Beyond Violence 


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The conflict in Zimbabwe is characterised by the contestation for political power by two political parties: Zimbabwe African Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), and Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T). The desire to be the only dominant party in the country has been a constant feature of ZANU –PF rule since independence. Over the decades ZANU-PF has not hesitated to eliminate anyone who is a threat to their political advancement.


► Overview

In the period of 1985-1987, members of the opposition party, Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) under the leadership of Joshua Nkomo, were persecuted, and it is approximated that 20,000 Ndebele people had been massacred by the time a peace agreement was negotiated in 1987, leading to the union of ZANU and ZAPU as one political party. During the successive years it was believed that ZANU-PF planned to turn Zimbabwe into a single-party state. This caused an internal rebellion led by Edgar Tekere on the grounds that these were not the ideals they had fought for. Tekere went on to form Zimbabwe Union Movement (ZUM) and to challenge ZANU-PF in the 1992 elections. However, the rebellion lost the elections.

► Key issues

Political Dominance

In 1999 two key events occurred: ZANU-PF failed to raise money at a donor conference discussing land reform. This angered the government. Secondly, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), a political party with wide support from the urban populace, was formed and it presented the first real threat to ZANU-PF’s hold on power. In 2000, a referendum for a new constitution was conducted. ZANU-PF campaigned for a yes vote; however, the new constitution was defeated, forcing the ruling party to consider their dwindling grip on power. Driven by the desire for political survival, ZANU-PF began a massive land reform programme, grabbing land from white commercial farmers. Many of these farmers lost their lives and most of the land ended up in ZANU-PF hands. This opened up a bilateral conflict between Zimbabwe and Britain. The USA and Europe responded by imposing sanctions on the country. The European restrictive measures took the form of travel restrictions on key ZANU-PF members, and the USA went further and halted all trade with companies linked to ZANU-PF. The parliamentary and presidential elections that followed in 2002 and 2005 saw MDC winning a majority of seats in Parliament, thus ending ZANUF-PF’s decade of dominance. However, the violence in the time leading up to the elections was unprecedented. Additionally, the Zimbabwean economy experienced the highest hyperinflation the world had ever known. In the parliamentary elections in 2008, MDC won a majority of seats in the Parliament (lower house) and ZANU-PF won the majority in the Senate (upper house). The presidential elections were inconclusive: MDC claimed to have won, but the Electoral Commission declared that there was no winner and that therefore there must be a run-off. ZANU-PF went on a war path and the nation erupted into violence during which opposition members were either killed, raped or had their limbs cut off. MDC withdrew from the run-off elections, but they went ahead with Mugabe as the only actively participating candidate. He was declared the winner but the results were condemned internationally. SADC sent a mediation team led by Thabo Mbeki and a Global Political Agreement was signed by the two MDC formations and ZANU-PF, leading to a Government of National Unity (GNU).

► Key actors


ZANU-PF is keen to maintain its hold on power. The General elections due within months are “very crucial” to ZANU-PF’s survival and that of its key policy of wealth redistribution, President Robert Mugabe has said.

“We will be going to elections soon and those elections are very crucial to us, my party,”

The coming elections will be Mugabe’s last, and after the electoral scare in 2008, his supporters are increasingly buoyant about his chances this time against a splintered opposition. However, ZANU-PF is bedevilled by its own internal factionalism. There are two main competing camps: the Mujuru faction and the Mnangagwa faction. So intense are the internal squabbles that the primary elections were postponed in order to have time to sort things out between them. ZANU-PF wants to win the elections by any means necessary but they are wary of the fact that they must maintain some kind of credibility. There are reformists and hardliners: the reformists calling for a peaceful process and shunning the use of violence. However, the hardliners are determined to use any means at their disposal. ZANU-PF needs to win the elections in order to keep control of key resources from the extractive industries.


Whilst MDC-T has tried to largely portray itself as the party of excellence capable of delivering the much needed democratic reform, its role in the GNU has largely exposed its bureaucratic ineptness. MDC-T is viewed by the urban populace as having neglected their promises by engaging in wealth accumulation instead. The corrupt councillors have angered the urban voters and particularly the Prime Minister’s image has been damaged by his supposed promiscuity. The waning popularity, the inability to develop sound developmental policies and the threats of factionalism and infighting have severely weakened MDC-T.

Other party formations

The other political party formations, including MDC led by Welshman Ncube, Mavambo led by Simba Makoni and ZAPU led by Dumiso Dabengwa, have failed to form strong clear party structures. Inter-party alliances are unlikely because of personal rivalries.

Security Chiefs

Security officials are supporting, and profiting from, Mugabe’s continued rule. The Security Chiefs have openly declared that they will not salute Tsvangirai.

"We have no time to meet sellouts. Clearly Tsvangirai is a psychiatric patient who needs a competent psychiatrist. He seems to be suffering from hallucinations," said Chiwenga. "We are different. Just like oil and water, we cannot mix."

Calls for security sector reforms have been rejected by ZANU-PF and President Mugabe has declared:

“Zanu PF as a party of the revolution and the people’s vanguard shall not allow the security forces of Zimbabwe to be the subject of any negotiations for the so-called security-sector reforms….That is the most dependable force we could ever have, it shall not be tampered with.”


Relations between Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and government have not been cordial. ZANU-PF has openly declared that they will ensure that most NGOs are closed. There have been wide arbitrary searches and arrests of CSOs on trumped-up charges. CSOs on the other hand appear fragmented and unable to mobilise or coordinate to speak with one voice.

► Violence

The peace process in Zimbabwe was jump-started by the ZANU-MDC agreement mediated by Thabo Mbeki. However, history has shown that such diplomatic efforts alone are insufficient to bring peace to any nation. The trauma communities have faced is proving more difficult to deal with because the perpetrators still live in close proximity to their victims, thereby providing constant reminders of the past as well as the threat of further incidents.

The period between 2000 and 2010 is largely referred to as the lost decade in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe has been in the throes of a severe crisis, one which has seen a once vibrant and dynamic society and economy virtually collapsing as political instability, lawlessness, misgovernment and a relentless economic meltdown transformed this erstwhile leading Southern African nation into an international pariah and the proverbial basket case. It is estimated that more than 3,000 extra-judicial executions, hundreds of ‘disappearances’ and more than 7,000 cases of torture or serious assault took place during this period. To date, no police investigations have been undertaken, nor arrests made or charges laid, concerning the violence surrounding the run-off election and the years before. Many journalists and CSO leaders were arrested, tortured or seriously assaulted.

Electoral violence is a manifestation of a wider culture of violence pervading much of society in Zimbabwe, from the family upwards. This stems from a range of factors including economic collapse in the past ten years and government by a liberation movement which has not yet been able to make the transition from fighting wars to building a peaceful society. While the economy has improved for city dwellers with money, the current Government of National Unity has not yet significantly affected the overall situation of dire poverty and the overt struggle amongst the elite for political power and mineral wealth in the country.

► Prospects for non-violent peace transformation

It is clear that the 2013 elections will be tense and that it is likely that there will be some violence and intimidation. However, what is not yet clear is the nature of the violence, its extent and the response it will generate.

Political violence in Zimbabwe is not spontaneous; it follows a predetermined path and thus is predictable. It is not based on strong party ideology but on underlying conflicts and communities use election time to settle scores within these conflicts because there is impunity.

Strengthening community responses to violence will help to minimise, diffuse or neutralise the threat of violence.

► Further reading