Robert Mugabe, the founding president of the republic of Zimbabwe – and Zimbabwe’s only post-independence president until November 21, 2017 – finally resigned from office. Much has already been said about this occasion, with some describing it as a coming of democracy into the country and thus the ushering in of a new era to Zimbabwe following over three decades of a virtual single-party state.
I wish to take a more modest position for the following reasons.
Firstly, over the years Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party crafted an almost total party-centered polity in Zimbabwe, spanning the military, security, public and economic sectors of the country with a quasi-grassroots network of military veterans and the Zanu-PF youth league. This expansive party-based system of governance was sustained largely through the dolling out of patronage: a situation which got more severe over time and increased pressures on the government in carrying out its core functions of providing services to the wider citizenry, against the excessive rents being sought by party-affiliates, operatives and functionaries, all clamoring among its different organs and at its various levels. The abrupt implementation of the land reform which Mugabe commissioned – and which, coupled with the severe sanctions by the West, in response, led to hyper-inflation, de-industrialization and economic depression – was to a great extent a desperate attempt to appease quasi-grassroots, especially the war veterans who had begun to undermine this party-state order. They were becoming frustrated with the state capture which was so apparent at the higher, formal levels of government engaged in by party higher-ups, military personnel, connected bureaucrats, foreign actors and members of the security apparatus. Over time, these internal tensions would pronounce deep factions within the party, even though they failed to materialize into an overthrow of Mugabe himself. This, I think, was because of his ability to continue keeping the principle centers of Zimbabwean power under his control, by sustaining their hefty rents on state and national resources (including over natural resources such as the diamond mines and patronage-led land redistribution).
Moreover, the ethnic tensions between the northern parts of the country occupied largely by the Shona and the southern parts settled by the Ndebele produced sufficient staying power for the party: The Ndebele suffered severe violence and numerous deaths in the early 1980s at the hands of Mugabe’s security forces (Mnangagwa was minister of state security during this period.) People of Ndebele ethnicity I have spoken to when I lived in KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa often referred to that period of violence with very vivid and grim stories of beatings, violent interrogation, and killings experienced directly or told to them by their elders – and often attributed some complicity and culpability on the Shona who, according to them, continue to refuse to acknowledge the gruesome events which transpired and therefore absolved Mugabe of any wrongdoing. Mugabe thus became a president for the Shonas very early on, from the Ndebele point of view, while the Shonas – they too suffering from his repression while also functioning as his primary support base – would seem to prefer Mugabe to a Ndebele leader due to their suspicion of the Ndebele ethnicity. In this way, ethnic divisions had the unintended consequence of undermining wider resistance against Mugabe because they intersected readily with an environment of secret state-party informants and fears of being “disappeared” by the state security services.
Finally, the taking over of the women’s league of the Zanu-PF by Grace Mugabe in 2014 and the growth of her influence in the party, since then, began to raise the suspicions of core state-party functionaries about her ambitions for the high office of president. The dismissal of Mnangagwa seemed to confirm this, signaling that under a Grace Mugabe government, the independence-era establishment of Zimbabwe would be usurped, purged and replaced with the Grace faction. Another popular figure, Joice Mujuru – a leader of another faction within the party, saw just such a fate when she was axed in a move seen as a way to keep the path clear for Grace (this was supported then by the Mnangagwa and his faction because Joice Mujuru was quite popular among the provincial leadership of the party and thus was a common political enemy). But Mnangagwa’s ousting rattled individuals deeply vested in the status quo, so that unsurprisingly, General Chiwenga cautioned that the military would act if he would be removed – and a week later, after his removal, the military intervened.
