BSR: The Panopticon effect – understanding the phenomenon of vote-rigging in Zimbabwe


No election has ever taken place in Zimbabwe without someone protesting that it was not free and fair. Even the sham election held in 1979, under the Zimbabwe-Rhodesia Constitution just before independence, was marred by similar allegations. Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole protested that the election had been rigged in favour of Bishop Abel Muzorewa. The seminal election of 1980, which ushered in independence, was also blighted by similar allegations, even though international observers passed it as free and fair. All elections since then have suffered a similar fate.

Margaret Dongo made history in 1995 when she successfully challenged the election result in her constituency, citing vote rigging. Her court victory was followed by success at the subsequent by-election. However, since then, it has been very difficult to mount legal challenges against vote rigging in Zimbabwe. In 2000, President Mugabe issued a decree banning judicial challenges to elections after the controversial general elections that year. In 2002, when Morgan Tsvangirai challenged the presidential election results, his application was dismissed before the substantive hearing. Justice Ben Hlatshwayo, who gave the order, reserved reasons; but the MDC complained that still hadn’t been delivered by 2013.

In the 2013 elections, Tsvangirai withdrew his Constitutional Court challenge in dramatic circumstances. The story around that petition is yet to be told – but one day, it will. Suffice to say for now that the issue of vote rigging is one that has dogged Zimbabwean elections for a long time. The challenge, as always, is to prove the rigging. It is not impossible, as the Dongo case proves. However, the system was quickly readjusted after the Dongo victory and the subsequent embarrassment it caused. Margaret Dongo’s case had demonstrated that vote rigging could not succeed without the co-operation of the judicial system. Either the judicial system had to be co-opted into the vote rigging system or it had to be excluded.

After the 2000 elections, the system chose to exclude the judiciary  when President Mugabe issued a decree banning all electoral challenges. This was later struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. However, the damage had already been done and time had been wasted. The judiciary began to use a case allocation system whereby electoral cases were assigned to selected judges, presumably those that could be trusted by the system. Even then, successful challenges at the High Court were simply rendered useless by an appeal system that dragged out over the entire term of Parliament, which made the result academic. By 2013, the cost of launching electoral challenges, which included significant security measures, was so prohibitive that most aggrieved candidates gave up before they could even try – not because they did not have evidence of rigging, but because the system was deliberately designed to discourage electoral challenges.

The purpose of this article, however, is to offer a less conventional perspective on vote rigging with the aim of broadening the understanding of how elections are manipulated and opening up new ways of countering this nefarious phenomenon.

The first point to understand is that − contrary to conventional wisdom − vote rigging is an on-going process rather than a specific act or specific set of acts on election day, or a few days preceding it. It is because of this conventional wisdom that election observation, which is designed to discourage vote rigging, is usually timed to commence a couple of weeks and, very often, only a few days before polling day. Also, it rarely continues beyond the day the results are announced. This time-specific method of election observation is also motivated by practical and resource considerations. However, as I demonstrate in this paper, this method is flawed as it misses the critical elements of vote rigging, which is a process that takes place over a longer period of time.

The second point is that the election process must be seen as a technology of governance, with a set of both liberal and illiberal institutions and instruments that shape voter behaviour. In conventional wisdom, the usual image of vote rigging involves vote riggers actively taking part in acts of vote rigging such as ballot stuffing, physically beating voters to secure compliance, throwing ballot boxes down the river, bussing voters into constituencies, casting multiple votes etc. These things do happen, of course, but there are other, more subtle, ways that are often overlooked and yet have an important influence on shaping voters’ behaviour.

These election-based technologies and techniques of governance are not always coercive in nature, but they are also liberal in character. As a result, the voter’s freedom of choice can actually be a tool employed in the rigging system. For example, a voter has the right to choose any person to assist them to vote. However, this “choice” may be pre-determined because they are directed by the local governance institutions to select a particular person to “assist” them. The voter would have exercised their freedom of choice, all incompliance with the law, but in reality it would not been a free choice at all. It is because such vote rigging instruments appear liberal that they present a puzzle for democrats.

The third point, related to the second, involves the formal conception of the rule of law, which some would refer to as rule by law. In this case, the government does everything consistent with the law, even if it uses retrospective laws or decrees. There will be access to the courts of law but, even here, long processes and technicalities will be employed to stifle the process. In response to charges of illegality, the government can always say it is complying with the law and, therefore, fulfilling the demands of the rule of law. An authoritarian regime will usually be run in terms of the law. It will go to great lengths to capture all its actions under the law and, therefore, claim to be acting in terms of the rule of law.  As I have explained before, this formal conception of the rule of law is different from the substantive conception of the rule of law, which requires compliance with human rights and freedoms. However, the use of the law and compliance with the law makes it much harder to challenge vote rigging, particularly where election observers carry out a box-ticking exercise that involves measuring compliance with existing electoral laws as opposed to assessing the democratic quality of the electoral laws. This means an election will be regarded as free and fair if the state complies substantially with the law − whether or not the law is fair or violates human rights.

So, in summary, there are four critical points to note about vote-rigging:

First, vote-rigging is not an act or a single set of acts during the limited election period but an on-going process that can last for years, which explains why the country is kept in perpetual election mode. The country is governed not following but through elections.

Second, while instruments of coercion are used, the vote rigging system also makes use of liberal institutions and instruments which make vote rigging harder to detect and counter.

Third, conduct that facilitates voting rigging is justified as complying with the rule of law, only because the formal conception of the principle is used. Under this definition, complying with enacted laws is sufficient, regardless of the substantive content or quality of those laws.

Fourth, it is important to understand the election process as a technology of governance, which plays an important role in shaping voter behaviour.

While my analysis applies generally, I will use the rural areas of Zimbabwe as a point of illustration.

Bentham’s Panopticon

A study of elections in Zimbabwe’s rural areas and the behaviour of rural voters often reminds me of English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham’s notion of the Panopticon. Bentham’s Panopticon is an institutional building which allows the inspector to watch inmates without them knowing whether or not they are actually being watched. This was Bentham’s idea for a prison: one in which all cells where attached to an outer circular wall, each of them facing a central tower. A light beamed into each cell from the central tower, enabling the inspector to watch the inmates. However, the inmates could not see the inspector in the central tower, although they believed they were constantly being watched. This architectural set-up gave the inmates the impression that they were always under observation, although they would never know if they were actually being watched. Their belief that they were being watched all the time naturally made them more careful and cautious in their conduct. Actually, in order to avoid sanctions from the ever-watchful inspector, the inmates began to self-regulate, controlling their own behaviour and even the behaviour of fellow inmates. They did what they believed was expected of them to stay on the right side of the inspector. Bentham thought this was a good way of disciplining and controlling inmates without expending too much on supervision. It is a form of behaviour regulation through architecture. Indeed, this idea could be used in schools, workplaces and elsewhere.

Bentham did not live long enough to see his idea implemented in practice. However, French philosopher, Michel Foucault revived and used Bentham’s Panopticon concept in his 1975 work, Discipline and Punish, to demonstrate the tendency of a disciplinarian society to control and oppress citizens. As he wrote, the prisoner in a Panopticon “is seen, but he does not see; he is an object of information, never a subject in communication”. Power lies with the authorities and the prisoner is under control. A critical aspect of the Panopticon is that there are uncertainties over whether one is being constantly watched. This means that to avoid possible trouble, the inmate introduces self-policing methods. On his part, the inspector will use a few examples to demonstrate the consequences of non-compliance. This will warn other inmates that it is in their interests to keep themselves in check and, therefore, police their own behaviour.

The notion of the Panopticon is ever-present in our lives. In the age of electronic communications and CCTV, the authorities don’t need a circular building and a central tower to watch and inspect individual behaviour. Indeed, the idea of the Panopticon itself is no longer simply confined to an institutional building, such as a prison or workplace, but it now applies to society and the world at large. The presence of CCTV on roads and in buildings everywhere means citizens believes they are constantly being watched and will self-police to avoid detection. Even on social media, users are constantly aware or believe they are being watched – by authorities, employers, church elders, peers, regulatory authorities and so on.  This knowledge or belief acts as an incentive to check one’s behaviour.

The popular movement in Zimbabwe at the moment, #ThisFlag, has “Hatichatyi” (We are not scared anymore) as one of its catchwords – a declaration to the authorities that the public is no longer afraid. The use of this catchword betrays the reality that the people of Zimbabwe have been gripped and controlled by fear. Part of this is the fear that they are being watched and that this might bring negative consequences.

The notion of the Panopticon uses instruments of coercion but, more importantly, it employs the subjects as agents of their own governance. In other words, it introduces self-governance as a means of regulating and controlling the subjects’ behaviour. They make rational choices in the circumstances, choosing what is good for self-preservation. Often, this is also what is good for the authorities. They are not being beaten up or tortured; there are no visible instruments of coercion. But the fear of what might happen to them if they fail to conform obliges them to conform. This is important, in my opinion, to understand the behaviour of voters, especially in the rural areas.

The Panopticon effect in the rural village

It is interesting to assess the rural village in the image of the Panopticon. The central tower is occupied by the traditional leader, who commands authority over the villagers, all of whom by law and tradition owe allegiance to him. This unit of authority and supervision, headed by the village head (Sabhuku), is replicated in every rural village across the country. Immediately above it sits another watchman, the headman, and above the headman is the chief. The chiefs belong to the Council of Chiefs, which elects representatives that sit in the Senate, the upper house of Parliament. Constitutionally, they are supposed to be independent, but in reality they act as political agents of the ruling party. They pay a critical role in shaping the conduct and behaviour of voters before, during and after elections. They are part of the system of governance, which has a fundamental impact on the behaviour of voters.

Traditional leaders sit at the top of a command-and-control structure and culture of governance in their particular zones of authority. Their authority derives not only from the constitution but also from their role in traditional culture and society. In fact, the second source of authority is more powerful. They command respect, loyalty and compliance among their subjects. They are part of an illiberal institution whose authority is not questioned. Even though the chiefs’ conduct and rules must be consistent with the constitution, the supreme law of the land, their rural subjects hardly have access to the courts of law because they are geographically and economically located so far away from them. As a result, rural Zimbabweans are totally at the mercy of their traditional leaders. These leaders have a system of sanctions at their disposal, including exclusion and banishment, which force compliance among their subjects, whatever their wishes.

Because traditional leaders are directly allied with the ruling party and government, they play an important role in enforcing orders and instructions from both. Their role in enforcing discipline and control among subjects is critical in the electoral process. Traditional leaders played this role under the colonial regime but after independence, they gradually morphed to become instruments of ZANU PF. It is not surprising that under their watchful supervision, villagers are like inmates in Bentham’s Panopticon. Villagers believe they are constantly being watched by the traditional authorities. In their eyes, the authorities know what every villager does, the political meetings they attend, how they cast their vote on election day − and even what they are thinking.

The role of the traditional authorities is strengthened by the presence of other ruling party and state agents – usually from the security establishment and the general mass of ruling party supporters. The Border Gezi Youths were established precisely for this purpose. They were not a new phenomenon because youth brigades have existed since the early days of independence. In fact, in the 1980 elections, ZANU PF made sure that a large number of its ZANLA guerrillas remained in the villages to carry out mobilisation work and political education. Essentially, this meant ensuring the people in the areas they controlled voted for ZANU PF. One senior ZANU PF leader, Edision Zvobgo, confirmed this in the documentary, End of Empire, saying: “British intelligence had repeatedly said there was something like six to eight thousand ZANLA guerrillas inside the country. But when we were now asked to declare how many guerrillas we had in the country, we chose to declare 20,000. If everybody thought we had 8,000 and were willing to declare 20,000, then clearly we didn’t have anybody else left! In fact, we had a very large army left that remained as political commissars in the country, just simply to assure that we would win the election”.

This was corroborated by Joshua Nkomo in his autobiography, The Story of My Life:

“The greatest threat to the fair conduct of the elections came…from ZANLA guerrillas in the eastern areas of the country. At ceasefire, large numbers of fighting men loyal to ZANU were not withdrawn into the scheduled assembly points. They stayed on in the villages they had organised on a war footing, refusing to move or to allow anyone else to campaign there. No outsider was allowed in those places, on pain of death… The people were not allowed to know that there was an alternative to voting for ZANU PF… Two of our candidates and eighteen of our party campaigners were killed by these adversaries. Many more were terrorised … I raised the question of intimidation personally with Robert Mugabe. He brushed it aside, and paid no attention.”

