The Brutality of Robert Mugabe and Zanu-Pf In Zimbabwe

Photograph Source: TwoWings – CC BY-SA 2.5

The independence elections, 27-29 March 1980, saw two main parties competing: ZANU-PF won 57 of the then 80 common roll seats, and 63% of the popular vote; and PF-ZAPU led by Joshua Nkomo gained 20 seats and 24% of the vote. It was clear that ZANU-PF controlled the ZANLA guerrillas whose ‘presence was felt in over two-thirds of the country’, mostly in the Shona-speaking regions, and there was no doubt that ‘peace meant a ZANU-PF victory.’[1] Turnout was a huge 91% of eligible voters. But participation fell to 54% in 1990, ZANU-PF having engulfed ZAPU after December 1987, and fell further to 31% in 1996.[2] A deep and routinised despotism was being entered into under ZANU-PF and Robert Mugabe, almost unparalleled in severity. The liberation struggle had been severe, but the deaths and destruction over four subsequent decades were unrelenting: the main tombstones were Gukurahundi; farm expropriations; war in the Congo; Murambatsvima; the 2008 elections and ‘politicide’ against the MDC; and Marange diamonds. Each will be considered in turn. Robert Mugabe has gone, but ZANU-PF and the military remain. A new Zimbabwe is not around the corner.


At a ruling party rally in north-east Mashonaland, in late August 1981, then Prime Minister Mugabe announced that North Korea had given Zimbabwe US$12 million to establish and train a new brigade of the National Army. He said that he was suspicious of people who did not join ZANU-PF, or attend its meetings, ‘the party that was responsible for the independence and freedom of Zimbabwe.’[3] The Five Brigade’s imposing passing out parade took place in December 1982, when Mugabe handed over the brigade’s flag, emblazoned with Gukurahundi, (‘the rain that blows away the chaff before the spring rains’) to Colonel Perence Shiri, 5 Brigade’s first commander. Instructing the Brigade to “plough and re-construct”, the Prime Minister said they were ready for immediate deployment: within days the unit arrived in Matabeleland North.[4]

Following quickly, 5 Brigade under Shiri was ‘responsible for mass murders, beatings and property burnings in the communal living areas of Northern Matabeleland, where hundreds of thousands of ZAPU supporters lived.’ 5 Brigade passed through Tsholotsho, spreading out quickly through Lupane and Nkayi, and their impact on all of them was ‘shocking’. Within six weeks, more than 2,000 civilians had died, and thousands were beaten. Most of the dead were killed in public executions. The largest number of dead in a single incident was in Lupane, where 62 men and women were shot on the banks of the Cewale River on 5 March. A fifteen-year-old girl was of this number, and testified that “they beat me with a thick stick…all over the body…All 62 of us were lined up and shot by the Five Brigade. By some chance, 7 of us survived with gun shot wounds. I was shot in the left thigh…[5]

In February 1983, northern Matabeleland South felt the onslaught. Civilians using the main Bulawayo-Plumtree road were particularly vulnerable: in several recorded incidents ‘people were taken from buses at road blocks, and never seen again.’ In February 1984, indicative of the weight of this campaign in Matabeleland South, systematic mass beatings and mass detentions lasted several months. Apart from the abuses meted out by 5 Brigade, CCJP noted here a ‘far higher incidence’ of abuse perpetrated by the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO).[6]

One of the worst aspects of the repression was the food embargo imposed on Matebeleland South and its 400,000 inhabitants, in early 1984. Residents were already affected by three consecutive years of drought, when government restrictions prevented all movements of food into and around the region. Existing drought relief was stopped and stores were closed. Almost no people were allowed into and out of the region to buy food, and private food supplies were destroyed. 5 Brigade ‘actively punished those villagers who shared food with starving neighbours.’ Commanders repeatedly declared at rallies that the government intended to ‘starve all the Ndebele to death’: people were told ‘they would be starved until they ate each other, including their own wives and children.’ To ensure that starvation was absolute, 5 Brigade also broke down fences to allow cattle to graze whatever few hardy crops might have survived.[7]

Mass detentions and beatings deepened the terror. A common pattern involved making people lie face down in rows, after which they were beaten with thick sticks. People were made to roll in and out of water while being beaten, sometimes naked. Sadism reigned. Men and women were forced to ‘run around in circles with their index fingers on the ground, and were beaten for falling over.’[8]

Bhalagwe Camp in Matobo District became the centre for mass detentions of people in February 1984. Detainees confirmed later that 136 people were kept in sheds 12 by 6 metres in size. There were no beds, and floor space was so limited that people had to lie squeezed together on their sides. On 7 February that year, detainees totalled 1,856, comprising 1,000 men and 856 women. Bhalagwe’s holding capacity was reportedly ‘vast’, perhaps 5,000 people at a time. Prisoners were drawn from the whole of Matabeleland, and villagers seldom knew any but a few at most of their fellow detainees. When a person died in detention, ‘possibly nobody at all, would know that person’s name.’[9]

From 10 to 14 January 1984, the government appointed Chihambakwe Committee on Inquiry met in Bulawayo to hear testimony from witnesses to events between December 1982 and March 1983. The Committee had expected only a handful of witnesses, but were ‘confronted by hundreds’. Brief hearings were held in January and March, then no more was heard from it. In November 1985, Emmerson Mnangagwa, described as head of security services, announced that the Commission of Inquiry Report would not be made public.

Phimister and others say that the actual numbers of dissidents was exaggerated, and notes that 5 Brigade was almost exclusively used to suppress the rural population, not to fight. Estimates vary, but perhaps 20,000 were killed by the time 5 Brigade withdrew in 1986. ‘Probably ‘hundreds of thousands of others were tortured, assaulted or raped or had their property destroyed’.[10] Danny Stannard, a member of Rhodesian security and of the CIO, believes that ‘anything between 30 and 50 thousand died’.[11]

Britain was largely unconcerned by events in Matabeland. Joshua Nkomo’s flight into exile in March 1983, following a 5 Brigade attack on his Bulawayo home, prompted some embarrassment in Westminster in accommodating him while proclaiming normalcy and placating Mugabe. In August that year, Britain agreed to ‘re-train’ 5 Brigade officers, and Foreign Secretary Francis Pym explained that it was ‘a difficult situation for Mr Mugabe to handle’. President Ronald Reagan deemed Zimbabwe eligible to receive United States’ military aid in December 1982. Bishop Desmond Tutu was almost alone in Africa in his criticism of Mugabe.

