Big Saturday Read: The Regime’s Own Goal
When the ANC Came to Harare
A special delegation of the African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s ruling party, was in Harare this week. Led by the ANC Secretary General, Ace Magashule, the delegation held a long meeting with representatives of ZANU PF led by Obert Mpofu, the party’s Secretary for Administration. Afterwards, the two parties released an oblique communique. This was not surprising because inexplicitness is standard in communiques. They usually communicate nothing to the broader public, their purported purpose notwithstanding.
ZANU PF and the ANC are peers. They consider themselves a special breed among political parties because of their vanguard role in the fight against colonialism. They like to refer to themselves as “liberation parties” although this is a clear irony in some cases where the parties have turned into oppressors of the people. This is what ZANU PF has become to Zimbabweans - a symbol of repression and intolerance. The problem is that the ANC still regards this reactionary organisation as a revolutionary peer. The sooner these parties remove the blinkers and start seeing and speaking out against the evils of their peers, the better.
For ZANU PF, the ANC is a peer coming to remove a stone in its shoe. The ANC itself probably sees its role as rescuing a peer from the abyss. It does not seem to get that its peer is at the centre of Zimbabwe’s downward spiral. It made little sense for the high-powered delegation to travel all the way to Harare, just to meet with ZANU PF, the principal author of Zimbabwe’s problems. It’s like trying to resolve a domestic dispute and only speaking with the abusing spouse and not the complainants. It’s just one side of the story.
What makes it worse is that this was not the first time in the space of a month. President Ramaphosa’s Special Envoys received similar treatment when they were deployed to Harare in August. They had been expected to meet with the opposition parties, civil society and churches. This did not happen, amid claims that the government had denied them permission. The Special Envoys visit was underwhelming. This time the South Africans decided to try party to party diplomacy, avoiding the complexities of formal diplomacy. There is no mandate from the African Union or SADC. Perhaps the ANC thinks the party to party channel may yield better outcomes, but knowing ZANU PF, this is too ambitious.
The ANC needs to understand the nature of the challenges at the heart of Zimbabwe’s crisis.
The first essential feature is the conflation between the party and the State. In power since 1980, ZANU PF and the State have become inextricably intertwined so that the default status of institutions and agencies of the State is to serve ZANU PF. Therefore, an organisation like the Zimbabwe Republic Police, which should be professional and apolitical, operates as a law enforcement unit of ZANU PF. Likewise, the national broadcaster, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation is no more than a propaganda machine for ZANU PF, a role complemented by newspapers under the ZimPapers stable. The Constitution has clauses to prevent all this, but the document means nothing to ZANU PF.
Perhaps it is ironic and important for South Africans to note that the ANC is being accused of similar issues, with the delegation being accused of travelling to Harare using state resources. The problem of conflating party and state is serious. It's a slippery road that ought to be avoided.
The second essential feature is the weaponization of the law and institutions and agencies of the State. Civilised society is marked by a respect for rules, principles, codes and norms that govern the conduct of its members. All countries have laws, which capture and express these principles and values. Hence respect for the law is a fundamental tenet of civilised society. However, the rule of law means that this must be just and fair laws, which respect fundamental rights and freedoms. The State is expected to be the guarantor and protector of citizens and their rights and freedoms. While South Africa has earned much respect for its progressive approach to fundamental rights and freedoms, its northern neighbour has become a symbol of repressive government. ZANU PF specialises in using the law as a weapon of repression.
Take the case of Godfrey Kurauone, a young MDC Councillor in the city of Masvingo. He was kept in detention for more than 40 days. He was denied bail on several occasions, including access to his medical team when he was unwell. When the matter came up for trial, the prosecution said it was still waiting for authority to prosecute from the Prosecutor General in Harare. So why was the accused being kept in jail when the State had no authority to prosecute? Still, the magistrate kept Kurauone in jail. When the matter came up for trial a week later, Kurauone was acquitted of all charges. The State never had a credible case against him. But nevertheless iit kept him in jail. He effectively served a sentence for no offence.
