In the early 2000s, I visited Zimbabwe and met with the leadership of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, the association that joins together the country’s major labor unions. I was asked to give a speech to the leadership body. I received a cool, though polite response, leaving me a bit puzzled until I received my first question.
A tall, slim man in his 50s stood up and looked at me. “How is it,” he began, “that African Americans can believe in President Mugabe? Don’t they understand what is going on here?”
I had no longer been a supporter of Robert Mugabe at the time of the question. I attempted to provide an answer, offering some context about how Mugabe and the Zimbabwean national liberation struggle had been perceived by much of black America; the sense many people had that Western imperialism aimed to destroy an African effort at sovereignty. Yet I could tell it was not enough or not satisfactory. The questioner just looked at me. I received a polite applause at the end of the event.
I found myself thinking about that incident when the Zimbabwean military moved into Harare carrying out a de facto coup, and when, finally, President Mugabe stepped down. Mugabe’s political demise cannot be understood only by looking at the events of November 2017 or even the events of 2017 as a whole. Rather it is better to understand the Zimbabwean crisis as a manifestation of thieves falling out.
The challenge for many of us in the USA who have supported the Zimbabwean revolution is that we were prepared to see Zimbabwe under Mugabe the way we wanted to believe it should be unfolding, rather than what was actually taking place.
Mugabe’s political party, the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), was one of two main national liberation organizations that fought against imperialist-backed white minority rule in what was then known as Rhodesia. Though referred to as a political party, ZANU more resembled a national liberation front with an array of political tendencies. During the period of the Cold War and the Sino/Soviet split in the international communist movement, ZANU came to be seen as leaning toward Maoism and independent of outside control. Over time, it was able to successfully rally popular support leading, after the Lancaster House settlement of the national liberation war, to the election of Robert Mugabe as president of Zimbabwe.
The Mugabe administration introduced important reforms in health care and education, while at the same time began a process of internal repression of dissent. In 1982, Zimbabwean Army troops repressed dissidents found among the minority Ndebele population; specifically militants associated with the Zimbabwe African People’s Union, or ZAPU, which had been a rival of ZANU’s in the national liberation war. Estimates of the numbers killed have generally hovered around 20,000. Tensions lasted nearly the entire decade until ZANU and ZAPU merged and the ZANU (Patriotic Front) was consolidated.
For many of us in the US, particularly but not exclusively in the black freedom movement, this repression was, in effect, a non-event. It was either not known or not discussed, or worse, it was explained away. The brutality of the repression ran counter to the narrative that we wanted to believe because, after all, Robert Mugabe and his regime were viewed as the legitimate leaders of a glorious national liberation movement and had taken on white minority rule and Western imperialism.
As years passed, the Mugabe regime undertook further questionable courses of action. Despite radical socialist rhetoric, the Mugabe regime adopted structural adjustment policies that set the economy on a course toward greater demands upon the working class and farmers and what we have come to know as “austerity.”
Land reform moved very slowly in part because of Mugabe’s good relationship with the white farmers and in part as a result of Mugabe’s legitimate understanding that the US and Britain were going to foot the bill for the purchase of the land from the white farmers. When the US and Britain reneged, pressure from war veterans for land redistribution—which had largely been ignored by the Mugabe regime—led to a change of heart by Mugabe in which he became an advocate for forceful land redistribution. By coincidence this also took place at a moment when popular opposition to Mugabe’s structural adjustment policies was emerging and Zimbabwe seemed to be on the verge of the formation of a new opposition party, specifically, a party of labor.
The main center for opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change, did not coalesce as a labor party, however, instead taking very curious positions, including distancing itself from the left and articulating an ambiguous position on land redistribution. In that setting, Mugabe wrapped himself in the flag of Zimbabwean nationalism and proceeded to implement repressive policies and practices against the broader opposition (not just the MDC) that ultimately involved questionable elections; arrests and torture of opposition figures; ignoring the demands for land by African agricultural workers in favor of land to allies of the Mugabe clique; and the expulsion of communities of the poor and homeless from Harare in 2015.
During one of the waves of repression I was informed that some friends of mine in the Zimbabwean trade union movement had been arrested and tortured by the Mugabe regime. I had been outspoken against Mugabe’s repression from early in my tenure as president of the African American foreign policy advocacy organization, TransAfrica Forum. As a result there were many black leftists who condemned me and others as allegedly standing against the Zimbabwean people. Yet, what I realized is that we seemed to know different “people.” Many of those I knew, or knew about, were progressive activists on the ground in Zimbabwe who were fighting on behalf of Zimbabwean workers and farmers. They were paying a very dear price as a result.
When I spoke to those who defended the Mugabe regime regarding torture, I was largely ignored. I explained that I was not using the word torture loosely, nor was I using the term based on hearsay. There were people I knew who were being tortured.