Nkomo makes reference to his rivals’ strategy, but his own party, ZAPU, was also involved in similar strategies in the areas they controlled. Historian Norma Kriger states that both nationalist parties, ZANU and ZAPU (which contested together as the Patriotic Front), focussed on the rural vote but that ZANU deployed former guerrillas “on an incomparably greater scale. Thousands of ZANLA guerrillas were deliberately kept out of assembly camps and infiltrated into the countryside in violation of the settlement provisions to ensure that their party won the election. The party and its commissars threatened to return to war if people did not vote for it…” Nevertheless, because ZANU managed to win by an overwhelming majority, election observers downplayed the effect of the violence on the overall outcome.

The point here is that the structures of supervision, surveillance and control in the rural areas were developed and consolidated in the early years of independence. It has since become an on-going project, perpetuated through the agency of traditional leaders, and it does not only crop up at election times. It is an ever-present part of the lives of rural voters and part of the governance system in rural areas. It is a governance system involving formal authorities and informal groups and they both enforce compliance. However, as with the Panopticon, the governance system also involves self-policing. Individuals police their own conduct to avoid trouble, principally because they believe they are constantly under surveillance. If a villager has not suffered any sanctions before, it is very likely that they have seen a fellow villager suffering the consequences of non-conformity.

When it comes to self-preservation, the only way out for villagers is to conform by doing what they believe is expected of them by those in the Panopticon’s “central tower”. The self-regulation of political conduct benefits the ruling party. You attend all ruling party meetings. You avoid opposition party events. For a start, you don’t speak ill of the President. Villagers go further by policing their peers. In fact, they even report non-conformists as self-appointed law enforcers − a good example of self-policing that goes on in society. Some of the most frivolous cases that have ended up in court with persons facing charges of “insulting” the President have arisen from citizen-against-citizen reports. Citizens become the gatekeepers of ridiculous laws, and this is justified under the rule of law.

There are also other methods of “punishment” including exclusion and banishment from society. Rural communities are closely-knit and co-operation is very important. You rely on others and they rely on you, too. It is extremely hard to live alone, in isolation. Therefore, exclusion for any reason amounts to banishment. Inability to participate in village life becomes a serious punishment. Yet, once you are recognised as a non-conformist in political terms, you can end up excluded and banished. This can manifest through exclusion from government freebies, which are usually packaged as gifts from the ruling party. They include seeds, grain, agricultural inputs and other gifts. To avoid this punishment, the rural voter has to conform. The politicisation of government support in the rural areas is a long-standing phenomenon.

A more visible form of punishment for failing to conform is violence and intimidation. The period between March 2008 and June 27 2008 is now regarded as the high-point of election-related violence in post-independent Zimbabwe. More than 200 opposition supporters were killed, thousands were injured and displaced from their homes, largely in rural areas. But there had been earlier precedents. Before the 1980, 1985, 1990, 2000 and 2002 elections, there were serious incidents of violence against rival supporters. Perpetrators of violence were either never prosecuted or, if they were, the result was use of the presidential amnesty as we saw in an earlier article Put simply: the threat of physical violence and abuse is a potent sanction which compels rural voters, especially, to self-police and act for self-preservation.

It is also interesting to observe how liberal instruments can be turned into tools of electoral manipulation. A classic illustration of the Panocticon effect in the rural areas is the impression among some voters that there is no secrecy of the vote. Rural voters are told that there are mechanisms to ensure that their choices will eventually be known to the authorities. It is this irregularity that led to changes in the Electoral Law before the 2013 elections. Previously, after a voter had marked their choice on the ballot paper, they were required to fold the paper. But before dropping their paper into the ballot box, they had to show the back of the ballot paper to display the official stamp. This was to ensure that the official ballot paper was used and that a person only voted once. However, this procedure was abused in the rural areas, as villagers were told that this was a way of identifying the candidate they had voted for. Since they believed they were being watched, they had to conform by making the safe choice of voting for the ruling party. The opposition parties demanded change, so that voters would no longer be required to show their ballot papers to polling officers.

