Observers concoct a 'fraternal cover-up'

It is clear that high-ranking members of the ANC government had laid down markers for the SA Observer Mission to Zimbabwe.

There is a tendentious undercurrent in the "interim statement" that the South African Observer Mission (SAOM) issued in Zimbabwe within hours of Robert Mugabe being officially declared the victor in the fiercely contested election. Reading through it conveys an impression that the drafters of the 12-point statement struggled to reach their conclusion against weighty evidence to the contrary, that they are trying to square the proverbial circle.

Their conclusion, flashed around the world within minutes of being released to the media, is worth quoting in full: "Based on our observations, it is the view of the SAOM that the outcome of the 2002 Zimbabwe presidential elections should be considered legitimate." It conspicuously does not pronounce on whether the elections are "free and fair". Instead it opts for the legal notion of legitimacy, so strengthening the impression that it is advancing a difficult case against powerful counterveiling testimony.

That seems to have induced President Thabo Mbeki to declare in ANC Today (March 15) that the will of the people of Zimbabwe has prevailed, despite "clear flaws in the electoral process". The ANC has since said the statement was mistakenly attributed to Mbeki, the first time that has happened since the party's on-line magazine was launched in January 2001.

The SAOM statement, signed by mission leader Sam Motsuenyane, a prominent businessman and former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, mentions some of the contrary evidence, only to dismiss it or cocoon it in an innocuous interpretation. It refers briefly to the decision to "reduce the number of polling stations in some urban areas" and notes that it led to "excessively long queues and an extension of polling hours" in Harare and the adjacent town of Chitungwiza.

But there is nothing in the statement to reflect the protests of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) that the reduction of polling stations in its urban strongholds was a deliberate ploy to make it difficult, if not impossible, for their supporters to vote - and thus disenfranchise them in fact if not in law. The statement does not place on record the government's refusal to heed a court order for a third day of voting throughout most of the country. Nor does it mention the delay in opening the polling booths in Harare and Chitungwiza - where the government did allow voting on the third day - for just four or five hours, thus partially negating the judicial order even there.

The SAOM statement notes that campaigning was characterised by polarisation, tension and episodes of "violence and intimidation" aimed at cowering voters. But in the absence of an attempt to apportion blame the impression is created that the two main electoral adversaries, Mugabe's Zanu-PF and Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC, were equally responsible. That conclusion contradicts the documented findings of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum, an independent group of NGOs, that Zanu-PF militants, including "war veterans"of the party's youth militia and even some members of the security forces, were the main perpetrators and MDC loyalists the major victims. If the SAOM disagrees with the Forum's data it should say so and provide reasons for its view.

The same quasi-neutrality is apparent in the SAOM's assessment of the media. It concedes that the state-owned media gave "limited access to the opposition" and favoured Zanu-PF. Leaving aside its use of the phrase "limited access" - which understates the imbalance in coverage - the SAOM then appears to neutralise even that tactful criticism of the public media with two counter observations. It refers to the bias of the "so-called independent media" - to use its terminology - in favour of the MDC and the "overwhelming" support of the international media for the MDC. Again there are glaring omissions. The public media is ultimately funded by Zimbabwean taxpayers and is therefore obliged to provide air time or column space to opposition parties commensurate, at the least, with the support they won in the most recent elections. The statement does not mention the bombing by suspected government agents of the independent Daily News (Zimbabweans now hold a bigger stake in the newspaper than foreigners, according to its editor, Geoff Nyarota) or the recurring harassment of vendors who sell it to the public.

Even if, for the sake of argument, the privately-owned media were broadly and consistently critical of Mugabe and Zanu-PF, that does not free the public media of its responsibility to provide coverage to all the contestants in an election.

The SAOM statement includes another questionable if not specious line of reasoning. Noting that opposition parties "actively participated in the campaign and the elections themselves" - and attributing the turning away of some registered voters to an "administrative oversight" - it deduces that their involvement in the election has legitimised its outcome. The SAOM statement does not articulate the counter view: that the MDC participated in the hope that they might emerge victorious despite grave misgivings over pre-election violence and fears that the election process was rigged against them. Those anxieties, expressed before the election, have been restated with greater emphasis since Mugabe emerged as the official winner. Far from legitimising the election, opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai talks of "daylight robbery" and "massive electoral fraud".

The SAOM statement is reported to have invoked audible and visible signs of disapproval at the media conference where it was announced. A report in the Star (March 14) records that "journalists jeered and diplomats walked out" after Motsuenyane's statement. "We have stayed clear from the words 'free and fair'", he said in response to the derisive reception of the interim report. "We cannot openly describe it as free and fair".

It is unclear who drafted the official statement or what steps were taken to consult members of the 50-strong mission before it was presented to the media. However, given the subsequent dissent by some prominent members, including Bobby Godsell, chairman of Anglogold, from Motsuen- yane's findings, no consensus can have been reached.

