The Southern African Development Community (SADC) has long played a pivotal role in observing elections in Zimbabwe and other SADC member states. However, a notable departure from past practice occurred during Zimbabwe’s most recent elections, in August 2023, when the SADC observer mission issued an unprecedented preliminary report that was both negative and critical in its assessment of the elections.[i]

The SADC observer mission report raised several significant concerns, foremost of which was the blatant disenfranchisement of urban voters, attributed to the delayed delivery of ballot papers and other requisite election paraphernalia by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC). The report also highlighted instances of voter intimidation in rural areas, allegedly orchestrated by the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU PF). Among the state operatives singled out for similar acts of intimidation were the notorious secret agents believed to be linked to Forever Associates Zimbabwe (FAZ). In an attempt to intimidate voters, they conducted illegal biopolitical practices on election day, demanding voters’ identity documents and recording their names in a book before and after voting. Voters alleged that FAZ warned people that this practice would enable FAZ to know who they had voted for. Moreover, FAZ threatened that voters who had voted for the opposition would face the consequences—usually violence and exclusion from state resources. Other noteworthy concerns raised in the SADC preliminary report included the delayed release of the voters’ roll (voter register), a crackdown on civil society and opposition activists, and biased coverage of election campaigns and rallies in favor of the ruling ZANU PF party. These and numerous other concerns were hardly surprising, given the disorderly and problematic nature of the recent elections.

Prior to the announcement of all the election results, including the contested presidential results, the SADC observer mission concluded that the election process had failed to meet the country’s constitutional requirements. Additionally, it violated provisions in Zimbabwe’s Electoral Act and fell short of both regional and international standards for fair, transparent, and credible elections.

The SADC observer mission’s criticisms are well-founded, as corroborated by both statistical data and my own on-the-ground observations. For instance, while 6.6 million Zimbabwean citizens had registered to vote in 2023, only 4.6 million were able to cast their ballots, depriving two million people of their right to vote. Importantly, a significant proportion of these disenfranchised individuals lived in urban areas, including the capital, Harare, and the second-largest city, Bulawayo, both of which are strongholds of the main opposition party, the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC). It is also worth noting that due to the ZEC’s maladministration of the election process and other irregularities, there was a significant decline in voter turnout, dropping from 85 percent of eligible voters in 2018 to 69 percent in 2023.[ii]

ZANU PF’s Response to the SADC Preliminary Report

The SADC observer mission’s preliminary report infuriated the political henchmen in the ruling party, who responded by accusing Dr. Nevers Mumba, head of the observer mission and former Zambian deputy president, of stepping out of line by meddling in issues beyond his jurisdiction and destabilizing the country.[iii] In several ZANU PF press conferences, high-profile politicians[iv] threatened, ridiculed, and labelled Mumba a puppet of the West. They accused him of having an agenda aimed at regime change with the ultimate goal of unseating the ruling party. ZANU PF invoked and instrumentalized its populist patriotic rhetoric, amplifying its over-glorified role in liberating the country from colonialism. It therefore deemed itself legitimate to retain power through any means, including stealing and rigging elections in its favor. In this context, ZANU PF’s spokespersons framed Mumba as a “sellout.”

Despite SADC’s damning preliminary report, the ZEC declared the incumbent, Emmerson Mnangagwa, as the winner of the presidential election after he secured 52.6 percent of the 4,561,221 votes. Nelson Chamisa, the main opposition candidate and leader of the CCC, amassed 44 percent of the votes. The opposition quickly rejected the outcome of the election as declared by the ZEC, citing irregularities, as outlined in the SADC’s preliminary report and echoed by the African Union observers,[v] the Carter Center,[vi] the European Union,[vii] and the Commonwealth observers,[viii] to mention a few. The ZANU PF’s declaration of victory was shortly followed by Mnangagwa’s inauguration as president. Three heads of state from the SADC region—South Africa, Namibia, and Mozambique—attended the inauguration and expressed their support for Mnangagwa and his ZANU PF party. In fact, Fikile Mbalula, Secretary-General of South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC), maintained his pre-election stance and accused Chamisa of being a Western “imperialist puppet.”[ix] Mbalula’s rant should be understood within the context of the ANC itself, which, like the ZANU PF, is facing growing opposition and undergoing an existential crisis and might be seriously tested in the 2024 elections—when Mnangagwa is expected to chair the SADC.

The SADC Troika

South Africa, Mozambique, and Namibia’s open support for ZANU PF is not surprising, given that these countries are also ruled by former liberation movements turned political parties, namely, South Africa’s ANC, Mozambique’s Frente de Libertação de Moçambique, and Namibia’s South West African People’s Organisation. Importantly, this support demonstrates the effectiveness of ZANU PF’s rhetoric of “anti-imperialism” and “regime change,” which it creatively deploys to play off its regional neighbors to gain sympathy and legitimacy. Consequently, while the Zimbabwean opposition would want SADC to take decisive action based on its preliminary report, the chances of a serious and punitive SADC response are unlikely, given the conspicuous divisions emerging in the responses to the SADC observer mission’s preliminary report. It appears that the SADC troika will maintain the report, but its response is likely to be ambivalent. This stance will have massive implications for democracy and the credibility of elections in the region and beyond. In this regard, Mumba cautioned, “If we do not work hard to ensure that we have free and fair elections in our region, we create a problem for ourselves.”[x] Therefore, while the concerns raised in the report will probably be shelved and only shared as recommendations for future elections, this creates a precedent that allows for SADC electoral principles to be violated without consequences. Moreover, it sets the stage for elections being conducted merely as rituals rather than credible processes of political transition. It also raises critical questions about the region’s leaders’ commitment to democracy.

