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January 25th 2018 print

John O’Sullivan

Mugabe and After

Leader and chief beneficiary of Harare's "velvet coup" Emmerson Mnangagwa has made the right noises, wooing investors with budgetary reforms and promising democratic elections. As the path he must follow is both winding and treacherous, optimism must necessarily be guarded

MnangagwaBy the standards of modern Africa, indeed of the modern world, the Zimbabwean Army coup that overthrew Robert Mugabe in mid-November was unusual. For a start it was bloodless: the Army moved into the capital, Harare, disarmed Mugabe loyalists in the security forces, confined the President and his wife to a luxurious house arrest, and urged him to step down. It was also organised efficiently and discreetly, up to a point anyway: only the coup plotters seem to have known about it in Zimbabwe, but the Chinese government was informed in advance by the man who emerged soon afterwards as the new president. Apparently Beijing raised no serious objection. Above all, however, almost everyone involved in these revolutionary events, except perhaps Mugabe and his wife, “Gucci Grace”, was anxious that they should be scrupulously conducted in line with proper constitutional forms.

Mugabe’s eventual resignation—after a brief hitch in which he failed to deliver the key sentence in a televised speech—was purchased with guarantees that he would be allowed to remain living comfortably and un-prosecuted in one of his well-appointed residences. Mugabe’s former deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, back from a brief visit to Beijing, was duly sworn in as the new Zimbabwean president by a Supreme Court justice in red robes, and promptly began his acceptance speech by declaring proudly that Mugabe was and would always remain his leader and mentor. That greatly comforted the leaders of surrounding countries in the African Union who, being leaders, are highly disapproving of unconstitutional challenges such as tanks on their lawns.

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So it was all very Westminster, right down to suave hypocrisy. Constitutionally it invited comparisons with Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 1688 in which the successful plotters had to turn two blind eyes to allow the King, James II, to “escape”, after which they were able to declare the throne vacant. And when Tory purists objected that the throne should be occupied not jointly by the revolutionary royals, the Dutchman William of Orange and his ex-Catholic Stuart wife Mary, but by James’s rightful heir, the lawyer-like reply was “a living man can have no heir”. Owing in part to such subtleties, 1688 gave Britain three hundred years of stable government and growing world power. We cannot quite expect Zimbabwe’s velvet coup to make the country an empire on which the sun never sets but it has a decent chance of fostering political stability and economic recovery that in turn may help restore democracy there.

There are a number of reasons for these somewhat favourable prospects in addition to the watchful eye of the African Union. The first is that the people of Zimbabwe have had more than forty terrible years of war, revolution, violence, oppression and (given the natural riches of the country) needless poverty. Hence the national outpouring of joy that brought huge crowds onto the streets to celebrate the change of president.

Zimbabwe’s tribulations came under three headings. First, there were the wars of liberation against white Rhodesia waged by two different tribal guerrilla armies, the largely Shona ZANU under Mugabe and the largely Matabele ZAPU under Joshua Nkomo. Seeded by Ian Smith’s UDI in 1964, they did not pose a serious challenge to the Smith government until well into the 1970s. But a full-scale civil war gradually developed in which ruthless tactics were employed on both sides, neighbouring states were drawn into the conflict, and ordinary life itself in Rhodesia became militarised. It became clear to Smith, a prudent realist above all else, that Rhodesian whites would have to cede real political power to the black majority or risk widespread anarchy. That realisation led by a winding path through the attempted multi-racial “internal settlement” within Rhodesia, the London conference of all sides that led to the Lancaster House agreement, the clear election victory (though amid allegations of voting irregularities) under British auspices for Mugabe’s ZANU party to, finally in 1980, independence for Zimbabwe under a ZANU government led by Mugabe with Nkomo as his deputy. All in all the conflict had resulted in about 20,000 deaths.

The early years of the new Zimbabwe were surprisingly harmonious. The guerrillas were integrated into the old Rhodesian army; Mugabe asked to see Smith and thanked him for handing over the country in good shape; Rhodesia’s whites felt they were welcome to stay under the new regime. Though the white Rhodesians had lost the war, they had not been defeated militarily and they had earned respect in surprising places—not only their former enemies but their critics in the foreign press too.

