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
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.
The Real Story Behind the Dams Scam
6 min read. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s decision to cancel the tender for the construction of the Kimwarer dam but to allow for the Arror dam project to proceed at half the original cost has been viewed as a commendable action in the fight against graft. However, ALESSANDRO DA ROLD and LORENZO BAGNOLI suggest that there could more than meets the eye in what is known as the “dams scam”.
Since the 1970s, Kenya has been considered by convicted Italian criminals as a safe haven – a place to hide from justice. A recent tide has, however, occurred and now some of these criminals have been extradited after spending years enjoying the “good vibes” of the Kenyan sea shores, especially in their stronghold Malindi. It seems to be the end of an era marked by impunity as Kenyan authorities have started pursuing alleged felonies committed by Italians living in Kenya. The authorities are not just going after individuals, but companies as well.
On the 29th of July this year, the Milimani Chief Magistrate’s court in Nairobi allowed Kenya’s Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Noordin Haji, to issue an arrest warrant for the Italian citizen Paolo Porcelli, the CEO of CMC (Cooperativa Muratori e Cementisti) from Ravenna. Porcelli is charged with abuse of office, bid-rigging and misuse of public funds and could face jail time if he returns to Kenya. With him on the list of the indicted there is also the Italian joint venture between the Italian companies Itinera (Gavio Group) and CMC.
Porcelli declined to appear in court twice. “Porcelli is a fugitive. Despite being given the opportunity, he hasn’t presented himself in court for a second time,” DPP Special Prosecutor Taib Ali Taib told the court. “The Italians think they can break the law and get away with it contemptuously. They believe nothing will come out of it. Don’t allow it, your honour”.
Porcelli’s lawyers have a different opinion on his judicial status in Kenya: they explained that the indictment has charges only against the Kenyan top officials involved in the case. “It is not clear, and it is not explained [by the investigators] why Mr Porcelli and the joint venture CMC-Itinera could be indicted for the only charges they have, namely cashing in the deposit on the construction as it was agreed upon the contracts.”
The arrest warrant issued to the Italian manager is the latest development in a long saga reported in the international media as the “dams scam”. This story has many facets: the alleged criminal conduct of the Italian company in Kenya (CMC declines any involvement, claiming its innocence); the blatant lies and unfulfilled promises to the local population living around the proposed dams area; and the way local politicians turned Kenya’s natural assets into a personal gold mine.
The CMC’s long nightmare
CMC is a giant company in the field of construction globally. Wherever there is an important tender, the company is among the bidders. However, the glorious history of the company didn’t guarantee CMC’s success – construction is a competitive sector around the world. Sometimes to be awarded a tender, managers have to cross the line between lobbying and corruption.
In 2014, CMC signed a consultancy contract with Primo Greganti, a businessman and former politician who was arrested for alleged corruption: he would have helped some companies to be granted tenders for the construction of the site of Expo Milan 2015, the world food exhibition hosted in the Italian city. The trial ended in a plea: in the Italian judiciary system, it means there is no verdict on the culpability of the defendant.
This story has many facets: the alleged criminal conduct of the Italian company in Kenya; the blatant lies and unfulfilled promises to the local population living around the proposed dams area; and the way local politicians turned Kenya’s natural assets into a personal gold mine.
The company was effectively granted a six million euro tender for the recovery of the land of the so called “plate”, the foundation for the exhibition facilities. At the end of the work, the final cost skyrocketed to 30 million euros because of differences caused by unexpected changes in the project. These extra costs were heavily criticised by the Expo 2015 board members because there were no grounds for justifying them. But because time for the construction at the site was running out, nobody within the board could reject the CMC’s requests. CMC was also awarded the tender for the construction of one of the French pavilions at the exhibition.
In May 2018, the company issued a press release on its financial situation. Under “total turnover” it reads: “Decreased from €289.0 million to €258.2 million. In particular, construction revenue decreased from €278.0 million to €236.7 million, due to a €23.0 million reduction overseas and an €18.3 million reduction in Italy. A significant increase is expected from certain projects achieving full production stage and from the start of the new project secured in recent quarters.”
