Zimbabwe commemorated 28 years of independence and continuous rule by President Robert Mugabe yesterday, but it was another anniversary that preoccupied most of the country's people.
Today, it is three weeks since Zimbabweans voted in a presidential election, the result of which has still not been disclosed, almost certainly because Mr Mugabe lost. His Zanu-PF supporters are already taking violent revenge on opposition voters after the party's defeat in the parliamentary poll, and all the signs are that the results of both elections will be reversed by whatever means necessary.
Zimbabwe is in desperate economic straits, with inflation the world's highest at about 160,000 per cent – and that is the official government measure. Other estimates put the rate more than twice as high. Female life expectancy of 34 years is the world's lowest, and about a quarter of the population, some three million Zimbabweans, have fled the country, mainly to South Africa. Few beyond the 84-year-old President's inner circle saw anything to celebrate yesterday.
Yet in his first major public appearance since the election, Mr Mugabe had only one scapegoat for all these troubles: Britain. "Down with the British," he told 15,000 cheering supporters at Gwanzura stadium in Highfield, a teeming opposition stronghold south of Harare's central business district. "Down with thieves who want to steal our country."
After a period of initial confusion and panic in the immediate aftermath of the election, the President and his supporters appear to have recovered their nerve, and are reverting to a familiar tactic: turning the truth on its head. It is not Zanu-PF that is trying to steal the election and beating up people who voted the wrong way, but the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, who takes his orders from Zimbabwe's old colonial masters.
Mr Mugabe told his audience that the British "have perfected their tactics to a more subtle form by using money literally to buy some people to turn against their government. We are being bought like livestock". But he assured them that "Zimbabwe will never be a colony again".
Whether Zimbabwe will ever be a functioning democracy is a question that most of the population finds more relevant. The mood of yesterday's holiday was dispirited, with the hope aroused by the election outcome having largely ebbed in the 20 days since. A protest "stay-away" called by the MDC earlier this week had minimal impact: those few Zimbabweans with jobs can scarcely afford to sacrifice a day's pay.
Tellingly, the MDC said for the first time yesterday that Zanu-PF had proposed a power-sharing deal immediately after the election, but that the initiative quickly broke down. According to an opposition spokesman, Nelson Chamisa, the governing party sought an "assurance on Mugabe in the event of him stepping down".
Mr Chamisa said he "didn't know what made Mugabe change his mind and be on the warpath again". But it has been widely rumoured that the President's initial impulse was to compromise, only for him to be pulled back by military leaders and Zanu-PF hardliners who fear that any change of government would see them tried for human rights abuses, such as the 1980s military crackdown in Matabeleland, which cost at least 20,000 Zimbabwean lives.
Equally tellingly, the Zanu-PF version of events was 180 degrees different. According to the government spokesman, Bright Matonga, the approach came from Mr Tsvangirai, who proposed he serve as vice-president and Mr Mugabe remain as President. The Zanu-PF politburo rejected the proposal, he said.
Instead, the government is well embarked on a strategy of procedural manoeuvring, intimidation and brazenness to reverse its electoral setback. Although Mr Mugabe dissolved the legislature and the cabinet before the election, ministers continue to make announcements on the evening news and in the government-owned press as though nothing had happened. That includes some who lost their seats, such as the erstwhile Justice Minister, Patrick Chinamasa, who was accusing Mr Tsvangirai of treason this week.
The MDC predictably failed in a court application yesterday to stop recounts in 23 constituencies, all but one of them won by the opposition, which the nominally independent Zimbabwe Election Commission intends to hold today. Zanu-PF would regain its majority if the result in nine or more seats was reversed. Votes for the presidential candidate in these constituencies are also due to be recounted, despite the tallies never having been announced.
But Zanu-PF's main aim is to delay releasing the results of the presidential election long enough to prepare the ground for a run-off, which Mr Mugabe will win. It is not clear whether Mr Tsvangirai, thought by independent monitors to have fallen just short of an overall majority, will take part, or declare that no second round can be fair without international scrutiny of a strictness Zanu-PF would be sure to resist.
And all the time, out of sight in the rural areas, the beatings go on. The Zimbabwe Doctors for Human Rights group said at least 200 people had been treated for severe injuries sustained in post-election violence. It is investigating at least two reported deaths.
Arthur Taderera, 56, an MDC polling agent in a rural constituency where the Zanu-PF MP was defeated, spent Independence Day in hospital, being treated for multiple bruises and suspected fractures after being attacked by government soldiers.
"They beat me and tormented me," he told the Associated Press. "They said I was a stooge who wanted to sell the country to the British and the whites."
And his verdict on 28 years of rule by Mr Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party? "People are crying. It is a travesty to talk of independence and freedom."Reuse content