Election posters show Zanu-PFs President Robert Mugabe and MDC-Ts Morgan Tsvangirai on a street blocked by uncollected garbage in Harare.
Election posters show Zanu-PFs President Robert Mugabe and MDC-Ts Morgan Tsvangirai on a street blocked by uncollected garbage in Harare.
Derek Catsam is a history professor at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, and senior editor for African Affairs for the New York-based Foreign Policy Association.
Derek Catsam is a history professor at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, and senior editor for African Affairs for the New York-based Foreign Policy Association.

Zimbabwe goes into elections this week, with a nation looking for a clean break from a controversial past of rigged, disputed polls, writes Derek Catsam.

Harare - The Independence Arc you drive under going to or coming from the airport in Harare is a clear reminder of the importance of the country’s 1980 independence. Hard-won in the bush and at international negotiating tables, the victory over Ian Smith’s racist Rhodesian regime represented, still represents, a triumph over one of the worst of the white settler colonies in Africa.

Smith’s Southern Rhodesia represented a tragedy, as did Federation before it and Cecil Rhodes’s dominance before that and all that happened in between these eras.

But so does what followed afterwards. Robert Mugabe stands for many things, most of them embodying some of the worst tendencies of post-colonial Africa. Perhaps, above all, he represents the apogee of the tragedy that is discussed in international capitals and among august international bodies – among politicians, the police, the military – and which radiates outward across Zimbabwe. A tragedy that is most deeply felt among Zimbabweans of all classes but most burdens the poor, helpless and desperate.

Those who speak out face immediate and relentless force. And what they are speaking out against quite clearly has the most harmful impact on those most vulnerable to any shifts in civic and economic life.

If you drive past Mugabe’s compound you will immediately recognise the nature of his state. Surrounded by impenetrable walls and protected by men with machine guns, there is no view inside. His home serves as an apt symbol of the closed society Mugabe has tried, with intermittent success, to create.

A building like the White House in Washington DC is probably more secure than Mugabe’s compound or any other government, police or military building in Harare. But it still maintains a level of visibility, of access to ordinary citizens.

Mugabe’s compound is the antithesis of this. Woe betide anyone who stops to tie a shoe lace or who looks askance at the guards.

Barring dramatic last-minute machinations, general elections will take place on July 31 – the date Mugabe has declared and the courts affirmed. There will be observers who will find things to criticise and might be booted out for doing so. But some – enough – organisations are likely to find the elections free and fair enough. It is simply impossible to imagine a scenario in which Mugabe loses, in which Mugabe accepts defeat, in which Mugabe yields power.

Hope is what compels us to keep moving forward when our legs no longer want to move. But Zimbabweans seem to have hope on a smaller scale. They hope that the water will be running today – knowing that even if it does, it won’t be drinkable.

They hope the police don’t stop them for some petty violation, real or imagined, but that if they do, there will be no violence or the demand for a bribe will not be too onerous.

They hope that the electricity will not go off, but that if it does it will return soon – or soonish. They hope that there will be enough food, if not for them, for their children; they hope that maybe tomorrow they will find a job, if not full-time at least for the day; if not for the day, at least for the morning.

They hope that if the elections in 2013 are violent, they will not be as violent as in 2008.

This is what hope means in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Not grand hopes, just a plain and usually unspoken desire that things sort of work out. And if they don’t work out, that at least they don’t go totally to hell.

This is the tragedy of Zimbabwe today. This is what that grand monument to Zimbabwe’s independence mocks.

Zimbabwe is beautiful, its people warm, its potential vast. And while my friend who welcomed me at the airport in late June whispered as we were walking out of the airport, “welcome to the police state”, I’d say it is a police state mostly for those who voice strong political opinions or get noticed by the state.

My arrival in Zimbabwe, as someone who has written quite a bit that has been deeply critical of Mugabe and his party, was not uneventful, but it wasn’t a draconian nightmare either. I’d say that it falls more into the category of “Hey, an American: he must have money and problematic opinions!” Customs officials wanted money for my entry visa, but I did not have any immediately available in dollars.

The next day, as we were returning from a shopping trip, police stopped our car, telling us we had run a red light – we had not – and the conversation, in Shona, was clearly indicative that $20 would make the charges go away. But my friend held firm and we were allowed to go.

This indicates a problematic relationship between the state, the people and those whose job is to enforce the law, and political acquiescence rather than a police state per se. Then again, for those with strong political opinions, what’s the difference?

The biggest political issues that people face daily are simply gross exaggerations of problems that exist throughout the region with regard to service delivery.

