The persistent myth of a complex Mugabe

A man finds a village dying of thirst, then digs a well. Soon after that he squats over it and defecates in it. Will you still thank him for discovering water?
-Mbonisi Zikhali

I thought I was done with Bob after those tense weeks in November, 2017. I really did. I processed my feelings towards the man and relegated him to the irrelevant actor that he became in his last days. However, I can’t stand all the ambiguity I see expressed now that he has shuffled off this mortal coil. Who knew that the man had so many fans? Who knew that so many who claimed to be fighting him, were secretly awaiting a chance for an autograph? A particular thread of opinion seems ubiquitous, that Mugabe was a complex character who is impossible to define. I’ve seen it in headlines, and read sentence after sentence of convoluted attempts to find the most appropriate shade of grey with which to define the area on which his legacy lies.

But there was nothing complicated about Robert Mugabe.

Revolutionary? I don’t think so.
image source: Shaun Matsheza

Mugabe was a man who, to deal with the fundamental anxiety of existence, sought – like many of us – as much control over the outside world as he could. Political intrigue was his arena. He may have been many things in his early life, but once he tasted political power, Mugabe was driven, like an addict, to acquire as much of it as he could.

I’ve seen people engage in impressive contortionist feats to try and find complexity in a life that was driven by a rather simple binary: MORE power or LESS power? In the end, every political decision Mugabe made was about gaining a political advantage. He was a politician, and politicians always seek more power – it pretty much comes with the job description. “Leader” is a different thing altogether.

He was a politician, and politicians always seek more power- it pretty much comes with the job description…

Does it even help to point to the many hideous decisions he made during this political quest? What would it help? You’ve read it all before. Many articles I come across attempt to list his whole litany of bad decisions. Multiple times, Mugabe made hideous – but politically expedient – choices, with no consideration whatsoever to their cost – as long as they maintained or extended his power. His legacy is brutality tinged with sadism. I can imagine him thinking “rejoice in your poverty and deprivation, for your suffering is testament to the rightness of my cause”. And his cause was power. Period. In Mugabe’s warped mind, God himself ordained it.

God came in the form of a “private school palace coup”.

An infernal talisman

A trope that is abundant in classic tales is one where a protagonist seeks a talisman, but upon acquiring it realizes that it brings with it unintended negative consequences; Midas and his inability to eat, Icarus and flying too close to the sun. Closer to home, it is the tokoloshe or the snake that demands to be fed with blood and refuses to be thrown away.

Our myths are pregnant with meaning…

For close observers, the events of November 2017, when the roof came crumbling down on him and those who had tacked their political lives to the Mugabe brand, came as no surprise. They were the culmination of a protracted process of political emasculation that began after the March 2008 elections, when Mugabe lost to Morgan Tsvangirai. The lore has it that Mugabe was willing to give up political power, but awoke to the rude realization that the sceptre he wielded was not his to hand over.

When the dust settled after that bloody moment in our nation’s history – one of too many to begin to mention – it was clear not only to Mugabe himself, but to the rest of the world, where the true source of power lay in Zimbabwe. In 2008 the iron fist brazenly peeked out from behind the velvet glove, and the trail of bodies in the run up to the June 2008 elections once again proved Mugabe’s rhetoric of “politics leading the gun” to be nothing but hot air.

A velvet glove on an iron fist.

Come 2017, the Emperor was eventually shown to be naked. The rants and the threats at the “Meet the People” rallies were revealed to be the impotent blustering of a man faced with the inexorable approach of the sunset of his career. The Wizard of Oz was uncovered for the master of sophistry he really was. Despite the puffing up of his feathers, or the recruitment of the brooding mother with her raspy ‘Stop it!’ the poor owl’s horns were revealed to be but ears. Pointy ones, yes, but ears nonetheless.

The Owl has no horns.

The iron fist came out in the open again in 2017, but this time in clever camouflage. It emerged in a parade celebrated by millions of Zimbabweans in a political and social frenzy that testifies to the efficacy of the disguise. In a mass psychotic episode, a moment of collective effervescence reminiscent of the biras of old; we danced with our oppressors and forgot for a moment that only yesterday, we had been the ones looking up the barrels of their guns. Joyous scenes they were; beautiful Ntombi’s lip upon rugged soldier’s cheek, drinks shared, bread broken, hand casually on shoulder, Mudhara vachauya, our boys, tanks, helicopters, General Bae…

A moment of collective frenzy.
image source: Associated Press.

