Elections as means of transfer of power and Liberation movements A case of Zimbabwe from 1999 to 2008

Munjodzi Mutandiri, December 2009


  • elections
  • legitimacy
  • sacred beliefs
  • liberation struggle
  • political discourse
  • authoritarian leadership
  • Zimbabwe

In their search for legitimacy, incumbent liberation movements in Southern Africa refer to any opposition as externally sponsored and authored. In most cases the opposition is painted as serving imperial interests. In the run-up to the Namibian election in November of 2009, one newspaper summed up the character and default mode of liberation movements in power in the region in the following quote: “Hamutenya [leader of the main opposition party in Namibia RDP] is accused of having Britain, America and Germany [former Colonial power] as friends. With reference to the RDP [Rally for Democracy and Progress] Namibians are warned of neo-imperial threats at work in Southern Africa to reduce the two thirds majority of the liberation movements, the ANC in South Africa, the MPLA in Mozambique, ZANU-PF in Zimbabwe and now SWAPO.

In the end the Namibian election was more of the same of what we have witnessed in other countries where liberation movements faced real opposition to their hold on power. The liberation heritage as a campaign tool has become synonymous with every other election in Southern Africa. One could not but interpret discourses of liberation movements across the region as- anyone who dares challenge them is not his own man. This has forced many to question what patriotism is and who should define it for others. This article seeks to look at Zimbabwe’s election history with a special focus on the 2008 harmonized election, which means the holding of Presidential, Parliamentary, Senatorial and local elections at the same time. The essay will examine the notion of elections as a means of transfer of power and the contradictions or consistencies of liberation movements nationalist thinking.

As an introduction I have quoted here some statements from President Robert Mugabe made around 1980 and others more recently. Reading from Mugabe’s statements one sees the contradictions that he and his party have gone or are going through. Some statements have been prophecy fulfilled. Others make it hard to believe that it is the same Mugabe who said those words. In a way, some of the statements give insight in the man who was at the centre of the drama for social change in a new Zimbabwe in 1980. The man who at that time appeared destined to be an icon of world peace and reconciliation. The man who managed with his first two speeches to assure the world and the white minority settlers that a new dawn of Zimbabwean leadership was at hand, a leadership committed to peace and reconciliation, a leadership determined to forge bridges and focus on building a new Zimbabwe based on human rights and the rule of law, rather than colour, creed, gender or tribe. Some of the statements and acts made in the early 80s also pointed to a man who was living in constant contradiction with himself. And today as we look back - depending on where you stand- you can argue either that the signposts of tyranny where already clearly marked or that something went horribly wrong.

The following quotes date from 1962.

It may be necessary to use methods other than constitutional ones.

Our votes must go together with our guns. After all, any vote we shall have shall have been the product of the gun. The gun which produces the vote should remain its security officer - its guarantor. The people’s votes and the people’s guns are always inseparable twins.

We cannot have a situation where people decide to sit in places not allowed and when police remove them they say no. We can’t have that. That is a revolt to the system. Some are crying that they were beaten. Yes you will be thoroughly beaten. When the police say move you move. If you don’t move, you invite the police to use force.

The only white man you can trust is a dead white man.

They are not themselves. They are agents of the white settlers. The Rhodesians have been organizing themselves clandestinely all this time, from 1980. They have never rested. The have groups in South Africa, in Australia, in Britain, in Canada, like a spider. They are using every trick in the book, so take care, otherwise (Translation): ‘You will wake up in the morning and your wife will be gone. »


Zimbabwe joined the family of nations in 1980 with fanfare. A new democracy was born and with that so much hope that Zimbabwe would shine as a beacon of light, not only in the region but for the continent at large. Julius Nyerere , said of Zimbabwe, talking to Mugabe immediately after the 1980 general elections, which saw ZANU-PF winning and Mugabe becoming the first Prime minister of the Republic of Zimbabwe “You have inherited the jewel of Africa. Keep it that way”

Indeed it was a new day for Zimbabwe and the people’s sacrifices have paid off and brought about the priceless reward of independence pitting the country on a seemingly irreversible path of national progress and development underpinned by respect for the rule of law and free and fair elections as the legitimate means of enthroning national leadership. This is demonstrated in two key speeches by the then Prime Minister, Robert Mugabe, one on the occasion of the election victory celebration 4 March and the other on the eve of Independence of the new democratic state,17th of April 1980.