In another press release issued in November last year, the company stated: “The Board unanimously concurred that, in a market context that was already structurally problematic, for reasons that arose spontaneously without any predictability, linked to non-receipts of orders and/or the state of progress of work, the Company is facing a moment of cash-flow tension.”
The main “non-receipts of order” at that time was Anas, the Italian company partially controlled by the state and in charge of maintaining and managing Italian highways. With the Kenya dams tender, it seemed that the cash flow problem might be solved. Kenya and Nepal were at that point considered as possible anchors that could recover the company’s accounts. One of the primary goals of the managers, therefore, was to immediately cash in on the advances made on work yet to be carried out. And this is when new problems arose.
The masterminds targeted by the investigation
CMC in Kenya has been granted contracts worth almost 800 million euros for the construction of the dams at Arror and Kimwarer. The awarding of the tender was officially presented during a meeting between the former Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, and President Uhuru Kenyatta. Both projects were expected to provide water to the population of the Rift Valley. According to the 2017 annual budget of CMC, Kenya was among the list of countries that contributed to expand the productivity of the company. Two years later, the situation is totally different.
In Italy, the authors of this article have since March been investigating the Kenyan dams case for La Verità, a right wing newspaper. The newspaper discovered a contract signed in 2013 between CMC and Stansha Limited, the company associated with the Lamu West MP, Stanley Muthama who was arrested on 28th June for tax evasion. It is a consultancy contract granting Muthama a fixed fee of 3 per cent in case CMC signs a contract with local development authorities in Kenya.
CMC in Kenya has been granted contracts worth almost 800 million euros for the construction of the dams at Arror and Kimwarer. The awarding of the tender was officially presented during a meeting between the former Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, and President Uhuru Kenyatta.
In that case, it was the Itare dam, another project to supply water in the Rift Valley, which apparently is not included in the current investigation. The investigation went silent until 22nd July when 28 other people were arrested on a different charge: international corruption. Among them was the Italian CEO, Paolo Porcelli, and Kenya’s Treasury Cabinet Secretary, Henry Rotich. The Italian prosecutor Lucia Lotti is handling the case in Rome, with the option to file a new investigation in Italy as well.
As is everything in Kenya now, this case could be framed as the battle between Uhuru and his number 2 in the 2022 election campaign, William Ruto. It has been suggested that Ruto could be using the Italian company for political support. Ruto’s daughter, June Chepchirchir, holds a senior position as the second counselor at the Kenyan embassy in Rome, Italy.
A key moment in diplomatic relations
The investigation on CMC Itinera is happening at a sensitive moment. Kenya and Italy are trying to collaborate on the Silvia Romano kidnapping. The 23-year-old Italian volunteer, who worked for the Italian charity Africa Milele, was abducted on 20th November last year from Chakama village in Kilifi County. But since then there has been no substantial information on her situation, apart from the trial of Gababa Wariu and Moses Lwari Chende, who confessed to aiding Romano’s abduction. But the investigation so far has not resulted in finding her.
In Italy the absence of updates on Silvia Romano’s health conditions are considered very alarming. At the same time, there is a new ongoing effort in Italy to have Romano released. The Kenyan head of public prosecutions, Noordin Haji, and Italian prosecutors in Rome are discussing a common strategy on the issue. If no positive results are achieved, the predictable outcome could be the cooling down of business and diplomatic relations between the two countries, at least in the initial stages.
The investigation on CMC Itinera is happening at a sensitive moment. Kenya and Italy are trying to collaborate on the Silvia Romano kidnapping. The 23-year-old Italian volunteer, who worked for the Italian charity Africa Milele, was kidnapped on 20th November last year from Chakama village in Kilifi County.
While Italy is grappling with the dams scandal and the search for Silvia Romano, France is trying to find a foothold in East Africa by signing new contracts with the Kenyan government. Rivalry in bilateral relationships in Africa is always a hot issue within the European Union (EU) member states, who have been unable to come up with a single comprehensive strategy for how EU member states should deal with African governments.
