Show of Hands: Camilla Nielsson’s “President”
In Zimbabwe, a textbook case of election theft that should be a cautionary tale for us all.
How bad was life in Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, the brutal kleptocrat who held power in that sorrowful nation for almost 40 years? This bad: When the British mercenary Simon Mann tried to break out of Zimbabwe’s infamous Chikarubi prison in 2007, he had a queue of guards whispering in his ear, asking if he would please take them with him.
From the end of white minority rule in 1980 until the military coup that removed him in 2017, Mugabe was the only head of state that Zimbabwe had ever known. But he wasn’t much of an improvement for the country formerly known as Rhodesia, so named for Cecil Rhodes, the white supremacist mining magnate who also lent his name to the Rhodes Scholarship. Over the course of his four-decade reign, Mugabe robbed his nation blind, leaving a trail of corruption, famine, political violence, and even mass murder that marks him as one of the most terrible dictators in the history of the continent (which is saying something).
But clearly, a despot who blithely sports a wispy Hitler mustache is not a man who cares much what the rest of the world thinks.
Mugabe’s successor was his own vice president and longtime deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had led the 2017 putsch against him. A year later, Zimbabwe was to hold an election to decide its next president, with Mnangagwa facing off against the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). But less than four months before election day, Tsvangirai died of cancer, leaving a forty-year-old attorney, party official, and former member of Parliament named Nelson Chamisa as the MDC’s candidate.
The Danish filmmaker Camilla Nielsson’s 2021 documentary President is a gripping vérité account of that election that tells a riveting tale — and a cautionary one — about how elections are stolen in the modern era. You’ll have to read to the end of this piece to learn how it turns out, but I’ll offer a spoiler right here, one that ought not to surprise anyone who’s been paying attention for the last five years: her film provides a disturbing echo of what we Americans encountered in our own presidential election of 2020, and a chilling preview of what we may well face…