Mugabe would make an off-color speech after this intervention, only to be rebuffed by his cabinet, after he had called for a meeting. In the meantime, the war veterans (the same group Mugabe had tried to appease with a haphazardly rolled out land reform programme) and the party structures, especially the central committee (the highest structure of Zanu-PF), would issue recalls on the president along with an ultimatum before proceeding with impeachment proceedings in parliament. This signaled to Mugabe that he had lost control of the principle structures of state-party power in Zimbabwe. So, he negotiated terms of immunity and stepped down to avert his inevitable impeachment. His letter of resignation would be greeted with jubilation by parliamentary members and beyond when read by the Speaker.
Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe’s new interim president, was very important in his different roles throughout the Mugabe era. He has served in cabinet, since independence, for as long as Mugabe’s reign itself. As justice minister from 2013 to 2017, he was critical in undermining the reforms requested by the South African negotiated government of national unity in which Morgan Tsvangirai, an opposition figure, rather ceremoniously served as prime minister. As head of the security apparatus and as minister of defense, he helped orchestrate the almost ubiquitous surveillance system of Zimbabwe, made up of informants within and outside the country, and from which he built an important power base with the military and security services between 2009 and 2013 (decades before, he had served as minister of state security from 1980 to 1988, and then justice minister from 1989 to 2000). Arguably, he is the founder of the post-independence security and military apparatus of Zimbabwe.
On this basis, it is difficult to call the resignation of Mugabe the intrusion of a new political dispensation conducive for democracy. Notice the absence of the opposition parties, the public and civil society in this rendition of events. Indeed marches, protests and demonstrations, and then celebrations happened following the brief military takeover – but it is hard to imagine that they would have happened to such a scale or at all had the military not fallen out with Mugabe. Very likely, as a commentator mentioned on the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), this might be the beginning of a PRC-like political and economic pragmatism involving state-led economic stimulation of strategic sectors of the economy, some loosening of the regulations of the indigenization policy which could lead to more foreign direct investment from new likeminded international partners (such as China, Russia, Singapore and so on), and maybe some relief from Western economic sanctions as well. With more revenues at their disposal, Zimbabwe might see a resumption of investment spending into education, infrastructure, health and other vital services – while all the time maintaining a tight ship in so far as civil freedoms are concerned. China, often silent on the internal political matters of other states, voiced approval of the way the military had handled the ousting of Mugabe – and could, being an already important partner, increase its investment levels into the country and lend its leverage for the easing of some sanctions. These outcomes are quite likely considering that Mnangagwa and others in the cabinet are reported to have been working on these kinds of limited economic liberalization programmes with different foreign governments including the British, which were overruled by Mugabe repeatedly at cabinet.
To conclude, the celebrations in Harare and other parts of Zimbabwe – and abroad, are understandable. The hardships the people of that country have endured over the past several years cannot be understated. But there is also a cause for caution, and especially a cause to remain vigilant. Entrenched interests of the sort I have described above will not evaporate with the departure of Mugabe – nor will they be so reckless as to almost squander their grip over state power in the future.
On the other hand, Zanu-PF, a brand severely battered by the chaos and suffering in the country, may now find itself conveniently rebranded due to this resignation. Minor reforms in Zanu’s internal politics coupled with attempts at reconciliation with the Ndebele region could further entrench their monopoly over the country. They are still the party of liberation; a notion which is finding renewed currency in this African renaissance dispensation, supercharged by maturing hostilities towards neoliberal economics which has produced scars since the late 1980s and early 1990s. Such a situation would not provide much political space to the opposition parties in Zimbabwe which have been portrayed as “western puppets” and enablers of a new kind of colonialism. This view, I can attest from my own experience interacting with Zimbabweans, is significantly widespread. Zimbabwe’s fatigue with Mugabe must not mislead us to think that there is fatigue with – or even a deep hostility against – his Africanist message. Rather, Mugabe had become a hypocrite and therefore the wrong person for conveying such a message – and Mnangagwa’s Zanu-PF will most probably capitalize on it!
Mphatso Moses Kaufulu is a political and cultural sociologist from Malawi concerned with questions about social epistemology in Southern Africa. He is a PhD student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He is interested in the idea of culture as “play”, culture as history, and culture as power.
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