The 2000 Referendum and Farm Expropriation

The constitutional referendum of 12-13 February 2000 would have increased the executive powers of the president, given President Mugabe ten more years in office, and allowed the compulsory acquisition of farm land without compensation. The majority of the electorate boycotted the referendum altogether—only 1.3 million voted out of an electorate of some 5 million—and 55% said “No”. With whites making up less than 1% of the population, it was ‘the teeming black townships in Harare and Bulawayo’ that swung the vote. Inflation was already over 60%, 70% of people were in deep poverty, fuel was short, and Mugabe had begun what was soon a deeply unpopular deployment of Zimbabwean troops to prop up Congo’s President Laurent Kabila.[12]

By early 1994, the government operated a so-called land redistribution programme which, according to Robert Drew, was ‘benefiting a powerful new elite’, specifically senior officers in the Army, Air Force, Police, and the CIO: now Air Marshal Perence Shiri, for instance, had acquired a 2,800 hectare farm. The invasion of commercial farms commenced just three days after the lost referendum, on 16 February, in Masvingo province, spearheaded by self-styled War Veterans. Numbering between 50,000 and 70,000, they had been organised and promoted by the President. In November 1997, they received large handouts: a lump sum of Z$ 50,000, plus a monthly pension of Z$ 2,000 to each Veteran. This represented an outlay of some Z$ 4.5 billion. By mid-March, more than 500 farms had been occupied, and by November, 1,700 had been seized.[13]

On the 20th anniversary of the country’s independence, President Mugabe branded white commercial farmers “enemies of the state”. As assaults on farmers and farm workers, and deaths, escalated from April 2000, judicial orders for the removal of occupiers were ignored by the police. A new opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), had been formed, with trade union backing, and support from civil society. When Nathan Shamuyarira, a noted government loyalist, declared that “the area of violence is an area where ZANU-PF has a very strong, long and successful history”, he probably had the MDC and its backers in mind.[14]

The formation of the MDC was a highly significant development. It had grown integrally out of the trade union movement, newly galvanised through the successful holding of two national strikes in the past year, one over food and the other over the financial costs of the War Veterans. Its interim leader was Morgan Tsvangirai, a nickel miner, executive member of the Amalgamated Mineworkers Union and, since 1988, the secretary general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), representing 500,000 unionised workers. It also had the support of churches, women, students, lawyers and rights groups. Michael Hartnack said that the ZCTU had shown that it had ‘the full backing of virtually the entire urban black population of about 4 million people’.[15] 20,000 people turned out to launch the MDC on 11 September 1999.

It was a new kind of party possessing strong organisational and democratic potentialities. The theme of its inaugural meeting was that Zimbabweans were now worse off than in 1980, and Mugabe and ZANU-PF were “looters and kleptocrats”. The MDC’s manifesto promised sweeping governmental and economic reforms, starting with Mugabe’s vast system of patronage—the reduction of the then 51-member cabinet to 20 ministers. Tsvangirai personally was well aware of ZANU-PF’s propensity for violence, having narrowly escaped death when, in December 1997, seven people, believed to be Veterans, burst into his office and savagely attacked him. Change almost dawned at parliamentary elections in June 2000: 57 of the 120 seats contested were won by the MDC, along with 49 per cent of the vote. The European Union reported a systematic campaign of violence over months, when 36 people were killed.[16]

The losses experienced in the land seizures were enormous and many. As detailed by the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum in their report of June 2007, ‘widespread human rights violations were inflicted upon white farmers and black farm workers by agents of [Mugabe’s government]’ during the invasions from 2000 to 2005. ‘Immense financial losses were inflicted upon the farm owners’, and farm workers suffered ‘catastrophic losses of income, habitation, health services and access to clean water and sanitation, contribut[ing] to a high death rate.’ 53,000 people suffered ‘assaults, torture, being held hostage, unlawful detention and death threats’, their survey showed. If extrapolated to include all commercial farms nation-wide, the number of people suffering abuses during the seizures ‘could be more than one million’. The total financial losses incurred by white farmers in the survey were an estimated US$ 368 million: extrapolated to the entire commercial farming sector, the costs were no less than US$ 8.4 billion. The losses suffered by farm workers ‘were life threatening’. One per cent of workers and their families had ‘died since losing their jobs’. Extrapolated to the population of one million farm workers and their families, ‘10,000 people could have died after displacement’: anecdotal evidence from commercial farmers, they noted, suggested a considerably higher figure. The farmers’ organisation, Justice for Agriculture (JAG), claimed that some half a million farm workers and their dependents perished over the subsequent decade from starvation and disease.[17]

Survey data clearly showed that all this occurred because of ‘organised appropriation by an elite’. War Veterans and members of ZANU-PF ‘were the largest number of perpetrators, followed by the police.’ Other ‘significant perpetrators were members of parliament, officials from the president’s office, and provincial governors’: a detailed listing, revealed 21 judges, 21 magistrates, and 17 governors among the perpetrators. The Forum found no evidence of spontaneous, popular seizures, as government repeatedly claimed, but instead planned and organised expropriations by state agents.

