a central role in co-ordinating attacks on civilians that became known locally as the Gukurahundi massacres. He denies any involvement.
Since then, Zanu-PF has continued to use violence and intimidation to coerce rural Zimbabweans into voting for it in the run-up to elections. The ruling party gets little support in urban areas, so without the rural vote it would struggle badly at the polls.
Given that Mnangagwa’s ascent to power in November was instigated by the military, Zimbabweans such as Paul Nyathi, who works in conflict resolution, are sceptical of his pledge to usher in democratic elections.
“The army is unlikely to allow its candidate to be defeated in a fair election when it has used force to install him [as Zimbabwe’s president],” the former opposition politician told The Irish Times.
Nyathi has been peace-building for nearly a decade in communities affected by the massacres and the post-election violence that gripped the country in 2008. The latter left about 200 opposition supporters dead.
We pick out opinion leaders and people of good standing who we then use as a source to create dialogue between those in conflict. The situations we encounter can be very delicate
Through a Bulawayo-based NGO he helped establish called the Masakhaneni Projects Trust, Nyathi and his nine colleagues give confidence and advice to fearful communities shattered by state-sponsored violence.
Masakhaneni’s conflict resolution programmes work on the premise that where there is conflict, communities are less likely to socially and economically develop, because their time and energy is spent on the adversarial nature of their relationships.
Divide and conquer
Over the years the divide-and-conquer tactics Zanu-PF has applied to communities has bred a lot of suspicion between residents. And this has undermined their bonds and ability to work effectively as a collective, Nyathi maintains.
The 71-year-old went on to describe how in most districts where Masakhaneni operates, they task locals to be their early-warning system in relation to the existence of community tensions caused by political violence and intimidation.
“We pick out opinion leaders and people of good standing who we then use as a source to create dialogue between those in conflict. The situations we encounter can be very delicate,” he said.
“For instance, it could be there is a woman who was raped by a soldier who has a child. The people from her community could look upon the child as representing that injustice and treat it badly. We try to help resolve the situation.”
Zanu-PF’s grip on the rural communities is so complete that opposition parties are rarely allowed to canvass there ahead of elections
Masakhaneni runs conflict resolution programmes and workshops around the country’s constitution – adopted in 2013 – in five areas of Matabeleland. Its outreach programmes engage up to 5,000 people.
Under its constitutional work Masakhaneni informs people of their newly enshrined democratic rights, including around their voting rights and government’s responsibilities. However, this type of engagement becomes difficult to conduct as polls draw closer, due to police supervision, said Nyathi.
Indeed, Zanu-PF’s grip on the rural communities is so complete that opposition parties are rarely allowed to canvass there ahead of elections.
Patronage and fear
“Chiefs in Zimbabwe are paid a monthly allowance; they get cars; and they are monitored by the Central Intelligence Organisation to ensure they push Zanu-PF among the communities they control.
“Before the 2013 [general] election, if I wanted to visit a chief I had to park away from the village and walk through the bush at night to meet secretly, because they were afraid of being seen with me,” he recalled.
In terms of impact, Nyathi says the Masakhaneni programme results are mixed, because each time an election draws close, the intimidation and violence re-emerges.
He added that prior to Mugabe’s forced resignation there were signs that Zanu-PF had become more active in Matabeleland’s rural areas ahead of next year’s poll.
As part of the voter registration process, Masakhaneni had heard villagers were being lied to that the new electronic system being introduced allowed officials to know which party a person votes for.
However, since Mugabe’s fall from power, Zanu-PF officials have gone quiet.
“Those in Zanu-PF who supported Mugabe have fled,” he concluded, before adding: “and those left behind do not know how to respond to what has happened at the national level. A paralysis appears to have set in”.
- This article was supported by a grant from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund