HANGING ON: Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe leaves after casting his vote in Highfields, outside Harare, on Wednesday. Picture: REUTERS
HANGING ON: Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe leaves after casting his vote in Highfields, outside Harare, last week. Picture: REUTERS

IT MAY take some time for the full implications of Zimbabwe’s election for the country’s economy and its people to become clear, but it is not going to be a pretty sight.

Zimbabwe’s economic recovery was fragile at best — almost as fragile as the effort at real political opposition, which the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) had so valiantly attempted. Chances are that the economic recovery could be derailed again, if the new government that President Robert Mugabe will soon put together does what the pessimists expect, aggressively pursuing its strategy of seizing control of foreign firms, and possibly reintroducing the Zimbabwean dollar.

It is too early to tell for sure what the new Zanu (PF) government will do. But a party that has been that shameless about manipulating the electoral roll seems unlikely to hold back. But there is not much optimism about in the market, with Harare banks having seen significant cash withdrawals just before the elections — and the Zimbabwe stock market down 11% on Monday.

As it is, Zimbabwe’s economy has hardly begun to recover from the decade of contraction that was recorded before the unity government took office in 2009. The economy did show healthy growth, of 9% in 2011, slowing to 5% last year, but departing Finance Minister Tendai Biti recently cut this year’s growth forecast from 5% to 3.4%.

And that is not the kind of rate to improve the quality of life of a population, the majority of which is unemployed. Nor (assuming it can now be achieved) is this the kind of growth rate that is adequate to erase the ravages of the recent past, with memories of hyperinflation and chronic food and fuel shortages still very fresh.

Zimbabwean immigrants have been a very positive factor in adding skills and entrepreneurship to the South African economic mix. Sadly for Zimbabwe, South Africa will probably continue to benefit from the woes of our neighbour.

Meanwhile, reflection is needed on at least two issues. The first relates to political opposition in Zimbabwe. If there is to be any chance of sustainable political opposition in Zimbabwe in future, be it inside the formal system or outside it, then the MDC’s tragic electoral failure must be carefully analysed and the lessons learnt. In a way, the election debacle was as much about the crisis in the leadership of opposition movements in Zimbabwe as it was about the subtle ruthlessness of the Zanu (PF) leadership.

Given the brutal response which those who protest against the regime have often faced, it is not difficult to see why opposition politicians might have opted to try once more to work within the system rather than leading popular protest outside it. But by choosing to participate, the MDC did, in effect, confer legitimacy on a process that was never going to be legitimate. And its apparent inability to stand up to the manipulation made it even worse. So a radical rethink is clearly needed.

But so, too, is a rethink of the South African government’s own bizarre response. Polite but chilly acceptance of a crooked election result is one thing; gushing praise is quite another.

It is hard to believe that the "profound congratulations" that President Jacob Zuma felt he needed to send to Mr Mugabe were really essential in the interests of regional stability.

Not even all of his African counterparts agreed with Mr Zuma’s stance — less than enthusiastic noises have been heard from Botswana and Nigeria, for example. And distinctly unenthusiastic noises have come from the US, the UK and Europe. All have indicated that they consider the Zimbabwean election to have been a sham, and have urged that the irregularities, violations and lack of transparency be investigated.

Our president doesn’t seem to see the problem. That he doesn’t is just plain embarrassing.