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The enduring liabilities of a dictatorship

Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai now contends that the world should get over President Robert Mugabe. If his recent comments on the matter are to be believed, it confirms that Zimbabwe’s many problems are likely to endure long after Mugabe is gone.

Reading between the lines, one gets the sense that Mugabe’s rule has produced many untouchable political fiefdoms which are presided over by those who have benefitted the most from the decay into misrule, the wanton plunder of national assets and in other cases, outright theft of what was legally other people’s hard earned property. And then of course there are those driven by personal vendettas as is in the sad case of Roy Bennett who was arrested shortly after being nominated deputy minister of agriculture. Indeed, much of Zimbabwe’s political reform inertia is rooted in this most callous trait of those who seek not the progress of a nation but the elitist privileges of power.

At the risk of labouring the point, it is instructive for South Africa to carefully review and learn from the protracted developments that led to Zimbabwe’s decline. The allies a dictator enlists in his bid to retain power eventually become liabilities for a future government, hampering every effort to rebuild what would have been destroyed.

In Zimbabwe, the enforcers of constitutional violations and disregard for the rule of law were many and multi-faceted but more dangerously, they became uncontrollable and a law unto themselves. They ranged from judges, to secret police, the army and run-of-the-mill civil service bureaucrats; all of them driven by the rewards of personal gain which such loyalty guaranteed them.

Justice Malala, writing in the Times a few weeks ago, eloquently theorised that Jacob Zuma could potentially be the “man who will be the lamest and most manipulated president”, South Africa has ever seen. This is hardly surprising when you have the youth league and other opportunists pulling the sort of intolerant antics that for many years have been the hallmark of Zanu-PF’s shameful behavior. Zuma may not be a dictator but an increasingly intolerant ANC is certainly rising up to the challenge. This is all the more reason why a two-thirds ANC majority would be an unforgivable outcome for South Africa in the upcoming elections.

If wisdom can be gained with the benefit of hindsight, what happened in Zimbabwe over the last ten years should serve as a frame of hindsight-reference for the would-be guarantors of a robust democratic order in South Africa. Because our worst instincts borne out of self interest are far easier to muster than our lofty ideals, it is less onerous to reproduce a dictatorship and much harder to reproduce a better model of governance. For South Africa, now is the time to sound the warning bell.

Throughout the years of Zimbabwe’s long plunge towards self destruction, Mugabe became the most compromised head of state Africa has seen to date, involuntarily franchising out his brand of dictatorship to loyal cadres. Loathed by a nation but protected by the few who reaped immense profits from giving such support, his fortunes and that of the men who supported him, became inexorably intertwined. So strong did the alliance of the dictator and his enforcers become that even when he chose to throw in the towel after the March elections as speculated by some, he was prevented from doing so by those who thrived on his being a permanent fixture of the established corrupt order.

Although the world’s best wishes are with Tsvangirai and for the people of Zimbabwe to succeed, the prime minister is well advised to be measured in his task and guarded in what he says. The biggest mistake Morgan can make is underestimate the nefarious intent of many from the old guard who want to see him fail.

At this hour in South Africa, the enforcers of a Zuma presidency are undergoing the sort of ideological corruption which the defenders of a Mugabe-led leadership went through in their downward spiral towards a failed state. Although the institutions of state, governance and democracy failed, Mugabe’s supporters succeeded in terms of personal gains. For them, the government of national unity has now officially become a clear and present danger to that order of corrupt success.

Returning to Tsvangirai’s contention that the world must get over Mugabe as he is no longer the principal problem, we can conclude that the new prime minister has fully appreciated the far reaching and enduring liabilities of a dictatorship. It does however beg the question whether his party’s decision to join forces with Zanu-PF was well advised given the full knowledge the MDC has of Zanu’s culture of impunity and its many factional fiefdoms which thrive on manipulating the dictator and are in turn manipulated by him in an ongoing act of collusion for self preservation, power and control. Bennett’s arrest is proof that the political leopards of Zimbabwe cannot change their spots. So far if the government of national unity in Zimbabwe is a triumph, it is a triumph for Mugabe who has managed to keep his friends-cum-enforcers closer and now with the MDC ensconced in the state apparatus, he is keeping his enemies closer.


