Democracy in Africa

One of the small political parties in Zimbabwe (we have 28 right now and more coming) said this past week that “you cannot remove a dictatorship by democratic means, only by revolution.” When he used the word “revolution” I assume he was actually referring to the use of violence in some form to unseat an entrenched autocracy.

Those African States that were governed by a settler class (South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Angola) all had to fight to gain their rights. In Syria right now the majority are attempting to remove a minority ethnic dictatorship by the use of arms. Libya went through a similar process. Only in those countries where an external force (the colonial State) exercised its power to determine the nature of the transition did some sort of independent democratic State emerge. In some cases (Egypt) the regime collapsed and change became possible simply by street action – another form of violence. The situation in Turkey is another example of this sort of effort.

What makes the situation in Zimbabwe so distinctive is that the effort to remove the Mugabe dictatorship has concentrated almost exclusively on the use of democratic means. There were good reasons for that choice: it is difficult to imagine that any of our neighbors would have given the forces of change here secure external bases and support. The fact that the cold war no longer sets one group of States against another in such regional or country based conflict is yet another reason. Sourcing arms would be another difficulty although they are abundant enough to fuel conflict anywhere in the world.

But beyond those arguments, it was a choice that the leadership of the MDC made at its inception and in which it was supported by its membership – largely drawn from the working class and rural peasants.

Our assumption at the outset was that everyone would recognise what a revolutionary stance this was and that support would be forthcoming from local business, intellectuals, regional States and the global powers. It was not to be. We found ourselves the subject of regional and even continental ostracism fueled by the active and determined efforts of the South African Government. Aid from the international Community was sporadic and even parsimonious, technical assistance yes – funding no. The largest contribution we got in the early days was a $50 000 grant from the Westminster Foundation in London. That was bitterly attacked by the regime and thereafter no further assistance was available.

We found ourselves isolated in the region, the AU and even in the UN. As for business, they could see no purpose in funding the MDC – what could we offer them; they feared retribution from the State (fully justified) and could not see us ever unseating what looked like an entrenched, powerful and ruthless oligarchy.

Despite these difficulties (a German politician told me once that politics was all about money) the MDC made rapid and surprising progress: we won the March 2000 referendum, nearly beat a frightened Zanu PF in the June Parliamentary elections (they retained their majority by three seats) and then went on to beat them soundly in the 2002 Presidential ballot. Only regional intervention and protection allowed them to “fix” the result and allowed Mugabe back into State House.

Then in 2007 we were reluctantly accepted as a player who could not be ignored and we were brought into play – the international community followed suit with great cynicism, the African community with some respect for these plucky “small boys”. We were forced into negotiations and eventually a government of national unity even though it was a totally unequal and unjust arrangement.

Through it all, we stuck to our principles and worked towards a democratic solution. Strangely this struggle gained us little recognition or attention. One old time journalist, a veteran of many conflicts once said to me “come on Eddie, let’s see some violence, some blood on the streets: give us a story”. You can see the effect of that – just watch your news every night on any channel. It’s not the peace keepers who get the exposure and attention. Today the USA gave $300 million to the struggle in Syria – for humanitarian aid, that’s great, but when they have to fight an election will they get the support they need to win?

Now we have had yet another SADC summit – very encouraging, but no sooner had we got back than Zanu PF were once again up to their old tricks. In all probability we will be forced into another election on an uneven playing field. In the middle of the most serious crisis in the past 14 years, the summit and the struggle for democracy in Zimbabwe did not justify a single minute of news time on any of the major networks, or even the networks of southern Africa. Just hours of riots in Turkey and smashed buildings and ruined lives in the Middle East.

If as I suspect, we end up with an election on the 31st July, without media reform, without security sector realignment, with a manipulated voters roll and millions denied the right to vote, we will still win by a wide margin because the people are totally fed up with the status quo. Perhaps we will then merit a 60 second news clip on the BBC, but for the rest we are just another small country taking a halting step towards the future.

What they all will miss is that this is a story of courage and principle, a story of David and Goliath, a victory for the ordinary men and women in the world who just want to make a better life for themselves and their children. But above all it will be a victory for the democrats.

Eddie Cross
Harare, 18th June 2013