“Independence will bestow on us a new personality, a new sovereignty, a new future and perspective, and indeed a new history and a new past. Tomorrow we are being born again; born again not as individuals but collectively as a people, nay, as a viable nation of Zimbabweans. Tomorrow is thus our birthday, the birth of a great Zimbabwe, and the birth of its nation……An evil remains an evil whether practiced by white against black or by black against white.”

With this kind of talk just after a bitter armed struggle for majority rule and end of racial discrimination, it is not surprising that Mugabe became the man of the moment. A man committed to the ideals of democratic rule he had portrayed himself thus.

On 4 March 1980 Mugabe emphasized a lot of things most of which he said were principles not only of himself but of his party ZANU-PF as a whole. Among them was the commitment to respect the will of the people as expressed through a general election. He had this to say on that momentous day:

“In this regard I wish to assure you that there can never be any return to the state of armed conflict which existed before our commitment to peace and the democratic process of election under the Lancaster house agreement.”

Thus Zimbabwe started its journey into the unknown future with so much promise. It must be noted however that there were concerns around the 1980 election with Mugabe’s party being accused of using violence and intimidation as a weapon in the campaign. The 1985 election was also reported to be violent albeit without much concern about it. Of course at this time of his political career, Mugabe was a hero, not only in Africa but also in the world beyond. It is important to point out that at this same time, the 5th brigade trained by North Korea was committing genocide, later referred to by Mugabe as “a moment of madness”. The 1990 ad 1995 elections witnessed much higher levels of intimidation and violence. Supporters of Edgar Tekere and those of Margaret Dongo were tortured and arrested arbitrarily. Some lost their lives. This happened at the backdrop of the Gukurahundi massacre . The writing was on the wall but somehow the signs were not taken seriously, precisely because Mugabe was still the darling of many, especially the powerful imperial powers.

Threat of losing power

Zimbabwe’s election history shows that every time ZANU-PF has been threatened, it has moved swiftly to crush the opposition with violent force. This side of the ZANU-PF has been well documented since independence but its culture can be traced back to the days before liberation. The killing of people at political rallies, called pungwes, as a way of instilling fear into the masses was a common strategy during the liberation war. These pungwes were seen as synonymous with killing of ‘sellouts’ and ‘traitors’. Rarely would a pungwe meeting end without a single killing . With the formation of the Movement for Democratic Change in 1999 and the government constitutional referendum loss in February 2000 the phenomenon of pungwes was introduced by ZANU-PF in most rural communities in preparation for the 2000 parliamentary election. The results of the election sent ZANU-PF into a panic mode as they were almost defeated by an -at the time- nine months old party. It was then that the pungwes (now known as bases) were intensified in preparation for the 2002 Presidential elections. People were brutalized, the MDC labeled as sell-outs and traitors, using the same war language. This was mainly to invoke a sense of ‘we are in a war’ for the masses. The bases were run by young people calling themselves with war names, like Cde Masango, Cde Killer etc) The names were carefully chosen to reflect popular names of 2nd Chimurenga. The 2nd Chimurenga was the second war of liberation in Zimbabwe, following the 1896 uprisings which are referred to as the 1st Chimurenga. The 1966 Chinhoyi battle, fought by the seven heroes who all perished in that same battle, is believed to be the beginning of the second Chimurenga. The name Chimurenga is a Shona word meaning war. During the liberation war, comrades would usually use war names that referred to violence, such as Teurai-ropa, meaning “spill the blood”.

