It has been raining for two weeks in Harare, with only an occasional respite for the city’s graceful avenues to drip dry. For a country that has gone without heavy rain for several years, this is a turnaround. Doubtless President Mugabe, who at the beginning of the year took control of the Met Office’s forecasting service, will take the credit. The real reason for this bountiful precipitation is Cyclone Japhet, a band of low pressure that has moved in from the Indian Ocean and marauded across Mozambique before bringing its torrential cargo west into Zimbabwe.
But almost everything has become political here and the cyclone is no exception. A recent letter-writer to the anti-Mugabe Daily News took heart from the floods in Muzarabani, a low- lying plain in the north of the country, where the opposition MDC have never been allowed to campaign, as Mugabe’s Zanu-PF militias are so violent. Under the headline, “God is punishing the people of Muzarabani,” the letter read: “God has made the area inaccessible, not only to the opposition this time, but to almost everyone. They asked to be all by themselves and they will be by themselves until they repent…”
Alas, the tumultuous weather patterns of the last fortnight are not yet reflected in the political situation. A week may be a long time in Westminster, but a year doesn’t get you far in Harare. Twelve months ago, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who had recently been charged with treason, lost a widely disputed presidential election to Robert Mugabe. The political scene today has not progressed much.
Morgan Tsvangirai’s trial for treason, which started in February, has in the space of a few weeks descended into farce. It opened amidst violent scenes as riot police cracked down on MDC supporters, diplomats and journalists trying to enter the court, and the prospect of the death penalty loomed before Tsvangirai and his two colleagues. But slowly the prosecution’s case has unravelled and their star witness, Ari Ben Menashe, who alleges that the accused attempted to hire his firm to assassinate Mugabe, has resorted to calling Tsvangirai “nuts” and begging the judge to let him go home to Canada.
Meanwhile, government ministries take out advertisements in newspapers wishing the president a happy 79th birthday-“A principled and committed leader, you have consistently put country before self…” while state television calls on journalists to stop criticising and start “nation building,” the catch-all term used when the government wants to stifle dissent. The nation builder par excellence is the state-owned Herald newspaper, which ran a recent article -by a Dr Chivaura from the University of Zimbabwe – seeking to explain the different approaches taken by Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac: “Britain is a tiny island, isolated and not endowed with the wealth of nature. They only survive through plunder and deceit, while the French use civility and are gentlemen in their conduct… The problem with Blair is that he is uneducated and historically illiterate.” The Herald then helpfully fills in the blanks about Chirac: “On the other hand, President Chirac is seen as a rational, educated man given the history of France in having philosophers.”
As for Mugabe himself, he goes on as before-only he seems more confident on the international stage after his summits in Paris and Malaysia. And all the while inflation, hunger, fuel shortages, and unemployment worsen. In most places such a bleak scenario, coupled with a citizenry comtemptuous of the “old man” still in power after 23 years, would have led to revolt. Not in Zimbabwe. As Tsvangirai sits through his increasingly bizarre trial he must be praying for his own Cyclone Japhet.
When I met him a few days ago, the MDC leader was philosophical about Mugabe’s staying power. He referred to Mobutu’s 32 years in power, showing he is still capable of looking on the bright side. But there was a weariness in his voice when I raised the Milosevic scenario-why couldn’t MDC mobilise its supporters and defeat Mugabe with sheer numbers on the streets in the way the Serbian people ousted their tyrant? “Every situation has its own character,” he sighed. The pillars of state are too frightening and the average Zimbabwean too uncomfortable with causing civil unrest, is what he means.
While it is undeniable that Mugabe’s reign is drawing to a close, there is no knowing how long he will carry on and no immediate trigger for him to go. Tsvangirai’s success in taking the trade union-based MDC so far since its foundation in September 1999 has created expectations that the party is now struggling to satisfy. It is not enough to be democratically popular, courageous and increasingly credible. Some voices in the opposition are criticising the leadership’s ineffectiveness. To be effective after being defrauded at the ballot box is not easy, and it is currently proving too much for the MDC.
But Japhet brings hope. Not to the farmers-the rain was too late for most of the crops. It is a more abstract hope-the sense that change can come at the moment it is least expected. For Zimbabwean politics is at an impasse. The cyclone’s arrival bringing “12 years rain in two weeks,” as one Harare woman rather dramatically put it, shows the unpredictability of change. Tsvangirai must hope for his own political storm.
This piece appeared in Prospect on April 20 2003