A possible read on the dams case is that William Ruto was the guarantor for the Italians and he can’t assure them anymore because he is currently dealing with bigger challenges related to his re-election campaign, which has been marred by corruption scandals implicating individuals from his political camp.
For additional information on the Arrow and Kimwarer Dams saga see links below.
A consultancy agreement between C.M.C. di Ravenna South Africa Branch and Stansha Limited (a company registered in Kenya) for the general purposes to provide consultancy services for the Itare Dam and Ruiru II Dam project under Athi Water Service Board.
DPP’s press statement on investigations concerning KVDA and Rift Valley Water Services Board
Following complaints to the Government of Kenya has been exposed to the loss of billions of shillings arising out of manipulation of the tendering process of several dam projects including the Arrow dam, Kimwarer dam, Itare dam, Embobut multi-purpose dam, Lower Turkwell irrigation scheme et.al the DPP’s office constituted a team of prosecutors to ensure the investigations of the aforementioned projects were carried out.
Freedom Fighter or Ruthless Dictator? Unravelling the Tragedy that was Robert Gabriel Mugabe
8 min read. Admired by Pan-Africanists for his anti-imperialist rhetoric but loathed at home for his authoritarian tendencies, Robert Mugabe was a man full of contradictions. TINASHE L. CHIMEDZA reflects on the controversial life of Zimbabwe’s longest-serving leader.
Robert Gabriel Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s leader for nearly four decades. died on the 6th of September 2019 in a hospital in Singapore. Mugabe’s death, like his life, has generated animated debate, the very first irony being that after nearly four decades in office he died in a foreign hospital. Some have praised Mugabe for being a “liberation icon”, and a “great Pan-Africanist”. Former South African president Thabo Mbeki called him “a fellow combatant”. Others have charged Mugabe with being a “tyrant” who collapsed his country and fanned “genocidal” ethnic divisions.
However, in order to fully understand this complex character, we have to put Mugabe into a broader historical purview. Mugabe was educated by Jesuit Catholics. Initially trained as a teacher, he would remain deeply religious his entire life. It was in the maelstrom of liberation contests that Mugabe’s oratory skills came to the fore and he became the target of the vicious Rhodesian state that threw him and other nationalists, into detention.
Mugabe used his time in jail to get qualifications in law and economics. With his release from the Rhodesian jail, after almost eleven years, he headed straight to the liberation war front by escaping the country and crossing into Mozambique. There he became the voice on Radio Zimbabwe, and fronted media engagements. His star was shining as he became the forceful voice leading liberation delegations first at the failed Geneva Conference of 1976 and then at the Lancaster House settlement in 1979 in London.
When Mugabe was prime minister and then president, there were geopolitical factors that worked against the success of Zimbabwe. South of the Limpopo, apartheid South Africa destabilised the whole region. Importantly, the Rhodesian political economy was constructed for a few white settlers and the black majority government that Mugabe led had inherited an economy that was stable but very parochial.
The 1980s, considered by some as the happy years, were also full of contradictions. Education and health were expanded but in the western part of the country, Mugabe’s comrades were brutalising a whole region into subservience. Young men labelled “dissidents” were tortured, murdered in cold blood, and buried in mass graves. The violence was so macabre it brought nationalist leader Joshua Nkomo to near tears. He escaped to London and wrote The Story of My Life (1984). This was only settled in Mugabe’s favour when they signed the Unity Agreement of 1987.
That sordid part of Zimbabwe’s post-colonial history provided a script into the 1990s and 2000s. But what most political biographers of Zimbabwe leave out is that the Rhodesian settler-state inherited by the nationalist movement was a war machinery built to defend white settler interests. Ken Flower, who was the first director of the vicious Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), wrote about the “exploits” of the white-security state apparatus in a book titled Serving Secretly. The 1980 Lancaster House Constitution at Zimbabwe’s independence left this state-security apparatus unreformed and years later Mugabe would boast that “he had degrees in violence” and that the “gun was mightier than the pen”.
