The Elephant


Zimbabwe’s Trauma: Impunity, Disappearances and Torture

By Tinashe L. Chimedza

Zimbabwe’s Trauma: Impunity, Disappearances and Torture

Taking the latest protests engulfing Zimbabwe since the 16th of August 2019, the article looks at how state repression against the opposition and the brutal crackdown on civil society activists are remnants of the country’s historic liberation war days. Instead of ‘smashing’ the colonial-settler brutal state security apparatus, the post-colonial nationalist class re-fashioned it and used its Chinese/Russian trained officers to build a total surveillance state that abducts, kidnaps, tortures, kills, and brutalises citizens, especially those belonging to the opposition.

This article gives the example of three activists who were abducted, tortured, and some who disappeared and points to how the state security apparatus has remained outside the bounds of accountability, and is funded heavily through budget and extra-budget means. To achieve its political ends, the ruling class is deliberately tiptoeing around much needed legislative and political reforms set out by the 2013 Constitution, which was won after a decade of political contest.

The article ends by pointing out that the opposition has qualitatively changed from the ‘old guard’ like Morgan Tsvangirai to a new younger and more impatient leadership under Nelson Chamisa. Add to this, the explosive concoction of unemployed, poor working-class conditions, economic informality, urban slums and the ruling political class, already suffering from intra-party factional fights, has a real political contest on its hands – in Zimbabwe a hungry man is very angry.

State-sponsored abductions, kidnapping and torture  

Three people.

The first. Tonderai Ndira.

A young activist belonging to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by the former Prime Minister of Zimbabwe, Morgan Tsvangirai. He was an activist from the poor working-class neighbourhood of Mabvuku-Tafara, a few kilometres east of Harare that was a hotbed of opposition activism.

When they came for him, it was just before dawn on the 14th of May 2008. Just weeks from an election. In the cover of darkness. They rammed in into the house. No warrant. Just brutal force. They were almost a dozen of them, some clad in balaclavas, brandishing the infamous AK-47s in front of his wife and two young kids. He had no chance. Outnumbered. Outgunned. Dazed in his sleep. His wife and children screaming and all caught up in the maelstrom. They dragged him out with only his underwear. That was the last time his family saw him alive. As soon as the wife realised what had happened, she alerted neighbours, the party leadership and human rights activists. The search began and it led nowhere. After a few days those searching for ‘Dread’ Tonde turned to hospitals.

When they finally found him, it was a harrowing scene. They discovered his body by mistake on the Parirenyatwa morgue. Tonderai’s body had been left to rot in an open field in Goromonzi, which is rumoured to have the intelligence torture chamber built under Ian Smith in the 1960s. His bones were broken in several places. His jaw bone was shattered. There were multiple stab wounds. His tongue had been cut out. There was a bullet wound through the heart indicating that he was shot at close range. His skull had been clobbered with what looked like a blow from a steel hammer. It was an extra-judicial sadistic cold-blooded murder. His almost decomposing torso had evidence of extreme torture.

His wife would only identify him from a ring he had. His father had problems identifying his son. It is likely that they would have drugged him to make him unconscious, cuffed his hands, tied his legs, put the dreaded hoodie around his neck and then severely tortured him. They knew he was a fighter and they would have come prepared. Morgan Tsvangirai called the murder ‘callous’ at the funeral and a researcher, Sam Wilkins, would conclude in the Journal of Southern African Studies (Volume 39, December 2003) that Tonderai Ndira was ‘legendary’, a ‘peacemaker’, a ‘street fighter’, ‘charismatic’, ‘visionary’ and a ‘comedian’.

When they finally found him, it was a harrowing scene. They discovered his body by mistake on the Parirenyatwa morgue. Tonderai’s body had been left to rot in an open field in Goromonzi, which is rumoured to have the intelligence torture chamber built under Ian Smith in the 1960s.

It would later emerge that the violence of May, June, July and August in 2008 was a well-coordinated military operation, that the commanders who executed the coup of 2017 were in control and that the current president, Emerson Mnagagwa, was the anchor of that unprecedented mayhem. They wanted to send a message to the core activists of the MDC that the state was watching and to strike fear. By the time that orgy of violence was over in 2008, the MDC would allege that over 500 of its activists had been murdered and some had just simply disappeared. Since then there are rumours that just outside Marondera, less than 100 km to the east of Harare, there is a dam where locals claim ruling party activists tied ropes and granite stones around opposition activists and threw them to sink to the bottom.

The second, a young radical journalist. Itai Dzamara.

He was vociferous about the socio-economic collapse in Zimbabwe. Itai was daring. He had been arrested, beaten up and roughed up a few times. Despite this, he kept going back to Africa Unity Square in the middle of Harare not far from the Munhumutapa Government complex and right adjacent to the Parliament building. With a few comrades they had started what was called Occupy Africa Unity Square Movement. Sometimes they slept there, sometimes they held placards but they kept going back.

The nation was starting to notice and the opposition leader made a visit. What was initially an inconvenience for the Robert Mugabe regime was becoming a rallying point. They went for him first with the usual propaganda and when that didn’t seem to deter him, they finally went for his neck. Itai had become a vocal critic of the Mugabe-led government. He was arrested. He was beaten up and detained on several occasions. His protest message was simple: ‘FAILED MUGABE MUST STEP DOWN’.

When they went for him it was in broad daylight. Witnesses said they saw an all-terrain vehicle circling the barbershop. Itai Dzamara was convinced that it was a vehicle that belonged to the intelligence services. In the poor urban streets of Glen Norah, the expensive car, the well-fed men and the guns stuck out like a sore thumb. They pounced on him stealthily, accusing him of being a ‘cattle rustler’. The kidnappers cuffed him, threw him into the vehicle and sped off. The vehicle had no number plates. They were armed with the infamous AK-47s. It was a signature state-sanctioned operation.

The nation was starting to notice and the opposition leader made a visit. What was initially an inconvenience for the Robert Mugabe regime was becoming a rallying point. They went for him first with the usual propaganda and when that didn’t seem to deter him, they finally went for his neck.

