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Political Violence in Zimbabwe: A Brief Overview


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Photo taken by A-Birdie (October 14, 2008)

Robert Mugabe was elected as the first President of Zimbabwe in 1980 after a protracted struggle against the white minority government of Ian Smith. His ZANU-PF claimed 57 of the 80 elected assembly seats and in his inauguration address in April 1980 Mugabe called for an end to the violence of the previous decades:

‘the wrongs of the past must now stand forgiven and forgotten. If we are ever to look to the past,  let us do so for the lesson that the past has taught us, namely that oppression and racism are  inequalities that must never find scope in our political and social system.’

Sadly for Zimbabweans this rhetoric was quickly brushed aside and Mugabe set about establishing absolute control of power from which he still has not relinquished his grip, despite his advancing years.

Establishing Control

Mugabe has become reliant on political machinery that utilisesd violence, both physical and psychological to quell dissidence in Zimbabwe. Within the legal framework, Mugabe has maintained legislation that served Ian Smith at the end of his rule to bolster his power. The Law and Order Maintenance Act banned people from meeting in public to discuss politics without prior government approval. However, political violence has a number of differing elements. Strauss identifies two which are particularly applicable in Africa:



Institutional violence underpins ZANU-PF’s control, but Mugabe has also used violence as a source of intimidation, clamping down on any opposition with alarming force. A culture of fear was quickly established in the early years of his reign. For instance Mugabe became suspicious of Joseph Nkomo, a former ally who had defected, and who Mugabe was convinced was plotting a way to take power. In 1983 Mugabe sent the North Korean trained Brigade 5, to implement Mugabe’s plan of ‘the sweeping away of rubbish’ – locally known as Gukurahundi. Untold numbers died and, although the government continues to this day to deny these allegations. A report compiled by the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe in 1997 has shed light on the extreme levels of torture used against the opposition (including electrical torture, rape and submarining).

State sponsored violence was also directed against the white farmer population in 2000 in a series of land grabs against the 4,000 or so who owned a third of Zimbabwe’s productive land. The state encouraged, and supported by force where necessary, the taking of white farms and reallocation to black farmers without compensation or warning. But these people had no experience of running large-scale farms and soon Zimbabwe was facing significant economic problems, food shortages and hyper-inflation. This was compounded by international sanctions placed upon the country for the regime’s lack of adherence to human rights and democratic principles.

Elections in Zimbabwe

Mugabe has continued to hold elections as a way of legitimising his position. However, these have been processes far removed from the free and fair expectations of international standards. Classic tactics such as vote rigging, ballot box stuffing and manipulated voter lists have been employed against the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) since its emergence as a genuine threat to ZANU-PF dominance in the 2000 election. There have also been physical attacks on public protestors and opposition figures, including the leader of MDC, Morgan Tsvangirai, carried out by the state security forces, with the aim of closing down the space for political dissent and discussion in the country. Finally, Mugabe has abused state resources to ensure his continued victory and validation through elections, including the state media. One of the more bizarre instances of this was Mugabe’s effort to connect with youth voters in 2010 using the medium of rap.

Yet 2008 potentially marked a turning point in this cycle of political violence with the MDC claiming a majority of seats in the Parliament for the first time. Mugabe, despite efforts to manipulate the result, was forced to accept that he would have to include MDC in a coalition government. Let down by economic problems, facing international pressure and sanctions and with a lessening of support from previous allies within Africa, most notably South Africa, he went to the negotiating table.

The Government of National Unity was formed on 13 February 2009. It kept Mugabe as President but appointed Tsvangirai as Prime Minister. The coalition has been a challenge for Tsvangirai. Internal politics and splits in the MDC, which was always a broad coalition of opposition forces, have emerged and proved more difficult to keep a lid on now that there are genuine positions of power on offer. However, with a new Constitution recently passed into law and elections due to be held within the next year this may not last much longer.

2013 and Beyond

The proposed election in 2013 still requires a date but if it does go ahead the possibility of tensions being stoked and developing into violent skirmishes remains quite high. It does seem that being in power has detrimentally impacted on the support for MDC. Citizens once hopeful that they could bring about socio-economic and political change have now been left disappointed by their inability to do exactly that. The other intriguing element is that this could well be Mugabe’s last election struggle. Thirty-three years in power and aged 89 he may no longer be around in 2018. The fascinating question of who will follow him is one that may shape the election process as ZANU-PF officials position themselves for that eventuality.

Jamie Hitchen holds a MSc in African Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). He is particularly interested in issues of governance and peacebuilding and has held short term roles with Refugee Law Project, Human Rights Centre Uganda and Electoral Reform International Services.

Written by Jamie Hitchen and published on 10-June-2013




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