The 1980s, considered by some as the happy years, were also full of contradictions. Education and health were expanded but in the western part of the country, Mugabe’s comrades were brutalising a whole region into subservience.
The ruling political class dealt with opponents ruthlessly and Mugabe’s rise and demise as leader was tightly linked to the military. Professor Jonathan Moyo argued that Mugabe was the victim of Zimbabwe’s “militarists”’. It was a military declaration in 1975 called the Mgagao Declaration that put Mugabe at the apex of the liberation movement in Mozambique. It was the military that kept him in power and that took him out of power via the putsch of November 2017. He was replaced with a man chosen by the military – Emerson Mnangagwa aka the crocodile, a name bequeathed to him because of his ruthlessness.
Scattered ideological orientations
Mugabe blundered from one political ideology to another but at the core of the project was power retention at any cost. In the 1970s Mugabe preached socialism and dabbled in some incoherent half-understood Marxist-Leninism. But when young guerillas attempted to build a Marxist political movement, they were thwarted and thrown into prison.
One young military commander from then, Wilfred Mhanda, wrote about the experience in his memoir Dzino: Memories of a Freedom Fighter (20011 – Weaver Press). In the early 1980s, Mugabe articulated variant forms of socialism and Marxism but only to court allies, given the global geopolitical contests of the Cold War era. The ZANU-PF manifestos of the 1980s discussed socialism in theory but there was no attempt to build a socialist economy and by the end of the 1980s any pretence to building socialism was abandoned – the road to socialism was closed off. In another memoir, Re-living the Second Chimurenga: Memories from Zimbabwe’s Liberation Struggle (2006), Fay Chung would state that Mugabe was a devoted Roman Catholic and it’s possible that this closed off any concrete inclination towards Marxism or Maoism.
In the 1990s Mugabe walked into neoliberalism, embraced structural adjustment programmes (SAPs), and took loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But the policy move was disastrous. Social and public services collapsed, informality set it and the industrial base melted away, provoking resistance from the labour, women and student movements. The crisis of falling incomes, unemployment, inflation, adventure into the DRC war and the increased debt levels knocked the economy down. This was made more acute by the seizure of white-owned farms, which led to the collapse of the agriculture sector.
Mugabe then veered into a radical indigenisation programme. To keep all these threads from exploding, he entrenched a political system of shredding the Constitution and making himself an imperial, almost feudal-aristocratic president. Zimbabweans mass migrated into the region and a passport, to escape anywhere, became a prized possession in a country that has become what Dambudzo Marechera called “The House of Hunger”.
The 2017 coup and the militarists
When Zimbabwe’s generals staged a coup in 2017, they pointed out that ZANU-PF was corrupt and needed to be rescued from itself. The whirlwind that consumed Mugabe was in the seeds that he had sown. When the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) emerged in 1999, he had allowed the chief of defence forces to say “the presidency was a straightjacket” and in 2008 he had allowed the military to take over the running of the election under the Joint Operations Command (JOC) – a relic of the Rhodesian military state.
The political nose that Mugabe had used to strangle the opposition and to brutalise civil society into subjugation was now turned on his neck. Professor Jonathan Moyo, now in exile, has argued that Mugabe was a mere “spokesperson” of the military system that harbours, in his words, the “repugnant ideology” that the “gun commands politics”. To claim that Mugabe, after almost half a century at the helm of the nationalist movement, was a mere “mouth” of the military is the grandest of revisionism.
In the 1990s Mugabe walked into neoliberalism, embraced structural adjustment programmes (SAPs), and took loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). But the policy move was disastrous. Social and public services collapsed, informality set it and the industrial base melted away, provoking resistance from the labour, women and student movements.