By the end of 2005, close to 4,000 of the original 4,500 commercial farmers had been evicted from their farms, and ‘hundreds of thousands of farm workers had lost their jobs and their homes’.[18] The NGO Forum’s report of April 2010 (Land Reform and Property Rights in Zimbabwe), noted that over the then eight years of violence, 1.3 million workers and their families had been displaced from their homes. On a sample of 3,000 displaced workers, 26 had been killed, 11 raped, and 1,600 assaulted. The majority (47.2 per cent), moreover, ‘were supporters of the MDC’. Such support suggests another reason for the assaults on farm workers. In the three Mashonaland provinces workers’ and their families numbered around 600,000, and the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers Union was active there. The 600,000 was a significant electoral block. The Forum’s 2007 report suggested that ‘if their votes were cast in favour of the MDC, they could have spelt defeat for ZANU-PF’ in three important regions.[19] JAG believed that Mugabe wanted to ‘shatter’ this electoral block.[20]

The 2010 report also noted that for many years, Zimbabwe had been a bread basket of Africa. With productive farmland, it grew enough food to feed its own people and export the rest. Now it was ‘dependent upon food aid programmes to feed its population.’[21] But by 2008, Mugabe and his family were thought to have acquired ‘at least a dozen’ farms.[22]

Military Intervention in Congo

Zimbabwe’s intrusion into Congo-Kinshasa began in 1998, but was prefigured in 1996, when President Mugabe supposedly ‘donated’ US$ 55 million to finance Kabila’s rebellion against Joseph Mobutu. An organisation called Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI) was characteristically a state-owned firm run by retired military chiefs. Kabila was said to have bought their backing with a promise that their intervention would be ‘self-financing’. An initial deployment of 6,000 troops, with Hawk, MiG 21 fighter-aircraft, and armed helicopters, was made on the decision of President Mugabe alone. An opinion poll commissioned by local human rights groups in October reported 70 per cent of people opposed to the war. Before December the number of troops had grown to 13,000, as were the rising numbers of dead and wounded troops arriving back at night at Thornhill air-base. Secret too was the costs of the fighting, with estimates suggesting they were between one-half and one million US dollars a day. In November, Harare erupted in anti-government riots, with crowds shouting “No Go Congo!”. By the end of 1999, 164 soldiers were believed to have been killed and over 400 seriously injured.

How and why the Mugabe government was in the Congo was suggested by an organisation called Osleg, officially ‘the commercial unit’ of the Zimbabwean Defence Force: in reality it was privately owned by four men, two of them senior minerals’ managers, another a permanent secretary to the Ministry of Defence, and the other General Vitalis Zvinavashe, Commander of the ZDF, and of the Congo operation. Osleg was heavily involved in buying diamonds and gold. Mugabe was in the Congo to plunder its natural resources. By late 2001, around 16,000 Zimbabwean troops were engaged, and reputable sources placed the costs at US$ 27.7 million a month.[23]

In the April 2005 parliamentary elections, in a pattern even clearer than in 2000, ZANU-PF lost control of the country’s major urban centres. Despite violence and rigged electoral systems, there was no hiding the fact that the ‘MDC won all seven parliamentary seats in Bulawayo and all but one of Harare’s 18 seats.’ What came next was an act of ‘retribution’ against the urban poor majority by a ‘vituperative’ ruling party.[24]

Operation Murambatsvina

Operation ‘Drive Out Rubbish’ began with speed and ferocity in May. As the UN’s special envoy, Anna Tibaijuka, soon made clear, “hundreds of thousands of women, men and children were made homeless, without access to food, water and sanitation, or health care…The vast majority of those directly and indirectly affected are the poor and disadvantaged segments of the population.”[25] Tibaijuka calculated that those directly affected by Murambatsvina were ‘700,000 people in cities across the country [who] had either lost their homes or livelihoods or both’: the numbers indirectly affected was over 2.1 million. The UN mission estimated that ‘the total population directly and indirectly affected…[was] about 2.4 million.’ In urban areas, ‘more than three-quarters of the sample reported being affected (76%), whereas fewer than half (44%) made the same claim in rural areas.’[26] Operation OM constituted massive repression of the urban poor. Given voting trends in 2005, and the fact that ‘gains for the MDC were especially marked among OM victims’, Bratton and Masunungure believed that ‘ZANU-PF would be unlikely to win without massive intimidation and fraud.’[27]

The Report of the UN’s Fact Finding Mission contained telling detail. OM began on 19 May 2005, with little or no warning in Harare, and rapidly evolved into a nationwide demolition and eviction campaign carried out by the police and the army, ‘with indifference to human suffering.’ By 25 May, a massive military operation affected many cities, targeting vendors’ stalls and flea markets, and supposed ‘illegal’ housing structures. 20,000 vendors countrywide were arrested within a week. It also involved ‘the bulldozing, smashing and burning of structures housing many thousands of poor urban dwellers.’ People were forced to demolish their own buildings: ‘the police beat some people who offered resistance, or did not demolish their houses quickly enough.’ Hundreds of thousands of people ‘were rendered homeless and without any viable form of livelihood.’ By 7 July 2005, an estimated 570,000 people had lost their homes.

The evictions and destruction had come in the middle of the academic year, and seriously harmed primary education. Zimbabwe had 1.3 million orphans, and many were affected by OM. ‘Many women and girls suffered greatly’. A 44-year old woman was living in the open with her four children in Mutare. She had lost her home and her work trading vegetables. But she would not go back to a rural home, as instructed, because that would mean her children would have to drop out of school. Now all of them were sleeping on the remnants of the foundations that used to be their home. Night temperatures were around 8 degrees, and the family had to huddle around an open fire. Some 40,800 families directly affected by OM were headed by women.[28]

Murambatsvina was occurring within a political economy ravaged by earlier state outrages, and it was worsening them further. In September 2005, inflation was reaching 360% p.a., unemployment was some 80%, and almost 3 million people were in need of food aid. More than 20% of adults were infected with HIV/AIDS.[29] President Mugabe flagrantly promoted the violent suppression of dissent. He declared on 29 March 2007: “Of course [Morgan Tsvangarai] was bashed. He deserved it…I told the police to beat him a lot.” Eleven days earlier, MDC spokesperson, and MP, Nelson Chamisa, was attacked with iron bars by eight unidentified men in the departure lounge of Harare International Airport.[30]