Since then the young journalist has never been seen. The ruling political class said the journalist had arranged his own abduction. His wife and two kids were left in the horror and constant trauma that they too could be targeted by the state security. Since then accusations and counter-accusations have flown around. The state propaganda even went as far as claiming that Itai Dzamara had organised his own kidnapping. It would later take a High Court application and several pleadings in Parliament for the police to even feign some level of investigation into the disappearance.

The third, a human rights activist. Jestina Mukoko.

She now chairs the NGO Human Rights Forum. She was the Director of Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP). Jestina had also worked for Radio Voice of the People whose studio in Harare was bombed in the middle of the night in August of 2002. The printing press of the Daily News had suffered a similar fate days after Professor Jonathan Moyo had declared that it was time to “put a final stop to this madness”.

While ZPP is a small organisation, they had devised a network of peace activists across the country who document political violence and they filed detailed reports of who was doing what, when, how and against whom. The security apparatus was watching and they feared the concrete evidence that ZPP was slowly and meticulously gathering. They went for her in the dead of the night. In the cover of darkness, with no warrant, no identification cards, bundled her into a car in a nightdress, firearms openly displayed, drove off into the night and definitely not to a police station.

She would later testify that she was blindfolded on several occasions, threatened with execution, severely beaten with a piece of iron and horse pipe under her feet until they were swollen (falanga method) and interrogated almost daily by people who were demanding ZPP documents. By the time they were done, in three weeks’ time, she mysteriously appeared at court charged with ‘recruiting’ or ‘attempting to recruit’ young men to ‘undergo military training’ in order to commit ‘insurgency, banditry, sabotage or terrorism in Zimbabwe’. When she challenged the prosecution in the Constitutional Court, the court stayed the prosecution and the learned judges were stating the following:

It is clear from the facts that at the time the State security agents kidnapped the applicant from home and later detained her at the secret place, they did not have reasonable suspicion of her having committed the criminal offence she was later charged with. They then used torture, inhuman and degrading treatment during interrogation to extract from her information or evidence on which they expected that the public prosecutor would act as a basis of a reasonable suspicion of her having committed the criminal offence with which she was then charged. (Judgment No. SC 11/12 Const. Application No. 36/09)

Jestina Mukoko, supported by the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) sued the Ministry of Home Affairs and was awarded damages. The people behind the unlawful abduction and torture were never exposed or prosecuted. She would later write a book titled The Abduction and Trial of Jestina Mukoko: The Fight for Human Rights in Zimbabwe chronicling the most sordid and chilling details of Zimbabwe’s ‘shadowy’ state.

Jestina Mukoko’s and the pattern of abductions of activists reads like the scripts from colonial Rhodesia, apartheid South Africa or the scenes described in The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksander Solzhenitysn. In defence of its class position and the ruling networks, Zimbabwe’s state security apparatus has flourished, with largesse straight from the state. The country’s presidents have shown no appetite for making them accountable.

Trauma and tactics of war: Impunity and unaccountability

In the 1980s, the then president, Robert Mugabe, appointed the Chihambakwe Commission to investigate the now infamous killings called Gukurahunnd, by the 5th Brigade of the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA). The commission report was never published.

The current president appointed the Motlanthe Commission to investigate the 1st of August 2017 killings in Harare just after the elections of July 2017. The recommendations of the commission remain unimplemented. Prosecutions have happened. In an interview with the Zimbabwe Television Network (ZTN), the Chief of the Defence Forces, Commander Valerio Sibanda, blamed a ‘third force’ and claimed after that after one year investigations are continuing. But once in a while the president revealed openly the way the state, party and military have become deliberately conflated:

We must be respected. We are the majority. We are the people. We are the government. We are the army. We are the army. We are the Air Force. We are the army. We are the police. We are everything you can think of. We determine who can do mining in Zimbabwe. We determine who can construct a railway line in Zimbabwe. We determine who can build a road in Zimbabwe. No other party can do so. (President Emerson Mnagangwa, 8th of May 2019)

But to learn how this came to be we have to look into the history of the liberation national liberation movement in Southern Africa. Liberation wars were a very, very messy affair. Comrades turned on comrades, colonial governments infiltrated liberation movements and, in extreme cases, used targeted assassinations to eliminate leaders.

In the midst of that maelstrom, liberation movements developed very cruel and brutal means of dealing with opponents. These divisions went to the heart of the movements and the nationalists became paranoid. Those with political ambition exploited the lapses and fanned ethnic and regional differences. The contradictions were captured in a former liberation army commander’s autobiography written by Wilfred Mhanda: Dzino: Memoirs of A Freedom Fighter (2011) and also in Fay Chung’s Reliving the Second Chimurenga: Memories from Zimbabwe’s Liberation Struggle (2006)

In the liberation camps itself, faction turned against faction with fatal consequences. This security paranoia spilled over into the independence era and the nationalists found a network of state institutions, detention facilities and torture tactics that had been developed by the settler-colonial regime. To the very brutal, totally vicious security apparatus left by white colonial-setter colonial Rhodesia, the national liberation movement added lessons from China and Russia who had often trained both the military and intelligence officers.

In the midst of that maelstrom, liberation movements developed very cruel and brutal means of dealing with opponents. These divisions went to the heart of the movements and the nationalists became paranoid. Those with political ambition exploited the lapses and fanned ethnic and regional differences.

Zimbabwe’s current president was in charge of that state security apparatus, which was fanned across the country and embedded into society, from overt intelligence officers in every district office to covert intelligence officers across the major institutions across the country ranging, from universities and straight into hotels. The current First Lady is a former intelligence officer deployed in the hospitality sector. The country has become a total Stalinist surveillance society.

Trashing or fulfilling the Constitution of 2013?

