Picture: Jekesai Njikizana / AFP / Taken on August 27, 2023 – Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa addresses a press conference at State House in Harare in August after winning a second term in office. The opposition Citizens Coalition for Change has rejected the result of a vote that international observers say has fallen short of democratic standards.
By Gwinyai Taruvinga
In August, Zimbabwe held its harmonised elections which are a combination of the presidential, legislative and council elections. Of particular interest to citizens were two things: the presidential race that pitted the incumbent, President Emmerson Mnangagwa of the ruling Zanu-PF, and Nelson Chamisa of the opposition Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC). As with many elections on the Continent, the Zimbabwean election exposed the weaknesses of institutions overseeing elections.
Although election day was deemed peaceful, several challenges, such as the late delivery of ballot papers in opposition strongholds, were reported. Many analysts believed that the delay in delivering ballot material was an effort to frustrate opposition followers in order to impact the results in those constituencies. Of particular concern was the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) Electoral Observation Mission report which had concluded that the election had not met the regional body’s standards.
When making the announcement, the head of the mission, Dr Nevers Mumba, noted that the election challenges in Zimbabwe included voting delays, the banning of opposition rallies and biased media reporting throughout the electoral process. The report was received with great disdain by the ruling Zanu-PF leaders who felt that the report was essentially rubber-stamping the opposition’s claim that the playing field in the Zimbabwean election was uneven.
Moreover, during President Robert Mugabe’s tenure, the SADC was often seen as an organisation that tried to appease the regime in Harare at the expense of the citizenry’s will. A case in point is the 2008 election when then-South African president, Thabo Mbeki, under the auspices of the SADC, played a crucial role in brokering a power-sharing deal between Mugabe and the opposition leader at the time, Morgan Tsvangirai. Since 2000, Zimbabwe’s elections have been controversial, with the opposition crying foul over the ruling Zanu-PF using state machinery as a mechanism to maintain its stranglehold on power.
Before the Zimbabwean election, the opposition party, the CCC, bemoaned the fact that several of its rallies were banned by the police. In addition, the arrest of several activists, among them Job Sikhala, cast doubt on the electoral environment before the elections. As scholars of democracy often argue, an election must be observed within the context of what transpires before, during and after an election.
Speaking at the Oliver Tambo Lecture at Wits University, prominent Zimbabwean academic Dr Ibbo Mandaza said that Zanu-PF, using state machinery, frustrated the urban voters in areas where the CCC enjoyed considerable support. Doing so had resulted in the disenfranchisement of many within the opposition stronghold. The Zimbabwean election has often had huge ramifications for the SADC region, with several citizens, in search of greener pastures, migrating to neighbouring countries.
Since the turn of the millennium, the Zimbabwean economy has resulted in the migration of citizens who had hopes of obtaining a better life in countries such as Botswana and South Africa. The regional body, therefore, has an important role to play in the political settlement of the continuing crisis in Zimbabwe.
When Mnangagwa was inaugurated last month, only three sitting presidents attended – Democratic Republic of Congo’s Felix Tshisekedi, Mozambique’s Filipe Nyusi and South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa. This was in stark contrast to Mnangagwa’s first inauguration in 2017, when several African leaders attended. It would seem that many people are questioning the legitimacy of his presidency, at least among his peers in the African region.
The regime in Harare has also gone to great lengths to vilify the SADC report, with efforts directed towards Mumba and Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema in his capacity as chairperson on the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Co-operation. The reason for the vilification many attributed to the solidarity among nationalist movements in southern Africa where Zanu-PF commands respect from regional parties such as the ANC. The camaraderie is seen to be one of the contributing factors to why Zanu-PF has been able to remain at the apex of Zimbabwean politics since the country gained independence in 1980.
Zimbabwe, despite holding regular elections, has continued to find itself in an unending cycle of political crises dating from 2000. Without dialogue overseen by a neutral actor, it is unlikely that southern Africa will find political stability. It is, therefore, important that regional bodies, such as the SADC, play a leading role in resolving the political impasse between Mnangagwa and the opposition leader, Chamisa. In 2008, Mbeki, albeit being viewed differently by multiple actors in Zimbabwe, played an important role in negotiating a settlement between Mugabe and Tsvangirai. A similar outcome is required in this regard.
Gwinyai Taruvinga is a post-doctoral Fellow at the Wits Humanities Graduate Centre