  • Jeremiah Kure is a professional working in the corporate governance arena, based in Johannesburg. He is the founder of the Heights We Must Climb movement and a firm believer in a progressive Africa; an Africa not tied to her stereotyped past but one that is steadily reclaiming her dignity and potential in the global space.


  1. HD HD 16 February 2009

    Very few commentators on Zim get any deeper than the personality of Mugabe and the “invasion of white owned farms” analysis. You correctly point out that the problems are far deeper and systemic. The ZANU-PF one-party elitist project has a long history in which Mugabe is a very important player, but not the only one.

  2. Belle Belle 16 February 2009

    Brilliant analysis.

    Though I disagree with your take that the GNU is a triumph for Mugabe. While it may have brought his enemies (the MDC) closer, it has also made enemies of his old friends, the military junta.

    Also, there is growing speculation that the JOC could mount a military coup in order to protect their necks from inevitable justice. If this happens Mugabe would top the assassination list.

  3. Alisdair Budd Alisdair Budd 16 February 2009

    One wonders if you are, like many other Black Africans, going to stop ignoring the last forty years of African history and ex colonies, and start learning from your history, instead of repeating it.

    Try Mubotu Sese Seko, Houari Boumédienne, Yakubu Gowon, Daniel Arap Moi, Jamal Nassar, Paul Biya, etc etc.

    And then you might learn from experience and stop making the same mistake over and over again.

    Nor be so surprised when it happens once more.

    And if you dont like the “West” or White people, despite them showing they have changed and moved on, after electing a Coloured as USA President, then why not go and ask the Latin Americans or SE Asians what they did with their ex colonies, rather than what Africa did with hers.

  4. Monica Seeber Monica Seeber 17 February 2009

    I found this article outstanding in its clarity of thought and expression, and was very sorry to see a critical response from a reader who seems to think that Black Africans [sic] are incapable of learning from history – despite there not being the faintest shred of evidence in the blog that Jeremiah Kure is unaware of the lessons of history.
    It is sad that some readers just can’t resist the opportunity to produce a ranting display of their prejudices.
    The point in the blog about a growing culture of intolerance within the ANC is well taken, and so is the point about cronyism. It is time for the South African public to take a very sharp look at those who seek power and to separate those who have already made, or have the potential to make, a meaningful contribution, from those who are merely riding to Parliament on others’coat-tails, and to remind the ANC of the ideals to which it is committed and which – going by some recent utterances – seem to be forgotten.

  5. Mthwakazi Mthwakazi 17 February 2009

    I rarely agree with you Jerry but this time I must say you were dead right. The abscence of the military top brass during the PM’s swearing in ceremony was a message to Mugabe as to who is actually in charge.

    If Mugabe is a leader (unelected of course) he would immediately appoint a new army general, a new police commissioner and a new commissioner of prisons. From what I know most of the junior army members are supportive of Tswangirayi and these so called generals will not manage to convince them to rise up against the GNU.

  6. Rory Short Rory Short 17 February 2009

    @Jerrry you, in my view, are spot on with your anaysis of the situation in Zimbabwe and in your warnings to us here that under the ANC in its present form we are veering towards a Zimbabwe type situation right here. A major nail in the coffin that South Africa is in the process of becoming is the ANC’s policy of cadre deployment.

    A old term for this kind of thing is ‘jobs for brothers’, but to call these positions jobs is a misnomer because in practice what they become under cadre deployment is paid positions for political fellow travellers and whether the appointees can do the real work normally associated with the position, or not, is simply not a consideration.

    The consequences for the whole country in the long term are absolutely disastrous as can be all too clearly seen in the case of Zimbabwe.

    I was living in Zimbabwe in the early 80’s when there was a major train derailment near Hwange outside of Bulawayo. The derailment killed 40 people who were returning from visiting family in the rural areas. Bulawayo is a railway town and rumour had it that the person who was driving the train was drunk at the time of the derailment. Apparently railways management had earlier tried to dismiss this man because of his drinking problems but they had been forced by the local ZANU-PF branch to re-instate him.

    Interesting a leading politician addressing the mourners at the mass funeral for the 40 victims equated their deaths to the deaths of those who had died in the struggle for independence. At the time I wondered whether the politician knew how right he was except that the victims did not know that they died so that their brother could have a job which he was quite incapable of performing.

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