Most African governments said nothing, ‘while some even praised Zimbabwe’ for supposedly achieving slum clearance. Ndlovu saw indications that the government was succeeding in its ‘goal of disorganising the urban population’. A prime exception was Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA). They marched in Bulawayo on 18 June 2007, to note World Refugee Day, and demanded an end to Murambatsvina. They called themselves ‘refugees with no refuge’, ‘living like birds in the trees’.[31]

Coming in the wake of Gukurahundi, the farm invasions, and Murambatsvina, some observers saw these actions as Mugabe’s determination to suppress the urban poor, and prevent any ‘possible uprising among [them].’ According to John Makumbe, Mugabe “wants to rule over a country of barefoot peasants who will not demand anything from his government.”[32]

The 2008 Elections and ‘Politicide’ Against MDC

Early in the year, Tsvangirai was severely assaulted by police in Harare, who knocked him unconscious, fractured his skull, and caused major internal bleeding. Several other party members were also badly beaten. Amidst heavy violence, but drawing large crowds on his campaign, the voting in combined presidential and parliamentary elections on 29 March 2008, saw Tsvangirai winning 49.4% of the vote, against 41.8% for Mugabe, on provisional poll projections of the Zimbabwe Election Support Network, released on 3 April. MDC had split over a tactical issue in 2005, but the formation led by Tsvangirai and the group led by Arthur Mutambura won a combined majority in parliament, 114 out of a total of 210 seats. These were the results posted at polling stations, photographed by MDC and bodies such as ZESN and circulated widely. Soon MDC claimed on completed voting that Tsvangirai won outright with 50.3%, and the Electoral Commission (ZEC) appeared to acknowledge that ZANU-PF had lost its parliamentary majority.[33]

The official results were carefully delayed for five weeks, and not released until 2 May.[34] Between March and what became a second round of voting in June, ‘appalling violence’, saw some 200 people murdered, thousands seriously assaulted and thousands more displaced.[35]

The Joint Operations Command (JOC), decided within days of the election ‘to deploy a strategy of delay and violence’.[36] The British government named the six top men in the JOC, and accused them of responsibility for the resulting “campaign of terror”: topping the list was Emmerson Mnangagwa, JOC chairman, Mugabe’s enforcer since their guerrilla days; second was Perence Shiri, now commander of the air force; another was General Constantine Chiwenga, head of the Defence Forces; the police chief, Augustine Chihuri; the head of the prison service, Paradzayi Zimondi; and Gideon Gono, governor of the Reserve Bank, ‘who bankrolled the campaign’ by printing money. According to the Guardian’s diplomatic editor, the strategy used against the MDC was ‘reminiscent of Gukurahundi’.

Soldiers, police, War Veterans, CIO agents and militias targeted areas that voted heavily for MDC ‘with the aim of instilling terror.’ Effective organisers were identified, tortured and assassinated. Camps were set up across the country where suspected MDC supporters were held and tortured.[37] The killing campaign began about 10 April, and in late June there was believed to be about 3,000 militia bases country-wide, holding some 2,000 MDC detainees.[38] At the beginning of the onslaught, most senior MDC leaders were reportedly outside the country in fear of their lives.[39]

For suspected MDC organisers and supporters, the campaign was devastating. The patients at Louisa Guidotti hospital, some 90 miles north east of Harare, said that eight armed men went from bed to bed forcing out anyone who could walk. About 70 people were gathered in the grounds, and instructed: “This is your last chance. You messed up when you voted. Next time you vote you must get it right or you will die.” Then the men set off for the next village. Across Mashonaland, Manicaland and Matabeleland, where the MDC had made strong inroads into ZANU-PF support, armed men moved between villages, threatening dire consequences if the vote went against Mugabe again. MDC supporters were identified and beaten or driven from their homes. The same message was repeated: “If ZANU-PF loses again there will be a war.”[40]

Peter Godwin, an experienced writer and journalist, met three men who, as MDC organisers and office holders, had direct personal experience of the violence that almost overwhelmed them between late March and early May. One was Denias Dombo, who farmed groundnuts and maize, and lived in a brushed-earth kraal with three thatched houses, and his seven cattle in a thorn-tree pen. He was district organising secretary for the MDC in Mudzi, where it was his job to obtain police clearance for party meetings: his affiliation and address was thus on record with the police. Two locally well-known ZANU-PF members burnt down his house, and soon about 30 youths in ZANU-PF shirts swarmed into his kraal, armed with sticks and iron bars. Dombo and his family tried to barricade themselves in the kitchen, but he decided “it was better for me to come out, or they will kill my family.” The mob converged on him, he “heard the bones in my arms crack, and then “my blood was rushing out everywhere.” Later he heard them ‘setting about his prize possessions, his seven cattle, with axes.’ “They cut the tendons on their back legs.” When Godwin met him, Dombo lay on a hospital bed in Dandara, his left leg in plaster from hip to heel, and both arms in plaster casts. His wife and daughters and his baby son were missing.

Another was Emmanuel Chirito, a councillor in Harare where the MDC had just won 45 out of 46 seats, and he became elective mayor as a result. His house too was attacked and burnt by a column of youth militia. He narrowly escaped the CIO, but then learnt that his wife’s body had been found, swollen and battered, in the morgue at Parirenyata Hospital. Morgan Tsvangirai phoned to “see if I wanted to continue as mayor, if I felt I could manage”. I said: “My wife has died while we were fighting this election, so I must continue.”

Henry Chimbiri, a former high-school teacher, active in the union movement, had held various MDC posts, then stood as its parliamentary candidate in Mount Darwin South. While trying to campaign, he was beaten and imprisoned. They handcuffed me and blindfolded me, threw me into the back of a vehicle, and drove fast out of the city, he said. Then an interrogation began. A man called ‘Skipper’ had a ‘silver crochet hook’, who said: “we are going to teach you a lesson”. He pushed the hook inside my penis, and then he twisted it. “I could feel the blood spurting down on to my thighs…He punched my mouth repeatedly…Then he wrenched the hook out. Blood flowed even more.” His assailants drove away.

