He Who Cannot Be Allowed to Lose

Sarah Bracking
By Sarah Bracking

Professor Sarah Bracking is the current holder of the South African Research Chair in Applied Poverty Reduction Assessment at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Research Director of the Leverhulme Centre for the Study of Value, University of Manchester. She is editor of Corruption and Development (Palgrave, 2007), author of Money and Power (Pluto, 2009) and The Financialisation of Power in Africa (Routledge, 2012).

Posted on Tuesday, 17 September 2013 15:02

As Ibbo Mandaza noted the day after the recently concluded Zimbabwean ‘(s)elections’, “not even ZANU-PF can believe the result”. But The Times newspaper in London had beat Mandaza to it, publishing a cartoon Mugabe congratulating Zimbabweans for returning him to power on the day before the ‘poll’.

Even even so, everything about operation ‘we will not let ZANU-PF and the dictator lose’ had gone so well it was embarrassingly unbelievable.

They hadn’t even had to unleash anarchy, murder and land occupation (2000), steal the result by changing the numbers right at the end (2002, 2005), or demand a run off in order to torture people into not voting (2008).

Power continuously refers and appeals to exception, emergency, and a fictionalised notion of the enemy

The result of a not publically available voters role exhibiting the mass occupation of dead, missing or fictional people (estimated at over a million); 206,000 rural people receiving ‘assistance’ to vote (by police forcing them to vote ZANU-PF); a totally improbable 99.97 per cent of rural voters registered (against 68 per cent in urban areas); the removal from the electoral role and/or denial of voter registration to urban voters suspected of being MDC supporters (some 750,000); the turning away on the day of a number more (305, 000; 64,000 in Harare alone); the mass printing of fraudulent ballot papers; the mass bussing of fraudulent residents into swing seats; and a second election before the real one to let uniformed personnel (now in civvies and taking bus trips) vote twice had, unsurprisingly, clinched it (Zimbabwe Election Support Network, 2013: 62, 32).

It doesn’t take much elementary maths to note that if you take away the dead and assisted peoples’ ‘votes’, and restore the over a million disenfranchised suspected MDC voters, the alleged Mugabe landslide totally disappears, by more than ½ a million in favour of the MDC. Poof! Think of a number, any number…

It was a multi-pronged, multi-dimensional, indeed very traditional set of tactics from the Best Practise Handbook of Stealing Elections [out of print East European/Soviet edition, with a preface by Nicolae Ceaușescu, and alleged afterword by Israeli security company Nikuv International Products] and the Joint Operations Command and the Central Intelligence Organisation must have been very proud.

And while even the African Union and SADC observers had difficulty saying ‘fair’ out loud, a number of near neighbours, with President Jacob Zuma rushing to head the line, quickly congratulated the Leader-Who-Cannot-Be-Allowed To-Lose. Jacob being thankful that some 14 million Zimbabweans could be returned to their sovereign prison without the need for any expenditure or effort, in an election year in the South African case. Anyway, surely any remaining detractors must be enemy counterrevolutionary elements of British imperialism who don’t like land reform.

On Metro Radio they reported that a British journalist had asked the Leader-Who-Cannot-Be Allowed-to-Lose (LWCBATL) in a press conference whether he thought it was time to retire at 89, to which he replied, ‘does anyone ask the British Queen that?’. Obviously the journalist was a running dog of British Imperialism coming with the inevitable secret agenda of stealing cows, and land.

The Metro lady thought this was funny and that ‘he had a point’. After all the resemblance between an unelected sovereign royal and a democratically elected President must look confusing in this case: indeed there are similarities between the not so democratically elected LWCBATL, and the British Queen who, quite shockingly, both retains some powers of governance in Britain, and allegedly some land in Zimbabwe. (At the whim of the LWCBATL).

The Syndrome

On Facebook and on twitter the ever joking Zimbabweans, or ‘twimbos’ (Zimbabwean who tweet) were asking ‘do you know anyone who voted ZANU-PF?’, another replied ‘only dead people’. Hah! Ghosts. But, maybe, if you had voted ZANU-PF, maybe you might not want to come out and admit it?

This syndrome hit Britain when the conservative party won in 1979, because a large swathe of traditional Labour voters shifted over, thinking the ‘loads-of-money’ brash Tories would let them keep more of their cash (and pay less tax to hippies in flared trousers who seemed to like the dole/social support payments]. And the Tories did, and it worked for a while, but many would not admit how they had voted to their neighbours, or in polite company.

I say this because the real discomfort to me about this election is how to explain why, apparently, many people did indeed still vote ZANU-PF. Because while the observers withdrew the assigning of the ‘fair’ label, they retained the de facto notion of it being ‘fair enough’ in the context of low geopolitical capital (no big superpower wanting to argue with the result), an unprincipled South African position, and the fact that a couple of million Zimbabweans did indeed vote ZANU-PF.