The cases of Hopewell Chin’ono and Jacob Ngarivhume are similar. They also spent more than 40 days in jail without trial. They were unjustly denied bail, getting freedom at the fourth attempt. Yet again, these men were made to serve jail sentences before trial. A few weeks ago, 7 more activists were set free by the court. But this was only after 15 months of being thrown from pillar to post in the justice system. They also spent weeks in detention, being denied bail when they were initially arrested on spurious claims that they wanted to remove the government. Again, they were made to serve sentences without trial.
The common denominator in all these cases (and there are more) is that the criminal law system is used as a weapon against political opponents. The ANC has not descended to these levels, but this is what its peer north of the Limpopo does. The problem is not accidental. It is systemic abuse and weaponisation of the law.
The third essential characteristic is the militarisation of Zimbabwean politics and the State and its institutions and agencies. The coup in November merely accelerated and accentuated the role of the military in the structures of the Zimbabwean State. But it had already been a key player. South African political leaders who were involved in the 2008 mediation must be aware of these challenges. The military is right at the heart of politics in Zimbabwe, which is both a problem and opportunity for ZANU PF. It is an opportunity because the military helps it to capture and retain State power. It is a problem because it makes the party subservient to and dependent on the military. But for expediency, it goes with the opportunity to maintain power.
Twice in the last two years the military has been used to kill civilians, in August 2018 and January 2019. None has been held accountable. There has been no investigation.
What this means is that when the ANC politicians come to speak with ZANU PF politicians, there are other key actors who are outside the room. Without the soldiers, the meeting is without a quorum. Whatever ZANU PF agrees to in their meetings is subject to approval by those that guarantee its power. This limits whatever the ANC thinks it can achieve through its party to party diplomacy.
As for the opposition in Zimbabwe, it would be unwise to put their eggs in the ANC basket. The political route chosen by South Africa is informal. ZANU PF and the ANC are two parties having a friendly match. A decade ago, President Mbeki helped to move a stone in President Mugabe’s shoe when his mediation produced a skewed Global Political Agreement which led to the Inclusive Government. There is nothing to suggest that the same approach is being applied today. If the opposition is unprepared, it will be railroaded into another trap where it will have no power and no means to reform the corrupt system of government. Zimbabwe needs nothing short of an arrangement that changes the systemic challenges in Zimbabwe and the primary point of pressure has to come from Zimbabweans.
The Regime’s Own Goal
This week, the regime sunk even lower than anybody could have imagined. It broadcast a grainy video, most of which comprised still images and a narration, as proof that the abduction of the three MDC Alliance politicians (MP Joanna Mamombe and MDC youth leaders Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova) was staged. The video is a dog’s breakfast.
On the 13th of May this year, Joana Mamombe, Netsai Marova and Cecilia Chimbiri were abducted and subjected to torture by suspected state agents before they were dumped by the roadside near the town of Bindura on the 15th of May. The State has always denied the abduction, but then again, it has never admitted to any abduction accusation although several Zimbabwean have been victims. One of the most high profile victims, journalist and activist Itai Dzamara has not been seen since his abduction in March 2015.
Soon after they were found and rescued, the three young politicians were arrested by the police. They were detained for 3 weeks, charged with faking the abductions and torture. Many saw their incarceration as punishment for telling their horrible story. The Minister of Home Affairs later announced that the State had gathered incontrovertible evidence that the three politicians had faked their abductions. This is the background to the video that was released this week. It’s a pathetic show of dishonesty and incompetence from the regime.
There are many reasons to dismiss the grainy video, including the inconsistencies and fake elements which have been exposed on social media. For the BSR, the major tell-tale sign of dishonesty and fakery in the video was the deliberate omission of the fact that the Zimbabwe Republic Police had arrested the three opposition politicians on the day they disappeared. The ZRP had admitted it on the day. The arrest and detention were confirmed by the official spokesman for the ZRP and reported in all newspapers, including the state daily, The Herald.
For example, on 14 May 2020, Victoria Maphosa, a correspondent for The Herald quoted Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi as saying “I can confirm that the police arrested the three in Harare today in connection with an illegal demonstration, which occured in Warren Park earlier in the day. They are in our custody and we are still making further investigations into the issue”.
Curiously, this fact is not only absent from the video but the narrator goes on to claim that the police said they did not have the trio in their custody, which is false. Any investigation into the abduction must begin with the police admission that they had the trio in their custody. It might have been better if the video had tried to explain away the police admission and newspaper reports. But these facts got in the way of the concocted narrative and the makers of the video had to pretend none of these existed.