As Zimbabwe’s political class pushes the country to the brink, the Constitution of 2013 has become a new battleground pitting the ruling party against the opposition led by Nelson Chamisa. The government is engaged in a very deliberate process of watering down the liberal rights regime introduced by the Constitution of 2013. On the other hand, the opposition has started to push back, arguing that the ruling political class is delaying reforms and making sure the old political landscape of authoritarianism is entrenched. This was captured well by journalist Hopewell Chinono:

We have a newish constitution, newish because it is now six years old. It was put to a national vote through a referendum and agreed upon by the whole country. Up to now the laws of our country have not been aligned to that constitution which was put in place just a few months before the current President became Minister of Justice in August of 2013. He held this Justice portfolio until November of 2017 when he subsequently became the country’s President, so he is aware of what needs to be done to fix this issue, all he needs is the political will to do it. (Nehanda Radio, 15 June 2019)

Zimbabwe’s nationalist-military class is also building and serving conspiracy stories in large doses. At some point they blame the opposition for not joining a state-directed dialogue process; at another time they blame ‘foreign nationals’ of training bandits, at another time they arrest civil society activists for attempting to ‘subvert an elected government’ and yet another time they blame the collapse to ‘sanctions’. The Sunday Mail, a government-controlled paper, continues with this line, stating that “Government and security officials have been consistently warning that the there is a ‘third hand’ behind the disturbances that have been plaguing Zimbabwe since the July 30 2018 elections.” (18 August 2019).

The president preaches reform but only tinkers with the Public Order Security Act (POSA), promises media reform and opening up the media landscape but appeals a judgment by the High Court that the public broadcaster is biased. The president promises a crackdown against corruption but appoints the wife of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and one of his key allies as Chair of Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (ZACC).

The charade then consists of a few arrests of bureaucrats and a minister but totally ignores a damning disclosure by the Ministry of Finance, in Parliament, that they do not have paperwork to account for US$3billion disbursed under the ‘command agriculture’ programme. Command agriculture superintended by the military continues to be funded from the budget and was arguably used as an open cheque to fund the military coup of November 2017. The president preaches ‘austerity for prosperity’ but charters luxury jets. But this state of affairs is driving a new wave of despair and more protest.

Winds of protest: The qualitative change in the opposition

In February of 2016, the leader of the main opposition, Morgan Tsvangirai, passed on after a battle with cancer. Initial instability in the party has quietened down. But there is also another qualitative change in the opposition. The MDC Alliance leadership is now dominated by former student leaders. These former student leaders are not afraid of protests; most of them have been tortured, detained in jails before, some have been charged of ‘treason and subversion’, some have been exiled before and they all share strong levels of solidarity. They have no links to the liberation movement and they have a long-running disdain for the ruling political class.

The MDC Alliance have started a national mobilisation process aimed at having rolling mass protests. While the High Court stopped the initial protest on the 16th of August 2019 and the police issued ‘prohibition orders’, Nelson Chamisa, the leader of the opposition, stated that they will not backing down, saying the following:

7/15.Throughout the course of history no oppressed people have achieved freedom by complying with the dictates of an unjust system. They have challenged it. This is the historic task of our people our generation. The system a vicious machinery but the people have a valiant spirit.

15/15.In the days, weeks and months ahead, peaceful action is our force. To the people who will come out to express themselves we say it’s important to exercise your rights and to do so peacefully. (Nelson Chamisa, Twitter posts, 17 August 2019)

The United Nations has estimated that close to 5 million people will need food aid in the 2019-2020 farming season. In urban areas, the socio-economic crisis is radicalising unemployed youth and the routine deployment of police, army and security services is putting the national psyche on knife’s edge.

Electricity is gone two-thirds of the day, cholera and typhoid is stalking the urban populace, jobs are nowhere to be found, inflation is spiralling out of control, fuel shortages are the new normal, income is fast collapsing, unions are threatening strikes and the ruling party is beset by far-reaching factional contests. If one were to place a finger on the nation’s urban areas one can feel the intense palpitations of a nation-state hurtling on auto-pilot and the political class is preaching to itself about ‘third force’ conspiracies.

The political class would do well to heed that warning by Bob Nester Marley –in Zimbabwe a hungry man is an angry man.


Published by the good folks at The Elephant.

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The Elephant


Zimbabwe’s Trauma: Impunity, Disappearances and Torture

By Tinashe L. Chimedza

Zimbabwe’s Trauma: Impunity, Disappearances and Torture

Bukhosi is missing. BHUKOSI IS MISSING. Bukhosi is missing.”

These stabbing words are from Zimbabwean writer Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s book House of Stone. The words are written firstly in italics for emphasis, then repeated boldly in capital letters to let them hit you like a sledgehammer, and then repeated again so the text slowly seeps into and clings to mind. After that, every page I open of the book, my mind begins by reading this text into every page – BHUKOSI IS MISSING.

Taken together in one thought, these words deliberately disrupt the grandiose unstable, if not simmering, surface of Zimbabwe’s slippery nation-state construction project, which is acutely unravelling. Africa’s post-colonial nation-state construction projects have often collapsed with catastrophic impact. To understand how this possibility of collapse is playing out in contemporary Zimbabwe, one has to read these words by Novuyo Tshuma over and over again because in a bold way it lays bare the torturous trajectory of Zimbabwe’s post-colonial failures or helps us to ask the question “What happened?”, as posed by the Ethiopian writer, Dinaw Mengestu in a review of House of Stone published in the New York Times on March 8, 2019.

But Novuyo Tshuma’s House of Stone does much more because the writer’s words profoundly conjure the complex and ever unwinding threads of a liberation project gone wrong: continued state brutality, disappeared dreams, mass emigration, missing bodies, torture and state impunity, the trauma of doubted belonging and citizenship, the unrested ghosts of spirits packed into unmarked graves, and the lingering quests for human dignity and justice that are now stretching to secession. Because of its commitment to subversion, to counter-hegemonic narratives, the book has no local publisher in Zimbabwe.

But for now let us turn to the ways in which Zimbabwe’s political class has been gripped by the ghosts of the coup of November 2017 that carted off long-time leader Robert Gabriel Mugabe.

Currency battles

In an abrupt and highly unexpected policy move, the Minister of Finance in Zimbabwe, Professor Mthuli Ncube, announced that Zimbabwe’s multi-currency regime was over and stated that going forward, all domestic transactions must be carried out in the local currency – the Zimbabwe Dollar ($ZWL). Through the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ), the minister issued Statutory Instrument 142 of 2019 (SI 142/2019), which stated that “with effect from 24th June 2019, the British pound, United States dollar, South African rand, Botswana pula and any other foreign currency whatsoever shall no longer be the legal tender alongside the Zimbabwe dollar in any transactions in Zimbabwe”.

