No one in 1980 could have thought that Zimbabwe’s then liberation hero Robert Gabriel Mugabe who had come to power with a huge amount of legitimacy would be deposed, 37 year later, with the same amount of scorn and rejection by his own party and people.
The imagination could not have been possible then. Mugabe was a democrat and the idea of him turning into a dictator in the future was remote from his comrades and Zimbabweans. It always is until it happens. The notion of him clinging to power for 37 years and reducing his country to ruins and a sham democracy, was a distant idea – again until it happened.
Much analysis will go into what went wrong in Zimbabwe and how one of its heroes turned villain. I shall give my own analysis and at the same try and distill lessons Zimbabwe holds.
Zimbabweans and ZANU-PF put too much faith, and power, in one person. In this regard, they are no different from the average citizen of any political party. Too often, we look for messiahs in politics and fawn over elected officials instead of speaking truth to power. Unfortunately, when we give this servile display of affection to politicians we create monsters and leaders who think they are indispensable. And we saw this type of leader in Mugabe in the last 17 years or so. The classical manifestation was on Sunday evening when in a televised address to Zimbabweans, a few hours after his own party had recalled him, Mugabe remained defiant and did not resign, as was expected.
Mugabe is aware that his own people and party have put too much faith (and fear) in him as a leader. This should teach us all a lesson: never put those we elect on a pedestal. After all, they are mere mortals susceptible to the trappings of power and all that goes with it.
If we want to change our countries, we should look at ourselves instead of putting our hopes or fears in a single person. Change for the better can be the work of ordinary people like you and me. If Zimbabweans want to have a better country they can’t hope for a messianic Mugabe and, I dare say, neither should they fear an army general. Rather, they should build a better Zimbabwe themselves. When the crowds took to the streets last Saturday to give Mugabe their emphatic ‘no’ to his misrule, one got the sense our neighbours were finally taking their destination into their own hands.
It is a moot point that they were nudged into action by the army. But Mugabe has effectively silenced the voice of civil society in his country. In Zimbabwe, becoming a civil society activist had its own hazards. There are activists in the recent past who were detained, harassed and some physically beaten. Of late, Mugabe’s regime through the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe was summoning non-governmental organisations to support details regarding their founders, amounts given and the purpose of the finding. This was meant to intimidate civil society, particularly those critical of Mugabe’s government.
I salute the civil society in Zimbabwe which pushed back and refused to cower. Civil society is at the heart of healthy democracies and citizens should never allow that space to be narrowed or closed. In our country, we have a vibrant NGO sector whose constituents have sometimes taken government to court, and won, in defence of the vulnerable among society. We should support them and jealously protect their space and independence.
The corrosion of Zimbabwe’s democracy was accompanied by several anti-democratic tendencies. One of these is how the media was treated under Mugabe. Though on paper, Zimbabwe is said to embrace media freedom and access to information, the operating environment is sometimes the direct opposite, with some journalists arrested and intimidated by the state. We must commend progressive journalists and media houses who shone the spotlight on Mugabe’s regime and kept the world informed. Any new dispensation in Zimbabwe must see the scrapping of media laws that are still in the statute books.
While one applauds the Zimbabwe Defence Force for setting the stage for Mugabe’s inevitable departure, one is not oblivious to the role it has played in propping up the nonagenarian. Mugabe has effectively used the army, police and intelligence to see off his political rivals. ZANU-PF has looked the other way for far too long while its leader plunged the country into a crisis. Today the party is sitting with a leader who is telling it that its resolutions have no consequences on him. ZANU-PF owes it to itself and to Zimbabweans to do an honest reflection on its complicity in the wasteland that Zimbabwe has become.
The future may look uncertain now but the stage is set for Mugabe to exit. Many Zimbabweans are beginning to imagine their future without Mugabe. Hopefully, Zimbabwe will seize the
moment, unite and rebuild itself to its true potential.
PASTOR RAY McCAULEY IS THE CO-CHAIRPERSON OF NATIONAL RELIGIOUS LEADERS COUNCIL AND PRESIDENT OF RHEMA FAMILY CHURCHES