Toward a One-Party State: Suppression of ZAPU, ZUM, and MDC
The ruthless suppression of decent opposition started in the 1980s as part of the ZANU-PF agenda to create a one-party state. The absorption of the Zimbabwe People’s African Union (ZAPU) into its rival, the ZANU, after a truce between Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe in 1987 was an important part of this concentration of power project. This was the culmination of a cold-blooded suppression of the ZAPU by the ZANU after years of bloody streets fights between the combatants of the two old liberation movements.
The tensions between the two organizations can be traced back to the 1960s when a split in the Ndabaningi Sithole-led ZAPU precipitated the formation in 1963 of ZANU under Mugabe, ZANU’s erstwhile general secretary. Followers of the two parties fought fiercely over which of the two parties controlled the Chimurenga/ Umvukela (struggle against colonial rule). This led to the loss of many lives in an estimated 4919 acts of political violence in 1963 alone.3 The colonial government took advantage of this and arrested some leaders of the warring political organizations, causing the rest to escape into exile, from where they launched a particularly violent chapter of their struggle, the so-called second Chimurenga.
There were several failed attempts before 1987 to unite the two organizations. For instance, the Front for the Liberation of Zimbabwe (FROLIZI), which was a united front between the two organizations, only lasted two years—between 1971 and 1973—before it collapsed due to the failure of the two parties to show commitment to unity. Herbert Chitepo’s Joint Military Command of 1972 was ineffectual because of a lack of political will from the ZANU and ZAPU. Unity attempts by the Frontline States Initiative in 1975 also floundered. But when confronted with a need to present a common front in response to proposals by the then U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger, ZANU and ZAPU formed an effective “Patriotic Front” in 1976 through the mediation of Mozambique’s president Samora Machel. The front lasted until the Lancaster Agreement was signed in 1980, after which it collapsed because the two parties decided to campaign for the first postindependence elections separately.
The violent suppression of ZAPU by the new ZANU government in the mid- 1980s, which led to an orgy of violence and deaths of thousands, was part of a long history of conflict. Having acquired control over the state’s instruments of force, ZANU thought it could annihilate its long-standing nemesis at the slightest irritation. The conflict began with clashes between the two parties’ armies—Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA) of ZAPU and Zimbabwe National Liberation Army (ZANLA) of ZANU—from 1980 to 1981. This escalated into a violent confrontation as the ZANU government descended on Matabeleland, ZAPU’s base, with strong-arm tactics. It dismissed ZAPU leaders from the unity government and arrested others. Seeing ZAPU as an extension of apartheid South Africa’s onslaught on the southern African region, the ZANU government unleashed the ruthless Fifth Brigade on the people of Matabeleland in 1983 in a bloody suppression that lasted until 1987.4
Peace talks between ZANU and ZAPU led to a truce in 1987, which saw the merciless Fifth Brigade withdrawn from Matabeleland and the granting of amnesty to ZIPRA combatants involved in the war. However, the truce also sought to achieve a long-standing ZANU pursuit for total political hegemony and the assimilation of the ZAPU into its ranks. Indeed, the two parties merged under the terms of the Unity Accord signed by Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo in the same year. For this reason, instead of a merger, the ZANU saw the Unity Accord as a means of liquidating the ZAPU. ZANU-PF was thus meant to be a reincarnation of ZANU.5
However, just how this idea was to be achieved created tensions within the ZANU-PF, leading the party’s Politburo to vote against the idea in 1989 and again in 1990. Mugabe’s close ally and the party’s general secretary Edgar Tekere was among the most vocal critics of the one-party state idea. He publicly opposed the constitutional changes that saw Mugabe assume full executive powers and become an imperial president.
As a result, Tekere was summarily expelled from the party, compelling him to establish a new political platform in opposition to the ZANU-PF: the Zimbabwe Unity Movement (ZUM). The party surprised everyone by getting 20 percent of the vote and two parliamentary seats during the 1990 elections. These results also suggested that the ZANU-PF’s hegemony could be challenged. The ZANU-PF panicked and embarked upon a ruthless clampdown of political dissent through arbitrary arrests of members of the ZUM, violent responses to strikes by university students and unionized workers, and the disappearance of activists under the hands of the notorious Central Intelligence Organization (CIO).6 It did not allow the young ZUM to grow, leading to its collapse by the time of the next elections in 1995.7
With the ZUM successfully repressed, the Zimbabwe Congress for Trade Unions (ZCTU) became the vehicle for political opposition to the mighty ZANU-PF. It led the formation in 1997 of an alliance of critical civil society organizations (CSOs) seeking wide-ranging democratic change under the name National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), with the fiery trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai at its helm. The NCA helped popularize the struggle for democracy in Zimbabwe through extensive civic education and campaigns for a new constitution to replace the Lancaster House Agreement. In response to immense pressure for the NCA and ZCTU to enter into active politics, the latter convened what it called the National Working People’s Convention in February 1999 to map out a broad political agenda for civil society. Having resolved that Zimbabwe’s problems stemmed from a crisis of governance, the convention decided to establish a popularly driven and organized movement for democratic change. Thus, the MDC was established, with Morgan Tsvangirai as its president.
Unlike previous opposition movements, the MDC was born into an organized and widespread mass base, with the militant labor federation and constitutional reform forum as its engines. But the strong focus on the removal of Mugabe from government led to a narrow political focus in the MDC’s agenda. This narrow agenda was informed in part by influences from business interests, organized white commercial farmers, and external donors.8
Following the MDC’s strong showing in both the constitutional referendum and parliamentary elections of 2000, and with prospects of an even stronger showing during the 2002 presidential elections, the ZANU-PF regime unleashed a merciless campaign to suppress and destroy the MDC. This included fiddling with the electoral system in favor of the ZANU-PF; a clampdown on independent media; and the unleashing of ruthless war veterans against its enemies. This vicious campaign coincided with a period in which the new movement contended with the challenges of transforming from a broad church of class interests into a coherent political party.
The reign of terror combined with internal disagreements to weaken the MDC, culminating in a split into two factions—a moderate one led by Arthur Mutambara, and the main faction under Tsvangirai’s leadership. The SADC and regional powers like South Africa did not have an effective response to these developments, and were unable to persuade or pressure the ZANU-PF to allow democracy to flower in Zimbabwe. The SADC’s attempts to persuade the ZANU-PF to negotiate an amicable solution with the MDC failed.