As Zimbabwe awaits the results of its most recent election, we look back at its tumultuous history and wonder whether there is any hope for the future.


Five years ago, Zimbabwe lay in ruins. The nation’s collapse was one of history’s most extreme examples of a failed economy, in which inflation hit a rate of 80 billion percent per month (the annual figure has too many zeros to be understood). GDP fell by half; unemployment hit 95%; 80% of the population was forced below the poverty line. The scale of these numbers is utterly incomprehensible. In January 2009, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe printed a note for 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollars, the highest denomination note ever printed in any currency, valued at around US$30; a week later the note was insufficient to purchase two loaves of bread. Later that month, the government was forced to abandon the Zimbabwean dollar altogether.


The extent of Zimbabwe’s problems went beyond economics. The cause of the nation’s hyperinflation can be traced to the corrupt politics of its tyrannical leader, Robert Mugabe. Mugabe led the struggle against white minority rule in Zimbabwe, which started as a political movement but became increasingly violent. He spent a number of years in prison, before revolutionary forces gained independence and Mugabe won the first Zimbabwean election in 1980. This biography will sound strikingly familiar to anyone familiar with Nelson Mandela’s, but where Mugabe differs is that Mandela united a multiracial South Africa, whereas Mugabe has sought to establish black dominance over white.


Mugabe’s racial politics involved seizing land from white farmers for redistribution to “native” workers, or, more accurately, to political allies, friends and family. The violent and widespread campaign known as Land Reform led to a collapse of agricultural production, which had accounted for 40% of export earnings and two thirds of formal employment. Coupled with astronomical government deficits for unnecessary military campaigns, failing state-owned industries and palatial facilities for the political elite, all financed by printing money, Mugabe’s Land Reform brought the country to its knees.


As this was happening, citizens went to the polls in March 2008, in presidential and parliamentary elections between Mugabe’s socialist-nationalist ZANU-PF party, and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by Morgan Tsvangirai. Claims of electoral fraud were, as usual, widespread. Tens of thousands of centenarians were on the electoral roll, surprising for a country with a life expectancy in the forties. Videos emerged of prisoners being led out of cells and forced to vote for ZANU-PF. In Matabeleland South, the Ndebele tribal region where Mugabe’s forces massacred thousands of families in the 1980s, Mugabe enjoyed remarkable support.


And yet, despite all this, the MDC won a majority in parliament, and Tsvangirai won the presidential election. However, his 48% of ballots to Mugabe’s 43% was still below the 50% required to prevent a two-way run-off between the candidates. Then the violence started. Hundreds of MDC politicians and supporters were targeted. Human Rights Watch alleged that torture camps were set up to capture, beat and torture those who were suspected of voting MDC. In the face of such violence, Tsvangirai pulled out of the second round of polling. However, a South African-brokered agreement between the rival parties eventually formed a coalition ‘Government of National Unity’ (GNU) in an uneasy power-sharing agreement between Tsvangirai as Prime Minister and Mugabe as President.


Five years after the obscene corruption and violence of 2008, Zimbabweans once again returned to the polls on July 31st, 2013. Whilst some have praised the peaceful nature of the election so far, there have been allegations of doctoring of the electoral roll, which, according to BBC sources, contains up to two million ‘voters’ who are either duplicated or dead, and omits many who are eligible. Up to a million (15% of all those eligible to vote) were prevented from casting their ballots on election day, mostly in urban areas, traditional MDC strongholds. Whilst ZANU-PF have rejected the allegations, Tsvangirai has claimed that the election was merely a “farce” that should be “null and void”. However, African observer organizations have praised the election process.


As we await the results of the election, analysts in the country suggest that it is highly unlikely that Tsvangirai will be the victor, let alone with the absolute majority required. This is not due to alleged fraud, but genuine support for the nationalist politics of ZANU-PF in many rural regions, where recent rises in mineral prices and Chinese investment in mining have boosted economic growth. The real question will be whether Mugabe reaches the required 50% of votes, or whether there will be another run-off. If so, it is hard to imagine that ZANU-PF will abandon the gruesome tactics that have won them successive election victories for over 30 years.


It is likely that natural causes will be the only thing to eventually topple the 89-year-old’s rule. In this case, the outlook is far from certain. Of his likely successors, Vice-president Joyce Mujuru is referred to as ‘more moderate’, though all terms are relative: she is the subject of numerous personal sanctions from Western countries for embezzlement and illegal mineral trades. Defense minister Emmerson Mnagagwa, a leader of terror campaigns in the revolutionary war, is perhaps most feared by Zimbabweans. Both have links to the powerful military, making military rule a terrifying possibility.


Where next for Zimbabwe? To be clear, Zimbabweans need change. The coalition GNU did indeed improve their situation, though real progress remains far off. The terminal decline of the country’s economy has halted, schools and hospitals have reopened, a deadly cholera outbreak has been stemmed, and a new constitution was passed that limits presidential power and introduces a Bill of Rights. However, indices of poverty, healthcare and education all severely lag behind other sub-Saharan nations. The controversial Indigenization Bill, a ZANU-PF policy that forces foreign companies to forfeit 50% of shares to “native” workers, threatens to do to industry what Land Reform did to agriculture.


Nevertheless, even relative to other southern African nations, Zimbabwe is mineral rich in diamonds, gold and uranium; it is beautiful, from Lake Kariba to Victoria Falls; and it has bountiful fertile land. Mining, agriculture and tourism have the potential to fuel a booming economy to rival those of South Africa and Namibia. However, unless the destructive policies of indigenization and land reform are abandoned, and political stability achieved, none of these industries will be able to prosper.


There is indeed hope – not only for a Zimbabwean recovery but a Zimbabwean renaissance and boom. It is extremely promising for the nation’s peaceful future that, unlike some African countries, political party lines are not based in tribal conflict – there is no stark alignment between Shona and Ndebele regions and support for ZANU-PF or MDC. However, our hope is restrained by the reality that Mugabe is unlikely to give up his stranglehold on power easily. In a few days we are likely to find out whether Mugabe’s despotic rule will end, and be met with reform and progress, or whether Zimbabwe awaits further years of uncertainty and turmoil.