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Zimbabwe has never experienced democracy

Speech by MDC-T Treasurer General Roy Bennett in Des Moines, Iowa in the United States. He speaks about the struggle for democracy in Zimbabwe. Bennett says Zimbabwe is not fighting for a return to democracy because the country has never enjoyed or experienced democracy in any real sense.

MDC-T Treasurer General Roy Bennett
MDC-T Treasurer General Roy Bennett

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentleman

Thank you for inviting me to be with you tonight. I have been asked to speak to you on ‘The struggle for democracy in Zimbabwe’—an appropriate title given that the words ‘democracy’ and ‘Zimbabwe’ have always been inextricably linked to the realities of  suffering and death.

Democracy in Zimbabwe remains a dream and a desire—a dream that has cost the lives of thousands of brave men and women, and a dream that will, I am sure, cost the lives of many more. This is a brutal and sobering certainty, but one that says something of the reasons for the length and intensity of this struggle.

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Indeed, we have—and continue—to pay an extraordinarily high price because of the forces that fight so ruthlessly against us. Without, we are opposed by a completely immoral and amoral criminal syndicate that masquerades as a political party—and, within, we fight against traitors, deserters and personal demons that tear against both body and soul.

I will talk more of these adversaries in a few minutes. But first, some context. It is often said that the opposition in Zimbabwe is fighting for ‘a return to democracy’. Yet the truth is that we have never enjoyed or experienced democracy in any real sense. In the days of white rule, we had the pretence of democracy—one man, one vote for one small section of the population.

And things have not improved since independence in 1980. Referring to the African fondness for one party states, one of the architects of Zimbabwe’s independence, British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington, quipped that Mugabe wanted ‘one man, one vote—once’.

But we did not get even that. For many black Zimbabweans, the elections of 1980 were an exercise in sheer terror. Just as they had been during the war, our nation’s predominantly rural population was subjected to massive intimidation and no-holds-barred violence from Mugabe’s military.

At the time, Britain was desperate to wash its hands of responsibility in Zimbabwe—and they were simultaneously pushed by irresponsible western leaders such as Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, who had a naive and ignorant view of Mugabe’s character.

And so the first elections were declared by the international community to be an accurate reflection of the will of the people. This provided Mugabe and his party, Zanu-PF, with the early political cover they needed to impose an authoritarian system that combined a twisted African nationalist ideology with instruments of oppression that had been perfected by the white state.

The closest Zimbabwe got to democracy in the 1980s was the continued existence of Zapu, Zanu-PF’s main rival since the 1960s and a party that garnered most of its support from the Ndebele ethnic group in the south-western provinces of Matabeleland.

Influenced by African allies and sponsors from the communist bloc, Zanu-PF was obsessed with the establishment of a one party state—and it set-out to impose one by hook and by crook. First and foremost, this meant the elimination of Zapu and the subjugation of the Ndebele people. Calling on that well-known bastion of democracy for military assistance—the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—Zanu-PF began a carefully-orchestrated operation in January 1983.

But this was no laughing matter. The North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade of the army, drawn from Mugabe’s wartime guerrilla forces, slaughtered civilians indiscriminately—men, women and children. Moreover, it worked in tandem with the Central Intelligence Organisation, an organ inherited from the whites and whose stock-in-trade was torture and detention without trial.

The young and old alike were butchered like cattle, battered to death in blood-spattered cells or held by the hundred like rats in open-air cages. Death, when it came—and it came often—was the end point of a pummeling with jackboots and truncheons or as a result of sadistic and deliberately perverse carnage meted out by the Fifth Brigade in the rural areas.

This was Zimbabwe’s introduction to democracy, Zanu-style. Meanwhile, as Mugabe strutted the world stage, the vestiges of an independent judiciary, already severely curtailed by a state of emergency, were systematically emasculated.

Another bloody election in 1985 and a shotgun marriage with Zapu in 1987 saw the establishment of a dictatorship in all but name. The people did not need to learn the lesson more than once, but it was, nevertheless, dished out  repeatedly—in Zimbabwe, you could vote for anyone you liked, as long as it was Zanu-PF.

Having buried any serious political opposition, Mugabe and his cronies turned their snouts to the trough and set about looting the country good and proper. These were the years of excess, where the pilfering of the 80s was replaced by monumental graft and a gravy train that stretched the length of the country.