Godwin noted that not a single person had been brought to justice for any of ‘the thousands and thousands of atrocities’ committed by Mugabe’s men during mid-2008, the time the survivors called The Fear.[41]

Rape was at the centre of the terror against MDC female members and supporters. The organisation AIDS-Free World, gained testimonies from 70 women who survived intense rape by ZANU-PF. The women interviewed ‘were collectively raped at least 380 times by 241 different youth militia and war veterans. Each woman was on average raped five times’. AIDS-Free noted that the rapists were explicit about their intent to humiliate and harm the women, as cruelly as possible. A 29-year-old woman from Masvingo was forced to lie on top of her husband (‘as a pillow’) while multiple ZANU-PF men raped her. Daughters as young as five and eleven were repeatedly raped in front of their mothers. The toll from AIDS in Zimbabwe then was an ‘estimated 400 deaths per day’.[42]

No redress for the victims of this state violence existed, as ‘the majority of the senior judiciary’ were fundamentally compromised by patronage. Judges of the Supreme Court, with a very small number of exceptions, had earlier accepted as gifts farms seized from their legal owners. In August 2008, the Reserve Bank announced in the press that it had purchased and delivered luxury cars, plasma televisions and electricity generators to all judges.[43]

Tsvangirai returned home on 24 May, after six weeks of fruitless efforts to win support among southern African countries. On 22 June, he withdrew from the second round of the presidential election, just five days before the vote. He said: “The militia…and even Mugabe himself have made it clear that anyone who votes for me…faces the very real possibility of being killed. We in the MDC cannot ask them to cast their vote on 27 June when that vote could cost them their lives.” Tsvangirai’s statement almost repeated what Mugabe’s thugs were saying, for which people were already dying. An estimated 270 activists, almost all MDC supporters, died during the 2008 elections.[44] Since Mugabe lost the first vote on 29 March, terror had reigned. Torture and rape were committed ‘on a catch-and-release basis’. Those who survived but broken, taken home in wheelbarrows, were ‘human billboards’ for the consequences of opposing tyranny.[45] Perhaps 10,000 were tortured and, centralised under the JOC, it constituted systematic, criminal abuse.

Tsvangirai’s eleventh-hour withdrawal seriously underestimated the staying power of the MDC’s supporters. Godwin met many survivors, and what defined them best was their strength and persistence. He began his enquiries by trying to conceal their names and locations, but ‘again and again’, he noted, ‘they volunteer their names, and make sure I spell them correctly. They are proud of their roles in all of this, and of the significance of their sacrifice. And they want it recorded.’

Emmanuel Chiroto was cruelly tortured. Friends later pressed him to seek employment outside, and Godwin asked if he ‘had enough of all this, of the constant danger?’ But for Chiroto: “I’m so soaked into politics now and I’ve realised that sometimes you suffer for others, and it hardens you. For me to stop this, I would feel guilty…There’s an incomplete project that I haven’t finished.”

Chenjerai Mangezo was another persistent survivor. A small farmer, he decided to run in 2008 as an MDC candidate for the Bindura Rural District Council, ‘a hard-line Mugabe institution’, and against all odds, he won. Soon after, a posse of ZANU-PF men attacked him, breaking his legs and arms. When he made it to hospital, ‘he was barely alive.’ But when he heard that the swearing-in ceremony for Bindura Rural councillors was due to take place, he was determined to be there, against doctors’ orders and common sense. And he continues to sit on the Council, among men of the ruling party, some of whom oversaw his beating. “I see them every day…I walk past them on the road.” For Godwin, Mangezo’s motivations were neither forgiveness or reconciliation, but a passionate and persistent quest for justice.[46]

There were many such defiant survivors, and they seem to have recognised that terror and fear was ‘the base upon which the tyrant’s power ultimately rests’. By 2008, this had existed in Zimbabwe for some 26 years. Gukurahundi was an operation to ‘shatter the structure of an opposition party’. A quarter-century later, the Matabeleland massacres ‘still loom large to the people [t]here: an unrequited tragedy…that festers at the heart of everything.’[47] Then came the farm seizures, so destructive of the rural economy and society, Murambatsvina’s wholesale assault on the urban poor, and later the killings and looting at Marange. There was close continuity here, and reason for Tsvangirai’s recognition of the endurance of the MDC’s supporters.

Unity Government and Marange Diamonds

A so-called power-sharing government came into being in February 2009, where ZANU-PF held predominant power: it retained control of all senior ministries, including Defence, Justice, State Security, and Foreign Affairs, and it co-chaired Home Affairs: Finance went to the MDC seemingly because Mugabe saw it less important than having his man at the Reserve Bank printing money. ZANU-PF held ‘significantly more power than the MDC’. The once vibrant MDC even ‘appeared to be giving ground to ZANU-PF’ in its efforts to ensure the government’s survival.[48] Cholera, a readily preventable disease, had killed 4,200 people earlier that year, built on the institutionalised repression and lawlessness of the past decades.

War Veterans and youth militia continued their attacks on the MDC. On 22 July 2009, ruling party activists in Mvuma assaulted Athanacia Mlilo, the 73-year-old mother of the MDC’s international relations coordinator, with iron bars, and on 1 August, three soldiers attacked Finance Minister Tendai Biti’s gardener at Biti’s Harari home.