The response I received was one of silence; a silence followed by, once again, the upholding of Mugabe and his regime as allegedly legitimate advocates of African liberation.
The military challenge to President Mugabe came as a surprise. The military has been complicit in not only internal repression but also the rape of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Zimbabwean troops were supposedly deployed to block Uganda and Rwanda. Yet, like many other militaries involved in Africa’s "first world war" in the DRC, they have repeatedly been reported participating in the theft of wealth from one of the most naturally rich countries on the planet.
As noted, the de facto military coup has every characteristic of a falling out among thieves. The Zimbabwean elite, grouped around Mugabe, weakened legitimate opposition and created a situation where political life, to the extent to which it existed, was contained largely within the ZANU (Patriotic Front). Yet the unity that appeared to exist within the ZANU was superficial. By the time of the de facto coup, there were two main contending forces within the party that were represented by vice president (now president) Emmerson Mnanagagwa, on the one hand, and Grace Mugabe (the president’s wife) on the other.
There has been much speculation as to the political objectives of the contending factions. Mnanagagwa, who in many respects reminds one of Levrenti Beria, the head of the NKVD (Soviet secret police) under Joseph Stalin who attempted to rise to leadership upon the death of his sponsor, may have created a coalition to reunite Zimbabwe with global capitalism. His speech on November 22 gives only a hint of his overall plans. If we are to unpack his reference to Zimbabwe being open for business, that may very well represent efforts to solidify a coalition that advances both a re-accommodation with the dispossessed white farmers and agreements with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. His inauguration speech places a heavy emphasis on reassuring foreign investors as well as a subtle reference to the repaying of the white farmers for their expropriated land. Though Mnanagagwa and his military allies used the rhetoric of the victimization of the war veterans to justify their moves against the Mugabes, what is probably at stake is much more a fight over how to get Zimbabwe out of the economic and political crisis in which it finds itself.
The politics of Grace Mugabe are less clear. She is as feared as Mnanagagwa, but has little base and less popular sympathy. Her power seems to be surrogate power in light of her marriage to Mugabe, though she has been associated with a faction known as the G40. Yet the politics of Grace Mugabe’s faction appear obscure.
The military intervention, though illegal, has galvanized dramatic levels of public support. With the ousting of Mugabe there are many who see the possibility for restoring democracy. One is reminded, however, of the 2013 coup in Egypt that overthrew President Morsi. The popular outrage with the dictatorial steps taken by Morsi’s administration blinded masses of people to the danger inherent in the reintroduction of the Egyptian military into the political sphere. No sooner was Morsi ousted than the military, under General Sisi, began a widespread suppression of any and all expressions of popular dissent.
This fate must be considered in the midst of the excitement over the exodus of President Mugabe. The characters moving to the front of the stage have not been known as champions of democracy and tolerance. They have no reputations as fighters against corruption, despite their current rhetoric. Though there are reports of outreach to opposition formations, there is no clear indication that this will result in the sort of transition to democratic rule that Zimbabwe desperately needs. What is also unclear is the internal situation within ZANU (PF) below the level of the main faction fight, i.e., are there to be efforts at renovation of the party?
What makes the future especially worrisome is that there could be the consolidation of a "unity bloc" within the country’s leadership that achieves a rapprochement with the World Bank and IMF, thereby appeasing Western elites, and then proceeds to repress popular movements in Zimbabwe. Following such a course could very likely take place with either silence or muted opposition from so-called mainstream circles in the West once Mugabe is fully out of the picture and Zimbabwe is more consistently reintegrated into the global capitalist system.
The people of Zimbabwe will have to settle their own accounts with those who oppose popular democracy. It is incumbent upon those of us in other lands who are friends of democracy and sovereignty in Zimbabwe to offer the support that we can toward those efforts. But taking this course necessitates that we look at the situation as it is rather than as we might wish for it to be.
Many of us in the US left are taken with radical rhetoric and assertions. One sees this, for instance, in the case of Syria where an entire segment of the US left wishes to believe that the Assad regime is anti-imperialist and anti-jihadist, despite their documented record, and indeed, despite barrel bombs.
In the case of Zimbabwe, too many of us wanted to believe Mugabe and his clique were the champions of African liberation. His history in the national liberation movement had been heroic and his language has been eloquent. And, of course, when he was condemned by Britain, the US, the IMF and the World Bank during the land seizures, that was enough for many of us to believe that Mugabe was, at a minimum, standing tall against imperialism.
Instead of a concrete analysis we started with our hopes and ideals. As a result all too many of us refused to let the facts get in the way of our opinions. With masses of people demonstrating with glee over the ouster of President Mugabe, I keep wondering what those who disregarded my reports about the torture of Zimbabwean dissidents are reflecting upon. Maybe they are thinking, to borrow from Bertolt Brecht, that the leaders have chosen the wrong people?