I once asked a great foreign correspondent, the Spectator’s late Richard West, how he had changed his mind about them. “Well, I used to despise them because they were idle drunks, lying by their swimming pools and talking as if they were tough pioneers and brave soldiers,” he said. “But when the war came into their lives, they rose to the occasion and proved to be tough soldiers.” I saw that for myself on a Saturday evening at Meikles Hotel which looked for all the world as if it were holding a dinner dance of the local Bournemouth Conservative Association at which the bank managers and solicitors had inexplicably turned up in black tie with Uzi accessories. It was Bournemouth against the world, and inevitably Bournemouth lost. The credit it had won by this would have eroded eventually too, but for a while the new white Zimbabweans were hopeful and seemingly accepted.

It was between tribal groups within the government that tensions exploded. Mugabe expelled Nkomo for plotting rebellion against him and sent a North Korean-trained army division into Matabele areas to crush Nkomo loyalists. In the course of these massacres another 20,000 people, mainly civilians, including women and children, were killed. That second tribulation still burns. In 1985 Mugabe merged the two parties in a ZANU-PF coalition; Nkomo rejoined the government in a clearly subordinate place; and Mugabe was set fair to govern Zimbabwe as he wished.

His administration of Zimbabwe over those thirty years is the third tribulation. A timeline of how Zimbabwe’s democracy and economy were gradually destroyed from the 1990s to today is available from the BBC.

It’s a sorry story of massive corruption, rigged elections, lawless expropriation of white farmers, extra-judicial murders, the beating of Opposition supporters by pro-Mugabe gangs of “army veterans”, localised anarchy, the collapse of agriculture in what was once the breadbasket of Africa, hyper-inflation and the collapse of the national currency, unemployment at sky-high levels, international isolation, the flight of white and black Zimbabweans to South Africa and beyond, and the rise of a thuggish ZANU-PF kleptocracy symbolised by “Gucci Grace”, whose bid to succeed her ageing husband by driving Mnangagwa from the party leadership was a catalyst for the velvet coup.

What made this tribulation so hard to bear was that Zimbabweans felt it didn’t have to be like that. The country’s economy had enjoyed rising prosperity, albeit ill-distributed, since the start of the twentieth century. Relations between its different tribes were unusually good because the Shona felt that white rule protected them from Matabele dominance, while the Matabele and the Brits had emerged from the Matabele wars at the close of the nineteenth century with mutual respect for each other’s martial valour. Even during the liberation wars, race relations in Zimbabwe remained good. At independence in 1980 there seemed to be an optimistic spirit of national reconciliation—and the same spirit emerged from the demonstrations after Mugabe’s fall.

Will that spirit survive? Much depends on Mnangagwa. His record is not encouraging. Known as “The Crocodile”, he was in charge of the 1982 brutal repression of the Matabele. He was also a leading Mugabe ally throughout the long years of Zimbabwe’s agony. But it seems possible that he is one of those practical authoritarians—Deng Xiaoping is the best example—who want a better life for their people and who are prepared to discard party ideology in order to bring it about (if only because that will redound to their own credit in the long run). It’s not difficult to prescribe sensible policies for Zimbabwe; they include attracting foreign investment, strengthening a genuine rule of law, restoring property rights, getting the financial support from institutions like the IMF to establish a stable currency, and inviting home Zimbabwean exiles of talent. That last policy is both important and feasible; all the Zimbabwean exiles I’ve met in recent years express a deep love of their country and a desire to see it rise from the ashes of Mugabe-ism.

So far Mnangagwa has sent out mixed signals. He has promised to pay compensation for farm seizures, both official and anarchic; introduced a budget likely to appeal to foreign investors; and promised genuine democratic elections in 2018. But he has also appointed a cabinet of ZANU-PF veterans of the Mugabe years, and he has avoided bringing the Opposition into anything like a national unity government. My guess is that he cannot avoid mixed signals: he has to assure his own party’s kleptocrats that they will keep their ill-gotten gains; he has to hint to old opponents that he will share some of the goods when the economy delivers them through a freer economy and a more democratic polity; and he has to persuade the international community to help him deliver those goods with aid and investment. It’s a winding path he must follow.