Why did the State release this dubious video when there is an on-going criminal case against the three accused persons? One theory is that the State thought it could smear the opposition at a time when the ANC delegation was visiting Harare. It was first circulated and aired on ZTV on the day that the delegation was in Harare. If it was meant to show the delegation that abductions are staged, this was an own goal because no one in his right mind would believe the mess that is presented in that video. It makes the regime look stupid and childish.
The second theory is that the regime knows too well that the video could never stand judicial scrutiny in a court of law. Even an average defence lawyer would give the witnesses behind the video a torrid time during cross-examination. There are too many gaps and inconsistencies and a lot of omissions and fakeness which could not possibly survive cross-examination. The prosecution may have advised the regime that the video is not a serious piece of evidence in a court of law. Hence the State decided to use it as part of political propaganda in the court of public opinion, knowing that it has no place in a court of law. However, the regime paid a fee for the service, it must demand its money back.
The regime wants to give the impression that the MDC politicians are avoiding trial. But it is the regime which sought postponement of the trial back in July 2020, arguing that it was awaiting videos from a specialist before the trial could start. The three accused persons opposed the postponement as they wanted the trial to proceed. However, Magistrate Nduna, who handled the case granted the postponement for a month. To accuse the accused persons of delaying trial in light of these facts is mischievous and dishonest on the part of the regime. If the video that has been released is one of those videos that the prosecutor said the State was waiting for, then it was a sheer waste of time. Not only has the video been released when the matter is sub judice, but it turns out that it’s not fit for purpose. Not only is it a shoddy piece of work, it is indefensible. As a propaganda tool, it has backfired for the regime.
This pathetic effort by the regime looks worse when compared to its complete failure to take action in the case of Tawanda Muchehiwa, a young journalism student who was abducted and tortured on 30 July 2020. His horrendous experience at the hands of suspected state agents is well-documented. ZimLive.com has published evidence of his abduction, including credible CCTV footage of how he was abducted.
It has also been established that one of the vehicles used in the abduction was hired from Impala Car Rental, a car-hire business operating in Harare. Impala and the owner of the vehicle have admitted that it was their car. The police have enough information to pursue an investigation into the abduction. This is one case that could open Pandora's box regarding other abductions. But curiously, the police have shown no appetite to investigate the matter. They have not even acknowledged it. Instead, young citizens who have protested against Impala Car Rental near its premises have been arrested by the police.
ZimLive.com says the details of the individual who hired the vehicle which were given by Impala lead nowhere. They could not trace the named individual. The address is also fake. It looks like the details supplied to and by Impala are false. However, at the time, Impala said the individual was a regular customer. If that is the case, they must have more details of the individual. In any event, car rental businesses take extra precautions to protect their assets. They keep paper records of the client, inclidung a copy of their licence, credit card details or national ID.
They also have satellite vehicle trackers to keep track of the vehicle. This means the company would have records of where the vehicle was at all times. They would also have CCTV footage of the day that the client hired and returned the vehicle. If the vehicle was damaged, as the owner claimed, they would have charged the customer an extra fee to cover the costs of repair. In short, there are plenty of opportunities for the police to investigate and uncover the mystery of Muchehiwa’s abduction. The reluctance of the police to investigate in the face of so much evidence supports the theory that police are complicit in the abductions.
Why the forthcoming by-elections are a big deal
This week the Chairperson of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission told a parliamentary committee that all outstanding by-elections will be held 5 December 2020. By-elections have been suspended since the onset of the lockdown in response to the COVID19 pandemic in March. Since then, there have been several vacancies arising from recalls triggered by the MDC-T led by Dr Thokozani Khupe and deaths of elected representatives.
Both the Constitution and the Electoral Law require by-elections to be held within a specified period in order to fill vacancies. The suspension of electoral activities due to the COVID19 regulations has meant that these constitutional and legislative rules have been held in abeyance. Now however, by-elections are scheduled for December.
These by-elections are not like any others before. They have an added significance in light of the political dynamics over the past 7 months. They represent a key battleground in the contestation for legitimacy as the official opposition in Zimbabwean politics. The Supreme Court judgment in March established a judicially-reconstrcuted MDC-T which immediately asserted its position as the main opposition, ahead of the MDC Alliance, which contested the elections in 2018. The result has been a war of attrition between the two entities.
