There have been a number of books written on Robert Mugabe in his many leadership roles. As a leader of a guerrilla movement/army, as a prime minister, as a president and even from a western perspective as a complicated/sophisticated dapper dictator. And make no mistake, many more will be written about him. As an ousted or disgraced long ruling repressive leader and also as a belatedly glorified Pan Africanist.
And it is the assumptions of future published perspectives on Mugabe’s long rule that are of interest. What I am however concerned with is the lived realities of Mugabe’s legacy. And by legacy here I am not inferring something to be celebrated but more something to be understood.
In the aftermath of the coup that toppled him, Mugabe has largely been holed up in his Borrowdale mansion and giving the impression of a bitter self-righteousness. He emerged publicly at least twice. The first time to endorse the mainstream opposition presidential candidate in a long drawn statement and questions and answer session with the press. The second time to vote for the latter in Highfields, Harare.
I am sure he has had other interviews and publicized conversations with visiting leaders from African countries. Or his wife as his spokesperson has occasionally put out the same. Together with his still many apologists and runners either in remnants of the G40 faction he spawned or on social media and in the mainstream opposition.
Beyond the immediacy of his ouster from power, we are however reeling from the effects of his leadership of the state. And there is little that is positive that can be objectively discerned from it or assumed to be as a result of his own individual leadership effort.
Having ridden on the noble but painful cause and struggle that was the liberation struggle, Mugabe managed in his at least 37 years in power, to undermine the values and principles that the liberation struggle was motivated by.
While conveniently embracing socialism as his then ruling party’s ideological foundation, he was to actively undermine it in practice. Foregoing the democratic values of socialism, he went on to attempt a violent clampdown on his then main opposition rivals in the form of Joshua Nkomo’s Pf Zapu under the pretext of preventing a civil war in the southern parts of the country. An attempt that has come to be infamously called ‘Gukurahundi’.
After co-opting the same opposition, Mugabe was to try to establish a ‘one party state’ which was eventually rejected via the activism of his former colleagues in the struggle but also due to the fact that it was no longer popular in Southern Africa after Nyerere had abandoned the same in Tanzania.
What was to prove colossal in his intentions at retaining power with global western power endorsement, was his economic about turn to embrace neoliberalism/ capitalism as advised by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.
Where he had previously had some sort of obligation to collective and people centered economics he abandoned this to begin his worship at the altar of free market economics. Contrary to the values of the liberation struggle. And this was the beginning of the unraveling of our national consciousness as had been established by the liberation struggle. It quite literally became about Mugabe and his hold on power while serving the interests of global capital.
It was labour that was to try and rein in Mugabe’s neoliberalism by first of all recalling the values of the liberation struggle and using the same to challenge an elitist political economy. The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) and its allies in the students and womens’ movements as well as human rights focused civil society organisations went on to establish what was then referred to as a working people’s party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Mugabe in populist turn decided to by embark on what we officially know to be the Fast Track Land Reform Programme (FTLRP. All in a vainglorious and individualist attempt at retaining the loyalty of war veterans and the peasantry. While at the same time echoing long abandoned principles and values that had motivated the liberation struggle.
It worked, albeit briefly. Mugabe’s neoliberal economy could not sustain the FTLRP and it expectedly reeled under not only sanctions but also the fact that its populism was never going to make it revolutionary.
That it happened and has been said by Mnangagwa’s government to be irreversible does not make it any less violent or populist in serving Mugabe’s intention at retaining power.
Even by the time he was forced by SADC to form an inclusive government with the opposition, Mugabe’s particular version of individualism in politics would not allow him to even consider his own succession. In his own party nor for posterity.
And where we fast forward to his ouster from power, his particular streak of individual political stubbornness eventually led him to be hoist by his own petard. He quite literally fell on his own sword. Even if he didn’t see it coming.
It is a combination of Mugabe’s inability to see into the future or beyond himself and his deliberate abandonment of liberation struggle socialist democratic values as accompanied by neoliberal/free market economics that led Zimbabwe to its current parlous state.
The end effect of this on our own society has been catastrophic. Not only just in relation to our one time critical national consciousness as informed by the liberation struggle but also to our own individual perceptions of what should be a progressive society.
Mugabe’s long rule has the unenviable legacy of having created a highly individualized, materialistic and populist society. One that perceives progress by the day and rarely considers collective posterity. And with a default admiration of neoliberalism and ideological austerity. Mugabe, via his ruling party Zanu Pf have taken us into the trap of ‘millennial capitalism’ where a combination of free market economics, superstition (religion), gambling and individualism have stymied the collective national consciousness.
There are many ways to regain a critical collective national consciousness. The first step to doing so is to identify what caused its demise. Historically and in the contemporary, that begins at identifying Mugabe’s real legacy and role in getting us to where we are as a country. Where we are saddled with a nasty/violent, materialist and populist individualism.