The general picture that emerged on the 23rd of August 2023 was very simple: in urban areas that have traditionally voted for the opposition, polling stations delayed in opening, voters had to sleep in queues, ward borders had been tortured to accommodate gerrymandering, and ballot papers were missing. In the rural areas, the story was different. Voting materials arrived on time, voting went on “smoothly”, but not without the menacing presence of a ruling party-deployed semi-militia group called Forever Associates of Zimbabwe (FAZ) outside polling stations and an alarming number of voters who claimed “illiteracy”. It is this organisation – that were claiming to do “polling surveys” – that the SADC Observer Mission identified as the “shadowy organisation” outside polling stations.
This trajectory of coercion and irregularities had been afoot in the pre-election season. For the past five consecutive elections, and more (2005, 2008, 2012, 2018), and now the August 2023 general election, the opposition has struggled to get an updated voters roll that they can audit or use for planning voter mobilisation. In each of these elections, the opposition has had to seek the intervention of the courts, and this has been described by some as “lawfare”, a scenario where justice institutions are deliberately captured to obfuscate the electoral process and keep the opposition lawyers busy.
The current military-backed party-state elite have gone further to make democracy very expensive, the cost of being a candidate has gone up (US$20,000 for president and US$1,000 for members of parliament). The political landscape in Zimbabwe has barely changed and the ruling party is back to its default settings – combining law and coercion to try and subdue the opposition. The SADC Observer Mission made some scathing remarks just after the election:
In conclusion, the Mission observed that the pre-election and voting phases, on 23–24 August 2023 Harmonised Elections were peaceful and calm. However, for reasons outlined above, the Mission noted that some aspects of the Harmonised Elections, fell short of the requirements of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, the Electoral Act, and the SADC Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections (emphasis mine).
Before making this bold conclusion, the Observer Mission noted a litany of irregularities ranging from access to the voters roll, delimitation, freedom of assembly and expression, independence of the judiciary, nomination fees, biased state media coverage, voter materials and participation of women. In an interview on Newzroom Afrika, Dr Nevers Mumba, the head of the Observer Mission, went further to say, “Our goal is to authenticate the process and if the process is flawed the result cannot be legitimate.”
But even long before the election, the region had mandated the former president of Mozambique, Joaquim Chissano, to be in Zimbabwe as an “elder”, most likely to cool down the polarisation. President Chissano visited Zimbabwe as part of “debt negotiations” but when one looks closer, there was some shuttling going on beyond the “debt”. This is to be found in Dr Adesina’s statement on Zimbabwe, saying, “We have institutionalised a platform for regular, constructive, and open dialogue that is key for trust and confidence building among all stakeholders,” adding that the issues to be addressed included “governance, rule of law, human rights, freedom of speech, political level playing field, electoral reforms that will assure free and fair elections”.
Currency Fluctuations, Hyperinflation, and ‘Gold Mafia’
Somewhere, in history, a writer intelligently warned that “history does not repeat, but rhymes” and nowhere is this more evident than in the incessant economic and currency meltdowns in Zimbabwe. In the twilight of the collapse of the Zimbabwe dollar under Robert Mugabe, the central bank, was printing money to fund government and hyperinflation became the stuff of legend. On Amazon and other platforms, the $ZW is still an object of ridicule and a collector’s item, one can still buy a $ZW 1 trillion note. That hyperinflation is back again and wreaking havoc, and true to form, the military-nationalists are blaming “sanctions” and “saboteurs” in equal measure and their solution has been a raft of Bills and Acts to legislate “patriotism”. Professor Steve Hanke, who tracks Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation, has estimated it as the highest in the world, at a whopping 685 per cent, having topped 1332 per cent in March 2023.
On the 24th of May 2023, former Finance Minister and opposition stalwart Tendai Biti had this to say about the currency collapse:
Only 2 weeks ago the rate was US$1 to ZW$1,000. US$1,000 was a flat ZW$1 million. Now the rate is at US$1 to ZW$4,000. This means in a mere ten days working people and pensioners have lost 400% of their wages and pensions. Truth is the kakistocracy has failed and failed in absolute terms –.
These currency fluctuations are bad news for business, but worse news keeps rolling in. The Minister of Finance has had to use presidential powers to issue statutory instruments forcing business and service providers to only use the “foreign exchange rate that is prevailing at the RBA-controlled auction rate”. This rate is an artificial rate, not linked to the market demand for foreign currency. Zimbabwe becomes a puzzle; for example, it has one of the biggest sources of remittances – US$1.8 billion plus and rising per year – and yet the currency continues to collapse. Part of the explanation is to be found in the collapse of trust in the local currency and the unwillingness of citizens to trust banks in Zimbabwe. This explains the billions of US$ circulating informally outside the finance system and being kept securely “mattress and pillow” bank.