SI 142/2019 has been buttressed by other measures by the RBZ, including the hiking of interest rates to a whopping 50 per cent in an economy where the government has been the largest borrower. The Minister of Finance’s policy was supported by the President of Zimbabwe, who stated the following:

It has always been clear that for our economy to truly take off, we need our own currency. While the multicurrency regime helped to stabilise the economy, it did not give us full control monetary policy and left us at the mercy of the US Dollar pricing which has been the root cause of inflation…As a result, yesterday we passed a Statutory Instrument to abolish the use of multiple currencies, and make the Zimbabwe dollar the sole legal tender with immediate effect (President Emerson Mnangagwa, 25th of June 2019)

SI 142/2019 effectively re-introduced the Zimbabwe Dollar ($ZWL), taking Zimbabwe back to the dreaded days of hyperinflation, last measured in November 2008 when it was at 89.7 sextillion per cent. At the height of that madness, the Central Bank turned the printing press up and went to issue the largest ever recorded denomination of $ZWL: 100,000,000,000,000.

In an abrupt and highly unexpected policy move, the Minister of Finance in Zimbabwe, Professor Mthuli Ncube, announced that Zimbabwe’s multi-currency regime was over and stated that going forward, all domestic transactions must be carried out in the local currency – the Zimbabwe Dollar ($ZWL).

The contradiction that was lost in this statement by the president was that the people of Zimbabwe and businesses are actually worried sick if the ruling military-nationalist class take “full control of monetary policy” and the Zimbabwe dollar becomes the “sole legal tender”. This zig-zags of monetary policy are evidence of a currency war currently raging. On the one hand, the citizen, local businesses and investors would rather store their money and do business in stable foreign currencies, while on the other hand, the government would prefer a local currency that it can easily manipulate.

These “currency battles” betray a larger complex political-economic contest at play in Zimbabwe. First, the country’s political landscape, which remains largely polarised. Second, an agrarian political economy, which collapsed, wiping off over 35 per cent of GDP. Third, the ruling party’s authoritarian rule, which puts the military and the security class at the centre of political and electoral contests. Fourth, an economy that has virtually become a South African supermarket. But beyond these structural impediments in the political economy is the way the political and military elites have captured and raided the national treasury as often as they want, which has forced the Minister of Finance to admit that he will have to issue a supplementary budget.

The President and the Minister of Finance have been very quick to boast about “month to month surpluses” since they started implementing what they have called the Transitional Stabilisation Plan (TSP). The political class has ignored that the surplus has no relation to productivity in the economy; rather, it is linked to a 2 per cent tax, a fuel duty and a directive where car importers have to pay duty and customs in foreign currency. Importantly, they do not consider the catastrophic cost of austerity or “shock economic therapy” without social protection. The policy experiments under “Austerity for Prosperity” have taken their toll on the ordinary citizen. Tendai Biti, a former Minister of Finance and Vice President of the opposition, has argued that the current political elites are committing “a slow genocide”. There is a case for such a horror summation.

Firstly, social services like health have collapsed; medical staff are routinely on strikes and politicians, including the Vice President, are routinely chartering flights to India or South Africa for medical attention. Secondly, the morbidity rate from non-communicable diseases is running riot as the cost of health is now beyond the reach of many. Thirdly, in the education sector, the drop-out and failing rates are so high that a former Deputy Minister from the ruling party charged his fellow elites with “killing a generation”. Furthermore, the country is currently experiencing extreme load shedding under which Zimbabwe has no power for up to 19 hours a day. The lack of power is a systemic issue that points to the collapse of planning, especially in the Ministry of Energy and Power and more especially in the power company that has been stripped by successive waves of senior managers and board members. And those who plan to leave Zimbabwe, like the mass exodus in the early 2000s, have to wait for a long time. The passport office can only print “5 to 10 passports a day” and some citizens are being asked to come back in 2021 (Business Day, 30 June 2019).

The ghosts of hyperinflation

Anyone going through the e-commerce platforms of E-bay, Amazon and other websites can buy the Zimbabwe Dollar Bills for a price. Some of these dollar bills have denominations that are just dizzying. On E-Bay a seller in Australia is selling a bundle of 10, 20, 50 and 100 trillion dollar denominations of the Zimbabwe Dollar (that’s $ZWL10 trillion, 20 trillion, 50 trillion and 100 trillion, respectively).

People’s savings, investments and pensions have been wiped off to almost no value. When the local currency was printed by the RBZ and inflation shot to quintillion levels, an estimated US$5billion of pensions were wiped off. In 2016, when the government introduced another surrogate currency called Bond Notes, pensions that had been saved were also lost and the government routinely raided foreign currency accounts at will. With this latest announcement, savings and pensions are also getting wiped off as inflation erodes value.

Moreover, the stability of the currency is in doubt simply because for close to two decades the political elites have used the RBZ as a looting apparatus and they have grown accustomed to periodically dipping their fingers in it. At the heart of Zimbabwe’s currency crisis is a rogue political system that has used the Central Bank and the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe as looting vehicles to reward patronage. The political elites have been relying on an authoritarian system of rule that can simply order the printing of money with impunity and disregard economic fundamentals.

People’s savings, investments and pensions have been wiped off to almost no value. When the local currency was printed by the RBZ and inflation shot to quintillion levels, an estimated US$5billion of pensions were wiped off.

Under Robert Mugabe, especially under the RBZ Governor Gideon Gono, inflation became unbearable and the ordinary citizens started using foreign currencies to transact. Slowly citizens are going back to storing their money in foreign currencies – money has become a commodity to be bought, stored and sold for itself without ay relationship to production. Zimbabwe is now a speculator’s paradise and each night the proceeds of the arbitration find themselves in the vaults of the political class. A minister of the government recently had a worker who fled from her house with about U$25,000 in cash.

Glowing rhetoric, grand corruption and no reforms

When the current President took over, he began an intensively orchestrated, some say British- based, serious social media blitz on Facebook and Twitter. The intention was to counter the dominance of government critics on online platforms but also to present the new President in a different light, especially considering his controversial role in Zimbabwe’s dreaded security apparatus, corruption in diamond fields in the DRC and his involvement in the collapsed ZANU PF state companies.

At the heart of Zimbabwe’s currency crisis is a rogue political system that has used the Central Bank and the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe as looting vehicles to reward patronage.

But critics have been quick to correctly point out the glaring disconnect between what social media handles say and what is actual government policy on the ground. It was recently disclosed that the government has signed on two lobby firms in the US to convince the US Congress to remove Zimbabwe from a targeted sanctions list so that the country can access funding from multilateral financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The US government has been able to see through this rhetoric of talking reforms and continuing on a clampdown, including ongoing arrests of civil activists for “treason”.

To fully comprehend how the political class in Zimbabwe is affecting a grand heist of public resources, one just has to focus on two institutions: the RBZ and the Ministry of Finance. Through the RBZ, the political elites, the military who’s who and government managers have been administering a very opaque system of “foreign currency allocation” often to their cronies, especially in the fuel sector. The fuel industry in Zimbabwe has fallen under the control of business elites directly linked and deeply networked either to the military or to ruling party officials such that the government has refused to liberalise the sector. A glaring example is the cartel run through Green Fuel, which is has a legally protected monopoly of selling ethanol in the market. (The businessman who owns Green Fuel is linked to the President. Here are the words of a “government advisor”:

The result is that we have spent probably US$2 billion in secret premiums on the purchase of fuel on the world market. Much of it banked externally. So while our neighbours had fuel at world market rates, we paid a premium. Fine while fuel prices on world market were at historically low prices from 2014 onwards. But the result is that we spend over US$100 million a month on bulk fuel supplies when the actual cost today should be about US$70 million (Eddie Cross, May 2019)

In a recent press statement, the ruling party’s Youth League paraded a list of “corrupt” government officials, including an ally of the President, the RBZ Governor and the party’s powerful Secretary of Administration. The accused simply dismissed the statement as a side show, and the President announced yet another Commission of Inquiry. The President proceeded to appoint the wife of the Minister of Foreign Affairs as the Chair of the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (ZACC) and the new commission includes a “retired” army senior officer. But there is also a rift running much deeper that points to lack of cohesion among the political elite and a competition “to eat” within the ruling party networks. Here are the words of a former student radical leader now turned into a political class praise singer:

We have normalised corruption and regard it as par for the course. Provincial lands officers run around like fief lords, dishing out offer letters for land in exchange for cars and private school fees, and nothing gets said. We take pride, including headlines even, that we have managed to suspend some VID officers in some nondescript town for taking bribes in exchange for licences and no-one stops to say: really? Like that is why we have been robbed blind on infrastructure tenders and sales of diamonds and such? (Tinomudaishe Chinyoka, Nehanda Radio, 2019)

In a country in which the economy has come to a standstill, business is now highly speculative and trading in favours and arbitrage have become the mainstay of the elites. This is bound to create an explosive factional war to get access to state largesse. A Member of Parliament seen as an ally of the President recently boasted that he has imported a Lamborghini at a whopping US$410,000. It was recently revealed before a Parliamentary Committee that the Ministry of Finance cannot account for about US$3billon disbursed for the Command Agriculture programme, which was run by the military and the current President in the two years preceding the coup of November 2017. This makes it possible that the taxpayer actually funded the coup of November 2017.

Every year the Auditor General diligently produces reports on copious amounts of irregular expenditures, outright fraud, related party contacts, and outsourced services. In the latest report of 2018, there are references to huge amounts siphoned for political gain and debts incurred to feed the rentier class. There is the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (ZACC), the President established a Special Anti-Corruption Commission, the Chief Justice recently opened Anti-Corruption Courts and yet there are no cases of elites getting investigated, fired, and or convicted. This is a weaponised smoke and mirror game to settle factional political wars.

The crisis of militarism

In a previous opinion article, I argued that Zimbabwe’s political system is now domineered by a typical comprador class that took power forcefully on the 17th of November 2017 and this “military-nationalist class” is now in total command of state power, party structures and by implication the shambles of what remains of the economy. At the apex of Zimbabwe’s political system now sits an anti-democratic, anti-reform looting machinery composed of a powerful network of military-nationalists who are not answerable to the governed but to their own rabid accumulation whims.

The nationalist liberation movement in Zimbabwe had previously operated comfortably under a very thinly veiled authoritarianism in which “politics commanded the gun”. But the coup of the November Days in 2017 opened the floodgates for “politics that is commanded by the gun”.

However, the crisis of militarism is not only in Zimbabwe. In Sudan, the military has stepped in to protect its interests. The same has happened in Algeria, Egypt, Malawi and recently in Ethiopia. The army in politics is now the proverbial elephant in the room with the military commanders routinely commenting on political issues in a country which is not at war. The youthful and rejuvenated MDC Alliance has been talking tough, especially about political reforms that are needed in the country and this is deepening lines of potential conflict. In response, the security state apparatus has been parading robo-cop-like police uniforms to intimidate the citizens and the President has continued holding what he calls “political dialogue” that excludes the major opposition, rendering the dialogue a travesty.

The nationalist liberation movement in Zimbabwe had previously operated comfortably under a very thinly veiled authoritarianism in which “politics commanded the gun”. But the coup of the November Days in 2017 opened the floodgates for “politics that is commanded by the gun”.

***

In a recent comedy skit by Zimbabwe’s top all-female comedy team called Bus Stop TV, the cast members commonly known as Gonyeti and Maggie are engaged in a tussle in which Gonyeti is fuming that she must undo a scarf that has not brought anything to her. She engages furiously in “kududunura scarf”, which is an intelligent jibe directed at the President’s now-infamous scarf that he wears even in inappropriate weather.

Civil servants, even after two pay increases, have put the government on notice. Nurses, teachers, and banking employees have seen their incomes collapse to below US$50 a month. Pensioners are now living in penury as some of them earn an equivalent of about US$10 a month in a country which imports all the basics. With inflation estimated at 196 per cent, the country is heading for social strife. Economist Godfrey Kanyenze argued that the “Zimbabwe Dollar is dead on arrival”. The ruling class elites are engaging in open spats on social media. Factions are competing to get hold of the national treasury. The Commander of the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA), which carried out the coup of November 2017, has been urging “soldiers to be patient”. This betrays the uneasiness within the ranks.

