International / Theory

The Zimbabwean Zeitgeist: When ‘Change’ Isn’t a Meaningless Slogan

by Francis McLoughlin


Last month was not a good month for democracy, at least not in all the places our newspaper-men and -women have their eyes on at this point of time. Whether it’s Reuel Marc Gerecht, a man on whose perspicacity I’d put big bucks, writing in the Washington Post that ‘Egypt’s experiment with democracy is probably over’, or Joshua Muravchik warning in the LA Times that Tunisia’s Ennahda Party is trying to shore up legislative tweaking that will entrench it in power as an Islamic one-party state, or the divine Peggy Noonan pointing out in the Wall Street Journal that the IRS scandal goes all the way up to the office of the presidentially-appointed chief counsel: democracy has taken a thrashing.

While we’re at it, let’s not forget here Down Under, the under-reported fact that, personality clashes and other gossipy disclosures aside, our prime minister has just been removed from power and replaced with an un-elected has-been by her own party. That said has-been once had this done to him is beside the point. Better yet, the insurgent now spends his days making unseemly passes at those of us who exhibit an unhealthy obsession with ‘the Boat People question’, in what I take to be nothing more than an attempt to undermine what on some days (maybe not others) appears as the isolationist appeal of the Abbott-led Liberal-National Coalition.

As bad as it’s been, however, there is cause for optimism and elation. Just like so-called ‘global warming’, with the faithful wailing hysterically over ice-caps receding in the Arctic while behind their backs ice-caps expand in Antarctica, as the movement for democracy and the rule of law takes a savage beating in the Muslim world—and, let’s say, a slight bruising in the anglosphere—Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change has been making some awe-inspiring gains in the oft-overlooked Republic of Zimbabwe. He has mustered scores of people to support his vision of a civil society. Mr. Tsvangirai, a man of impeccable dignity and integrity, stands in Zimbabwean pro-democracy circles as a Martin Luther King and a Nelson Mandela against the more radical Black Panthers and zealous revolutionaries of the ANC in whose mould some of the more exuberant of his followers tend to fashion themselves.

To point out that the man is responsible for restraining the more militant factions of his movement is not to detract anything from his efforts; rather, it is the reason for the success of his movement. Would that the Palestinians produce a man like Mr. Tsvangirai, instead of the blood-thirsty goon-squad under whose jack-boot they languish in the Gaza Strip, or the corrupt dictatorship they have representing them in the West Bank. Men like Mr. Tsvangirai are the pre-condition for democracy; it’s high-time the media re-adjusts its geopolitical focus to recognise it.

But so far, Mr. Tsvangirai’s political career has resembled more Aung San Suu Kyi’s than Nelson Mandela’s. Of course, the night is still young under the authoritarian rule of Robert Mugabe. The saintly Ms. Suu Kyi is 68 years old; Mr. Mandela has just turned 95. Mr. Tsvangirai, who in his time has been jailed and beaten and harassed by ZANU-PF thugs, is 61, and like his political antagonist, he has weathered his share of personal tragedies. For example, he lost his wife, Susan, in a car crash in 2009 just as he was about to be brought into a flimsy ‘power-sharing’ arrangement with the Mugabe regime. Similarly, Mr. Mugabe lost his wife Sally to kidney failure in 1992, and was never the same, as many a pundit has noted. The red-clothed masses who attend MDC rallies, however, though they span from the tenderest of ages to the wily coarseness that speaks of many a Mugabe-imposed depression, are predominately young, vigorous, and ready—no, beyond ready! impatient—for the way of the honest ballot-box and the rule of law. They are not beyond the seemingly small quibbles that lead to schisms and fratricide, such as the split of the movement into the MDC-T and the MDC-M after some of the more opportunistic members of the party parted ways with Mr. Tsvangirai over whether or not to participate in the 2005 senatorial elections. While Mr. Tsvangirai had had enough of being side-lined and repressed by the Mugabe regime, the MDC-M jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire. But, in its own way, a split in a political movement can be regarded as evidence of its authenticity.