The 2008 Election

The 2008 election will go down in the country’s history as having shifted permanently the balance of forces in the Zimbabwean body politic. It is important to note that this election took place in the middle of the SADC brokered talks facilitated by former South African President Thabo Mbeki. The talks were initiated after the bizarre March 11 2007 incident when opposition leaders and those of civic society were severely beaten for attending a prayer rally. Images of a battered Morgan Tsvangirai sent shocks around the world. Those beaten together with him were Dr Lovemore Madhuku chairperson of the NCA and others. The brutality of the police claimed at this prayer meeting the life of Gift Tandare as the police were firing live bullets. Tandare was buried after a few days by state operatives without a post mortem. His body stolen in a Harare mortuary by the dreaded Criminal Investigation Officers (CIO) and his family told to accept the body and bury him. Immediately after this incident SADC convened a meeting where they commissioned talks among the warring parties in Zimbabwe. These talks brought about some significant changes in election management, posting of the election results at each polling stations and relative access to state media for the opposition parties. ZANU-PF had given way to these reforms because they were confident that they would not be defeated. The intelligence, Joint Operations Command (JOC) had done a survey (internal to ZANU-PF) which had shown that they would poll 87 percent of the electorate. This coming from a heavily rigged 2005 election caused ZANU-PF to believe that even a free and fair election was winnable.

In January of 2008 Simba Makoni broke away from ZANU-PF and announced his candidature in the presidential election of the harmonised election as an independent candidate. This opened widely the contest. The smaller faction of the MDC endorsed Simba Makoni and its president Professor Arthur Mutambara announced that he would not be running in the coming election but that his party would be supporting Simba Makoni. Observers and analysts, pundits and special interest groups started to say that the coming of Simba Makoni would ensure that the ZANU-PF would not rig this election, because many thought that Makoni had been in ZANU-PF long enough to know the rigging mechanism. There is another reason why some thought rigging would be reduced by Simba’s presence: the assumption that Simba had insiders in the army, the intelligence and the electoral body. Just to show how this election proved many wrong, some - including western embassies funding Makoni- called on Morgan Tsvangirai to pull out and give Makoni a chance. They argued that he had a better chance of unseating Mugabe. This gave more confidence to ZANU-PF as they used this to their advantage in the media to indicate that Mugabe was tipped to win the election overwhelmingly. The election motto for ZANU-PF became ‘burying the imperialist and their puppets once and for all’.

Unpacking the campaign strategies and tactics

I indicated earlier on how the use of violence has been mastered and perfected by ZANU-PF from the days of liberation to today. In the following section I will not focus on violence as a tool to get re-elected, except for discussing the run up to the June 27 run-off. I will rather touch on lesser known but rather effective campaign strategies and tactics ZANU-PF used. These are the mystification of the liberation heritage and its leaders, its media strategy and propaganda and the Food Aid and Joint Operations Command.

The mystification of the liberation heritage and the liberators themselves

Mystifying the liberation struggle and its heroes as a legitimisation strategy has been used in close connection with the violence strategy. This is the strategy anchored in liberation myths like the ones that say for example that liberation war heroes would turn into animals like a cow, a rat or even disappear when the enemy (Ian Smith’s soldiers) would arrive, but would turn back to normal once the danger would have been averted. Most of these myths are attributed to the help of spirit mediums during the war. It was common that in every group of fighters there would be one spirit medium- with the spirit mostly of 1st Chimurenga heroes the likes of Mbuya Nehanda, Sekuru Kaguvi and Chaminuka. The spirit medium’s role was to get guidance and direction from the spirit world in battle. Through the ‘Chimurenga files’, a program on the state radio and television, these myths were reinforced time and again. This stuck to mostly the rural electorate and the elderly who had memories of the liberation struggle. This myth helped cement ZANU-PF as the only custodian of the liberation heritage and thus entitled to rule the country till the end (of course to those who are sensitive to this discourse). The strategy further reminded people that ZANU-PF was a party of the gun and therefore, if they would lose the election they were ready to defend their history and legacy. This strategy thus sought not only to show ZANU-PF as invincible but also to show that its leadership, especially Robert Mugabe was a myth who could only leave state power by his only volition (In fact Mugabe wants said only God could remove him from power). Other myths are that if any opponent touches Mugabe’s hand, it will be his/her end (politically).

Media strategy and Propaganda.

ZANU-PF having been in power since independence (almost three decades) they embedded themselves so much into the state that it became difficult to differentiate between them and the state. Over time the state broadcaster has become the party’s mouth piece. Thus with the election campaign ZANU-PF used ZTV and the radio stations to campaign. For the 2008 election the situation was not too bad as compared to the previous elections. As explained above the ground (the seeming prevailing environment and the so-called surveys which showed ZANU-PF winning overwhelming) misled ZANU-PF to believe that they will win the election and as such they felt it was an opportunity to open the media space slightly as evidence that the MDC had been defeated in a free and fair election. So the 2008 election saw some few advertisements by the MDC on the state broadcaster. However some lost their jobs after the election for allegedly using the ‘state media to campaign for the MDC’.

