As a writer, I consider myself to be a special witness. This, I believe, gives me the right to tell stories, particularly the African story. So it would be very amiss if I were not to add my voice to the telling of the story of Robert Mugabe, adding more colour to the already colourful narrative told by so many others thus far. It is all right, for Robert Mugabe himself was not a monochrome figure: he was as kaleidoscopic as the African seasons.
He lived a full season, he did, Robert Mugabe.
He was witness to the windy autumn of 1965 that left the deciduous trees of Rhodesia leafless, bleak, bereft hulking giants shorn of their Samsonian dreadlocks. He survived the bleak winter, getting scant comfort from the pale sun peeking timorously out of the distant skies in Gonakudzingwa Prison. He admired the poetry of spring, the sudden flush of green on the veld; the magical regeneration of variegated leaves: the soft pink, the magical mauve, the azure blue, the military tan, the starry African-night blue deep in the Mozambican bush; with an evening breeze that washes the sweat and restores life; maybe a distant, transient flash of lightning as precursor to the season ahead. Then, the deluge, and summer of Independence is here already. Time for sowing and tending, worrying and back-breaking labour. All to be compensated by the bumper autumn harvest ahead, enjoyed in the plush Presidential Suite at State House.
He lived a full season, he did, Robert Mugabe.
Now, I will tell you what fascinates me about Zuma, and why I will use his words to try to tell part of Robert Mugabe’s life. Apart from the fact that Jacob Zuma is a former President of South Africa, he is also an ANC leader and pan-African stalwart. He is an important part of South African history, indeed African history, shaped by their struggle for independence. I found his recent testament to the State Capture Commission reverting, the reasons of which I will articulate a little later.
Now, Jacob Zuma is eloquent, but not “educated” eloquent. He is a fairly simple man, who tends to say things simply, and means what he says. I am not saying he says the truth all the time, but to be honest, I find his style compelling, credible and surprisingly perceptive for a person mocked for his lack of sophistication.
This is what he had to say to SABC about Robert Mugabe:
“Well, I will describe him as one of our heroes who has been in the struggle from a young age…I don’t think he knew any other thing except the struggle. And of course he was one of those indeed pursued by the oppressors for a great deal. He spent time in prison, went in exile but I will describe him as a very principled leader who knew exactly what liberation meant and what it is that we needed to have in order to satisfy the needs of our poor people.
I think he was also very strong in feeling for the Africans in the continent. Very convincing Pan-Africanist who believed that Africans must have better than what we are having. I also think he was not mincing his words to identify the source of the problems of Africans, the oppressors. Very vocal and very clear to indicate what was the issue and what needed to be done”.
I have quoted Zuma at length, because I believe there is much to unpack in this loaded little speech.
First, Robert Mugabe is considered an African hero. That distinction is almost unanimous among Africans worthy of the name. He stood for something bigger than himself. He was seen as the quintessential virile African when all else cowed in political correctness. I imagine he revelled in being sort of racial sacrificial lamb, a martyr of blackness, as it were. And indeed black people all over the world recognised him for what he was. My lecturer told me a story of being in Detroit, USA and boarding a bus. The driver asks him, “Where you from, bro?” Upon hearing he was from Zimbabwe, driver exclaims: “Mugabe, Mugabe! Don’t pay, bro, don’t pay!” He was a beacon of hope for black people. A black man’s black man.
He loved to fight. Well, his life embodied the struggle. The bigger the fight, the more he relished it. After all he had fought and defeated the white supremacist government of Ian Smith. He had overcome domestic destabilisation in the early 1980s. He fought the global order over land, and landed some telling blows. He fought even time itself, clinging on to power in his pugnacious style even when all could see his time was gone. He won the battle for land, but sadly lost the war. As Jacob Zuma said, Robert Mugabe was blessed with amazing clarity of thought. He had a winner’s sense of timing too. But his greatest regret must be the poverty that visited the country when he tried to take on the global order, and the unyielding rock that is the global order to his demands for UN reforms for example. He won quite a good deal in life, but lost some big ones too. Maybe as Zuma said, all that Robert Mugabe knew to do, what he really wanted was to fight. In the absence of a scrap, his life was gone.
You could hear in Zuma echoes of himself in that interview. He could easily have been talking about himself. Zuma’s testimony and subsequent interviews after the State Capture Commission spoke of a man spooked by shadows. Oppressors left, right and centre. Whispers of saboteurs, double agents, infiltrators. Well, Zuma lived that life, he was the ANC intelligence chief at some point. But that does not take away the question. How much of ANC and Zuma’s problems were due to unnamed “enemies/oppressors?” How much of it was due to his own culpability? How much of the obsession is a reflection of his own psyche, and how much of it is deliberate scapegoating, obsfustication? How much of it is a result of genuine ignorance of the issues at stake? Zuma, like Mugabe, is a product of the struggle. You can take a man out of the struggle, but you can never take the struggle out of him. One can argue that people like Mugabe shaped the struggle by their strong wills, but there is no escaping that the struggle shaped him too. There is a sense that Mugabe felt more in balance in a struggle, much like a seaman stranded at shore longs for the waters. It was his second nature. In the absence of a fight, he seemed a little lost. He was coasting in the majority of his time in power, coddled and sheltered from the worst of economic woes. Zuma also effectively put the country on auto-pilot, hiding behind a genial facade and playing the political martyr/victim while shady characters ran the levers of power. As long as he was in power, all else was secondary.
