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Zim’s greatest hit: The Mugabe basket-case continuo

Had it not been for the 13-or-so million lives involved, one could almost feel sorry for Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe. It seems the old man has had it with foreign donors only getting off their wallets for NGOs active in his country, rather than having the cash mainlined fresh into Zimbabwe’s porous state coffers. Lest one might expect some level of gratitude to the so-called West for not hightailing it altogether, consider that Mugabe’s recent rants may be a little bit more than an out-of-tune song over a bad hand of cards.

Allow me a bit of blogger’s licence, and I’ll number the continuo anew …

I) After a decade of fairly sensible post-liberation government, the post-colonial-nationalist diet on which Mugabe kept the ruling party (Zanu-PF) fired up and unified behind him started to cause some weight to gather around its waist. Expanding generations of cronies grew up to overtake the somewhat more — if not entirely — principled roles played by older liberation icons. These young’uns were made up of delinquents-in-waiting from the hopelessly (Zanu-fied) rural areas, organised by preying opportunists such as the Chenjerai Hunzvis and leveraged as magic carpet rides by the (since reformed) Jonathan Moyos of the day.

II) Faced with the upheaval they were causing, Mugabe figured that he could either retire in fear of some sort of retribution, such as trumped up corruption charges (these would after all not have been too difficult to construct) for having betrayed these Young Turks’ insatiable nationalist desire or he could trump them at their own game. Whereas the former might have had dire results for Mugabe but spared Zimbabwe its rapid decline of the last decade or two, the outcome of the latter choice is now, unfortunately, a fact of history.

III) Timeous, strong opposition there was not. Voter turnout, consistently below 50% from the nineties onwards, also suggested that Zimbabweans were either not particularly enthralled with their electoral choices (Zanu-PF or Zanu-PF?) or failed to see the connect between what happened at the ballot box and how their lives may be improved. When promising opposition did eventually emerge in the late nineties, the Zanu-PF one-party state had entrenched itself to such a degree that it would only be de-consolidated with tremendous effort.

IV) To make sure that it would not be easy, Zanu-PF engaged in a number of dirty tricks. Police brutality, intimidation, vote rigging, deceitful propaganda, obstructionist negotiation tactics — these were all a part of the game, right up to, and even beyond the establishment of the unity government on January 11 2009. In this regard, the plentiful graveside revellers of African democracy will be quick to point out the MDC’s then Deputy Agriculture Minister designate Roy Bennett’s arbitrary incarceration even after a court of law granted him bail late in February.

V) By the time it became apparent that the March 2008 presidential election had been botched, Zimbabwe already sat with a four-figure inflation rate, unmanageable foreign debt, untold domestic human misery and not enough money for Zanu-PF to continue indefinitely without collapsing under its own weight. Mugabe and his government needed money, urgently. And the only way it could get some, was to acquire a veneer of respectability so that it could approach foreign governments and financial institutions anew. Enter former South African president Thabo Mbeki, who had by then already been mediating in the Zimbabwe crisis for some time.

VI) It was clear that Mugabe appreciated Mbeki’s obvious partisan approach to the mediation process — whereas the MDC at various points expressed its dismay with Mbeki as the Southern African Development Community’s point man on Zimbabwe, the Mugabe regime was at pains to appear welcoming to him. Notable for his tendency towards African exceptionalism, Mbeki, despite his experience of South Africa’s negotiated settlement, seemingly never bought into the need for a strong opposition or the consolidation of democratic institutions, such as free and fair elections. Apparently particularly careful about being seen as a tool of the West, Mbeki pushed for a negotiated settlement that would see Mugabe remain in the president seat despite having lost any legitimate claim to it in the March 2008 election (he obtained 43.25% to Tsvangirai’s 47.9%). MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai would become the prime minister.

VII) Cringe-worthy comparisons of the ensuing situation with the prohibition-era musical Chicago may be forgiven: upon assuming office, Tsvangirai’s limited options indeed made him look like one of the puppet reporters singing off the hymn sheet of Mugabe’s Billy Flynn. His first steps were to visit other countries to seek aid and trade deals for the economic recovery of his country. Aid and trade, which was to be administered by a bloated Zimbabwean government, in which the notoriously corrupt Zanu-PF still controlled the Reserve Bank, and the majority of the ministerial portfolios — R80 billion Tsvangirai then reckoned it would take to get Zimbabwe’s economy going again. Ironically, that was almost a third less than the $12 billion in investment futures guru Clem Sunter estimated lay awaiting a credible political solution in Zimbabwe at about the same time.

VIII) At the end of February 2009, after its monthly Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, it became apparent that despite the establishment of the government of national unity in Zimbabwe, the European Union would not be changing its policy towards our beleaguered neighbour. In fact, Zimbabwe had for the first time in years not even featured on the agenda. Since President Barack Obama occupied the Oval Office, the stance of his government has been that a Zimbabwe with Mugabe at the helm will not be able to take care of its people — a sentiment again repeated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her recent visit to South Africa. This does not only mean that travel sanctions against Mugabe and many other Zimbabwean officials will remain in place. It also suggests that very little in the way of economic rescue packages and investment will realise, despite pleas from Tsvangirai.

IX) Mugabe, left with preciously little patronage to dispense, faced with armies of cronies to keep from turning on him, exercises what is seemingly the only option open to him — attempting to keep his followers united by ranting against enemy number one (aka “the West”) and threatening to bring the so-called reforms to a grinding halt.

If Zimbabwe had half the luck that befell South Africa, number 10 in this progression would somehow involve an apoplectic fit and a De Klerk-type character emerging to challenge Mugabe’s PW Botha. As far as I can see, though, the key ingredients are just not there. No rooted, enlightened Zanu-PF grouping has gathered any form of momentum yet. Also, Zimbabweans, while known for their peace-loving good naturedness, are also not exactly renowned for the type of civil zeal that saw movements such as the United Democratic Front emerge in South Africa in the eighties. Finally, the substantial Zimbabwean diaspora has also not been half as successful as the global anti-apartheid movement at mobilising their fellow citizens still resident in Zimbabwe in tandem with their own protest actions and pressure exercised by foreign governments.

A particularly flamboyant and (in anticipation of the barrage of reactions that this may elicit) also a particularly “indigenous” Zimbabwean friend of mine once mused that if the entire Zimbabwe were to all turn gay, it would be a country full of “bottoms” (so-called “Gayle” for the passive partner in homosexual relationships). My friend is full of it at the best of times, but I do fear that his stupid little remark may not be entirely without basis. For as long as the ordinary citizens of Zimbabwe keep on taking the punishment of corrupt, impoverishing government, the possibility will remain for Mugabe and his cohorts to resort to ever more desperate tactics to keep themselves singing the main song. Until the day comes that Zimbabweans show continuous, open and vociferous opposition to the raw deal that Mugabe has dealt them, it will not be game over for the basket case that that country is seemingly likely to remain.


  • Coenraad Bezuidenhout

    Coenraad Bezuidenhout has a masters degree in political economy and a decade's worth of experience in economic policy and public affairs. He currently heads up the Manufacturing Circle, a private sector lobby group representing - you guessed it - South African manufacturers. He writes here in his personal capacity on any issues of immediate interest related to politics, economics, public affairs and the arts.