What Next?

While the CCC had the option to exploit its legal recourse and challenge the election results, as it did in 2018, the opposition party resolved that the legal route would be a waste of time. In particular, it questioned the judiciary’s limited autonomy and tarnished reputation and expressed its deep distrust in the institution’s fairness. This distrust has deepened over the years due to the judiciary’s rulings in favour of the ruling party in the 2018 elections and its continued role in prosecuting opposition politicians.[xi] In this regard, the high court disqualified twelve opposition parties’ aspiring members of Parliament for failing to file nomination papers by the required date, despite the ZEC’s confirmation that they had filed the papers on time.[xii] Chamisa and his supporters believe that the international community should insist on fresh elections under the supervision of the SADC, the African Union, and the European Union.

I argue that the endorsement of Mnangagwa by some SADC countries, in particular those led by former liberation movements, demonstrates their quest to consolidate authoritarianism and the level of democratic backsliding in the region. This resonates with a wider global crisis, partly characterized by democratic backsliding. In my view, without broad-based legal, political, and security-sector reforms in Zimbabwe, democracy will remain a pipe dream. More worryingly, ZANU PF will continue to manipulate institutions to entrench its political domination by any means, with the support of its allies in the region.

Notes

[i] Southern Africa Development Community, “SADC Electoral Observation Mission Preliminary Statement to the Harmonised Election to the Republic of Zimbabwe,” August 25, 2023, https://www.sadc.int/document/sadc-electoral-observation-mission-preliminary-statement-harmonised-election-republic; African Union, “Preliminary Statement: African Union and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa Election Observation Mission to the 23 August 2023 Harmonised Elections in Zimbabwe,” August 8, 2023, https://au.int/en/pressreleases/20230828/preliminary-statement-african-union-and-common-market-eastern-and-southern.

[ii] Simon Kemp, “Digital 2023: Zimbabwe,” DataReportal, February 14, 2023, https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2023-zimbabwe.

[iii] Miriam Mangwaya and Blessed Mhlanga, “Zanu PF Rips into SADC Observer Mission,” NewsDay, August 26, 2023, https://www.newsday.co.zw/2023-elections/article/200015805/zanu-pf-rips-into-sadc-observer-mission.

[iv] Kelvin Chiringa, “Zanu PF Bigwig Bashes SADC Observer Mission Head,” Namibian,

September 3, 2023, https://www.namibian.com.na/zanu-pf-bigwig-bashes-sadc-observer-mission-head/.

[v] African Union, “Preliminary Statement: AU – COMESA Election observation mission to the 23 August 2023 Harmonised elections in Zimbabwe,” last updated August 25, 2023, https://www.peaceau.org/en/article/preliminary-statement-au-comesa-election-observation-mission-to-the-23-august-2023-harmonised-elections-in-zimbabwe.

[vi] Carter Center, “Carter Center Preliminary Statement on Zimbabwe’s 2023 Harmonized Elections,” August 31, 2023, https://www.cartercenter.org/resources/pdfs/news/peace_publications/election_reports/zimbabwe/zimbabwe-preliminary-election-statement-2023.pdf.

[vii] European Union External Action, “EU EOM Zimbabwe 2023: Curtailed Rights and Lack of Level Playing Field Compounded by Intimidation; Election Day Largely Calm, but Disorderly,” August 25, 2023, https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eom-zimbabwe-2023/eu-eom-zimbabwe-2023-curtailed-rights-and-lack-level-playing-field-compounded-intimidation-election_en.

[viii] The Commonwealth, “Commonwealth Observers Release Interim Statement on Zimbabwe Elections,” August 26, 2023, https://thecommonwealth.org/news/commonwealth-observers-release-interim-statement-zimbabwe-elections.

[ix] Wallace Ruzidvzo, “ANC Lashes Out at ‘Imperialist Puppet’ Chamisa,” The Herald, September 1, 2023, https://www.herald.co.zw/anc-lashes-out-at-imperialist-puppet-chamisa/;

Sunday Mail, “West Wants to Instal Puppet Govt in Zim: ANC,” June 25, 2023, https://www.sundaymail.co.zw/west-wants-to-instal-puppet-govt-in-zim-anc.

[x] The Zimbabwean, “Mumba Warns Cycle of Disputed Polls Could Fuel Regional Instability,” September 6, 2023, https://www.thezimbabwean.co/2023/09/mumba-warns-cycle-of-disputed-polls-could-fuel-regional-instability/.

[xi] Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, “Sikhala Clocks Up One Year in Prison,” The Zimbabwean, June 14, 2023, https://www.thezimbabwean.co/2023/06/sikhala-clocks-up-one-year-in-prison/.

[xii] Rutendo Nyeve, “Updated: 12 CCC Bulawayo MP Candidates Disqualified,” Sunday News, July 27, 2023, https://www.sundaynews.co.zw/updated-12-ccc-bulawayo-mp-candidates-disqualified/.

Oosterom, M, and S Gukurume. 2023. The Risk of Authoritarian Renewal in Zimbabwe: Understanding ZANU-PF Youth. Available online:https://www.cmi.no/publications/8797-the-risk-of-authoritarian-renewal-in zimbabweunderstanding-zanu-pf-youth   (accessed on 5 August 2023).