State terror sweeps Zimbabwe

Robert Mugabe and his party have always used violence and torture against their opponents.

Earlier this year the Helen Suzman Foundation carried out the first national opinion survey to be conducted in Zimbabwe for a long time. Its purpose was to provide all political actors, the press and civil society with a political road map of a society whose political contours have long been invisible under one party dominance. The results were striking. Held in February at exactly the same time as the constitutional referendum, our findings cast considerable doubt on the validity of the referendum result. In Harare and Bulawayo, where ballot stuffing was all but impossible, our results tallied almost exactly with the official results but everywhere else our estimate of anti-government opinion was far higher than the referendum suggested. It looked very much as if the government had rigged the referendum - but still lost it.

Overall we found that only 35 per cent wanted Zanu-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front) to continue in power and that 63 per cent thought it was time for a change. 75 per cent wanted the powers of the president reduced, 69 per cent thought the president should resign after two terms and 65 per cent wanted President Mugabe to step down right away. Moreover 69 per cent said they were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the government and 68 per cent lacked confidence that the government was telling the truth.

On the other hand opposition feeling had yet to crystallise fully. Our poll showed that in a presidential race Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), still lagged behind Mugabe but half either refused to answer this question or said they were uncertain. Nonetheless, the auguries for the MDC were very good. Many voters were only just becoming aware of them and after the referendum victory the momentum was clearly on their side. They were drawing enormous crowds to their meetings and could reasonably aim at winning 60 per cent or more of the vote. After twenty years in which the only choice of president had been Robert Mugabe most of the don't knows, won't says and undecideds were probably saying "not Mugabe".

The overwhelming impression from the survey was that the president and his party had simply outstayed their welcome. The government was out of touch: its concerns were no longer the same as those of the voters. Whereas Mugabe endlessly harped on the land question and inveighed against whites, the survey showed that only 9 per cent thought the land question was the most important issue and 55 per cent wanted things to stay just as they were on the land and a further 13 per cent even thought that white farmers who had left should be invited back. As many as 80 per cent thought it was not sensible to blame the whites for the country's problems. Voters overwhelmingly blamed the government not only for the wretched state of the economy but for its failure to solve the land question.

Unfortunately, as the message began to sink in that the government was facing defeat, Mugabe and Zanu-PF fell back on the use of state-sponsored terror to try to change the electoral arithmetic. Only in South Africa are the farm invasions still seen as being about the land issue: elsewhere commentators have realised that this is merely a cover for a campaign of intimidation which has included mass beatings, torture, organised gang rapes and murder.

This should come as no surprise. Zanu-PF presents itself as the party which won the liberation struggle but this is only partly true. Even at the end the two guerrilla armies, Zanla and Zipra, were unable to match the Rhodesian forces militarily, let alone defeat them in the way that, for example, the Vietnamese defeated the French. Instead Zanu - which is still what Zanu-PF boils down to - has been a successful terrorist party, a phenomenon seen elsewhere in Africa, in Algeria and Namibia, for example. Such a party knows that most people on the other side have some other place to go and that if it keeps up its terror campaign long enough its opponents will simply sue for peace and many will leave.

Zanu was born with a petrol-bomb in its hand: when it split from Zapu (Zimbabwe African People's Union) in 1963 it established its presence in the Harare townships in the most forceful way possible. This worked - and there were, in any case, no elections around to fight. Then from 1974 on, basing itself in Mozambique, Zanla waged an increasingly successful guerrilla struggle within Rhodesia. While there were fire fights with the Rhodesian forces, the emphasis of this struggle was terrorist - the "taking out" of farmers and their families and, even more, the exertion of pressure on the black peasantry to take their side. The Rhodesian forces used similar tactics so that ordinary black people were often caught in a terrifying two-way squeeze. But no one should doubt Zanla's ruthlessness with its own people: villagers who were declared "sell-outs" would have their ears and lips cut off "to encourage the others".