Mugabe knew the source of Africa’s problems, says Zuma. I bet Zuma does too. And maybe a little too much so. Robert Mugabe was a learned fellow, conscious of history and wise to the ways of the world. To him, and I suspect to Jacob Zuma too, Africa’s problems stem from it being a victim of imperialism. Or put more specifically, from White imperialism. Over time Mugabe became the antithesis of all he hated about White supremacists: he actually became a black supremacist! Witness his speech in Addis Ababa when he was AU Chair. He described white people in decidedly racist derogatory terms. If they could give it, he could do it as well. The bravado sometimes came across as pointless, a little reckless: behaviour caught in a time warp. He loved his fight to the exclusion of strategy. In fact, you can easily depict the absence of any kind of long-term strategy in Mugabe’s rule, besides power retention, just like in Zuma’s case.
As the momentum of the early independence years stagnated, and then began a gradual free-fall, Mugabe did not know what to do. He just loved power too much, to the exclusion of all else. Even when the country was crashing and burning, he could not countenance leaving power. He overstayed by a good 15 years or so, so much that by the time the ignominious end came, he had long exhausted his political capital. In fact, he was firmly in the red. Just like Jacob Zuma, who had to be hounded out as well.
And of course, you can’t talk about Mugabe without talking about the land. He got angry when resistance to the land issue was raised, it made him emotional. It cut too close to history, the land issue. The expropriation of land was the physical embodiment of racial subjugation, racial expropriation. He had gone to prison, gone to exile, fought sweat and blood…only to be told that you cannot have land because so and so possessed title to the land. Title deeds, a piece of legal paper, drawn up by the expropriators as they quartered and divided the loot from which they had driven his people away…bloody title deeds! Of course Mugabe could become apoplectic. Remember 2004 Earth Summit, South Africa? “Blair, keep your England and I’ll keep my Zimbabwe”. Over land it could come to that.
Mugabe was clear about the issues, but not so much clear about what needed to be done. Well, maybe he was. But the system of patronage he had built made it impossible for him to implement his plans well, no matter how well-intentioned. For example his scholarship programme for bright people from poor backgrounds to study in South Africa became hopelessly corrupted. Patronage bred impunity: officials knew that as long as they were loyal, they could do anything with impunity.
Dissenting voices were silenced in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. A case in point is journalist Itai Dzamara who vanished without a trace some 5-6 years back. There was, and still is a phobia for alternative ideas. If there is to be any burning at the stakes, Jonathan Moyo and George Charamba will burn at the same stake as Robert Mugabe because for so long they were the chief “organic intellectuals” behind Mugabe’s hegemony, especially in the later years. Sometimes I think the enablers can become worse than their boss.
Mugabe’s legacy? Division, sharp division. Tribal division between Ndebele and Shona, which political charlatans and opportunists are widening for political gain. There is extreme political polarisation and brutality. The economy is so bad that there’s nothing to placate a restive population. I see nothing but strife. The state feels pressured to deploy force, and that makes it a weak state by definition.
Zimbabwe’s future? Prognosis poor. Obviously there are overtures to the West, breaking with Mugabe’s stance. But the West is playing hard to get. And Zimbabwe is negotiating from a very weak position anyway. Army fully in the political mix, and I don’t see much good coming out of that myself, in and of itself. Opposition talks of “political reforms” as if it is a magic wand. I have a feeling that the “political reforms” mantra is a strategy hatched somewhere in the panelled offices of some ambassador’s office and fed to opinion leaders to push on social media ad nauseum. I miss the grand strategy, but suffice to say that I don’t like the smell of it. It smells faintly of treason. And represents all that is wrong in post-colonial Africa. The Western powers are not making it any easier for Africans to settle. In fact Western powers are also in a catch 22. By meddling, they give justification to dictators to deploy coercive force to equalise the equation of power. By keeping quiet, they are giving tacit approval to the status quo, which may be patently inhuman. There must be a third way.
Well, as Malema says, we know our heroes. It is time to recognise and define our interests, and devise good strategies beyond power retention. Africa, stop fleeing shadows and start moulding the future in your image. We can’t keep blaming others forever. Where’s our agency, our pride, our strategy? Let’s fight a good fight, as Mugabe would say.
Fare thee well, Gushungo.