Zimbabwean politics are embedded in a tradition and practice of violence that began more than half a century ago

Thus there was obvious rigging, the popular will was denied and the election was stolen. Indeed the current Zimbabwean government should be boycotted. But the uncomfortable question is still there, of how could any rational person vote ZANU-PF apparently ‘freely’? I came up with two answers to this question, broadly resources and terror, a classical ‘stick and carrot’.

First the carrot was an election campaign on ZANU-PF’s part alive with gifts and spoils from diamond revenue – denied to the actual ‘official’ election campaign, and thus to the MDC, as Tendai Biti struggled to get ZANU-PF to agree to his election budget. Armed with cash, ZANU reverted somewhat from their normal means of stealing elections – counting votes, delivering them to the ZEC, then making up new figures, which prevailed in 2005 and 2008 – to a more wholesale campaign at the local level which included the distribution of a greater level of spoils from mineral rents.

This suggests two things: first, that they did indeed feel some pressure under the Global Political Agreement on the need for democratic deepening, a more accountable Zimbabwe Election Commission, and a passable polling day – so did most of the corruption at other points in the electoral system (which is not to say that they wouldn’t have reverted to their previous model of just stealing at the last minute had they had to). They quite cleverly delivered resources through patrimonial means, including stands, houses and land.

Threat and reward structure

On the eve of the election they promised to cancel outstanding debt to municipalities, which reminded me of how Adolf Hitler consolidated power under the Third Reich, by cancelling housing debt for public if people had children.

The point being, that if it is possible to do so, acting like you could put up with losing an election looks good globally where people tend to like democracy. And since ‘Look as democratic as you can’ is good for the country, bribery is the first line of defence against the risk of losing.

But then this only works in the context of the stick, otherwise people might trust a democratically elected government to help them out just on the grounds of them being citizens, rather than them having to fib about being loyal comrades.

My friend in the MDC Executive wrote to me: “It appears Zimbabwe is struck by IFP – Ignorance, Fear and Poverty syndrome. With this level of fear, people are swayed to vote against their wish alone in the ballot box. One wonders what it is that one must do to remove IFP.” I was reminded of the fundamental context of the type of society Zimbabwe currently is, one silenced by fear and traumatised by political violence and torture.

In Lloyd Sachikonye’s recent book,When a State Turns on its Citizens, he wrote “Zimbabwean politics are embedded in a tradition and practice of violence that began more than half a century ago. The consequence of this state of affairs is a society traumatized by fear, withdrawal and collective depression based on past memories of violence, intimidation and harassment” (Sachikonye, 2011: xvii). He is, as ever, correct.

After the 2005 stolen election ZANU-Pf, through the Joint Operations Command, conducted Operation Murambatsvina to punish the ‘filth’ who voted MDC by bulldozing their houses. I was prompted to write about the particular threat/reward structure of being a Zimbabwean voter. It goes like this, a Big Man from the party comes to the village with sparkling new farm equipment, computers for the school, some food, party T-shirts, baseball caps, material for dresses and the inevitable food and beer. He, and sometimes Big Woman, speaks in the language of donation to a subject, not a citizen, in the context of development resources being within the largesse of the ruling party:

I/We (the Party) gave “the voters of area x goods y in recognition, and expectation, of their continued loyalty. In seats where the incumbent was MDC, in a variant of this exchange, the people were assured of forgiveness and future reward if they voted correctly this time, and reminded of the dearth of resources they had received with MDC representation. For example, ‘Comrade Kasukuwere said voting for ZANU-PF would bring development to Mufakose since the elected MP would be from the ruling party’ (The Herald, 28 March 2005). (Bracking, 2005: 350).

Not in Nigeria, Not in Kenya

So not much has changed since 2005, and the reward/threat message has been reinvigorated since then by the campaign of terror in 2008, and in rural areas preceding this election. That this influences people’s sense of what they are ‘free’ to do is without question. Zimbabweans are collectively ruled, according to Fortunate Machingura in her inspiring work on health and thanatopower in Zimbabwe, and very proudly my PhD student, by panoticism, Foucault’s idea of watching everyone with the view to experimentation and total authority.

I witnessed the consequences of this in 2007, when I passed a police station in Hatfield where torture was in progress and one could hear the wailing screams of a body being violated. I vomited. But many people were walking past on their way to work, looking neither this way, or that. No-one intervened, no one spoke. Similarly, I watched once while police moved on and beat up the traders outside Fife Avenue mall. No-one intervened. Nobody spoke. Everyone tried to look the other way.

Now this is pretty exceptional, as I get the impression, forgive me if I am wrong, but that in Nigeria, or Kenya, this would have lead to some big ‘kaka kaka’ and the police would be made to run. The rule of terror seems absolute, since it is perfectly believable in the everyday lives of most Zimbabweans that err too much and they will die.