Doffing its hat to international sentiment and mocking the electorate, Zanu-PF maintained the facade of democracy and held regular elections, but there were no credible alternatives to the self-proclaimed ‘mammoth’ party that headed the regime. We were told repeatedly that Zanu-PF would rule forever and we were not left without bloody reminders of the price of opposition.

Woe betide those who dared to put their name on the same ballot paper. One such reminder was provided in 1990 when a man named Patrick Kombayi was riddled with bullet holes in broad daylight three days before that year’s elections. Kombayi’s sin was to form an insignificant breakaway party and challenge the vice president on his home turf. Goons from Mugabe’s intelligence agency were convicted in court but immediately received a presidential pardon.

In the 1990s, Zanu-PF was able to repress the people for a time, but the economic consequences of extravagance were incapable of persuasion. Patronage, mismanagement and a leakage of skills and capital combined and reached a critical mass by 1997. Two years later, Mugabe had a second problem on his hands. The people, silent but not quiescent, had had enough.

The Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, was formed in September 1999 and rapidly drew enormous crowds. To see the multitudes thronging to the stadiums and fields was to know, instantly, that massive forces were at work—deep-seated anger and hope generated an awe-inspiring organic energy that sprang, seemingly, from nowhere and threatened to sweep aside everything in its path.

Those were heady days. A democratic revolution was in the air. And our first victory came quickly. Mugabe had organised a constitutional referendum for early 2000—and he expected another donkey vote, in spite of the excitement over MDC. Instead, we delivered him a rude shock and a stark warning ahead of elections scheduled for later in the year. The ‘no’ vote won the day.

Seething with fury, Mugabe turned to one of the few sectors that had remained relatively intact during the feeding frenzy of the 90s. Commercial agriculture was a legacy of colonial rule and was dominated by white landowners—but the sector was a major source of employment and foreign exchange and, not least, it enabled the country to be that rarity in Africa: a net exporter of food.

There had also been many changes since independence that defied Zanu-PF’s propagandist narrative—one that presented all commercial farmland as stolen by feudal white land barons. Since independence, the government had the opportunity to implement a sensible and equitable land redistribution program, but it had failed dismally because it did not really care.

It complained bitterly of early constitutional limitations on compulsory acquisition and about the injustice of paying for land that it said was stolen. But hundreds of millions had been provided by donors to purchase land until the funding was cut off after aid had been embezzled and thrown about lackadaisically.

It is also a fact that a very large percentage of white-owned farms were purchased after independence and after the government had exercised its right to first refusal. Those who bought these farms were issued with what was known as a ‘certificate of no present interest’. My farm in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe was one of these.

The real motive of the anarchic fast-track land reform program begun after the 2000 referendum—more accurately described as a free-for-all—was to open the gates to looters and opportunists in the hope of reversing the mood of rejection that was growing among the people. If nothing else, Zanu-PF have an understanding of the base instincts of human nature—fear and greed being high on the list.

And there is no doubt that many took the opportunity when it was presented. When controls are loosed, there are always those for whom greed outweighs principle. We only have to look at Los Angeles in 1992 or New Orleans in 2005 to see that.

The second objective of the land invasions was to cut off support for the MDC among the more than one million black farm workers who lived on white farms. These were murdered, beaten and driven away from lifelong homes. They became wanderers and vagabonds—men, women and their little ones—nomads in their own country.

Is it any wonder that at least half of them are believed to have perished? One more crime against humanity, one more cry for justice from the silent dead. Held at the height of mob rule, the 2000 parliamentary elections were hardly a level playing field. The chaos on white farms was replicated across rural Zimbabwe and atrocities were committed in nearly every constituency.

One that has come to symbolise that election was the killing of two MDC activists, Talent Mabika and Tichaona Chiminya, burnt to death in their car by state agents. One of these agents, Joseph Mwale, went on to terrorise constituents in the area where I was elected as a member of parliament.

According to the official vote count, we failed to defeat Zanu-PF in that election, but we fell short by only 6 seats—a remarkable result for a party less than a year old and with all the odds stacked against it. We later mounted a legal challenge in view of rigging that had taken place, but this form of fraud has never been the centrepiece of Zanu-PF strategy. It is pressure outside of the ballot box that is at the core of its method. Murder, the threat of retaliation and merciless beatings—both as warnings and punishments—are the trademark of Mugabe’s rule.