"I don't understand the difference between legitimate and free and fair," Godsell states. "I don't understand how an election can not be free and fair but can also be legitimate." Motsuenyane has reiterated that there is no contradiction in his stand, but says he will call a meeting of all observers to see how many agree with Godsell's view.

Looking back, it is abundantly clear that high-ranking members of the ANC government, starting with President Thabo Mbeki, had laid down early markers for Mot- suenyane. On at least two occasions in the month before the election, Mbeki dismissed reports that pre-election violence was threatening the prospects of holding a free and fair election. His rationale was that South Africa had experienced far greater violence in the run-up to its watershed election of 1994 and yet its election had been judged free and fair. He neglected to note that there had been no attempts to disqualify or disempower election observers in South Africa, that an independent electoral commission with no connections to the National Party government oversaw the election, and that every effort was made, largely on the insistence of the African National Congress, to "level the playing field".

Deputy President Jacob Zuma reinforced Mbeki's comments after he flew to Harare for discussions with Mugabe about a fortnight before Zimbabwe's presidential election. The anodyne official statement released after that visit noted that Mugabe, while admitting that there were "a few areas" where intimidation had occurred, had assured Zuma that "most parts of the country are peaceful and that electioneering was continuing normally". The statement then added that Zuma had "gained the impression that a lot of effort is being put into creating an atmosphere that would make the March election in Zimbabwe free and fair". These statements ignored Mugabe's record of reneging on promises, including his failure to honour undertakings to halt violent seizure of white-owned land and attacks on the judiciary made on his behalf by his foreign minister at the Common- wealth meeting at Abuja, Nigeria, last September. At best they indicated a naive belief that Mugabe would respond positively to public endorsement of him as a man of his word.

Whatever the rationale for these statements, they - and the tireless campaign of deputy foreign minister Aziz Pahad to convince the wider public that Mugabe would fulfil his pledges - set out clear parameters for Motsuenyane and his senior aides. Motsuenyane's response to an attack by stone-throwing youths on the MDC headquarters at Kwekwe while two SAOM monitors were inside seemed to be well within the prescribed paradigm. While expressing gratitude to the police for arresting two youths, he declined to point a finger at local Zanu-PF militants, even though the MDC officials had no doubt about the political identity of the assailants. Instead he spoke of the stone-throwers as an "amorphous mass".

A senior member of the SAOM, Ithumaleng Mosala, summed up the official mood in the mission in an interview with SABC television after the first day of polling. Responding to reports of harassment of voters and Zimbabwean election monitors, he said: "We are very satisfied with what we saw . . . What you don't see you can't describe as bad." Safety and security minister Steve Tshwete, who had been sent to Zimbabwe by Mbeki, said: "We are very relaxed. We don't entertain all these anxieties and fears some people, particularly the media in South Africa, are reporting".

SAOM media spokesman Mbulelo Musi developed the same myopia about Zimbabwean government manoeuvres to delay the opening of polling stations on the third day and and then to close them abruptly when people were still waiting to vote. His response was to list all the stations the SAOM had visited where voters had not been turned away.

The Southern African Development Community's parliamentary forum has devised a set of criteria to assess whether elections in SADC's 12 member states are free and fair (see list above). Asked whether the SAOM had applied these criteria in its appraisal of the Zimbabwe election, its media spokesperson, Musi, said: "To a certain extent". Further asked to clarify what that meant, he replied that they were applied within the context of the mission's mandate.

Attempts by Focus to obtain a copy of the SAOM's formal mandate were unsuccessful, but Bobby Godsell, writing in the Sunday Independent (March 15), quoted from the letter of appointment he had received from President Mbeki. His task, explained the letter, would be to observe the processes of the elections, including the campaign, actual elections, counting of ballots and the outcome. Where there were problems, he had a responsibility to bring them to the attention of the relevant authorities "in order to intervene and ensure that all Zimbabweans are able to exercise their constitutional right to vote without fear or hindrance." That was to be done with "utmost respect for the sovereignty of Zimbabwe" and within its laws.

None of these considerations conflict with the criteria that the SADC parliamentary forum has set out. Led by the feisty Duke Lefhoko, the forum came to a radically different conclusion from that reached by the SAOM. Noting that free movement of party agents was compromised by "acts of intimidation and reported abductions, that Zimbabwe did not have an independent electoral commission and that access to the public media was restricted to the ruling party, the forum concluded that the electoral process "did not comply with the norms and standards for elections in the SADC region".

The divergent conclusions suggested that either one of the two missions was not applying the SADC criteria or that it had a different agenda while paying lip service to those criteria. A warning issued by Joe Seremane, deputy leader of the Democratic Alliance and a member of the SADC parliamentary forum, strikes a resonating note: "Fraternal cover-ups will only serve to undermine the cause of democracy and hard won liberation in the region."