There is growing discontent across the country. The literary scene has been exploding too with a direct challenge aimed at displacing choreographed historical narratives of the nation, triggering debates on nation-state construction and opening up to scrutiny (perhaps justice?) the vagaries of violence and trying to re-imagine the country. Witness the books by an all-female cast: We need New Names (NoViolet Bulwayo), These Bones Will Rise Again (Panashe Chigumadzi) and House of Stone (Novuyo Rosa Tshuma).

The political class in Zimbabwe is drunk with power and eventually the game of chance they are playing will come to an end. Given enough chances to pull the trigger in a game of Russian roulette, the drunkard will eventually hit the mark. Such is the current situation in Zimbabwe.


Published by the good folks at The Elephant.

The Elephant is a platform for engaging citizens to reflect, re-member and re-envision their society by interrogating the past, the present, to fashion a future.

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Zimbabwe’s Trauma: Impunity, Disappearances and Torture

By Tinashe L. Chimedza

Zimbabwe’s Trauma: Impunity, Disappearances and Torture

In the late afternoon of the 21st November 2017, Zimbabweans went ecstatic on the streets. The celebrations went global and stretched from the green lawns of the imposing Rainbow Towers in central Harare, through the dusty streets of urban ghettos and snaked through several capitals of the world. Robert Gabriel Mugabe, three months shy of his 93rd birthday, had handed in his resignation to the Speaker of Parliament in a joint session of the House of Assembly and the Senate. Outside the joint seating that was considering an impeachment motion, citizens draped in the Zimbabwe flag danced, played drums and whistled. Cars blasted their horns and one longtime activist, Vimbai Musvaburi, shed tears in an interview with the BBC, saying, “It felt like a prison had been opened”. The 37-year rule of one of Africa’s authoritarian leaders was folded into history with military tanks, soldiers and army vehicles stationed across the country. It was no mean feat.

What has emerged since that “military-assisted transition” is a Zimbabwe that is now policed by the military. Democratic-constitutional institutions have been subverted and the rule of law has been shredded. The dominant political class has become a network of very powerful military elites, or what can be referred to as military-nationalists.

In the early 1980s, when he was Prime Minister, Mugabe had attempted to build a socialist one-party state. In the late 1980s, he brutalised the opposition and swallowed it through the Unity Agreement of 1989. Zimbabwe become a de jure one-party state. In the 1990s, the labour movement protested against increasing levels of taxation. When civil society mobilised for constitutional reform, Mugabe simply subverted the process. In the 2000s, the major opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was subjected to heinous brutality, with Mugabe boasting that “we have degrees in violence”. The elections were brazenly rigged and this culminated in the Government of National Unity (GNU) from 2008 till 2013. In that fateful month of November 2017, the “Ides of March” finally knocked on the Blue Mansion of the ageing president and the system finally burst open and turned its brutal fangs on its “Godfather”.

Exit Robert Gabriel Mugabe, enter the military-nationalists

What has emerged since that “military-assisted transition” is a Zimbabwe that is now policed by the military. Democratic-constitutional institutions have been subverted and the rule of law has been shredded. The dominant political class has become a network of very powerful military elites, or what can be referred to as military-nationalists. This class is composed mainly of men (and a few women) who constituted the military ranks of the national liberation movement in the 1960s and 70s. When they took over power in November 2017, they quickly dispatched out-of-state structures, the “old guard nationalists” who did not have any military training.

In post-colonial independent Zimbabwe, the military-nationalists operated behind the political throne under a shadowy state-security structure called the Joint Operation Command (JOC) comprising the military, intelligence services, police and the prison services. In the 2000s, especially since the violent election of 2008, the military assumed a much more political role. This came to a head when they marched onto the streets and forced Mugabe out. With the threads of state power in their hands, the military-nationalists have become the final arbiters of political and electoral contests. In that matrix of state and national political power, the general election of 2018 was just a fig leaf over a very patent fact – the new sheriff in Harare is a military junta with swanky imported suits.

New rhetoric and old Mugabe-like tactics

The new president has fanned out his strategies, jumping onto Facebook and Twitter, giving more interviews and also paying lobbyists in Washington DC to do the regime’s bidding. After his first inauguration, President Emmerson Mnangagwa wrote in the New York Times, that:

I am working toward building a new Zimbabwe: a country with a thriving and open economy, jobs for its youth, opportunities for investors, and democracy and equal rights for all… There are voices both at home and abroad who have sought to convince the world that nothing has changed in Zimbabwe. I refute those unfair and unfounded claims and commit that we are bringing about a new era of transparency, openness and commitment to the rule of law.

Many months later, in another opinion article in The Guardian, Mnangagwa stated that “the role of opposition leader is critical to democracy’s function” and that “the incoming administration will be weaker if not held to the checks and balances that parliament provides”.

In the face of a severe socio-economic crisis, Zimbabwe’s political rulers have resorted to Mugabe-like tactics, blaming “enemies” in the West and accusing the opposition of being “saboteurs”. That crisis boiled over in the second week of January 2019 as citizen anger over a 150 per cent fuel price increase led to a national shutdown called by the labour movement.

However, as Zimbabwe’s political economy continues its downward descent, the narrative has shifted back to the Mugabe years type of blame-shifting and brinkmanship. The “new rulers” have been very quick to jump into a worldwide public relations exercise that has come at a heavy price to the truth and to the public purse. The propaganda has also been Pan-African in its reach; the government has dispatched envoys to the African Union (AU), the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), and strategic countries like Kenya, South Africa and Botswana, arguing that Zimbabwe’s economic crisis has been as a result of sanctions, especially those imposed by the US.

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In the face of a severe socio-economic crisis, Zimbabwe’s political rulers have resorted to Mugabe-like tactics, blaming “enemies” in the West and accusing the opposition of being “saboteurs”. That crisis boiled over in the second week of January 2019 as citizen anger over a 150 per cent fuel price increase led to a national shutdown called by the labour movement. Street barricades went up in urban areas, police had running battles with young people, wide-scale looting took place, and economic activity came to a standstill. The government response was a nationwide ruthless military crackdown. The army was accused of rape, opposition activists were abducted and rights groups, such as Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW), recorded 17 deaths from gunshot wounds.  The Internet was shut down and, in a leaked document, the government blamed “hostile intelligence services”, “regime change agents”, and “unfriendly civil society organisations”. The ruling class has simply re-dusted the old script of seeing local and international enemies all around.