The Marange Diamond Fields in eastern Zimbabwe were discovered as a big source of alluvial gems in 2006, the government declared the fields open to anyone, and some 35,000 people were panning there by the end of the year. The Mugabe government reversed its position on Marange in 2007, and in October 2008, announced Operation Hakudzokwi (Never Return): more than 200 people were killed, as soldiers, dogs and helicopter gunships were deployed against unarmed miners.[49] The militarisation of the diamonds soon became clear, but the true value of Marange diamonds, and the identities of their beneficiaries, were deliberately obscured. The mining minister, Obert Mpofu, announced in November 2011, that Marange diamonds would generate US$ 2 billion a year. In the first half of 2012, Global Witness reported that several directors of the mining company Anjin were drawn from the military and the police, and that the CIO had received ‘off-budget financing’ in exchange for diamonds. Later reports said that Marange’s diamonds were running out, and in February 2016, the mining minister ordered all Marange diamond companies to cease operations. In March that year, President Mugabe announced that only US$ 2 billion had been received out of an anticipated US$ 15 billion from Marange’s diamonds, and claimed that private companies had ‘robbed’ the country. The actual robbers were much closer to home.[50]

On 8 March 2010, Finance Minister Biti revealed that, two years after the military took control in Marange, not one cent had entered the national treasury. Partnership Africa Canada (PAC) said in June that elements in ZANU-PF were jockeying for power in a post-Mugabe era, and these elites were ‘intimately tied’ to the JOC. One such was the Minister of Defence, Emmerson Mnangagwa, closely involved with JOC’s efforts to monopolise Marange’s diamonds. PAC saw ‘a continuum’ existing between recent key events: the military’s plunder of the Congo’s resources; the seizure of white commercial farms; and Marange. They believed that the ‘biggest winners’ among the JOC from the farm seizures were Air Marshall Perence Shiri, Police Commissioner Augustine Chihuri, and Head of Prisons Paradzau Zimondi, ‘who received 14 farms between them’, while Mnangagwa ‘scored two’.[51] They believed that the number of those killed in Marange was hidden by ‘the iron-fisted control’ of the military.[52]

Global Witness had no doubt that the ‘true beneficiaries’ of Zimbabwe’s diamond wealth include the CIO and the military. Namely the Director General of the CIO, Happyton Bonyongwe, and Commander of the Defence Forces, Gen. Constantine Chiwenga. Since 2010, Zimbabwe officially exported over US $2.5 billion in diamonds, on the figures of the Kimberley Process. But in 2017, ‘only around US$ 300 million [could] be clearly identified in public accounts.’ Five major mining companies operated in Marange: Kusena Diamonds, Anjin Investments, Jinan Mining, Diamond Mining Corporation and Mbada Diamonds. A ‘substantial portion of Anjin’ was indirectly owned by Zimbabwe Defence Industries (ZDI), a military company active, as noted, in gold and diamonds’ looting in Congo. Mbada operated one of Marange’s largest mining concessions, and in 2014 publicly celebrated a turnover of US$ 1 billion. Some of these companies represented valuable sources of ‘off-budget’ financing to the security services.[53]

Obert Mpofu, Mines Minister, deserves recognition as a non-military man and for the immense size of the wealth he acquired. Very rich before his appointment, his assets grew ‘exponentially’ after he granted the first lease at Marange. He became one of the five largest landholders in Zimbabwe. He is especially proud of his herd of about 3,000 breeding cattle. For PAC, he is the top ZANU-PF patron in Matabeleland. They note Mpofu’s ‘deference’ to the military chiefs who control and exploit Marange’s riches, ‘especially those aligned to Defence Minister Mnangagwa, the heir apparent when President Mugabe dies.’ His wealth as mines minister is best understood as part of the bigger story of ‘the greed and corruption at the heart of ZANU-PF’.[54]

Ordinary Zimbabweans had gained nothing from the diamonds. By 2017, the country’s external debt was estimated at around US$ 10 billion, some 4 million people were classified as ‘food insecure’, and formal unemployment was about 80%.[55]

Nothing improved for most people following Tsvangirai’s withdrawal in the 2008 election, and under subsequent Unity. Repressive laws remained on the statute books, and the police continued to invoke them to violate people’s basic rights. One of the most notorious was the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), which severely limits rights to demonstrate, criminalises “insulting” the President, and publishing “inaccurate” information.[56]

The leadership of the armed forces, police, prison service, and CIO, remained firmly aligned with President Mugabe and ZANU-PF. The power-sharing agreement formally abolished the notorious JOC, replacing it with the National Security Council, chaired by Mugabe and Prime Minister Tsvangirai. But the new Council had met ‘only once in six months’, and ZANU-PF has ‘continued to use the JOC’s provincial structures, and JOC members continue[d] to hold clandestine weekly meetings with Mugabe.[57] The CIO functioned ‘as an agency of ZANU-PF, answerable only to the president’.[58]

The military leadership continued to publicly support President Mugabe and ZANU-PF while denigrating Prime Minister Tsvangirai and the MDC. On 4 May 2013, Defence Force commander, General Chiwenga, refused to meet the Prime Minister to discuss security reforms: “We have no time to meet sell-outs. …Its just not possible for me to entertain the MDC-T leader…No one can make us turn our backs on the ideals of the liberation struggle.” These were representative views. In May 2011, then-Brig-Gen Douglas Nyikayaramba affirmed: “Truly speaking, I am in ZANU-PF and [it] is in me and you can’t change that.”[59]

The Undermining of the MDC

The delivery of supplies of seeds, fertiliser and fuel from international donors, all vital for economic recovery, had reportedly been conditional on the formation of the government of national unity: at the end of 2008, only some 5% of the food production that existed at independence in 1980 remained. Agriculture, the backbone of the economy, had been stripped, and on UN estimates, more than two-thirds of Zimbabweans were living on one meal, or less, per day. Life expectancy for women was 33 years (the lowest in the world), down from 57 in 1980. Though ‘no meaningful authority’ had actually been ceded to the MDC,[60] they shared in the opprobrium which the dual government attracted. National Unity’s purchase of a fleet of US$ 50,000 Mercedes Benz, one for every minister, exemplified the dual problem of waste and preferment. Both ZANU-PF and MDC had appointed more ministers than allowed by the constitution—a cabinet of 71–and each had acquired a full complement of aides. The country owed the IMF, in early 2009, US$ 89 million, and the Fund was known to be unhappy that the bulk of state spending, much of it funded by donors, was ‘going into salaries for civil servants’. Zimbabwe also owed the World Bank US$ 600 million, and the African Development Bank US$ 429 million, and the latter was clear, Zimbabwe must settle its existing debt before it could get new aid.

