McKenzie Wark on Mon, 1 May 2000 04:26:42 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] Zimbabwe's Democratic Opposition and World Media

Mugabe: Wielding his own brand of power
Lesley Stern
Sydney Morning Herald

The clues to Mugabe's destructive behaviour, argues Lesley Stern,
 can be found in Zimbabwe's post-colonial history of black majority

 Rwanda first, Zimbabwe next. Is this a viable prediction, or merely
 alarmist? A Rwanda situation looks like a definite possibility, but
 it is by no means inevitable in Zimbabwe. If it happens it will not
 be simply because of another mad dictator spiralling out of control
 in the chaos that is Africa; it will not simply be because Zimbabwe
 is igniting from within. It will also be because the international
 media and governments have failed to read the signs and act in
 appropriately pre-emptive ways.

 Robert Mugabe might be mad, but he has engineered a highly
 orchestrated and frighteningly successful campaign to retain
 power. His greatest achievement is in getting the international
 community to conform to his own terms of reference, to focus
 single-mindedly on the issues he has placed before them: race and
 land. Extensive international reporting of the violence perpetrated
 against white farmers has not been matched by detailed attention
 to the equally barbaric and more numerous killing of blacks.

 Australia rushes to the aid of white refugees as though there were
 no black people dispossessed and endangered. The British
 Government, suddenly concerned about the landless poor, adopts
 a sanctimonious tone, reminiscent of colonial times. What is
 missing from such scenarios? History. And politics, too. Certainly
 attention has been paid to the colonial heritage, but what about
 the history of the past 20 years, the history of Zimbabwe as an
 independent black nation, until recently a relatively stable and
 harmonious country? I stress "relatively" because Mugabe's power
 has been bought at a price. And in recent years his position has
 been less secure.

 His recent referendum defeat and the prospect of pending
 elections have panicked him. But is this just because he has lost
 popularity due to suffering caused by the collapse of the economy
 through mismanagement? It is true that he has lost popularity,
 but what has really worried him is that this disaffection has been
 effectively mobilised by the emergence of a broad-based opposition
 committed to democratic reform. Why has the West, so concerned
 (correctly so) with condemning the breakdown of law and order in
 Zimbabwe, given so little attention to democratic struggle within
 the country, a struggle that preceded the wave of violence and, in
 a sense, precipitated Mugabe's campaign of terror?

 If Mugabe wanted to deflect international attention away from the
 opposition, away from possibilities of constitutional change and
 reform within the country, he has succeeded. But there are things
 that can be done, beyond dealing with the fallout (taking in
 refugees) and beyond doing deals with Mugabe about land (though
 the land issue must be addressed). While there is still a chance of
 electoral process the international press should listen to those
 Zimbabwean voices arguing, lucidly and programmatically, for
 democratic change. We in Australia, as elsewhere, should urge
 our Government to assist in paving the way for free and fair
 elections, and to provide funds for election monitors, as well as
 pressuring the UN to take a firm stand now - not when it is too

 It might seem naive to pin one's faith on such simple democratic
 possibilities when the situation seems to be spiralling out of
 control. But the situation will always seem to be spiralling out of
 control on television, which deals with tragedy and shock and
 horror as it happens today. Yesterday is history. But attending to
 that history might pay off.

 Being aware of potential dangers that have not been widely
 discussed, and future possibilities, might assist the West in
 formulating a more adequate and vigilant response, and acting on

 ZANU-PF has been in power, unopposed, since independence in
 1980. In recent years a vocal opposition has emerged, based upon
 an alliance of the labour movement, the churches, human rights
 groups, the student movement, professionals, business, and the
 increasingly influential women's groups.

 The largest and most significant party is the MDC (Movement for
 Democratic Change), led by Morgan Tsvangirai. All the killings so
 far have taken place in MDC strongholds and all those killed,
 except the policeman, have been MDC supporters. Supporters
 have been subjected to a campaign of brutality and intimidation:
 they have been abducted, beaten, and their houses firebombed.

 There is a real possibility, and Mugabe knows it, that the MDC
 could oust ZANU-PF at the polls, or at least gain a substantial
 foothold in the Government. In either event, there is hope for
 change but also real danger of violent retaliation. Mugabe's hold
 over ZANU-PF is more tenuous than it has ever been. A number
 of parliamentarians have announced their decision to stand as
 independents, and a third of the House did not vote on the bill to
 overturn clauses of the referendum (in which Mugabe was
 unexpectedly defeated) which allowed for uncompensated land

 The alliance between the leader of the so-called war veterans,
 Chenjerai Hunzvi, and Mugabe is fraught and dogged by a bitter

 During the 1980s Mugabe, through the agency of the Fifth Brigade,
 a special army unit, waged war against the people of Matabeleland.
 Many thousands of people were massacred or disappeared.

 The Government has tried to suppress reports of the atrocities,
 and Mugabe is clearly worried by the MDC's commitment, should
 it come to power, to set up a truth and reconciliation process. The
 two killings on the Olds farm are significantly inflammatory
 because they are the first in Matabeleland, and it is widely believed
 that the Fifth Brigade has again been mobilised.

 Most Zimbabweans desperately do not want ethnic war. It is not
 an inevitable tragedy lurking around the corner, but it is a
 possibility. Based on the lessons of Rwanda and East Timor let's
 act before it is too late.


 Lesley Stern, an associate professor at the University of NSW,
 grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe. She left the country in 1972 but
 returns regularly and for six years has been working with theatre
 groups in Bulawayo, in Matabeleland.

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