But Mugabe also went beyond violence as a means of political rule. Using his oratory skills, he presented himself as a Pan-African liberation fighter, and often riled against imperialism and stirred the ideological support of nationalist movements. In Zimbabwe, the political system became dominated by what Professor Ranger called “patriotic history”. In a way the system of political rule was a complex combination of authoritarianism, ideological narrative and patronage networks. Jonathan Fisher and Nic Cheeseman have pointed out more clearly that “authoritarian regimes rely on ideas, not just guns”:
“The more resilient of Africa’s authoritarian regimes, for example, have bought support from powerful local elites, soldiers, particular ethnic groups or political influencers through building them into extensive patronage structures where state resources are cascaded down chains of patron-client links. In so doing, they may assemble a large, and often diverse, group of communities who rely on the regime’s survival for their prosperity.” (Mail and Guardian, 6 November 2019)
In dealing with his opponents within and outside his party, Mugabe was scheming and coldly ruthless, but he also built ideological narratives and patronage networks, and controlled the public memory to place himself – not other nationalists – at the centre of history. Mugabe compared the nationalist leader Joshua Nkomo to “a snake whose head must be crushed”.
In the 1990s, when his former comrade Edgar Tekere opposed the “one-party state”, he was thrown out of the party and his supporters were accusing of “courting death”. Years after that the famed guerilla leader, Rex Nhongo, Zimbabwe’s first army general, died in a suspicious fire. Rex Nhongo was suspected of first supporting Simba Makoni and then his wife Joyce Mujuru to challenge Mugabe. A few years later, Emerson Mnangagwa was kicked out as Mugabe played one political faction against the other in Machiavellian style. Nearly all of Zimbabwe’s opposition leaders were charged of “subversion”. (Morgan Tsvangirai has written about his trials and tribulations is his memoir At the Deep End.)
When Mugabe was president, the opulence of his and his family’s lifestyle was on display at their home called “The Blue Roof”. Nepotism and cronyism were rife. Those networked with the Mugabes worked their way into economy. In Mazowe, just outside Harare, poor farmers who had been allocated land were kicked out and some were only saved by High Court orders. Nephews, nieces, uncles, children and the president’s immediate family amassed vast amounts of wealth. Mining claims, multiple farms, fuel cartels and contracts with the government is how this wealth was amassed. One of Mugabe’s nephews boasted “if you want to be rich join ZANU PF”. Public enterprises were looted with reckless abandon. Before being deposed, the Mugabes were going to build a Robert Mugabe University to the tune of US$1billion. Even in death Mugabe will be buried in a mausoleum possibility costing millions.
Of Kwame Nkrumah, Mwalimu Nyerere and Nelson Mandela
Robert Mugabe left no condensed publication of his thoughts, which means his intellectual footprint is only found in speeches and scattered interviews. For a president whose education varied from law, economics and education, this is rather disappointing.
In dealing with his opponents within and outside his party, Mugabe was scheming and coldly ruthless, but he also built ideological narratives and patronage networks, and controlled the public memory to place himself – not other nationalists – at the centre of history.
It was at continental and global forums that Mugabe attracted the affinity of Black Africa, and where he mesmerised the Global Pan-African movements and other social and political forces. He went to United Nations General Assembly meetings religiously. There he made scathing comments about racism, demanded equality at the UN Security Council, railed against economic exploitation of Africa and raised his voice to throw spears at imperialism. An articulate black president from a small former African colony who repossessed land, who was placed under sanctions, and who made stinging statements against inequitable global power relations is what the Pan-Africanist movement was lacking and some sections praised Mugabe for this.
Compared to the other towering intellectuals, theorists and revolutionaries of Pan-Africanism, Robert Mugabe’s legacy withers. Kwame Nkrumah was a thinker and an intellectual who penned treatises that dealt with the African condition. Mwalimu Nyerere was a nation-state builder who forged the disparate social groups of Tanzania into a cohesive stable polity and who retired into a modest life. Nelson Mandela pulled the strands of a nation traumatised by the violence of apartheid into a “Rainbow Nation”. Having had a “long walk to freedom”, Nelson Mandela subjected the country to constitutional democracy. Thomas Sankara forged an everlasting revolutionary legacy. He placed women at the centre of politics and development, tackled illiteracy, and invested in health. The young captain lived a modest life, shunned decadent opulence and boldly set into motion the belief that the “future can be invented”.
