Early on Thursday morning, the day after Zimbabweans had gone to the polls to choose a president, I received a panicked call from a friend who works with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai. “We are facing a catastrophe,” he said. The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) was on course to lose eight seats in Harare to Mugabe’s Zanu PF, he said. They had lost 22 of the 26 seats in the Manicaland province, while all the seats in the southern province of Masvingo had gone to Zanu PF.

As the day unfolded and the results trickled in, the extent of the catastrophe became clear. What stood out the most was this shocking result: Zanu PF had won most of the seats in Matabeleland. Just after independence, in the 1980s, in an operation called Gukurahundi, Mugabe sent a North Korean-trained army brigade to the province to quell what the government said were secessionist elements.

The Fifth Brigade killed thousands of people. Thirty years later, Gukurahundi is a sore that has not healed, and the people of Matabeleland have not forgotten. Since the MDC emerged as the only threat to Zanu PF in 1999, Matabeleland has consistently voted MDC. But the results we were receiving suggested that the impossible had happened, that the people of Matabeleland had put aside Gukurahundi and found in themselves a new love for Zanu PF.

Law flouted

They had voted Zanu PF, endorsed Zanu PF, they had embraced the party of the people who had killed their loved ones. Later that day, I had lunch with friends at Sapes Trust, an organisation that hosts lively political debates and has the best African food in Harare. The usual Sapes (South African Political Economic Series) crowd was there — journalists, political commentators, businessmen, diplomats. On every face was the same shock and disbelief. There was no doubt in any mind that Zanu PF had pulled off one of the most spectacular cons in the history of electoral fraud.

In the run up to the election, Sapes had hosted a number of debates on what Zimbabwe could expect from the election. That it was played on an uneven field was clear. That the law had been flouted from the day that Mugabe had proclaimed the election date right to the day of the election itself was equally clear. There was no doubt that the MDC would have to fight the hardest it had ever fought. And in addition to what was clearly and legally demonstrable were the rumours that hinted of what was to come that an Israeli company had been paid vast amounts of money to manipulate the voters’ roll. And so we had expected theft, we had anticipated rigging, but the monumental scale of the theft took us all by surprise.

As we sat at our tables, trying to digest peanut butter rice and roadrunner chicken, sadza and T-bone steaks, a journalist shouted that Jonathan Moyo, one of the key Zanu PF plotters behind this election, had lost his seat. There was a small cheer, followed by laughter, but the laughter had a gasping, hysterical edge to it. After lunch, I took part in a discussion for a South African TV station with two panellists who laced their rage with eloquence.

Looting of state resources

Ibbo Mandaza, Sapes founder and a former member of Zanu PF, was uncompromising in his assessment. If the Africans accept this, he said, referring to the Africa Union, then it means they have endorsed impunity. Brian Raftopolous, a political scientist agreed. The bar will have been set so low for African elections that they may as well not have any standards at all. By the evening, the picture was complete.

The MDC had been maimed beyond comprehension, the democratic space had shrunk and the hopes of Zimbabweans with it. That same day, former president Olusegun Obasanjo, the African Union’s representative, left the country with this parting shot: “There is no such thing as a perfect election.”

The next day, observers for the Southern African Development Community delivered their verdict: the elections had been free and peaceful. And with those words, they have condemned Zimbabweans to at least five more years of Zanu PF’s looting of state resources, Zanu PF’s incompetence and human rights violations. Zanu PF has won this election with a brutal and ruthless efficiency. If they can bring that singleness of purpose to managing the economy and bringing the country out of isolation, then Zimbabwe will be wealthy beyond measure. I won’t be holding my breath. My thoughts are now on one single thing: how to survive the next five years with my sanity intact, my family whole and be happy again in a world that has showed that injustice wins over hope.

But there is this: unless Zanu PF tampers with the new constitution, Zimbabwe now has presidential term limits. That means that, come what may, there will be no President Mugabe of Zimbabwe in 2023. That is something to look forward to.

— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2013

Petina Gappah is a writer, lawyer and fellow of the Open Society. She won the Guardian First Book Award in 2009 for her collection of stories, An Elegy for Easterly.