Inevitably, Zanu's dependence on such methods led to an extreme form of "vanguardist" arrogance. The party leadership, with no experience of electoral democracy, decided on policy, tactics and strategy and the duty of the masses was to fall into line behind it. If the masses hesitated that merely meant that they needed to be "mobilised" and "re-educated". If they didn't see the point of that pretty quickly then it could only be because they were agents of colonialism in which case they had to be punished in exemplary fashion. Again, this worked.

When, finally, the Smith regime succumbed and agreed to a universal suffrage election Mugabe's instinct was to refuse: he had no trust in the hustings and would far rather come to power by the means which had served him so well already. But Tanzania's President Nyerere and Mozambique's President Machel were adamant that Zanu had to accept the democracy it had always said it was fighting for - and Mugabe reluctantly had to go along. Even so, Zanla cheated outrageously. Theoretically the guerrillas were supposed to be confined to assembly camps so as to allow a peaceful civilian election but large numbers of Zanla guerrillas continued to roam the villages. The governor, Lord Soames, faced the fact that in almost a third of the country Zanla made it impossible for anyone other than Zanu to campaign and that intimidation was rife. As one observer put it, "eight or nine parties are carrying out political campaigns while one (Zanu) is carrying out a paramilitary campaign". In some cases anti-Zanu activists and candidates simply disappeared - one after he was last seen having red hot coals poured down his throat. But Zanu's trump card was that if it did not win, the war would go on: only a Zanu victory could bring peace. Soames, fearing war above all, buckled and let Mugabe get away with it. Ironically, the terror was probably unnecessary: in 1980 Mugabe would have won a truly free election. But by this stage Zanu's reliance on terror was almost second nature.

Just how ruthless Zanu was prepared to be with ordinary black people became more evident than ever during the Gukurahundi (which in Shona means "the rain which washes away the chaff before the spring rains"), that is the campaign of the fearsome 5 Brigade (commanded by Colonel Perence Shiri) against Matabeleland dissidents in 1983-87. 5 Brigade used almost every imaginable means of terror against the civil population. The most typical technique was to gather villagers at assembly camps where 5 Brigade soldiers would flog and beat them while making them sing Zanu-PF songs all night long. These sessions would go all the way to and beyond physical exhaustion and would usually climax with the public torture and execution of that day's selected victims. Generally between one and twelve people were executed but the record was set at Lupane where 62 were executed in a single public ritual.

Even ten years later it took great courage for the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace and the Legal Resources Foundation to publish their authoritative report on these atrocities, Breaking the Silence: Building True Peace. They document in shocking detail the victims' story: of those they interviewed all had suffered psychological torture of one kind or another; 99 per cent had been beaten, 97 per cent severely, 73 per cent had suffered severe beatings of the head, 54 per cent electrical torture, 34 per cent extreme physical exhaustion, 33 per cent severe climatic stress (eg being kept out in the sun for days without water), 29 per cent asphyxiation, 29 per cent beating on the soles of the feet, 20 per cent severe beating of the genitals, 19 per cent "submarine" drowning torture and so on. Many were tortured by having burning plastic dripped onto their bodies and inevitably there was a great deal of hut-burning and rape. At least 5,000 died. The Mugabe government has never acknowledged, let alone apologised for, this campaign of atrocity against its own population.

The result was the mass traumatisation of rural Matabeleland, a condition that persists to the present: the HSF survey found that rural Ndebele were still mortally terrified that a word against Zanu-PF might bring 5 Brigade knocking at the door next day. But, of course, word of the Gukurahundi also spread through the rest of the population and Zanu's fearsome image was reinforced by outbreaks of violence at every election. The HSF survey found that only 21 per cent of voters believed that nobody in their community was frightened of Zanu-PF. 13 per cent said a few were, 16 per cent that some were, 33 per cent that most were and 8 per cent that everyone was frightened. Only 30 per cent felt confident that they could criticise the government freely without harm befalling them. 61 per cent said they would be worried about joining a demonstration even if they agreed with it and 52 per cent said it would be difficult, very difficult or impossible to vote differently from the way the police, security police and Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) wanted. Without any doubt at all these figures would all be far higher today and in that sense a free and fair election has, for some time now, been impossible.