It is this mixture of toughness and prudence which makes Mr. Tsvangirai an ideal navigator of the political crises between the powers-that-be in Harare and the legions of democratic activists who support the MDC. Although I don’t want to seem solipsistic, I must say Zimbabwe is a country that means a lot to me. It was the struggle of the Zimbabwean democracy movement against rigged elections in 2008 which ignited my internationalism in the first place, awakening my interest in world politics. I remember it very well as it unfolded in that incredible year, my penultimate year of high-school (and therefore a very formative time for me). Zimbabwe’s hyper-inflation was aspiring to the absurd level of 231 million per cent, and against the country’s collapsing scenery, many of the images of the democratic uprising were burnt into my mind, from the ZANU-PF brown-shirts (how else can one describe them?) terrorising the demonstrators, to the bruised face of Mr. Tsvangirai himself, a true man of the people, who withstood the violence as much as many of his supporters did. I remember watching the SBS evening news-coverage of the heroic struggle against the Mugabe regime every night, night after night, until, to my utmost dismay, ‘public interest’ began to wane.

This was a very important lesson for me. One day, the smiling newsmen and -women simply failed to include a section on the fate of the Zimbabweans, as they had been doing so consistently before. I remember asking my dad why nothing was being done to help the Zimbabwean people, and received a curt reply—something to the effect of, ‘Eh, what can we do?’ I stopped watching SBS soon after that. I even began to question whether Mr. Tsvangirai had been too civil, that is, I started thinking—wet behind the ears as I was—that perhaps he should have have been a bit more aggressive in his pursuit of a new Zimbabwe; and in this thought, I believe there are some ironies to explore.

Let me try to explain. You see, it was the Arab Spring—revealing to me as it did the complete practical irrelevance of the Left in the struggle for democracy in Egypt and Tunisia and elsewhere, with the Islamists and populists organising themselves into transitional-governments while the liberals and workers’ groups who kicked off the rallies languished in their own convoluted slogans—which led me to renounce my association with the Left. “To hell with this useless end of the political spectrum!” I concluded. In late November 2011, almost a year into the Arab Awakening, the South African fast food chain Nandos released an advert depicting a mopey Mugabe-lookalike dining alone in the wake of the deposition of his supposed friends: dictators like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Uganda’s Idi Amin and South Africa’s P.W. Botha. The advert ridiculed Mr. Mugabe as the ‘Last Dictator Standing’, depicting flashbacks of the fun the man was imagined to have had with his fellow tyrants over the years, Mary Hopkin’s song ‘Those Were the Days’ accompanying their antics. At the time, it seemed as though President Mugabe was indeed the last man standing; and some of the other dictators had fallen during the Arab Spring no thanks to the Left. But even though the opposition movement in Zimbabwe has enjoyed none of the rapid-fire upheavals that have characterised the Arab Awakening, it nevertheless re-assures me of the more robust foundation on which the prospect for inclusive institutions in Zimbabwe stands.

Professors Daron Acemoğlu and James A. Robinson have made the case at considerable length in their 2012 study Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty that institutions, rather than geography and culture, have the power to make or break nations, and that open societies, the rule of law, inclusive (rather than extractive) institutions, and pluralistic political systems are not only good in-themselves, or good for the people who live by them, but are the necessary condition for a prosperous nation. And so it is music to my ears to hear Mr. Tsvangirai say things like,

We have a plan. We have to change the culture of governance starting with separating the party from the government. A government should serve all Zimbabweans irrespective of political affiliation. We have to change the culture of partisan traditional leaders who see themselves as an extension of ZANU PF.

Still, he understands the magnitude of the task ahead of him, which must pull off this transition, not from one formerly-revolutionary, anti-Rhodesian mob to another well-intentioned coterie of activists (in Egypt, it was the transition from the military-endorsed Mubarak regime to a Muslim Brotherhood-directed state, and in Tunisia, from the Ben Ali regime to an Ennahda-dominated political system), but from a system of one-party rule to a system of multiple parties. In the lead-up to the fake-elections on 31 July, Mr. Tsvangirai acknowledged that the Mugabe regime had rigged the whole process long in advance. The resulting farce included everything from the under-registering of voters aged under 35 and the over-registering of elders partial to the Mugabe cult, to ‘parallel registration through party offices with strict advice from Nikuv International for statistical manoeuvring’, along with the collaboration of the Mugabe-loving authorities in Beijing (as leaked papers obtained by the London Daily Mail make clear). But that didn’t stop the MDC from turning out in their hundreds and thousands, suffering once again murderous onslaughts by ZANU-PF gangs, all around the country, to show their commitment to the ideal of an open society, ‘separating the party from the government’. This is more than what the Islamic world can say it has striven for. By this token, Muslim societies still have a long way to go.