Food Aid and Joint Operations Command (JOC).

One of the most effective ways that ZANU-PF used for cowing the electorate was food aid distribution. On the backdrop of a disastrous land reform at the turn of the millennium, the agricultural productivity suffered heavily. This coupled with low rainfall in most parts across the country meant that the country relied on food aid. Thus when donor organisations like Care International, the Red Cross, Oxfam and the Norwegian People’s Aid came into Zimbabwe to help ease the hunger catastrophe the ZANU-PF government at the time jumped to take control of the process of food distribution. As a consequence, the process became very political, as in most instances communities would agree on those that must get food depending on the needs. This mainly was left to war veterans and Zanu-PF functionaries masquerading as councilors, who then would consider only those who were seen as ZANU-PF supporters. This came to a head in January of 2008, a few months before the election when donor organisations refusing to use local structures and councilors citing politicization of food aid., This led to President Mugabe announcing that his government had suspended all food aid distribution by eight of the major international Non Governmental Organisations. The government cited then that it was their responsibility to feed the nation not NGOs. However this suspension was lifted as there was an international outcry when people died of hunger in the countryside. It must be noted that this strategy was heavily linked to the violence strategy. Thus the food distribution was tacitly overseen by the dreaded Joint Operations Command (JOC). JOC is/was the security high command, in effect disregarding its unconstitutional status and is/was largely a ZANU-PF strategy driver rather than a national body. This body is/was comprised of the President, as Commander in Chief of the Army all the service chief, the minister of Defense and the minister of State Security in the office of the president. JOC has structures to the branch levels of ZANU-PF. What makes it sophisticated is its ability to fuse party and government structures with impunity. For example, at Provincial level the governors are in charge of the JOC structures thus making sure that anything that happens at that level has been approved by the JOC. Thus it was easier for the party to control food distribution and even ARVs distribution in clinics and hospital and the food meant for those living with HIV/AIDS. The role of JOC was more pronounced at the run-off election when for the first time they publicly declared that they were now in charge. In brutal daylight abductions and kidnappings, horrific murders and tortures took place and the JOC instilled unparalleled fear in the electorate. Many of the retired Central Intelligent Officers and retired members of the dreaded 5th brigade -infamous for the Gukurahundi massacres- were recalled to run the June 27 Presidential elections. It is interesting to note that at this point the chairperson of the JOC (then State Security minister Didymus Mutasa) was relieved of his chairmanship for failing to run the March 29 election campaign and giving misleading intelligence regarding that election.

Explaining the election results and the run-up to the run-off.

