History Monday: Pro-Democracy Movement 1

Conflict Summary:

The nonviolent struggle for democracy in Zimbabwe became more pronounced from the late 1990s to the present. The struggle is led by opposition parties and civil society against the rule of ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front) under President Robert Mugabe, who has been the sole ruler since the country attained independence from British colonial rule.


Political History:

Zimbabwe gained independence from colonialism on April 18, 1980 after a bloody civil war with the white minority Rhodesian government. Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party formed the new government. The initial hope created by independence was dampened by unrest in Midlands and Matebeland provinces in the 1982-1985 caused by political differences between Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party and veteran nationalist Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People’s Union) party. Mugabe deployed his North Korean-trained 5th Brigade to deal with followers of ZAPU, the then-largest opposition. Known as Gukurahundi, the operation left about 20,000 civilians dead1, mostly of Ndebele ethnicity that largely supported Nkomo.

Peace only came in 1987 when the two adversaries signed the Unity Accord that led to a “unity government.” But in reality ZAPU was wholly swallowed by ZANU-PF and it became extinct, creating a de facto one-party state.

By the late 1990s, many Zimbabweans were growing weary of President Mugabe’s rule as the economy failed due to mismanagement, corruption and participation in an expensive war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Power and fuel shortages surfaced while inflation, unemployment and HIV/Aids infections soared. Education, health and social services decayed as the quality of life plummeted.

There was no viable opposition party and Mugabe showed no desire to leave power or reform.


Strategic Actions:


The first major nonviolent action was initiated by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU)—a national labour federation. Originally established by the government, the federation had subsequently grown more independent and critical of government policies.

In mid-November 1998, ZCTU called for a national boycott to pressure the government to reverse its 67 percent price hike on gas, which had caused massive rises in prices of other goods and services. Known as “mass stayaways,” workers and the general population were asked to simply stay home. People complied and most towns grounded to a halt as factories, offices, and schools failed to open and commuter buses parked. The government lost millions in revenue. The union’s then-secretary-general, Morgan Tsvangirai, declared it a success.

The ZCTU stay aways marked increasing discontent among different sectors of the Zimbabwean population. Hitherto, such confrontational protests and acts of noncooperation had been confined to university students.  The stayaways engaged a variety of people and showed people’s disgruntlement without unnecessarily exposing them to confrontations with armed police and soldiers who were heavily deployed across the country.

More stay aways were conducted, but they lost potency as the economic meltdown worsened and people became more engrossed with daily struggles for basic survival like selling wares and searching for food.


In 2000, people power was once again displayed during a referendum for a new constitution.

The National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) was formed in 1997. A grouping of civic organizations representing churches, labor, students, women, human rights, and other organizations sought to create a new “people-driven” constitution. ZCTU was also a member and future prime minister and head of the opposition to ZANU-PF Morgan Tsvangirai was ZCTU’s chairman. The new people-driven constitution was expected to define issues such as presidential terms, land reform, human rights and other issues.  It was envisaged to replace the 1979 Lancaster House Agreement that Zimbabwe had adopted soon after independence and which had been subsequently amended numerous times to benefit the ZANU-PF government.

Seeing potential for populism, the government immediately hijacked the NCA idea, formed a Constitutional Commission and rolled out a massive nationwide campaign complimented by a heavy media blitz to rally the population around its agenda for constitutional reform. After countrywide consultations, the Constitutional Commission produced a draft document that expanded Mugabe’s executive powers and endorsed ZANU-PF’s plans to seize white-owned commercial farms—issues that were never demanded by the people. The NCA immediately rejected the draft constitution and mobilized the population to vote “No” while the well-resourced Constitutional Commission campaigned for “Yes”.

In February 2000 the referendum vote was held, with 54.7 percent voting “No” and 45.3 voting “Yes.”2 For the first time in its long history, ZANU-PF was defeated in a national election, shattering its myth of invincibility. The campaign was peaceful and the voting process smooth.

The plebiscite strengthened people’s confidence in the electoral process, which had previously been characterized by apathy.

However, the government also realized that it could not win any free and fair elections. Henceforth, it resorted to violence and manipulation of electoral processes.

The government abandoned the constitution issue and capitalized on the emotive land question which it had neglected for two decades. About 4,500 whites owned 90 percent of all prime land in Zimbabwe and ZANU-PF said it would correct that colonial legacy. Mugabe said “Our party must continue to strike fear in the heart of the white man, our real enemy.”3 Veterans of the liberation war and youth militias were unleashed onto commercial farms. Chaotic and violent, the invasions caused agricultural production to plummet, leaving millions depending on international food aid and imports up to the present day.

The government proceeded to create an intricate infrastructure of violence and intimidation involving war veterans, youth militias (known locally as “Green Bombers”), police, army and intelligence personnel to coerce people into voting for ZANU-PF.