That’s an optimistic view of Mnangagwa and his likely calculations. So I should warn of an obstacle that may derail any sensible reform program. Against all the prudent arguments for market and democratic reform stands the political culture of ZANU-PF, which is a blend of kleptocracy, guerrilla thuggery and infantile Marxism. When the economic going gets tough, it is likely to re-emerge as the ideology of resistance. That culture is embodied in Mugabe himself. He is untouchable for the moment, and will die soon anyway. Nor can Mnangagwa take the lead in tearing down his statue. That will have to be done, or at least started, by those international observers and institutions who have been historically sympathetic to Zimbabwe and to Mugabe himself.

Mnangagwa may well be privately grateful for such help. On his lightning visit to Beijing, he will have noticed that although Deng Xiaoping had incomparably greater achievements to his credit, it is Mao whose cult—hidden away but never deconstructed—is now being restored. He won’t want Gucci Grace to have the last laugh.

Comments [6]

  1. Warty says:

    “Well, I used to despise them because they were idle drunks, lying by their swimming pools and talking as if they were tough pioneers and brave soldiers,”

    One of the many snivelling, ill-informed partisan comments about Rhodesians both before and during the guerrilla war, by a Spectator journalist (of all people) who hadn’t bothered to research the prowess of both Southern and Northern Rhodesian light infantry during the Second World War. Though falling far short of the Australians (with regards to numbers) they were their equal in battle.
    I could write volumes about our hospitality, our adherence to rule of law, and our inherent sense of fair play vis a vis our black African fellow countrymen, though you’d have to have lived there to experience this: the foreign press delighted in conveying quite a different story.
    John O’Sullivan’s analysis is interesting and accurate in part, but not entirely on the mark at times. For instance, UDI was not the catalyst for revolt, because I remember my feisty grandmother going out to the troops, in the late 50s, on the outer edges of Bulawayo, taking cut sandwiches and coffee along with other volunteers, during the ZAPU riots. Joshua Nkomo was their leader way back then, and did all he could to inflame nationalist feelings a good four five years before Ian Smith’s Rhodesia Front won leadership.
    Many of the Marxists-in-training were already overseas behind the Iron Curtain, in countries like Bulgaria, being trained to be ‘revolutionaries’. The evidence was there before the break up of the Federation of Southern and Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland in 1963. When the protectorate of Northern Rhodesia (Southern Rhodesia was self governing) became Zambia, for instance, their equivalent of the dollar was called Kwacha, meaning ‘freedom’: some freedom that was with the country rapidly sliding into corruption, nepotism and poverty. Things were worse in Malawi (Nyasaland) with President Banda infamous for the way he dispatched his opponents: Lake Malawi was known to have the best fed crocodiles before Idi Amin hit centre stage in Uganda.
    Rhodesia would have fared well, had UDI not coincided with a Harold Wilson socialist government, followed by a weak Heath Conservative government, both determined to slough off the last fragments of a once great empire. The only irony here was that Rhodesia was self governing and yet Harold Wilson had called the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) an act of rebellion. A rebellion against what? I might ask.
    Now I’m a monarchist to my core, but a strange thing happened in November 1965. At the start of the Saturday morning matine (forgive my lack of an acute accent here) God Save the Queen had always been played: it was our national anthem, just as it used to be here in Australia; but after Wilson’s denunciations of our declaration of independence (which, as I said, we had already enjoyed anyway) Mum spontaneously decided to remain seated, arms folded and a face like thunder. I say spontaneously, but the same thing happened around the country and soon nobody would stand, so they stopped playing it.
    Not long after we composed a new national anthem, with Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ as the musical accompaniment. Now that really sounded grand. We loved it.
    I have no issue with what Mr O’Sullivan has written about Zimbabwe post January 1980, but the reasons for the bush war, and Britain’s dastardly betrayal of an ex colony is far more nuanced than he might have imagined. People are beginning to be able to talk about it today, particularly with the current ridiculous trend towards post colonialist guilt amongst the modern progressives, most of whom hadn’t even been born, and knew absolutely nothing about the enormous benefits Britain brought with them to Africa. Any list of such benefits would have to be encyclopaedic.
    Mr O’Sullivan’s article hit a raw nerve for me. I suppose it would be akin to someone writing an article about the audacity of the Hungarians daring to revolt against Soviet occupation, because our Bill Martin would surely utter a few choice words in response.