The president boasted at a political rally in the local language, Shona, saying, “tirikuvazvambura” and “vari kuzvamburika”, meaning “we are beating them up brutally” and they “cannot resist that brutality”. Not less than five opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) have been arraigned before the courts for “subversion”, “inciting violence” and “treason”. To sum up the type of military-state/party machinery that the ruling strata is building, we have to turn to that theoretician and practitioner of the African revolution, Frantz Fanon, in his seminal book, The Wretched of The Earth, where he put it more succinctly:

There exists inside the new regime, however, an inequality in the acquisition of wealth and in monopolization. Some have a double source of income and demonstrate that they are specialized in opportunism. Privileges multiply and corruption triumphs, while morality declines. Today the vultures are too numerous and too voracious in proportion to the lean spoils of the national wealth. (1963:171).

Taken together then, this deliberate rhetoric of a “new dispensation”, “open for democracy”, “second republic”, on the one hand, and a deliberate crackdown on the opposition, restricting the democratic space and subverting the institutions established by the Constitution of 2013, on the other, are designed to keep the military-nationalists in charge of the party and the state machinery, and by implication, to maintain their hold on Zimbabwe’s national treasury and natural resources.

The Minister of Finance, Professor Mthuli Ncube, admitted that the budget suffered as a result of runaway expenditure and mismanagement. The minister did not disclose that the excessive borrowing has been a blank cheque to fund the decadent lifestyles of those in political office.

Zimbabwe’s melting political economy: The ambers underneath

To get a sense of how Zimbabwe has fallen from glory, one has to look at the historic Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and per capita figures over time compared to Kenya. At the end of 1970s, Kenya’s GDP was estimated at US$2.9 billion, with a population of about 14 million and Zimbabwe’s’ GDP was US$3.5 billion with a population of 7 million. Fast forward to 2017 and Kenya’s GDP now stands at almost US$75billion and Zimbabwe’s GDP stands at a mere US$17billion.  In Harare, one can contrast sewage flowing openly in the ghettos and the sprawling green lawns and well-paved streets in North Harare, which is full of Beverley Hills-type mansions. Over the past 40 years, Zimbabwe’s export industries have been decimated, infrastructure has decayed, agricultural production has collapsed and there have not been any major capital projects to revive the economy. State-owned companies, in railways, transport like airlines, agriculture, mining and the list goes on, have been systematically looted. The political economy collapse has resulted in mass emigration of both skilled and unskilled labour and a severe social crisis of poverty

The Minister of Finance, Professor Mthuli Ncube, admitted that the budget suffered as a result of runaway expenditure and mismanagement. The minister did not disclose that the excessive borrowing has been a blank cheque to fund the decadent lifestyles of those in political office. The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) dished out loans in excess of US$1.2 billion to elite-linked companies, and state-owned companies raked billions in debt and all this has been transferred to the Treasury. Calls for a national debt audit were rejected. The public financial management system is deliberately in shambles, the public tendering system directly feeds into the pockets of the political elites and the Public Service Commission (PSC) has been used to employ thousands of “youth officers” who are effectively a notorious party militia known as “green bombers”. Foreign and domestic debt has gone out of control; 90 per cent of expenditure is on salaries and allowances for government workers. Foreign currency reserves have dried and Zimbabwe cannot access credit lines from international financial institutions. The new minister has proposed selling off state enterprises that formed the bedrock of Zimbabwe’s pre-independence industrial base, and it is highly likely that these public assets will be doled out cheaply to feed a crony capitalist class linked to political power. In a word, Zimbabwe’s political economy collapse is self-inflicted.

Austerity for citizens and a Thatcherite largesse for the elites

 The Minister of Finance, in the latest budget statement, proposed what he called “Austerity for Prosperity”. He argued that Zimbabwe “needs pain” before the economy becomes productive, just like a patient who needs surgery. The Treasury chief has introduced a 2 per cent tax, has increased fuel prices by almost 150 per cent, is trying to liberalise the foreign currency market, has introduced a local “virtual” currency called RTGS dollars, has hiked custom excise duty and has demanded that all car imports be paid for in foreign currency. The dramatic effect has been to feed inflation upwards, erode income for workers, and scare away investors. The prices of basic commodities have spiraled out of control and all major trade unions have already engaged in some strike action or are in the process of organising one. Here are the words of the Treasury chief:

The only way to a stronger economy is to restructure, rebuild and reform. This plan involves some painful measures to get our national budget under control. These measures will be felt by all of us, but are unavoidable if we want to get our economy back on track. These measures are those of a doctor performing a life-saving operation. They cause pain, but the pain is the only thing that will lead to a recovery. As Margret Thatcher once said, “Yes, the medicine is harsh, but the patient requires it in order to live. (Speech by Professor Mthuli Ncube)

The 2 per cent tax has been bringing in over $100 million a month. Stretched to a year, that is a whopping $1.2billion extracted from financial transactions with no relationship to the productive capacity of the economy. The political economy meltdown has been compounded by a drought that has led the United Nations to issue a special food appeal:

Nearly 5.3 million people in Zimbabwe are estimated to be in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and protection during the 2018/2019 lean season (October – April) and beyond. …In addition, 1.5 million people in urban areas, including major towns and secondary cities, are estimated to be facing severe food insecurity, while people in multiple locations across the country are faced with acute shortages of essential medicines. (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, February, 2019)

This is against loud sloganeering statements that Zimbabwe’s “command agriculture” system run by a former air marshall has been a success. The Minister of Finance had to admit that Zimbabwe’s chaotic land reform programme resulted in land becoming a “dead asset” and this is despite the government setting up a National Land Commission that has remained largely moribund as a matter of design because the military-nationalists continue parceling to each other, for free, the country’s most productive land.

We need to understand the character of the political economy emerging in the post-Mugabe era in order to grasp how the state machinery is being fashioned. Firstly, the military-nationalists are now in charge of the ruling party machinery. There is a preponderance of retired army personnel in the running of the party, including the electoral campaign of July 2018, which was run by the retired Major-General Engelbert Rugeje.