Somewhere, in history, a writer intelligently warned that “history does not repeat, but rhymes”.
While the central bank and the ministry of finance continue to deny the collapse of the local currency and to push it as “legal tender”, the effect of the income collapse is especially bad for government employees. In a video circulating on social media, nurses and nurse educators say that they are receiving their pay in the $ZW equivalent yet most shops are now demanding to be paid in US$. One member of parliament has taken a private school to court to force it to accept payment in $ZW; the consequences would be dire. If schools accept the collapsed $ZW, then they cannot pay services providers. Boarding schools would have to shut down. Some elites are somehow insulated; in the now infamous Gold Mafia scandal, it became clear that political elites are transacting in US$ and only switch to the local currency when there is advantage.
But it gets worse – some of the businesspeople that have access to the auction system can get foreign currency from the Central Bank at heavily discounted rates and still sell their goods, fuel for example, in US$. The flamboyance and arrogance of the well connected are plain to see; first-class flights, holidays in exotic locations, and imported luxury cars (Rolls Royces, Lamborghinis, and the latest Mercedes Benz models). They live in a parallel universe.
Under the late president Robert Mugabe, patronage networks started flourishing in exchange for supporting his presidency and the level of grand-scale looting of Zimbabwe’s natural resources accelerated. Here a tender worth millions for a solar farm is funded and undelivered, another tender to supply medicines is overinflated into millions; there a tender for cars is overinflated and on and on it goes. The state has become a willing and easy fishing pool for the party-state elites. Recent divorce proceedings involving the former president’s daughter exposed the level of elite privilege, with more than 21 farms becoming part of the proceedings (over 21,000 ha – the size of Monaco). Other ministers and members of parliament and connected elites have amassed prime land holdings by simply writing letters to the city council and grabbing land then subdividing it and selling it.
Post-Election, Future Trajectories and Extractive Party-Army Elite
The ruling party elite pull influential strings within the political economy. They control a large swathe of potential voters through land even threatening to dispossess land from land reform beneficiaries. In small-scale mining they have cemented control of sometimes violent “small-scale miners” but the “comrades” are also in business in the diamond, gold, coal, iron ore sectors and have extensive land holdings in urban areas. Lawyer and long-time activist, Siphosami Malunga commented that:
There’s a political economy to authoritarianism. There’s nothing like seeking power for power’s sake. Authoritarianism is not just about accumulating ALL power. It is about accumulating ALL power so you can unaccountably use it to enrich yourself endlessly. It’s always the money (Twitter, 29/08/2023).
The “comrades in business” are now fighting back because a political transition will make them orphans of the state and its apparatus of patronage and racketeering. The liberation generation, older and sometimes fractured, has started fighting back calling, the observer reports ‘advisory’ and ‘non-binding’ and the ZANU PF spokesperson accusing Zambia, of being a “neo-colonial” front posing a threat to all liberation movements in Southern Africa (especially South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia and even Tanzania). For its part, the opposition has heightened its demands, announcing that they “reject the election in toto” meaning that even the parliamentary, senatorial and council opposition will potentially not take up the positions.
The diplomatic shuttles to Zimbabwe’s capital have already ensued, with the announcement that the former president of Tanzania, Jakayo Kikwete, will lead a mission to cool down the tempers. The opposition will have to contend with a regional leadership of liberation movements that are easily swayed by ZANU PF and within the region it is an open secret that Harare’s leaders have actively supported and funded networks of leaders in the region making them beholden to their patronage. The ruling elite propaganda has borrowed the Mugabe rhetoric and the deputy secretary to the president has already started playing back the clips of Robert Mugabe threatening the whole region and telling them to go hang. Whether the region will buy this bravado and allow the “comrades” in Harare to entrench illegitimacy remains to be seen.
The flamboyance and arrogance of the well-connected is plain to see.
Zimbabwe has entered another cycle of contested electoral outcomes and a herculean polarised political contest between the ruling party and the opposition is in the offing. The trajectory is not looking good for the liberation generation. As they get older, lose regional allies, and become fractured, a demographic shift is eroding their hold on power, but their dispatch from state power, long started by Morgan Tsvangirai, will be convulsive and torturous and it seems the only way out is a negotiated political settlement to ease them into retirement. Within these murky waters opposition leader Nelson Chamisa finds himself in at the deep end.