Broad strokes of history
They say history is written in broad strokes. Mugabe’s anti-colonial credentials will shine; he stayed in prison for over a decade, the radical land repossession will also burn bright but this will be blighted by the brutality, the ruthlessness, the corruption and the repugnant politics of polarity authored by Mugabe. Of Mugabe’s politics, the Pan-Africanist Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem had this to say:
“Zimbabwe and President Mugabe are a situation we cannot in all good conscience continue to pussyfoot about anymore. It is indefensible that one man, no matter his contribution to the country, should be holding the people to ransom…Mugabe is no longer the part of the problem of Zimbabwe: he is now the problem (Speaking Truth to Power: Selected Pan-African Postcards, 2010)
Mugabe built a surveillance state of Stalinist proportions that was littered with impunity, arrogance of power, extrajudicial killings, a rapacious propaganda system, and a personality cult that exacted worship and fear from the man and woman on the street. The long motorcade, ambulance in tow, imported cavalcade of cars, gun-toting soldiers, loud police sirens, police motorbikes, traffic cleared from the road and armoured cars that ferried Mugabe have died down. The putsch of 2017 ushered in the country’s militarists who remain in control of a vicious perpetuum mobile – a kleptocratic military class that has melted away any respect for the constitutional edicts of the country.
We from Zimbabwe will remember Mugabe for a dream that could have been possible but instead was collapsed into what Professor Sabelo Gatsheni-Ndlovu called “grotesque nationalism”.
Why South Africa Should Not Do a Zimbabwe: Demerits of the Proposed Land Expropriation Law
8 min read. A law to allow the seizure of white-owned land could have a profoundly negative impact that goes well beyond the violation of fundamental human rights. Its consequences could be catastrophic on the industrial, agricultural, and banking sectors in South Africa.
Some time has passed since South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s highly controversial announcement of a new land reform law that would allow for the expropriation of land without compensation. Accused by some of racism, and by others of populism, the president is trying to address the pressing requests of the vast majority of blacks who still feel oppressed after white minority rule ended in 1994. According to a recently released parliamentary media statement, this bold move should fix “the historical wrongs caused by arbitrary dispossession of land, and in so doing ensure equitable access to land and further empower the majority of South Africans to be productive participants in ownership, food security, and agricultural reform programmes.”
Apparently, in a country where the white minority account for just over 9 per cent of the population but which owns over 70 per cent of the land, such a law seems to be a fair way to balance the scales of social justice. However, on the other side of the barricade, there are thousands of white Afrikaners descended from Europeans who colonised South Africa who claim that they worked hard to obtain that land. These people are human beings as well, and many of them are only paying the price of a segregation regime imposed by their fathers and grandfathers.
This bitter battle between these two sides is rooted in apartheid, a terrible word that does more than just bring back bad memories. It is an ugly concept that speaks to us of racial segregation, and inhumane treatment. And even if now the faces (and colours) of the protagonists may have swapped, the dehumanising cruelty behind it has probably not.
The controversial amendment to section 25 of the Constitution
To date, the African National Congress (ANC), the country’s leading political party since the end of apartheid, has redistributed land following a “willing seller, willing buyer” model. In a nutshell, the government buys white-owned farms and then redistributes them to black farmers. The idea was to return at least 30 per cent of the land that was expropriated from black farmers to their legitimate owners by 2014. However, today less than 10 per cent of commercial farmland has been redistributed. Exponents of the South African Homeless People’s Association claim that the “willing seller, willing buyer” model only widened the social divide, bringing more poverty to the masses.
The law proposed by Ramaphosa aims at amending section 25 of the Constitution to make the expropriation of land without compensation an explicitly legitimate option. In other words, the government could take this land away from white hands without paying them anything, as long as the reform doesn’t cause any damage to the nation’s economy, agricultural production, and food security.