The consequence of this state of affairs is a society traumatized by fear, withdrawal and collective depression

This is the basis of what Achille Mbembe analyses in his work on necropolitics, starting from Foucault’s insight that sovereign power is crucially about deciding who lives and who dies, about “the condition for the acceptability of putting to death” (Mbembe, 2003: 17). Power “continuously refers and appeals to exception, emergency, and a fictionalised notion of the enemy. It also labors to produce that same exception, emergency, and fictionalized enemy” (Mbembe, 2003: 16).

And this is what ZANU does so well by continuing the fear of the British enemy and the ‘outsider’ more generally. In 2005, I interviewed rural residents South of Gutu who believed that the British were responsible for cloud busting and stopping the rain in order to kill them, and that the British army were constantly amassed over the border in Botswana because they wanted to reinvade, both fictions made believable by the patriotic nationalism of ZANU-PF. Thus when theories of biopolitics tell us that “The exercise of power more generally, starts with the “the strength to violate the prohibition against killing, although it’s true this will be under the conditions that customs define”” (Mbembe, 2003: 16 citing Botting and Wilson, 1997: 318-9, themselves summarising the work of Bataille), we can see that in Zimbabwe’s case customs define that those who oppose the party-state can be strategically killed, and the British enemy used to justify it.

The ‘customs’ in Zimbabwe are of a population constantly, and rationally, fearful, as strategic and periodic terror allows for further terror and sometimes campaigns of death. That fear is both of torture by uniformed personnel and ZANU-PF militia internally, and of the fictionalized enemy over the border, who wants to reinvade, the one who funds the MDC, the counterrevolutionary stooges of the West.

In this context, obedient citizens are created by constantly policing those who might ideologically err, into the categories of enemies and errants, in a biopolitics which seeks to “distinguish between the “error” of the citizen and the crime of the counterrevolutionary in the political sphere” (Mbembe, 2003: 16). One can be rehabilitated, but the other must be eliminated, if not by death, at least by a level of fear that consigns the individual to silence. In this context, freedom is impossible, and elections in Zimbabwe give the people only the choice of whether to return from their ‘error’ (if they voted MDC last time) or be a counterrevolutionary (if they want to again).

But despite this terror, all the election observers had no difficulty saying that the election was ‘free’ (even if they choked a bit on the notion of ‘fair’). In fact after I started to emerge from the sheer shock and horror of the result it was the framing of the meaning of ‘free’ that I think is the key to understanding what has happened. [Metro Radio also reported a bout of sickness preventing work in Johannesburg of Diaspora Zimbos so depressed they couldn’t get out of bed, which made my own turpitude in the aftermath seem in context.]

So what is the meaning of ‘free’ in the context of a military junta in a vacated democratic shell. Though it may be true that some citizen/subjects ‘freely’ walked to the ballot boxes and crossed bits of paper, or were ‘assisted’ in doing so, this is in the context of an ever-present and believable threat of political violence and/or a ‘let die’ socio-economic abjection (both potentially leading to death by torture or starvation respectively) as a consequence attached to the ‘misdemeanour’ of not supporting ZANU-PF. Given this context, particularly in the rural areas where ‘Chiefs’ oversee obedience, it is perfectly rational for an individual to vote ZANU-PF even though this is not their intrinsic desire, because they are not, in reality, ‘free’ in the way liberals understand it.


So, in stealing this election ZANU-PF fiddled an ostensibly liberal democratic system by reverting, as is a pattern for them, to patrimonialism and spoils politics for reward, and the believable context of terror and biopolitics for threat. This is a different discourse and context to ‘democracy’ and needs an ideological response that finally unhinges the related concepts of sovereignty, patriotic nationalism, and autochthonous citizenship that ZANU-PF have managed to weld together.

The depiction of democracy as a colonial invasion that should affront patriotism is still working as a means for ZANU to garner support in the ideological domain. The MDC need to make better gains in the ideological battle, since it is only in Zimbabwe that democracy can be so successfully depicted as a project against the people rendered by colonisers. ‘Freedom’ has to mean more than this. It is a plank of justice and should mean freedom from violence and coercion, as well as from poverty. While ZANU-PF is a past master at compromising the citizen’s freedom, in fact at creating different varieties of citizenship and even denying it to whole groups by racial, ethnic or class whim, it does remain the fact that all Zimbabweans are just that – Zimbabweans. And this is whether they vote ZANU-PF or not.

As it stands, in the context of this threat and reward structure, it is rational to vote ZANU-PF if you want to live and prosper, and that is the MDC’s problem. But everyday life, under dictatorship, is often where political change germinates, and there are many, many Zimbabweans who understand their own incarceration.

In short, there is a bigger problem than election rigging, there is systemic political violence, maybe not every day for everyone, but a permanent believable threat. Sachikonye’s book is brilliant, but for a brilliant book it is the only one I couldn’t read to the end of. The torture accounts were too gruesome for my privileged Western soul. And I didn’t live them, I was just reading them in a book. This is the haemorrhage of Zimbabwe.

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