Let me start with a proviso. This article is not an attempt to discredit the legacy of Robert Mugabe’s 37 years at the helm of government in Zimbabwe; nor is it a soft-focus ploy to belittle the millions of patriotic individuals who took to the streets to celebrate his ‘fall’ from grace. Rather, the article reflects on the events in the country during the month of November 2017. Regardless of whether these actions mask a coup or not, whatever position one takes, the events mark a celebratory moment for many, but also a worrying precedent, because it entrenches the rule of the military forces at the expense of the principles of democratic citizenship and legitimacy.
A little background
On November 15, Major General Sibusiso Moyo, who identified himself as the spokesperson of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, declared that the army had taken over the state apparatus. The army statement said only “criminals around President Mugabe committing crimes that were causing social and economic suffering” were targeted. As if to make this intervention acceptable – not only to the people of Zimbabwe, but essentially to the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), African Union (AU) and the international community – the military said Mugabe would remain at the helm as president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces until restorative processes within the ruling ZANUPF were completed. It was this game-play by the military, accompanied by legal processes, that made it difficult for the Constitutive Act of the African Union to declare these events as illegitimate – especially since President Mugabe himself continued to assure the world that he was firmly in control of government and all its apparatus. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, this turned out to be a severe miscalculation by Mugabe, who clearly did not foresee the outcome of the internal ZANU PF party processes that were underway.
A special ZANU PF meeting convened on November 20 dismissed Mugabe and replaced him with Emmerson Mnangagwa, the deputy he sacked from government a fortnight earlier. The next day, as if cued into action, Parliament tabled before the joint sitting of the Senate and House of Assembly a legal process to impeach President Mugabe. The climax was reached the same day at 17.53 pm, when the Speaker of Parliament, Jacob Mudenda, announced that President Mugabe had resigned with immediate effect. Members of the public could be heard chanting from the gallery Kutonga Kwaro, a now popular Shona song denoting a discourteous end of political power by a local artist, Jah Prayzah. The celebrations were universal. Scores of Zimbabweans at home and abroad, and across the political divide, came together to sing the same hymn – Robert Mugabe is gone. Almost every worthy global broadcast network carried the army- assisted resignation of Mugabe as its lead story. But now, all of a sudden, the music has stopped. Effectively, the party has been over since the day Mugabe resigned. What remains is the sobering hangover – a reality check in which the nation ponders on whether the removal of Mugabe represents the end of an era or the dawn of a new one.
The key driver in the new presidency is Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, who was inaugurated on November 24. Mnangagwa takes over the institution Mugabe assembled since 1980, when Zimbabwe achieved its independence from Britain. He’s no stranger to the culture and ideological thrust of ZANUPF, which, on the surface, looks much like everything the people demanded when they fought against colonial rule – a place of self-rule, people power and high morality. But the closer you look, the weirder it gets. Beyond the narrow, legitimacy-enhancing stories from the party’s die-hard supporters, lies a far more complex tale of a ‘revolution’ that’s accompanied by a growing sense of doom; at least that’s what Mugabe’s opponents inside ZANU PF give off – the smell of rotting meat. This view is primarily based on conjecture, but I’d argue that it’s reasonable given all that’s transpired in the country.
Can the country escape this governance chasm?
This answer is yes. Hope is not lost, but if only the current actors in power, including the army, prioritise the interests of the generality of the population and the nation. This is the popular view from most Zimbabweans. But something more important has happened – the people have seen that a ruling president can be kicked out and that therefore any dictator can also be removed. The nation had arrived at a point at which it was almost impossible to conceive of forcing Mugabe to step down. Now, there are opportunities for broad-based consultations involving all of the nation’s political stakeholders in the country and abroad. It seems the material conditions for inclusive politics are ripe.
Zimbabwe needs this transitional phase, in which a new social contract can be agreed, starting with a consensus around electoral reforms and paving the way for free and fair elections. Such elections should be characterised by a level playing field away from the former default position of impunity that led to the current situation. The earlier mediation by the former president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, which resulted in the adoption of a new constitution in Zimbabwe, offers a useful blueprint for the way forward. Most of the demands from civil society groups and opposition parties are already in the new constitution, though not all. Given recent events, there’s reason to believe the Zimbabwean military will insist on the full implementation of the new constitution.
The challenges that are already covered in the new constitution include:
- Devolution of power and authority to local authorities in compliance with chapter 14 of the constitution
- Implementation of constitutional provisions on freedom of expression, right to information and media freedom, specifically amending the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) that was enforced in 2002. According to the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), amendments were made in 2003 concerning the definition of mass media services, journalistic abuses and heads of offices, and in 2005, in regard to the imprisonment of journalists. In all, the new constitution allows for the harmonisation of laws to ensure respect for the independence of the media; editorial independence; and ensuring internet freedom and transforming the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation into a true public service broadcaster (PSB) that is editorially non-partisan and independent from both the market and the state.
There are many urgent challenges facing Zimbabwe. One is the creation of national wealth. This requires transforming the governance of the economy. The country is endowed with massive mineral resources that if properly harnessed could support the development of public infrastructure and the creation of jobs. Further, the existence of a fairly educated citizenry could potentially steer Zimbabwe towards a knowledge economy.
For many Zimbabweans across the political divide, the recent military intervention – although a bad precedent – constituted a liberating step. After all, according to commentators, Mugabe had maintained his power and authority through a ‘veneer’ of corruption, widespread intimidation, torture and killings of political opponents. There’s no shortage of disagreement on this score, particularly from those who benefited from Mugabe’s benevolence.
Tula Dlamini is a senior lecturer in journalism at Monash South Africa (MSA). He’s worked as a senior TV producer/director for the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), and also as the editor for news research, current affairs and policy analysis at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC).