Makings of a monster

2008-05-12 00:00

What has turned Zimbabwe’s dictator Robert Mugabe into such a monster? Firstly, Mugabe, like many other liberation leaders, got consumed by the very violence he had fought the colonial powers with.

It started during the liberation struggle when Zanu-PF leaders used violence, variously through assassinations, terrible torture and degrading imprisonment, against their own comrades, when they were perceived as being too critical or seen as internal rivals. Such actions were often done under the pretext that the victims were spies or agents of colonial powers or whites. When Zanu-PF got into power, such violence continued, but with increasing intensity and with state legitimacy.

This was the case in Zimbabwe in the early eighties, for example in the Matabeleland massacre, when around 20 000 critics of Mugabe were slaughtered. A culture of silence set in when members and supporters of Zanu-PF said nothing about these initial excesses. Firstly, because they did not want to give ammunition to Britain, the former colonial power, and white Rhodesians, with which to hammer the liberation movement now in government. Secondly, they knew that the repercussions against those who criticised the new government would be swift: lose a job, career or government contract.

In the case of Zimbabwe, even Western countries were initially soft on Mugabe because they desperately wanted the country to be a success story. Activists from other liberation movements, including South Africans who witnessed the increasingly intolerant early behaviour of Mugabe and his friends, also kept quiet, because they too did not want to undermine a potential success story, or be accused of giving ammunition to Zimbabwe’s critics. So, when former colonial powers criticise the current records of African governments, fellow liberation leaders are prepared to keep quiet rather than be seen in the same camp. Mugabe early on assumed the trappings of a supreme leader. The non-criticisms reinforced this.

A leadership cult sprang up around him. Because he was the leader he could bend government rules the way he wanted. He had control over people’s bodies: he could make critics disappear. Every violent act appeared to numb Mugabe’s capacity to feel for victims. He quickly lost his sense of humanity. The supporting masses became little more than numbers, instead of flesh and blood individuals. He treated the state as his personal possession. When he as-sumed power, Mugabe rid Zanu-PF of all potential rivals and only appointed trusted loyalists to key positions. He distributed his patronage to the chiefs and in return he sought their control of their subjects in rural areas. He extended his grip to key churches and their leaders, bringing him into their patronage system.

Initially local civil groups deferred to Mugabe and Zanu-PF. Appointees to independent watchdog, audit and oversight institutions, because they were mostly appointed from the ranks of approved party members, did the same. The media were nationalised and editors appointed who practised uncritical “sunshine” journalism, while allowing themselves to be used to destroy the reputations of perceived critics of government. Ordinary citizens kept their heads low — to survive. Most African leaders argue that because they and their movements were leading the struggle against colonialism, only they have the divine right to rule. The idea that opposition, whether from within or outside, is legitimate is totally foreign. The liberation movement is the people.

New breakaways, especially from semi-independent groups, such as trade unions, are seen as sellouts. This is why fellow African regional leaders have almost invariably adopted the discredited approach of President Thabo Mbeki of not publicly criticising Mugabe. For example, Mbeki, while knowing that Mugabe is the problem, cannot countenance the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) getting to power. He would rather contemplate Simba Makoni, the former Zanu-PF leader and guerrilla and former finance minister, who stood in the presidential election as an alternative, as new Zimbabwean leader, rather than Morgan Tsvangirai, the former trade union leader, now head of the MDC.

Sadly, fellow African leaders are still unable to measure liberation leaders’ records on what they do in power, instead of their records during the struggle. In fact, the majority members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU), consist of leaders who clearly do not believe in the popular ballot. They are unlikely to give Mugabe his marching orders, so that when their own people push them out, they can still count on neighbouring leaders to prop them up. Mugabe lives in a bubble where he only listens to his inner circle and neighbouring liberation leaders. This is why criticism of Mugabe from Mbeki and regional African leaders is so crucial — yet not forthcoming.

Ironically, Mugabe, in spite of his criticism now of former colonial power Britain, earlier during his reign loved the special status given to him by successive British governments, including by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Then, while being occasionally mildly critical of the former colonial power, he also craved its approval — which he initially got from successive British governments. Only when this was no longer forthcoming, for example when his requests for promised financial compensation for land reform from Britain were briskly dismissed, did he turn bitterly against Britain and the West.

In the SADC crisis meeting that discussed the Zimbabwean elections, new Botswana President Ian Khama, from a totally different generation, insisted that Mugabe be publicly reprimanded. Mugabe’s older peers, like Mbeki, resisted. Perhaps only a total generational shift will change all this.

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