The judiciary was purged of independent judges while several draconian legislative acts were introduced.  For instance, the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) gave police sweeping powers to prevent any gatherings or demonstrations by opposition and civic groups.  The Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) was used to banish foreign journalists, arrest local independent journalists and close three private newspapers, including The Daily News whose readership had surpassed the state-controlled daily, The Herald.  With the closing of independent media outlets and intimidation of journalists, the opposition lost valuable space to enunciate their policies and get coverage of their activities while the general public was left to feed on propaganda from state media monopolies in television, radio, and print media.

Opposition activities were largely circulated through word of mouth. In rural areas unemployed school leavers and teachers formed the bulk of pro-democracy supporters and distributed red cards, the emblem of the Movement for Democratic Change (outlined below).


In September 1999, the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) political party was formed under the leadership of Morgan Tsvangirai. It was socially democratic and diverse, drawing its membership from ZCTU, NCA, business, professionals, academics, students, whites and unemployed youths. MDC was the first opposition party to pose a real challenge to ZANU-PF.

In the March 2000 parliamentary elections, ZANU-PF narrowly defeated the new MDC by winning 63 seats to the MDC’s 57 out of the total 120 constituencies.

Most of the MDC’s votes came from urban areas, including Harare and Matebeleland provinces. Voter turnout was huge despite ZANU-PF’s gerrymandering, manipulations and violence. The government introduced skewed electoral laws, stifled independent voter education and used militias and security forces to harass opposition activists. There were also allegations of the government using food aid as a political tool.

In the March 2002 presidential elections, the official tally stated that Morgan Tsvangirai garnered 42 percent while incumbent president Robert Mugabe won by 56 percent and the remainder split amongst three other candidates. The elections were marred by violence by ZANU-PF supporters against opposition supporters and allegations of vote rigging.  Tsvangirai said the election was “stolen.”

African countries overlooked Tsvangirai’s protests and endorsed Mugabe’s victory but Western countries did not. They froze assets, imposed travel and trade bans—“targeted sanctions”—on Mugabe and his officials.

In March 2005, the MDC split internally over differences on whether to participate in House of Assembly elections. Morgan Tsvangirai boycotted the elections, saying the electoral framework was skewed to achieve predetermined victory for ZANU-PF but some of his top officials participated nonetheless organized as members of the MDC led by Arthur Mutambara. ZANU-PF won 78 seats, MDC 41, and independent candidate Jonathan Moyo 1.4 To this day the two factions of the MDC have not united.

In May 2005, the government embarked on Operation Murambatsvina and destroyed urban shelters and informal business in sprawling poor suburbs throughout the country.  Murambatsvina left millions homeless and without sources of livelihood and drew world condemnation even by the UN.5 Critics alleged the exercise was meant to depopulate urban areas, known to be opposition strongholds, to preempt mass uprisings.

In March 2008 history was made. The MDC won the majority seats in parliament, displacing ZANU-PF for the first time.  The MDC also claimed that Tsvangirai had won the Presidential election by 50.2 percent. The government-appointed Zimbabwe Election Commission withheld the official results for several months, as it became apparent Mugabe had lost the election. It later announced that Tsvangirai had won by 47.9% versus Mugabe’s 43.2% and therefore a run-off was needed as none had polled more than 50% as required by law. The government then proceeded to organize extreme violence against the MDC organization and party members, which led Tsvangirai to withdraw. Mugabe was then declared the sole winner. There was an international outcry and Mugabe lost any shred of credibility even amongst his African sympathizers.

This election exposed Tsvangirai’s lack of contingency plans to force Mugabe to accept defeat. There was no infrastructure in place to mobilize for a mass action to demand Mugabe’s departure and litigation was a dead-end since the judiciary was stacked with Mugabe’s appointees.

The election also proved that despite an unprecedented economic meltdown, Mugabe’s core pillars of support (the army and the police) were still intact and Tsvangirai had not earned their cooperation. It also revealed that the real decision-makers in the government were not Mugabe and his advisers but the security chiefs sitting as the Joint Operation Command, an organ of top intelligence, military, police and prisons officials.

Before 2002, some of these officials declared they would “not accept, let alone support or salute”6 anyone without liberation war credentials, a clear reference to Tsvangirai.  Towards the 2008 presidential elections, the head of the Joint Operation Command, General Constantine Chiwenga, again said “We will not support anyone other than President Mugabe who has sacrificed a lot for the country.”7 Mugabe himself threatened war saying, “We shed a lot of blood for this country. We are not going to give up our country for a mere X on a ballot. How can a ballpoint pen fight with a gun?”8



  1. Taundi, J B (2010) ‘The pro-democracy movement in Zimbabwe (1998-present)’

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