Playing zero-sum games

2010-10-13 00:00

THE 2008 elections in Zimbabwe that led to the signing of the unity agreement almost exactly two years ago between Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai are well documented.

Philip Barclay’s book is all the more valuable because he had the dubious privilege, as second secretary in the British embassy, of observing the events in intimate detail from 2007 to 2009. His account of how the euphoria of Tsvangirai’s victory on March 29 gave way in a matter of weeks to the horror of the bloody campaign to overturn the results of the presidential election, is a brave and compelling record of a diplomat’s journey into Zimbabwe’s heart of darkness.

The two most depressing chapters deal with that brutal and cynical campaign: how Zanu-PF hardliners persuaded Mugabe not to step down and then unleashed the party’s youth militias against Tsvangirai’s MDC party. By the end of the rerun presidential election, Mugabe was firmly back in the saddle and an estimated 40 MDC supporters had been murdered, countless others tortured and 40 000 driven from their homes.

It’s a chilling picture of the best and worst of African democracy in a country where voting is a matter of life and death. There’s also a lesson for South Africa here in the ease with which a ruling party favoured with a media monopoly, a corrupt judiciary and a fanatical youth militia can keep itself in power and drive its people to ruin.

The book is a sad read, and the faltering steps of the new unity government hardly inspire confidence. Barclay describes as misleading the efforts of the MDC to play “the unity game as if a win-win outcome were possible”. As he so rightly observes, “Zanu-PF knows only zero-sum games and always plays to win them absolutely.”

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