The Commitment to Democracy

When I grew up the struggle of the nationalist leadership in what was then Rhodesia, was most often characterized as a struggle to gain the right to vote. The whites had conceded that this was a just cause but wanted the right restricted to a so-called 'qualified franchise'. This was not a new idea - Rhodes had proposed that the right to vote belonged to every 'civilized man' - he even defined that and called for voting rights to be restricted to those who had property and some education.

The nationalist leadership recognized that a qualified franchise was a moving target. The qualifications were not set in stone and were being constantly revised to limit the number of people who might qualify. They demanded 'one person, one vote', a universal franchise based only on the age of majority. This was the accepted standard followed in most mature democracies elsewhere and was not disputed.

Once that right was gained however, it became a different story. Although they went along with the trappings of democracy, in fact most, if not all, newly independent African States leaders used and abused their adopted political systems to perpetuate their own rule and in many cases finally simply abandoned all pretext and overthrew the system in favor of one that gave them unbridled power in perpetuity.

Slowly as these States matured they have turned back to democracy recognizing what Churchill had once said that it may not be perfect, but it is better than the alternatives. In addition all African States eventually woke up to the fact that their liberators often made lousy rulers and that in the hands of such rulers with unbridled power, the instruments of a modern State with its tax and banking system was simply a mechanism for looting on a grand scale.

We have gone through this cycle and since 1980, the ruling elite has shown less and less commitment to what they had claimed was the basis of the struggle for independence that, after all, brought them to power. This mantra was probably most emphatically spelled out this week when Mugabe stated that he would not be overthrown by a 'cross on a piece of paper'. At least one editor here said that he wanted to know why not? As this was the means by which he obtained power in the first place.

But the Mugabe regimes struggle with democracy has now reached new lows. They have held elections on a regular basis since 1980 and each election has shown deterioration in their commitment to democratic principles and abuse of the electoral practice. As the democratic threat has grown so has the manipulation and abuse. Initially the SADC and the AU ignored this and it was left to the more mature democracies of Europe to recognize the malaise and call for compliance to principle.

South Africa, arguably the most sophisticated State in Africa with solid leadership and a long history of struggle and commitment to core principles, has been the most disappointing observer. Not just because she knows better, but because they alone have the power and leverage to force compliance to democratic principle by a rogue State like Zimbabwe. South Africa has no excuses - they have good intelligence, are well informed and run a State that is founded on these very same principles.

In 2006 South Africa finally recognized that the only way out of the crisis in Zimbabwe was via a process of free and fair elections facilitated by the region. They committed considerable resources - human and financial and in terms of their prestige, to the subsequent process. Mbeki in fact used his influence and power to secure the essentials and when pressed, Mugabe complied. The switch in the date of the election from June 2010 to March 2008 was achieved without fanfare behind closed doors. Zanu PF participation in the subsequent negotiations to establish the conditions under which the election would be held was also then achieved after direct intervention by South Africa.

In the ensuing negotiations substantial reforms that would have yielded a free and fair election in March 2008 were secured over a tortuous 9-month period and failure came only at the last minute when Mugabe realized that if the reforms were implemented as negotiated in Pretoria, he would lose power in the ensuing contest. He simply stonewalled Mbeki and was allowed to hold an election, which by any standard was not at all free and fair. Worse, when it became clear that Tsvangirai had won outright with more than 50 per cent of the vote (54%), Mbeki went along with the subsequent charade and used the impasse to try and play kingmaker and force the different parties to the conflict to negotiate a compromise solution that would restrict MDC to a lesser role and protect elements of Zanu PF.

When this failed South Africa endorsed the decision to call for a run off and then failed to ensure that not even the skewed rules of the March election were observed. Under the shadow cast by the South African umbrella, Mugabe has unleashed a campaign of violence and intimidation against the MDC that has been ruthless and effective. Instead of condemning the violence and the arbitrary arrest and detention of MDC leaders, Mbeki has concentrated on using the violence to justify a belated call to cancel the run off and negotiate a unity government.

There is nothing spontaneous about the Zimbabwe campaign of political violence. It is a deliberate, State funded, planned and managed program that is directed by the top leadership in the regime. They can switch it off at any time. Yet South Africa refuses to attribute blame or to call for the cessation of violence and to stop abuse of the judicial system to restrict the capacity of the MDC to campaign. There is not a shred of evidence that Mbeki has been any stronger or more principled behind closed doors than he has been in public.

But outside South Africa many new voices are at last being heard. The Presidents of Botswana, Rwanda, Tanzania and Zambia as well as the Prime Minister of Kenya have all said in the past week that the electoral environment in Zimbabwe is not free and fair. This is an election where the two candidates are by no means equal - Tsvangirai is denied access to the media, denied funding, arrested and threatened, his campaign team is on the run or in jail, his supporters are harassed and killed and thousands beaten and worse. ZEC has been transformed into a military organization that will do whatever is required to return a majority for Mugabe.

This may not be the only example of the abuse of principle in terms of democratic practice but it is by a long way the most blatant and reckless. Even as this is going on and people inside and outside the country are saying that Tsvangirai can never win such a contest, Mugabe is saying, even if he does win, Zanu PF will not relinquish power.

Well at least that settles one issue - Mugabe is no democrat, never has been and never will be. I still believe that the people of Zimbabwe will vote on the 27th and will, despite all the threats and beatings, return an overwhelming victory for Morgan Tsvangirai. The question is, then what?

Eddie Cross
Johannesburg, 21st June 2008