This law was supported by a small radical party led by Julius Malema, the newly-created Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). However, not all the white owners got their land by means of coercion during the previous century. Many claim they legitimately bought it through the hard work of their ancestors and defined this law as grossly immoral and inhumane. Some threatened to wage war to defend their farms, bringing back the sad memories of the recent land expropriation policies enforced in Zimbabwe. Some other “softer” reforms have been proposed, such as paying “just and equitable” compensation that is well below market price to landowners, or banning foreigners from buying agricultural lands.
Racism: the legacy of a century of apartheid in South Africa
Unlike other countries where racism is a tremendous plague that crawls hidden in the very fabric of society, in South Africa racism and discrimination against blacks were explicit laws. During the last century, European colonialists simply institutionalised them as part of the nation’s legal infrastructure. Similar to the racial laws that forced Jews to lose their jobs just because of their heritage, during apartheid in South Africa, a series of laws were put in place to enforce white dominance. It was the Parliament itself that decided that black people had to be inferior human beings and had, therefore, limited access to rights.
In 1913, the South African’s colonialist administration passed the Natives Land Act, a law which stripped nearly all black people of their right to own land. Although 72 per cent of the population consisted of black people, this law limited land ownership among blacks to a mere 8 per cent of the country. White South Africans literally gave land to themselves, a capital offence that created a terrible precedent as many black people were forcefully evicted from their farms.
The law proposed by Ramaphosa aims at amending section 25 of the Constitution to make the expropriation of land without compensation an explicitly legitimate option. In other words, the government could take this land away from white hands without paying them anything, as long as the reform doesn’t cause any damage to the nation’s economy, agricultural production, and food security.
Other laws, such as the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953 and the Group Areas Development Act of 1955, further reinforced these policies of segregation. Blacks were forced into unproductive land and underdeveloped regions, which excluded them from amenities such as parks, schools, and hospitals that only whites could access. Blacks could not obtain formal training for skilled jobs, which denied them the right to study, and barred them from equal employment and development opportunities. Together with many other racial laws, apartheid drove the black community into poverty, prevented them from expressing their opinions freely, and stripped them of their properties.
When the apartheid formally saw its end in 1994, many who suffered from these disparities imposed by this regime rejoiced, hoping for reforms that would bring back some justice in their lives. However, as often happens in politics, many of these promises of equity and equality quickly turned into empty words and vain declarations. The resources that the South African government allocated for land reform were vastly insufficient, never exceeding a mere 1 per cent of the national budget. Even today, land reform doesn’t look like a priority, with the amount allocated to it being just 0.4 per cent of the national budget. Racial inequalities persist in many sectors, including in the mining and industrial sectors, which constitute the backbone of the nation’s economy. The majority of the most profitable companies remain controlled and managed by whites, and the whole labour market still suffers from substantial polarisation.
The snowball effect of nearly 400 years of colonialism left the black community in dire poverty, ripe with nearly-illiterate individuals who had no chances to become competitive in the upcoming century of globalisation. According to the World Bank, 25 years after the end of apartheid, South Africa is still one of the most unequal countries in the world. In 2017, the unemployment rate was still high and growing at 27 per cent, with many people lacking tangible prospects for a better life. Race still has a tremendous impact on an individual’s chances of finding a job, as well as on the wages received once employed. A bitter divide between white Afrikaners and black people has kept growing and has become the core of all social or political debate in this tormented country.
Despite the country’s huge potential for growth, the economy kept stagnating during the nine years of Jacob Zuma’s presidency. Characterised by rampant corruption and continuous scandals, Zuma’s administration came under pressure as the masses started asking for policies that would address unemployment, disparities, and poverty.
The resources that the South African government allocated for land reform were vastly insufficient, never exceeding a mere 1 per cent of the national budget. Even today, land reform doesn’t look like a priority, with the amount allocated to it being just 0.4 per cent of the national budget.