    • Christopher Saitta says:

      Despots and tyrants reign supreme in Africa. It is a continent that is enshrined in perpetual human bloodshed, irrespective of the brief colonial presence that took place. Much like the Middle East.

      At least in the Western world today, we have a relatively peaceful existence provided we don’t import the bloodshed from the developing world.

  2. Christopher Saitta says:

    I would rather invest in Botswana than Zimbabwe.

    Investors from the West should focus on Botswana and Ghana if they wish to take a risk.

    China will learn the hard way about investing in Africa, just as the colonial powers had to endure. I think it is going to get very messy for China over the next decade or so in Africa.

    • Warty says:

      Indeed Botswana (Betuanaland) is considerably more stable than Zimbabwe. But China has nevertheless been operating in force in Botswana, with the same policy of replacing local workers with Chinese workers wherever possible.
      Seretse Kama had always been pro British, unlike most black Rhodesian nationalists, who milked Britain to further their own agenda (along with the highly left wing World Council of Churches). Seretse Kama did all he could to encourage the whites to stay. His son Ian was the first black student to go to my own prep school, Whitestone, a couple of years after I left, and before Ian Smith came to power.
      China’s neo colonialist approach to Africa, with its method of financial entrapment and blatant exploitation bears little resemblance to the British who not only set up home in Kenya, Uganda, the two Rhodesias etc, they also learnt the languages, understood the customs and established rule of law no different to that enjoyed here in Australian: the Chinese have no such intentions.

      • Christopher Saitta says:

        Sure; China have been moving aggressively into Africa with massive foreign direct investment (FDI) over the last few decades.

        I am aware that the leader of Botswana back in 2010/2011 was open to the West and educated in England, studied at Oxford or Cambridge from memory? Not sure who is in charge in 2018 as I haven’t been up-to-date with the developments in Botswana.

        China is a certainty to fail in Africa, no question about it. Put it this way, if just about every European power managed to fail in Africa; what hope does China have? Pretty much zero.

        The only areas worth our time, might be Botswana and Ghana to do business. Apart from that, forget I say.

        Overall I acknowledge that I am a bit rusty in the developments within the regions of Sub-Saharan Africa, basically because the lower continent is a complete basket case with the exception of Botswana and Ghana, in my opinion.

        Even South Africa is trending to destruction amazingly enough.

  3. Christopher Saitta says:

    I will do a brief analysis of Africa from the perspective of former European powers:

    To start with I think the overall basic intention of the European powers was to develop, commercialize, stabilize and modernize targeted areas of the African continent; which are essentially/broadly the established borders of today’s nations on the continent of Africa.

    The ambitious British were certainly an advanced force that had a benevolent aspect to settlement that harmonized trade and expansion. I acknowledge that certain individuals deviated from the British Crown’s directives.

    The commercial Dutch seemed to be more interested in trade and only really touched on the tip of South Africa as a port to replenish supplies for the Dutch East India trade. Obvious problems existed and still exist today in South Africa as result of this.

    The arrogant French occupied vast areas of Africa, particularly the North-Western region. Today the French are moderately laissez-faire about their former colonies in Africa, despite the recent trips from French leaders.

    The proud Germans were a little upset because they only managed to occupy/influence Namibia, Tanzania and Cameroon.

    The peer-pressured Italians were a bit late to game and only occupied Libya during the demise of the Ottomans. Also Mussolini’s despicable attempt in his conquest of East Africa is worth a mention.

    The heavy-handed Spanish had Southern Morocco, aside from their relentless and bloody conquistador ventures in South America.

    The competing Portuguese controlled areas on the coast of Angola and Mozambique.

    The brutal Belgians are probability the most notorious amongst the Europeans powers for their treatment of natives in the Congo; they even received criticism from other European powers.

    Anyway; it seems that it was all a waste of time, effort and money on-balance.

    Good luck for which ever nation/power that attempts to guide the nations of Africa. The west should put as little money, time and effort as possible into the continent, in my opinion; based on history.