There is no doubt that the election shocked many including the victors themselves. This was so because going to the election on March 29 there was nothing to suggest an MDC victory. Given the state media blitz, the amount of fear in the electorate, the resources available to ZANU-PF it was logical to conclude that the election was not contested. In the herald of the 30th of March 2008, a day after the polling of some University of Zimbabwe lecturers’, the poll opinion made the headline: ‘President Mugabe tipped to win by at least 57%’. The survey went on to say that Morgan Tsvangirai would get at most a paltry 29% of the votes. Many pundits and special interest groups also predicted similarly with many Western Diplomats and some civics urging Tsvangirai to pull-out and rally behind Simba Makoni. On 23rd of February in the Mountainous city of Mutare, the MDC launched its election Manifesto. Over 40 000 people attended and that marked a turning of the tables. However the fear and activity on the ground continued to portray a ZANU-PF victory. The other factor that made it difficult to predict the outcome was the fact that this was the first election after the MDC split in October 2005. When the Parliamentary and council election results were announced, it became clear that the MDC had won but many predicted that it was going to be a close call between Mugabe and Tsvangirai. Unknown then was the fact that in many constituencies even those who had voted for a ZANU-PF MP/Senator switched and voted for Tsvangirai. Thus all done and said, the MDC had won 100 seats, ZANU-PF 99, MDC-M 10 in parliament. The Presidential results by the 30th of March were known and it was clear that Morgan Tsvangirai had won resoundingly. Rumor had it that Mugabe had conceded defeat and was prepared to leave office, probably because he was not sure of the response he would get from the party leadership then. Then, an urgent Politburo meeting on Sunday the 31st of March changed everything. The Politburo -through JOC- ordered the withholding of the results whilst they were working on the way forward. Well before the official announcement of the result, ZANU-PF declared a presidential run-off and rolled a campaign spearheaded by JOC which without doubt will go down in the election history of the country as the most frightening post-independence campaign. The presidential results were eventually announced after 34 days of the election. They indeed, as ZANU-PF had announced, had shown that there was to be a run-off. The results showed that Tsvangirai had won the election with 48.9%, Mugabe polled 42.7% and Makoni, an independent candidate from the Mavambo Project came a distant 3rd with 8.7% of the votes. Thus the run-off campaign started in earnest with so much determination from the masses that they expected that Mugabe would be history on June 27. The 1st election round had sent a message of hope to many that after all, Mugabe was not such a myth, that he was not invincible. However JOC went all out declaring publicly that if ZANU-PF loses this election there was going to be war. Video clips of wars in areas like Sudan, Afghanistan and other war-torn zones were shown on national television. These were said to be videos of the 2nd Chimurenga, Zimbabwe liberation struggle which led to independence. Efforts would be made to convince people in a specific area that that particular video was actually taken in that area. MDC activists were abducted in broad daylight, many were found brutally murdered. There was no effort to conceal these hideous acts. Eventually Tsvangirai pulled out of the elections on the 21st of June 2008, amid mixed feeling. Many were determined to vote at whatever cost, many also thought this was the right thing to do. Mugabe refused to accept the pull out and went ahead with the election. The election was marked with serious voter turn-out in towns and almost 100% turn-out in rural areas, where people were forced to go to polling stations behind their chiefs. Over 300 MDC supporters died in the run-up to this election and rightly so the election was declared neither free nor fair by all observer missions. The ANC Youth League President Julius Malema calling it ‘the worst joke of all time’. SADC and the AU then pushed for the political parties to dialogue and find a way forward.

Future Challenges

There is no doubt that the 2008 harmonized elections in Zimbabwe has left an indelible imprint to the postindependence electoral history of the country. The way in which future elections will be held in Zimbabwe will certainly have some references to the 2008 election. I must confess that Zimbabweans have witnessed first hand that electoralism alone does not suffice and they have understood that military juntas hold elections to confer themselves with legitimacy. Like the Zimbabwe Election Support Network report puts it “their dream is to reap the fruit of electoral legitimacy without running the risk of democratic uncertainty”. The hard questions are how do we make elections count in building democratic states? Can elections alone be the ingredient for legitimate leadership or as Mugabe puts it the gun must remain the guarantor/protector of the same vote. These are questions Zimbabweans are grappling with as the current transition unfolds. The major benchmark for success for the Inclusive government is to build conditions for a free and fair election in the near future. However a year later nothing seems to have shifted in that regard. The transition therefore seems to be a stagnant progression. The possibility of an election in the next two years is remote but more frightening is the fact that even in 2013 the fundamentals for a free and fair election might not be there. ZANU-PF on the ground seems to be rebuilding its structures of violence. The current constitution making process has provided a perfect ground for that to happen. In constitutional meetings, ZANU-PF supporters when they see they are losing the debate they have of late been singing “zvikaramba tinoita hwaJune”, meaning “if we don’t succeed we will repeat what we did in June”, in reference to the violence that rocked the country in 2008 in the run-up to the run-off.

With this picture I am painting what then is the way forward, is democracy an alien concept that does not work in Zimbabwe? I believe that the game changer in Zimbabwe is the security apparatus. And understanding that the security has a very strong link to the liberation heritage is the key in unlocking the current log jam. The future of real reforms in the way we conduct elections and the way results will be respected depends on the proper understanding of the relations between the security arrangements and the liberation legacy. Without this, elections will remain just another event that brings nothing but trauma to the people of Zimbabwe. And with understanding this, the right levers can then be pushed. The right levers in this case being the current South African President Jacob Zuma.