For the leadership of the MDC, all these threats apply—and have been regularly meted out—but they are augmented by an array of added pressures. A favourite is the use of what is kindly called the legal system to wage of war of attrition against us. Almost without exception, key figures in MDC have been charged with crimes ranging from treason to rape, yet it is not the substance of the charges that matter.

These indictments rarely have any chance of success, even with Zimbabwe’s deeply compromised judiciary, but they are intended to grind us down. In court, day in and day out, for months and sometimes for years, we are put through an emotional and financial mill. And the attrition is physical too: respondents are often remanded without bail in jails that are filled to the brim with filth, disease and human misery.

It’s a drill I know all too well, having spent more time than most in those festering holes. On the most recent occasion, six fellow inmates died of starvation in the 40 days that I was a guest of government. The old saying, ‘the wheels of justice turn exceedingly slow, but they grind exceedingly fine’ have taken on an ironic meaning in Zimbabwe.

Since that first exhilarating and heartbreaking election as a party, the MDC has continued to bang on the door of democracy at each and every opportunity—and Zanu-PF has continued to bang us on the head with the hammers of state power and the booted feet of the mob. The Zimbabwean people have persevered and have continued to hope in a peaceful model that has as yet delivered them nothing. They have persevered through presidential elections of 2002.

They have persevered through another round of parliamentary elections in 2005, after which the homes of 750,000 urban supporters were bulldozed in a supposed urban renewal program. But the name gave the game away—it was called Operation Murambatsvina, which means ‘drive out the trash’. Finally, the Zimbabwean people persevered through the elections of 2008.

For the first time since independence, these elections combined the presidential and parliamentary votes. It was a climactic election in which Zanu-PF believed it would bury the MDC one-and-for-all. Along with many supposed experts, Mugabe and his coterie believed we were a spent force. We had suffered a messy and disruptive split in 2005, followed by a further series of internal ructions.

We were bankrupt and internationally isolated. We had also been badly pummelled in 2007 when many of our leadership were thrashed to within an inch of their lives in Mugabe’s cells. Some of you may remember footage of party leader Morgan Tsvangirai arriving at court swollen and disheveled. He had lost two pints of blood after being belted with whips, iron bars and rifle butts.

Sekai Holland, a 64 year-old grandmother, received more than 80 lashes and a broken arm, broken leg, shattered knee and fractured ribs. These were two cases among many. And so we went into the 2008 elections somewhat bruised.

At the time, I was living in exile in South Africa, having fled treason charges in 2006. I remember telling a colleague that whatever the naysayers thought, I could sense that the Zimbabwean people were strong, that they were up to the challenge. And so they were. The MDC won the parliamentary election and Mugabe was defeated in the first round of the presidential election.

The Zimbabwean people had announced to their abusers: ‘We have told you once, and we will tell you again—we don’t want you’. Those expert analysts were gob smacked. More to the point, so were Zanu-PF. This was a rude shock that matched the constitutional referendum of 2000. Rage, fury and the powers of hell were directed at the people. The second round of the presidential election was a time to draw blood. Over 200 people were killed and thousands were thrashed, burnt and maimed for life.

Among those of us who remain, I hear again the voice of the psalmist: ‘How long, O Lord? … How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and have sorrow in my heart every day? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, O Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death; my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall’.

We do not, however, look forward to a permanent end to the struggle. As I look forward, I look back. I see a people unaware of their full rights as citizens. I see a people unaccustomed to a consistent and fearless insistence that government be a servant and not a master.

I see opponents within, whose hearts and intentions are little different from those we will replace. I see the brokenness—the pain, the grief, the physical scars—and the social dysfunctionality—that has been created by a long history of violence. I see the need and the demand for justice—and a fight with those who will seek to sweep these inconvenient truths under the carpet.

After a transfer of power, the consolidation of democracy in Zimbabwe will be another long and hard road. I pray that it will be less bloody and less bruising. But of its reality, I have no doubt. It is one whose end I may not live to see. And yet, in this we will perhaps be not so different from you. The bias in the human heart toward abuse and selfishness means that democracy is less a destination than an aspiration.

What we have must be defended and protected—and what we lack must be built and fought for. This side of heaven, complete freedom is more a calling than a reality. May God give us the strength to be true to that calling. May that be true of this generation of Zimbabweans.

Thank you for listening to me tonight.

Roy Bennett
05 October 2011 
Des Moines, Iowa , US