A view from inside Zimbabwe

By Tim Nafziger
12 Dec 2008

In recent days and weeks Zimbabwe has wrestled its way back into the news with reports of over 600 dead of Cholera and as many as 60,000 cases feared in coming weeks. Inflation is so high that at restaurants you pay before the meal because the food will cost more when you finish. Unpaid soldiers are looting and rioting in the streets.

Last week I was part of a gathering to hear from Arthur Mutambara, the leader of the smaller faction of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), one of two opposition parties currently in negotiation with the Zanu PF, the governing party. On 15 September 2008, the two parties signed a power sharing agreement that, if ratified, will make Robert Mugabe president, Morgan Tsvangirai (leader of the larger MDC faction) prime minister and Mutambara deputy prime minister.

Mutambara sees the power sharing agreement as the only path forward for Zimbabwe. In a country deeply traumatized by the violence before the 27 June election, a coalition government, Mutambara said, would offer the stability for a national healing process, a return to economic stability and could oversee the process for fair elections.

"We cannot wish away Mugabe," Mutambara said. "He has the presidency in his hands and the power that goes with it." The economic crisis alone is not enough to topple Mugabe and the country is far too traumatized for an uprising, violent or otherwise. It very painful to imagine an election, let alone a free and fair one. In any election held now, traumatized voters would re-elect Mugabe.

With a negotiated settlement the only solution, the only question becomes: when? Mutambara was clearly impatient with the slow pace at which the negotiation process is moving. "The choice is whether to end the suffering [of Zimbabweans] sooner or later," he said. "Politics are the art of the possible"

Mutambara brings a wide range of experience with him. He started as a student leader against Mugabe in the late 80’s. He went on to receive his PhD in Rocket Science and taught as a professor of business strategy at Northwestern University. In 2003, he took a position as CEO of the Africa Technology and Business Institute based in Johhannesburg.

In February 2006, Mutambara was elected president of a breakaway faction of the MDC that favored participation in the March 2005 parliamentary election. One of the other differences highlighted by Mutambara at the time was their perspectives on land reform.

The focus of the recent discussion I and others had with him was not only on the future of Zimbabwe, but also on an examination of what has gone wrong in the last few months.

Africans outside of Zimbabwe were horrified by the awful campaign leading up to the 27 June election. It did inestimable economic damage to regional groups. The heads of state in Mozambique, Botswana, Angola, Namibia, Tanzania and Madagascar spoke out strongly for change after the sham election. All but two have gone back to being quiet.

What has silenced them? Part of the problem, Mutambara said, has been "brazen and naive" grandstanding by the British and American governments. Their actions have played to Mugabe’s image of himself as an anti-imperialist. Heads of state in the region are well aware of the history of US and British intervention and have grown hesitant to speak out to strongly in favor of an opposition that appears too chummy with the US embassy. Without African Union on board, he said, there will be no one with the moral authority to bring Zimbabwe to the UN.

"The lack of strategic thinking by America undermines our struggle. [Western countries] should speak to the Africans and let them take a frontal role," Mutambara said. "Mugabe is only talking to us now because after the June 27 election, African leaders in the region spoke out. So we must make sure we don’t lose [the support of] Africa again" American statements don’t count for much because of history and location. Given the choice between the US and Britain, African leaders think "Better the devil you know."

What does good pressure look like? Mutambar holds out South Africa’s decision over two weeks ago to withhold aid from Zimbabwe as a positive example. The South African government said they would withhold aid until a legitimate representative government was in place. In their view Mugabe is not the legitimate president until the 15 September agreement is ratified and he is sworn in.

I was very impressed by both Mutambara’s conviction, passion and his warmth. During the question time he responded very graciously and effectively to strongly skeptical questions from the audience.

Mutambara as very clear where the responsibility for change in Zimbabwe lies. "Gone are the days of passing the buck [to the West]. We are the creators of our own situation. We must take responsibility for our own problems." Mutambara said "Gone are the days of slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism." These forces are still at work, he acknowledged, but they are not the dominant factors. "We are the agents of our own change" he added.

With the incoming administration of Barack Obama in the United States, Mutambara doesn’t expect a change in US foreign policy, but hopes for more nuance and tact in the way it is carried out.

What can we do? Mutambara acknowledged that the pressure China put on Zimbabwe after international outcry in the lead up to the Olympics was effective. In late April China recalled a ship full of weapons bound for Zimbabwe after workers out a South African port refused to unload it. Mugabe can’t go against China or South Africa, Mutambara said. "We are completely dependent on them economically."

The World Cup in 2010 in South Africa could be a lever for pressuring South Africa to help stabilize Zimbabwe. So we need to emphasize that it is in the long term and broader interests of South African corporations to have a stable Zimbabwe.

As for the role Mutambara plays, he sees himself as an independent voice in a highly polarized environment. Because he is the leader of a smaller third party, he has less at stake then the larger faction of the MDC and the Zanu-PF. The situation in Zimbabwe right now is very binary and polarized: Are you with the saint or the devil? More nuance is needed in political discussion. A multi-party system is needed.

Mutambara also talked about the critical role of civil society in Zimbabwe. The MDC was built on the labor movement. Because of their strong engagement, the 27 June repression targeted church leaders, women’s group leaders, labor leaders and lawyers. "We must make sure we maintain civil society as independent from political parties."

When asked what message he would send to the churches, he focused on the importance of building self-sustaining community projects in Zimbabwe.

As the evening drew to a close, someone asked Mutambara "What would be your message to churches?" Sending food is too easy, he said, development needs to enable communities to feed themselves. He also cited micro-lending programs that focus on loans to women. Mutambara said, "Imagination and creativity are very important as you seek to assist Zimbabwe"

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(c) Tim Nafziger works for Christian Peacemaker Teams. This interview is adapted from his blog at Young Anabaptist Radicals with grateful thanks: http://young.anabaptistradicals.org/. It also appears in The Mennonite: http://www.themennonite.org/

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