Crony capitalism, the military class and state authoritarianism

We need to understand the character of the political economy emerging in the post-Mugabe era in order to grasp how the state machinery is being fashioned. Firstly, the military-nationalists are now in charge of the ruling party machinery. There is a preponderance of retired army personnel in the running of the party, including the electoral campaign of July 2018, which was run by the retired Major-General Engelbert Rugeje.

Secondly, the cabinet is dominated by ex-military generals who executed the coup of November 2017, including the Vice-President (General Chiwenga), the Minister of Agriculture (Air Marshall Perence Shiri), and the Minister of Foreign Affairs (General Sibusiso Moyo). The president announced the retirement of four generals who played a critical role in the coup but they were immediately deployed to diplomatic postings.

Thirdly, the military elites have been deployed to the criminal justice system, including no less than 100 “special prosecutors”, which the Supreme Court declared as unconstitutional.

Fourthly, the military elites have also become discreet silent partners in enterprises that do business with the state. They have entered into agreements with foreign corporates and have access to mining concessions, thus effectively becoming a state-backed surrogate business class of the buccaneer type.

The business interests of the military class stretch back to the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where a UN investigation unearthed the plundering of natural resources. In the report, “The Expert Panel Reports on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth in the Democratic Republic of Congo”, the findings of the investigation were presented. This report was presented to the UN Security Council. Here is an excerpt:

The key strategist for the Zimbabwean branch of the elite network is the Speaker of the Parliament and former National Security Minister, Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa. Mr Mnangagwa has won strong support from senior military and intelligence officers for an aggressive policy in the Democratic Republic of the Congo…Other prominent Zimbabwean members of the network include Brigadier General Sibusiso Busi Moyo, who is Director General of COSLEG. Brigadier Moyo advised both Tremalt and Oryx Natural Resources, which represented covert Zimbabwean military financial interests in negotiations with State mining companies of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Air Commodore Mike Tichafa Karakadzai is Deputy Secretary of COSLEG, directing policy and procurement. He played a key role in arranging the Tremalt cobalt and copper deal. Colonel Simpson Sikhulile Nyathi is Director of defence policy for COSLEG. The Minister of Defence and former Security Minister, Sidney Sekeramayi, coordinates with the military leadership and is a shareholder in COSLEG. (United Nations, S/2002/1146)

Having learnt these tactics and with the war in the DRC cooling off, the same military network turned its eyes to Zimbabwe’s economy. The military, police, intelligence and political players muscled into lucrative farming land, rich diamond fields and gold concessions. (Chinese companies often have military representatives on their boards.) Jabusile Shumba summed up how Zimbabwe’s military class has spread its tentacles in the country’s political economy in his book, Zimbabwe’s Predatory State: Party, Military and Business (UKZN Press, 2018).

The business interests of this predatory class are highly speculative and very non-industrial, meaning that the structure of the post-colonial economy has continued to rely on raw exports (like tobacco) and on exploiting natural resources (like minerals). Effectively, there is no skill development or technological transfer.

Secondly, this form of crony-capitalism is ecologically destructive. In Zimbabwe there have been heated debates as Chinese mining companies have been eying vast swathes of land, including nature reserves. In some cases, they use ecologically-destructive mining methods and zero land rehabilitation after mining is done.

Fourthly, by deliberately prioritising military-linked business interests (especially in mining, agriculture and hotels), a new form of an unaccountable “shadow state” is emerging, with access to state and private resources.

Thirdly, Chinese state-related corporates are entering into agreements that are loading the public with huge debt, especially in energy and other infrastructure projects. The loan collateral, interest payment and conditions are always shrouded in secrecy and the return on investment is dubious, if not extortionist. And as a matter of common practice, these deals are not open to public scrutiny and accountability.

Fourthly, by deliberately prioritising military-linked business interests (especially in mining, agriculture and hotels), a new form of an unaccountable “shadow state” is emerging, with access to state and private resources.

Constitutionalism and the Pan-African liberation promise

Looked at broadly, Zimbabwe’s recurring crisis can be viewed as the collapse of the Pan-African project of national liberation. At the core of that crisis is the non-fulfilment of Africa’s very agonising de-colonisation project in which state power and its institutions were supposed to be fashioned to serve the goal of social and economic emancipation and not the accumulation projects of a limited elite.

Military-nationalists in Zimbabwe, authoritarian leaders and politico-dynasties (in Kenya, for example) are making peaceful electoral political change almost impossible. This is dangerous because Africa’s population is growing younger and their exclusion from the political economy is breeding an explosive concoction of youthful disenchantment. The rise of Julius Malema in South Africa, Bobby Wine in Uganda and the popularity of Nelson Chamisa in Zimbabwe point to this disconnect between those with political and economic power, who are usually older, and the younger citizens who feel excluded, almost like non-citizens.

The Kenyan political analyst Nanjala Nyabola has brilliantly exposed this disconnect in a book called Digital Democracy: Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Politics in Kenya. Her analysis can be generally extended to the rest of Africa, including Zimbabwe. We Africans need to be brutally honest with ourselves. As the de-colonisation leader Amilcar Cabral said, “Claim no easy victories and tell no lies.” In the wake of the military crackdown, Fadzai Mahere, a young advocate, activist and political contestant summed it up well:

The wounds afflicting injured survivors may one day heal. But our politics will remain toxic as long as the military is at the centre of it. Any dialogue about the future must involve concerted, concrete plans to demilitarize Zimbabwean politics. Only then can the promise of a new Zimbabwe truly blossom. (The Guardian, 26.01.2019).

The post-colonial trajectory of coercion, corruption and a development impasse can only begin to be settled, not only through the implementation of the Constitution of 2013 and respect for democratic institutions, but most importantly through a genuine process of national peace-building and de-polarising of state-social relations. This means a return to the Pan-African liberation project of transformation based on building political economies that place people at the centre and disciplines state power when it becomes recalcitrant and captured by a few.


Published by the good folks at The Elephant.

The Elephant is a platform for engaging citizens to reflect, re-member and re-envision their society by interrogating the past, the present, to fashion a future.

Follow us on Twitter.