My friend, who lives in a part of the city that tends to be first in line for service delivery, was without running water for almost the whole week I stayed with him. When it does run it must be boiled as it is certainly not potable. There was a power outage one morning that knocked out the internet for the remainder of the weekend.

Such blackouts are not uncommon. Roads are nightmarish, pocked with potholes and deep cracks, sometimes seeming barely passable. And this in the nation’s capital and economic epicentre.

The US dollar is Zimbabwe’s official currency, but it was strange to have the ATM machine spit out US $50 bills. Smaller denominations tend to be grimy and barely recognisable as currency and the typical $1 bill in Zim would have long gone out of circulation in the US.

And while the implementation of the dollar as the official currency here staunched the unimaginably high inflation of the last decade, it has also had the effect of pushing prices up. I’d say a typical grocery shopping trip in a Zimbabwe supermarket would match what I would pay in the US.

I don’t know how ordinary Zimbabweans cope. Most people do not shop in supermarkets, but many in the cities do, and not all of them are middle-class.

It is also worth noting that for all the narratives spun about what a nightmare Zimbabwe is for white citizens, the former Rhodesians and generations that followed seem to be doing damned well.

At an upscale shopping centre in Harare, in a country whose population is roughly three percent white, I’d guess white shoppers made up 50-60 percent of the patrons in the shops and restaurants.

This is not to say that the land invasions were not deeply problematic but rather that, even in Mugabe’s “thugocracy”, comfortable space has remained for white Zimbabweans who have prospered in business but have kept their heads down on political matters.

Politics season is in full swing and state newspapers like the The Herald and The Sunday Mail are comical to read. Well, comical were the consequences of their impact not so great.

The Daily News and Newsday are quite vibrant opposition newspapers that do not pull their punches. Of course there is always the danger that they will be shut down, as has happened in the past.

Debates in Zimbabwe tend to be fairly static. Because Morgan Tsvangirai has been the most visible and successful opponent of Mugabe’s iron-fisted rule, it is easy to spin a narrative of Mugabe = bad; Tsvangirai = good.

But Tsvangirai is no saint, his MDC party no pillar of virtue. Better than Mugabe and Zanu-PF? A thousand times, yes. But Tsvangirai has failed to forge a coalition of opposition parties because many don’t see him as the way forward.

Rather than forge a unity coalition for the July 31 elections, at least two of them registered as presidential candidates to challenge Mugabe and Tsvangirai.

There have also been rumours that Tsvangirai has been running a shadow government as prime minister and that the MDC engaged in its own violence during the primary season.

A further irony might be that were one to strip away the names of the candidates and their parties and examine the platforms and policy ideas of the two major parties, one might well prefer that of Zanu-PF.

These are obviously sketches. Zimbabwe is a country with endless promise. But that promise has failed to bear fruit and has become much less promising in the last 30 years. This leaves the tattered hope that has proved resilient even as it has fallen short.

In a few days Zimbabweans will go to the polls. This much we know.

There are glimmers of hope for the opposition. Some think that Tsvangirai and his MDC-T stand a chance of winning.

It seems ordinary Zimbabweans are ready for change. Adaptations to election law theoretically make it harder to steal votes. And even Robert Mugabe sounds a little “glum” and “downbeat”.

Yet even as Mugabe claims that this election is a “do or die” proposition one cannot help but wonder what he may do if he loses power.

The signs are that the wily old despot and his minions have more than a few tricks up their sleeves.

Tsvangirai and others have accused “a shadowy Israeli company” that has access to the electoral rolls, Nikuv International Projects, of manipulating the registrants to favour Zanu-PF.

A spokesman denied the charges but also refused to disclose the government agencies with which it is working. Meanwhile, at least one opposition politician running for parliament has been arrested for holding an “unauthorised rally”, which is to say, a rally unauthorised by the government he is challenging.

Leaders of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), which wanted Zimbabwe to delay the vote, hope that the election will be “credible enough”.

Enough for whom? SADC spokespersons did not specify.

And so Zimbabwe’s people are left with hope. Hope that there will not be much violence in the run-up to the polling; hope that their will is reflected in the elections; hope that whichever side wins can figure out some way to represent that will; hope that the future will be better than the past and present.

My own view continues to be that I do not see Mugabe giving up power. I do not see him putting himself in a position where he might even have to consider doing so. I anticipate Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party claiming victory.

And if that claim does not reflect reality, we will never know the reality. I will be happy to be found wrong on this count. But I do not believe that I will be.

Nothing in Mugabe’s past gives me reason to think he is likely to yield in the face of something as prosaic as vote counting. Hope tends to succumb in the face of despotism.

* Derek Catsam is a history professor at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, and senior editor for African Affairs for the New York-based Foreign Policy Association.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.