When the government also indulged its ministers in a so-called weekend “retreat” at a luxury resort at Victoria Falls, public outcry resulted. “It’s just like spitting in people’s faces, when the cities are suffering and much of the countryside is starving”, said Dumisani Moyo, an office worker in Harare. There had been a ‘national outpouring of sympathy’ for Tsvangirai when his wife died in a car crash in March 2009. But now some were asking if the MDC leader was being co-opted by President Mugabe, much like Joshua Nkomo was in the earlier ‘unity accord’ of 1987.[61]

It could be said that the MDC joined a unity government ‘for the best of reasons’: to rescue a country racked by hyperinflation, cholera and starvation. But by ceding key ministries like mines as well as security and the courts, the MDC gave ZANU-PF ‘the power and cash’ to ensure its re-election in its own right. Having retained control of the voters’ roll, Mugabe called elections in June, apparently wrong-footing the MDC. ‘Likely MDC supporters, such as city dwellers and the young, were kept away from polling stations.’ The MDC ‘may have been cheated out of up to one million votes’. But that left unexplained how someone as remorselessly destructive as Mugabe could garner 2,110,434 votes.[62]

The MDC in 2013 was split into three, and according to both Afrobarometer and the Zimbabwean Mass Public Opinion Institute, its popularity had slumped from 57% in 2008 to 31% in 2012, while ZANU-PF’s had grown over the same period from 10% to 31%. The trade union movement, the party’s home base, had fared even worse in the collapsed economy. With ‘most people’ believed to be at best in informal employment, the labour movement was incapacitated. The ZCTU which had some 500,000 members when the MDC was formed, had only 160,000 nationwide in 2012.

In the elections at the end of July, Mugabe easily won as president with 61% of the vote, to Tsvangirai’s 34%, and ZANU-PF took 142 seats in the 210-seat parliament. Tsvangirai labelled the elections “fraudulent and stolen”. But self-destruction was also at work. Blessing-Miles Tendi found ‘a greater sense of unity, purpose and discipline in the ZANU-PF campaign than in the MDC-T one’, and also noted that the MDC’s Western backers ‘were not as forthcoming with financial support as they were in 2008.’[63]

President Jacob Zuma quickly offered Mugabe his “profound congratulations”, but the response of the United States and Britain reflected their suspicions that the vote had been falsified. “Make no mistake”, said State Secretary John Kerry, “in light of substantial electoral irregularities reported…the United States does not believe that the results…represent a credible expression of the will of the Zimbabwean people.” William Hague, British foreign secretary, expressed “grave concern” about the conduct of the vote.[64] Global Witness alleged plausibly that ‘state diamond revenues were spent on securing Mugabe’s re-election.’[65] Unverified but credible reports pointed to ‘years of shady deals between Chinese mining companies [at Marange] and ZANU-PF officials…and documents allegedly showing the Party using the money to hire an Israel-based firm to rig the electoral roll’.[66]

There is little doubt that the MDC’s role in the Unity Government, and Morgan Tsvangirai’s political and personal behaviour, contributed to the MDC’s deflation and decline. Despite the fact that he was twice assaulted by ZANU-PF henchmen, in the first in 1997, they tried to throw him out of a tenth-floor window, it seems clear that Tsvangirai had allowed himself to be co-opted by President Mugabe. When he faced pressure from within the MDC’s national council (the party’s top body) to resign in January 2014, his critics stressed his ‘lack of strategic thinking’; that after 15 years as MDC President, he had lost three straight elections to Mugabe; and that his ‘multiple sexual dalliances’ had ‘tarnis[hed] the party’s image’. His personal failings had seen ‘traditional donors ditching the MDC’.[67] His inability to ‘manage his personal life’ had been on public display around October 2012 when, aged 60, he was forced to alter his ‘high-profile wedding’ after a judge ruled that he was already married under customary law to another woman. He and Elizabeth Macheka, aged 35, went ahead with a lavish ceremony, but did not sign the marriage register: he had been warned that bigamy charges could result, due to his ‘12-day marriage last year to Locardia Karimatsenga’.[68]

He was ready to express surprising sympathy and support for President Mugabe. “Mugabe is part of the solution” of the problem of transforming Zimbabwe into a functioning democracy, he claimed. Existing economic sanctions on Zimbabwe, like those of the European Union, should be lifted immediately: “the continuing restrictions are actually stifling any further reform.”[69]

There was little doubt that the MDC leader was in Mugabe’s pocket. After marrying Elizabeth Macheka, he had moved into an upmarket government house at 49 Kew Drive in Highlands. The Reserve Bank had agreed to give Tsvangirai US$ 1.5 million to buy the house, after the MDC withdrew from the Unity government, and after a private agreement was reached between Mugabe and Tsvangirai. Officials said the house was part of a wider understanding between the two leaders that the loser of the 2013 election “must accept defeat and the winner should be graceful in victory”. Mugabe reportedly knew that ‘Tsvangirai want[ed the house] badly.’ He knew well that the MDC leader did not ‘want to go back to live in the modest Strathaven suburb where he used to reside’. Extensive renovations valued at more than US$ 3.5 million were apparently also paid for by the state. Mugabe approved the use of state funds to buy the house. And then Tsvangirai apparently failed to repay the money, exposing himself further. Six members of MDC-T’s national council expressed their concerns in late February 2013, that Tsvangirai ‘had colluded with Mugabe’, and had made concessions on key constitutional and electoral issues.[70]

Further details emerged about Morgan Tsvangirai’s property acquisitions in the wake of his death from cancer in South Africa on 14 February 2018. An inventory filed in court by his widow, Macheka, declared a house in Strathaven, Harare, as his only immovable property, along with a herd of 45 cattle in Kwekwe and Buhera. He also owned six vehicles, including a Mercedes Benz S350 and a Mercedes GL. But a lawyer representing his family (in dispute with Macheka) told the Master of the High Court that Tsvangirai owned other properties in ‘Highlands, Borrowdale, Philadelphia, Number 16 Kent Road, and a farm in Mazoe.’ And he owned 23 vehicles.[71] The MDC had grounds to think that their party president had been thoroughly compromised by Mugabe.