Ironically, while this was supposed to be a victory for the opposition and free voting, it turned out to be a poisoned chalice in the 2013 elections. While it had taken away the cause of fear among voters, it had also removed an important mechanism to prevent multiple voting. Previously, showing the ballot paper to polling officers helped to detect if the voter had more than one ballot paper. Now, however, because it is no longer required, it is possible for the voter to go into the booth with more than one ballot paper, mark them all and drop them into the ballot box without the polling officers detecting the irregularity. The legal change solved one problem, but created another!

Another liberal rule which is also turned into an instrument of manipulation is assisted voting. Designed with good intentions, it fits perfectly into the command-and-control political culture in rural areas. The Electoral Law permits any person who requires assistance in the voting process to request and be granted assistance. This rule is designed to cater for voters who, because of illiteracy, disability or any other valid reason, are unable to vote on their own. In the past, the law allowed police officers to assist such voters. However, the opposition parties complained that the presence and role of police officers intimidated voters, especially in the rural areas. Therefore, the law was relaxed so that a voter could select a person of their choice to assist them. This, however, has also brought its own set of challenges as most rural voters are actually not free to choose their assistors. In fact, what has happened is that the village head (Sabhuku) keeps a register of all voters in his village, requires them to assemble at a particular place and time on polling day, and from there assign one person to assist them in the polling booth. Everyone is instructed to declare their inability to vote because of illiteracy or otherwise (in 2013, some rural teachers and nurses were commanded to feign hand and eye injuries) and therefore, that they require assistance. The assistor effectively votes on behalf of the assisted voter, making a fallacy of the principles of freedom to vote and voting secrecy. This is an example of a liberal rule, which has had a boomerang effect and become an instrument for vote rigging.

It is precisely because of the Panocticon effect that the idea of polling-station-based voters roll and voting system can be problematic in the rural areas. Ensuring that people only vote at specific polling stations in their wards sounds very good for transparency since it’s easy to account for voters at particular polling stations and, therefore, minimise the incidence of multiple voting and vote fraud. However, the fact that it is easy to trace and account for voters by their polling stations also has the potential of exposing voters to retributive tactics should it be discovered that they voted for a particular party. It may be easy, for example, to identify the party predominantly favoured by people in particular villages by virtue of the polling station-specific voting.

Finally, while proposals to introduce a bio-metric voting system are an important development that could help improve the electoral system in Zimbabwe, it will be important to educate particularly the rural voters that there is nothing sinister about the new system. The use of sophisticated machinery and computers is often used to give the impression that the state will have more insight into how voters make their choices. This increases the Panopticon effect on rural voters, causing them to choose conformity with the ruling party for fear of being punished. Voter education must be used to allay these fears and enhance confidence in the new system, in particular that it enhances, rather than diminishes, the security and secrecy of their vote.


I have used the notion of the panopticon to demonstrate how the voters are governed in respect of elections. I have employed this notion to demonstrate how the techniques of supervision, surveillance and control are employed to discipline and subjugate voters. I have also shown that the rigging of an election is a process which involves both illiberal and liberal instruments. It also recruits and uses the individual as a self-governing and self-policing agent. The individual also policies others, just like inmates in the panopticon. Voters believe they are always under watch and from time to time, sanctions, such as violence, denial of food aid, exclusion, etc are deployed and administered against some of them as examples of consequences of non-compliance.

Ultimately, my point is that the conventional mechanisms of preventing or discouraging vote rigging, such as election observation are fundamentally flawed because they focus on very technical and time-specific elements, usually during or around the election itself. The reality, however, is that the election-rigging process is much longer, more deep-rooted and part of the governance system. This is not something that election observation – usually a box-ticking exercise – can solve. However, this analysis should help refocus the attention of opposition political party strategists and partners that have an interest in empowering citizens to fully and freely exercise their fundamental right to vote. The challenge is much greater than the events around polling day. The individual voter must be freed from the panopticon – as much a mental as it is a physical prison.