Not surprisingly, Namibia's President Nujoma and Mugabe have always felt a strong affinity. Both headed liberation movements against white minority rule, both shared Marxist beliefs, both led parties based on a majority ethnic group and both used terrorist tactics against the minority groups and, indeed, against those within their own group who stepped out of line. Thus Nujoma has been continuously dogged by questions over dissidents in Swapo (South West African People's Organisation) who were tortured and murdered on trumped up charges. Nujoma finally won his liberation election on terms almost identical to Mugabe's. Swapo's guerrillas in the People's Liberation Army of Namibia (Plan) were also supposed to stay in their camps but, on Mugabe's advice, Nujoma ordered them to stream south in their thousands just before the March 1990 election. Mugabe had counselled Nujoma on what an enormous advantage one could gain thereby: "the boys" would head for their home villages and by a mixture of military machismo and intimidation make sure of a 100 per cent Swapo vote. Once again, it was quite unnecessary - Swapo would have won a fair election without this muscular reinforcement.

Unfortunately for Plan, the South West African/South African forces were not as compliant as Soames had been in Zimbabwe and they quickly killed some 600 of the invaders and drove the others back towards Angola. But Swapo was able to prevent other parties from campaigning in Ovamboland where more than half the voters lived. Nujoma remains close to Mugabe: it comes as no surprise that Nujoma has now chimed in with plans to expropriate white farmers in Namibia and that Mugabe, speaking at an Africa Day rally in northern Namibia last month, urged black Namibians to emulate his land grab.

Mugabe's thinking is clear. It is a known fact that the masses oppose colonialism and support liberation. Zanu was the party of liberation so it follows that the masses support Zanu-PF. If they don't then it can only be because they have been manipulated or intimidated by the historic enemy, the white farmers. So they must be "mobilised", re-educated, if necessary disciplined. If Mugabe loses, that means that the forces of colonialism - symbolised by the white farmer - must be winning and that is unbearable. The historic enemy must be dealt with now.

Against this background it should come as no surprise that Mugabe has again opted for a campaign of terrorism against his opponents which, from the beginning, has served him well. Thus entrenched, the Zanu-PF elite has used its power to feather its nest - what else is power for? Mugabe has been happy to accept electoral anointment by the majority. Now that majority is threatened he has fallen back on what he knows best. Naturally, there is straightforward electoral cheating, with the opposition denied knowledge of the delimitation proposals and other forms of manipulation. But above all there is terror. The terror campaign of 2000 bears all the old hallmarks: the organised gang-rapes, the systematic beatings, the hut-burning, the sinister re-education sessions with the forced singing of Zanu-PF songs, the torture - some of it carried out in the surgery of "war veterans' leader" Dr Chenjerai "Hitler" Hunzvi - and the murders. Once again the red berets of 5 Brigade ride terrifyingly through the countryside and once again one can discern the arrogant assumption that the liberation vanguard knows best and that its will must be done.

What is at stake in Zimbabwe is more than the plight of individuals or political parties. The rule of law, prospects for multiparty democracy and for future economic development are all on the line. An ageing liberation culture is being broken on the anvil of its own corruption and arrogance but in its death agony it is willing to pull the whole country down with it. It may succeed for a little longer but its demise is now certain. Even if Zanu-PF can terrorise the electorate into giving it a fresh majority, there is no escape via that route. The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other donors will want nothing to do with such a regime, the economy will spiral down and with it the government. For the sake of Zimbabwe - and in the interests of all democrats in southern Africa - one must hope that ordinary Zimbabweans, hard-pressed as they are, will find the courage on June 24-25 to vote for a different future.

R.W. Johnson is director of the Foundation.