One might take the Mugabe era as a painful tutorial in what not to do if a people seek to throw off the yoke of oppression; or how the clapped-out anti-Western, anti-imperialist movement, with which the hard Left typically sympathises, profits from many a set of ideological-blinkers here in the anglosphere. And so it is worth revisiting the tyrant’s savage trajectory from Zimbabwe’s post-Independence leader to its hated president-for-life. When Mr. Mugabe’s ZANU-PF won a landslide electoral victory in 1980 after years of guerrilla warfare against Ian Smith’s repressive Rhodesia, Britain provided Zimbabwe with £636 million, while the United States pledged a $225 million three-year aid package. In response, the prisoner-cum-head of state who had studied Marx and taken an endless procession of degrees-by-correspondence within the confines of his cell declared that despite having said earlier that ‘we were fighting colonialism and imperialism…, we are independent and there is no quarrel with Britain’. Cabinets and administrations in the anglosphere were more than eager to take him at his word. Indeed, they were full of praise. No less than Ian Smith told the journalist Martin Meredith—recorded in the latter’s book, Mugabe: Power, Plunder, and the Struggle for Zimbabwe—after meeting with the new president: ‘Once again I pondered to myself over the man’s maturity, reasonableness and sense of fair play. A model of reason and fairness’. All in all, Mr. Mugabe’s government began its first year in power with almost £900 million in foreign aid, with the country being renamed after the ruins of an ancient kingdom located today in the town of Masvingo. The next two years saw the country blessed with good rains and record harvests. Zimbabwe’s growth rate climbed to 24 per cent.

During the early days of the Mugabe era, Britain provided military assistance to help integrate the guerrillas into the former Rhodesian army. Soon afterwards, however, in the face of restlessness on the part of tribes in Matabeleland over Mr. Mugabe’s consolidation of power in the hands of cronies in his own tribe, the president turned to the totalitarians of North Korea. He signed a secret agreement with the Hermit Kingdom in October 1980 which saw Pyongyang send 106 ‘instructors’ to train what would become the regime’s infamous ‘Fifth Brigade’, as well as to help bolster Mr. Mugabe’s repressive security apparatus in general. The North Koreans also provided sculptors to erect bronze statues glorifying the president’s guerrilla days, personalising the revolution he had led by associating it with his cold visage. Perhaps the lesson here is for nations in the anglosphere to be a little more careful in future before they dish out their tax-payers’ money to men who come to power by the sword, rather than with a commitment to the ideas of pluralism and an open society. At any rate, heavier conditions should be placed on the conferment of foreign aid, as President Obama now knows—or ought to now know—very well after what happened after the provocations and excesses of the Morsi administration in Cairo.

But if this kind of burgeoning one-party state in Harare still gave rise to an impressive amount of prosperity, if only for a brief period after Mugabe’s ascent, what are we to make of Acemoğlu and Robinson’s theory? Well, one hastens to add, despite its economic boom, most of Zimbabwe’s wealth was still concentrated in the hands of the white minority, and in spite of Mr. Mugabe’s best efforts to induce them to support his shady establishment, during 1980 some 17,000 white citizens (about 10% of them) crossed the border into South Africa, where they would agitate against his regime from there forth, leading to heavier crackdowns on, and repressions of, Zimbabwe’s remaining white population—all in the name of ‘agrarian reform’. Apartheid would go the way of the Whigs, thanks in large part to the efforts of Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress, and in 2011, when the South African government, after years of complicity, cut off its support for President Mugabe, one saw the Hegelian logic of the negation of the negation never re-producing quite what one had in the first place. Today, Mr. Mugabe is still the tyrant of Harare, but the oppressed are no longer restricted to the whites or the victims in Matabeleland. No, the victims are all Zimbabweans outside of Mugabe’s narrow clique, and everyone but a handful of senile old-folks and Clockwork Orange-style miscreants know it.

That clique’s time has come, and if not this year, or the following year, Robert Mugabe’s position can be likened to that of a cartoon-cat standing over a precipice, as that wonderfully irresponsible Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek is fond of saying. All he has to do is look down, and he’s through. As for the future of Zimbabwean democracy, as an English-speaking, formerly colonised people, the men and women of Zimbabwe have much more to learn and borrow from the anglosphere—from the institutions of ‘the West’—than they have to deride and ignore: something which Mugabe could never now concede. So long live Moran Tsvangirai and the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe! They have ‘lost’ the ‘election’, but as the Arab Spring showed us all—to usurp and reapply the words of Keats: tyrants ought to tread softly, for they tread on the floor of their own sinister dreams.


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