Earlier this year, the BSR observed that the war of attrition between the two was on two fronts: first, the court of formal opinion, such as the courts of law, Parliament and ZEC and second, the court of public opinion, which is essentially the forums where the ordinary people were involved. The judicially-reconstructed MDC-T led by Dr Khupe was enjoying an advantage in the court of formal opinion. The controversial Supreme Court judgment which brought it back to life was a good example. But there were also other judgments that favoured it. Parliament through the Speaker and the President of the Senate also ruled in its favour, as did ZEC by inviting it to submit nominations for party-list seats.
The BSR argued that the court of public opinion, which would be more decisive politically, would be a different arena altogether. However, the COVID19 regulations made this forum largely unavailable as large gatherings and political activities were banned. If it had been a normal situation, the two rivals would have flexed their muscles through political rallies - to see who has the people, so to speak. The suspension of by-elections was a stay of execution on those who do not have people behind them.
Now, however, that the by-elections are due, the big political question between the two entities will now be settled in what are traditional opposition strongholds. The MDC Alliance cannot afford to relax because without strict monitoring and guarding of the vote, ZANU PF will use the trick that opposition votes were split between the two. If the MDC Alliance focuses on defeating its opposition rival and forget that ZANU PF will be up to its usual tricks, both opposition parties might end up losing the seats. But this is a great opportunity for the MDC Alliance to settle the political question.
The MDC Alliance also has an opportunity to rebrand and start cultivating its new brand in the minds of the electorate long before 2023. Rebranding does not necessarily mean the party loses its legal identity. When a company changes its name and logo, it does not mean that it has also changed its legal identity. So the elected representatives who swear allegiance to the MDC Alliance today will still be valid representatives of the organisation by whatever new name it chooses to be called in future.
Some will argue that there is no point in contesting elections when there have been no reforms. It will appear like acquiescence from the MDC Alliance. It’s an attractive but deceptive argument. When the current political context is considered and the circumstances that gave rise to the loss of the seats through recalls are accounted for, the points in favour of contesting by-elections outweigh those against it. This is so notwithstanding the fact that the political ground remains uneven. There is a lot at stake in these by-elections.
In any event, the last boycott of by-elections in 2014/15 did not yield any serious dividends for the opposition. If anything, it opened the gates of Parliament to ZANU PF politicians who should never have entered the august house. It foisted these MPs as representatives of the people in opposition strongholds. After the low intensity of political activity due to the COVID19 lockdown, and the troubles caused by the judicially-reconstructed MDC-T, the by-election campaigns represent a channel to mobilise and redirect political energies. The political leaders will get an opportunity to reconnect with the people while reaffirming the dominance of the party over its rivals.
It has been an easy ride so far for the judicially-reconstructed MDC-T with all the favours it has enjoyed from the State and its institutions and agencies. The election of the Harare Mayor last week gave a glimpse of the challenges it faces on the electoral platforms. Having recalled former Mayor Hebert Gomba from council, the judicially-reconstructed MDC-T expected to win the race for his replacement. It lost to the MDC Alliance when Councillor Jacob Mafume romped to victory. That was the first real battle between the two entities on an electoral platform. The MDC-T lost that battle.
It will be worse in constituencies and wards where the weight of public opinion is intensely against a group that voters believe has derailed the struggle against ZANU PF. Recalling MPd and Councillors was sweet for the MDC-T, but it was a costly political error, for which it will be severely punished. Some political careers may never recover after this episode of madness.
The only regret is that these by-elections will gobble up US$18 million according to the ZEC Chairperson. This is a lot of money in a poor country struggling with basics. It could have been put to better use in the socio-economic life of the nation. But it is proof that bad political decisions are expensive. Democracy is by its very nature an expensive system of government. But bad political decision-making costs far worse. There was no need for the Supreme Court to reverse the processes that had long been settled by internal processes in the MDC Alliance. It had rightly found that the issues were moot. But the court went on to pronounce the ill-judged order which has been misused to wield the axe upon MPs and councillors, creating vacancies which must now be filled. As they go out and vote in these by-elections, ordinary Zimbabweans will remember who cost them US$18 million.