Eventually, after an extremely unpopular cabinet reshuffle, Zuma was forced to resign and was replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa in February 2018. The new president cracked down on corruption and kicked out many inept ministers while Zuma was indicted for money laundering and racketeering. However, the damage that Zuma inflicted to the party’s credibility was so severe that it had to rely on radical parties such as the EFF to gain some traction.
The ANC lost so many voters in the 2016 local elections that the 2019 ones may be in jeopardy. Some argue that Ramaphosa is simply pushing the Land Expropriation Act as a populist ploy aimed at recovering a significant portion of the voters’ trust. The nation’s poor, in fact, make up the majority of the electorate, and addressing their plight will certainly provide him with the political stability his government needs so much.
The human, social, and economic consequences
ANC’s and EFF’s new land reform tastes like nothing but a bloody policy of revenge inspired by populism and driven by a desperate need to win the elections. But blood always calls for blood, and may easily throw South Africa into a new civil war, no matter how justified this law may seem. The French Revolution, the recent Zimbabwe land expropriation laws, and even the Communist Revolution all teach us a fundamental lesson – that legislation that allows a state to violate property rights only creates new privileged elites rather than equalising the social fabric.
A law to allow the seizure of land has a profoundly negative impact that goes well beyond the violation of fundamental human rights. Its consequences can be catastrophic on the industrial, agricultural, and banking sectors as well, and neighbouring Zimbabwe is a prime example. Just like Venezuela, another country where land was redistributed from the rich to the poor, today Zimbabwe needs to import nearly all the food it needs rather than producing most of it, as it did 20 years ago.
Distributing land “fairly and equally” to all people means creating a large number of smallholder farmers who will have to face tremendous costs to grow and be competitive. An entire nation of small farmers will have a really hard time competing with the larger players of globalised agriculture unless they have access to the latest methods and technologies. Yet, once again, has the government thought and planned a strategy to provide these future landowners with the necessary means to survive in such a harshly competitive environment? Worst case scenario: this may lead to large-scale deforestation by owners who will start selling their wood cheaply to foreign companies – a process that has already devastated Kenya, Uganda, and Ethiopia.
However, we may have a very different scenario – one where land is handed down to a smaller amount of black people who will quickly become rich at the expenses of others. A new handful of privileged individuals who will simply substitute former white owners with other newer sons and daughters of uncontrolled capitalism. Their faces may change, but the inequality will bring the country to its knees in the same exact way. Whether their skin tone is darker won’t make them any better than their colonialist predecessors, nor will make the whole act of seizing land be more just or justifiable by any means.
On top of all that, a scenario of harsh social tensions and violent clashes is a bomb that is about to explode. Following some cases of brutal and murderous attacks of white farmer that got the attention of the media, some Afrikaners called out for international aid, claiming there was a “white genocide” going on. And while smart people may easily understand that the numbers are no way as high as to justify the choice of this vastly exaggerated terminology, this alarmist rhetoric is bound to have serious global consequences.
Distributing land “fairly and equally” to all people means creating a large number of smallholder farmers who will have to face tremendous costs to grow and be competitive. An entire nation of small farmers will have a really hard time competing with the larger players of globalised agriculture…
In an era where the rise of neo-fascism, fake news, gross misinformation, and distorted nationalisms represent a serious threat to all societies, this may be a spark that would ignite an uncontrollable chain reaction. Black people around the world are often unjustly identified as enemies by organisations and parties who willfully manipulate information. Knowing there’s a country where a murderous government justifies their violent persecution will only fuel a hate that is certainly more detrimental than beneficial to the black cause.
History cannot be corrected by doing the wrong thing, and the ANC’s policy means nothing but repeating the same mistake over and over again. South Africans deserve having the right to cultivate their lands once again, they deserve to live in a fair country, they deserve peace. It is totally understandable that poverty must be fought with all means, and that the current situation is all but just or fair.
But enforcing the rights of black people with violence won’t restore the justice and equality this country so desperately needs. It will only open a gaping wound across the nation that will widen the divide even more. It may reach the point of breaking any bridge built so far between all those human beings whose sole difference is the colour of their skin and the heredity of their ancestors.
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