Mnangagwa, the Military and Democratisation

When Mugabe moved to replace Vice-President Mnangagwa with his wife, Grace, a widely reviled person, as his likely successor, Gen Chiwenga brought the former’s 37-year rule to an end. It was a smooth and largely bloodless coup, which inter-mixed military, financial and political pressures. His troops netted Finance minister, Ignatius Chombo, accused of the theft of US$ 3.6 million, and believed to be ‘one of the few insiders [who knew] the locations of the Mugabes’ stolen wealth.’ On 21 November, ZANU-PF parliamentarians initiated impeachment proceedings against the President, and he ‘resigned that afternoon’. Gideon Gono, his long-trusted money man, then in charge of a big private bank, counselled Mugabe: ‘I can’t protect your money if you get impeached.’[72] The defence force commander and Mnangagwa had been together since Gukurahundi.

The 93-year-old despot’s fall was generously cushioned. He would receive ‘not less than US$10 million’, an immediate “cash payment of US$ 5 million”, and his presidential salary of US$ 150,000 would be paid until his death; 52-year-old (‘Gucci’) Grace would then get half that amount for the rest of her life. They would reside in their 25-bedroom Harare mansion, known as the Blue Roof, with full secretarial, medical and travel payments. ‘No action would be taken against the family’s extensive business interests.’[73] On the backs of a dirt-poor people, the despot had amassed a fortune: the Blue Roof was valued at 8.5 million Euros; his most expensive property was believed to be Hamilton Palace in Sussex, worth some 40 million Euros; and estimates of his then known wealth were of the order of 840 million Euros.[74] For MDC-T, the exit package was obscene: Mugabe had “externalis[ed] billions of US dollars”, and this was ‘meant to justify what the new leader [Mnangagwa] would get when he retires’.[75] Given the farms, Congo and Marange diamonds, ‘billions of American dollars’ was probably an accurate estimate of Mugabe’s wealth.

ZANU-PF remained firmly in place, and it, and now President Mnangagwa, were the clear winners in the power stakes. The military, which had facilitated Mnangagwa’s ascent (‘Operation Restore Legacy’), had done very well. Gen Chiwenga became Vice-President, in charge of the ministries of Defence and War Veterans; Air Marshal Shiri became Agriculture minister; and Lt-Gen Engelbert Rugeje was appointed head of the ZANU-PF Commissariat. It was rumoured that Chinwenga’s ambitions extended ultimately to the Presidency, should Mnangagwa, age 75, win election and serve only one term.[76]

In mid-January, President Mnangagwa announced that general elections would be held as early as 30 July. He made no mention of prior electoral and political reforms. The MDC’s Tendai Biti noted the huge problem: “We removed a dictator in November 2017 but we did nor remove a dictatorship. These are not change agents.”[77] Apart from the military chiefs, there were other obviously anti-democratic figures in Mnangagwa’s ministry. Obert Mpofu of Marange, was now Home minister. But there were deep reasons to be sceptical about Mnangagwa’s rush to early elections. Two experienced election agencies spelt out the concerns. ‘Before an election in Zimbabwe can pass as free and fair, substantial reforms are required.’ These included the electoral law; the need to ‘scrub the voters’ roll of political bias’; to make the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) ‘truly independent’; ‘to develop a conducive politics free from violence, intimidation, patronage and hate speech’. It ‘does not help our democratic renewal to have a quick but failed ballot.’[78]

It did not favour democratisation either that President Mnangagwa ‘denies that previous elections were unfair, glaringly so in 2008.’ Nor will he apologise for the killings in Matabeleland in the 1980s, when he was head of the CIO, and called dissidents, in Rwandan genocidal terms, “cockroaches who must be exterminated”. “Let’s not live in the past”, he says.[79]

But that was where democratic fundamentals remained. About three million Zimbabweans lived abroad, but in late May 2018, the Constitutional Court ruled that there would still be no diaspora vote. The ZEC had a new head, but its independence remained limited, with at least 15% of its secretariat serving or retired military officers.[80]

The very low independence of the judiciary had been further eroded: in July, parliament had granted the President powers to directly appoint senior members of the judiciary. Democratic problems abounded. Abuse and harassment of civil society activists by police and security agents continued. The extensive legal apparatus of repression had been neither repealed nor amended. State media remained partisan in favour of ZANU-PF, while limiting coverage of opposition parties.

According to the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, ZANU-PF exercised ‘an overbearing influence on ZEC’. The commission’s chairperson, Justice Priscilla Chigumba, declared that their new voter registration system was foolproof.[81] But her personal position was almost untenable. She was ‘known to be close to senior military officials’, and was ready to take a high hand towards opposition parties and civil society. The MDC’s calls for an audited voters’ roll had been ‘vehemently resisted’ by Chigumba.[82]

The primacy of the military was expressed in classic style on the eve of the poll in mid-July, when a “special allowance” was offered to the army, CIO and police. The Defence Forces would get a 22.5% pay increment, and the police a 20% increase. In a parlous economy, more state spending was to be devoted to non-productive official salaries, further alienating international institutions.

The shift from Mugabe to Mnangagwa represented nothing substantive in 2019. The brutality of the former was almost unrivalled in contemporary Africa, but the two shared four decades of repression, and were inter-linked through the military and ZANU-PF. Within this continuity, Mugabe’s death in September represented no cleansing of the slate.

An earlier version appeared in Politics Web (Johannesburg, SA)