How short was the moment of hysteria, and how soon the rat-a-tat of those guns broke the fever dream, the phantasmagoria!

Like a compass finding North, our boys reverted to their regular settings; gun barrels aimed at defenseless targets, at “45 degree angles”. Citizens dropped by a bullet in the back, rendered enemies of the state by a military order. Up to now there is no culpability for that order. Like the many victims of the unmentioned wind that carries away the chaff, it is a child with no father. Despite millions spent on a commission, all we know is that a phantom told those soldiers to shoot. A phantom caused the death of those innocent Zimbabweans. A phantom is the reason why a father today cannot take care of his children. Just like a phantom caused the wind. A phantom had a moment of madness, and called living, breathing human beings…chaff.

You can’t arrest the wind. You can’t arrest a phantom.

Same same but different

But none of this was out of beat, was it? Ostensibly, the incidents of November 2017 brought about a new dispensation. A whole new world! Turns out, however, that it was nothing but a scratch on the same record. The song continues. Mugabe built a machine that eventually swallowed him whole when E.D. took over.

But, surely a virtuoso’s moves should not be so easy to replicate, even for a three decade understudy?

There was nothing complicated about Robert Mugabe. This is why his script has been so easy for ED to copy. Some invoke the adjective “ Machiavellian” in an attempt to infuse sophistication and artifice to what was essentially blunt bullying. Mugabe was always, for his whole life, the same young boy incessantly described to us in accounts of his childhood; the one who couldn’t stand the taunting and would drive his own cattle far away to be alone with his books. He was that same kid, only this time he had a military behind him.

Until he didn’t.

I’ll show those bullies! I’ll show them!
image source: AP/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi

To understand that Mugabe was a politician, and that politicians are in the business of pursuing power, is to understand that there was nothing complicated about Robert Gabriel Mugabe. I am tired of the apologists, who desperately hold up Zimbabwe’s equally mythical literacy rate as some sort of talisman that will ward off the malodorous vapours of his monumental failure. Governments should provide basic education and healthcare, that is literally the bare minimum expected of them.

I am tired of the avowed Pan-Africans, who are quick to claim that Mugabe “gave Zimbabweans land”, when the land was not even his to give in the first place, and history clearly records that his hand was pushed by frustrated and fed up war veterans. History records that he supported the reform only when it proved politically expedient… There were times when political objectives aligned with doing the right thing, but those times were few and far between. Even a broken clock is correct twice a day.

African Leadership

This idea that someone should “rule” us persists in the minds of my compatriots. It baffles me that “kutonga” or “ukubusa” is a word that we still allow in our political lexicon. A different template of doing politics is possible.

The world we live in requires something that is radically different. It requires governance, not rule; statecraft, not blunt force.

Pan Africanism, not Pun Africanism.
image source: uncensored opinion.

If Mugabe deserves to be in our pantheon of great leaders, then we desperately need new metrics for excellence. Africa is in dire straits. We need leaders, visionaries, and not just politicians. Unfortunately, many of those who seek to lead us feel the need to pander to a vision of Pan-African leadership as defined by politicians such as Mugabe.

If we, as Africans, are to lift ourselves from the sordid conditions we currently find ourselves in, we need to aspire to a sort of leadership and vision that Mugabe and his likes would never be able to conceive, let alone achieve. How is Mugabe a Pan-African icon, when he failed at the smaller task of creating a Pan-Zimbabwean sense of belonging for all those who live in this land between the mighty Zambezi and the Limpopo? How is he a Pan-African icon, when his body has to be flown back from Singapore because his own country lacked the medical facilities to keep him alive?

Go well, Bob

Mugabe’s definition of power should not outlive him. As we bury Mugabe, we should bury the intangible ways in which he embedded his way of doing things into the very fabric of our society. Let us bury the cynicism and pretense, the prioritization of appearance over substance, the pursuit of influence and power by any means necessary, the nonsensical massive entourages, the masses at the airport, the cult of personality, the bootlicking, those hideous African prints with a man’s face covering a mature woman’s bosom.

Before she called him traitor.
image source: Abayomi Azikiwe/Flickr

As we bury Robert Mugabe- whether in Zvimba or at the National Heroes Acre – let us bury, together with him, the Mugabeism with which he infested our land. Let us bury the little Mugabeism in our political parties, in our families, our burial societies, in the teacher’s associations, at the football clubs, and indeed, even at church.

When I say go well Mugabe, I mean, may the going happen well, with no hitches, obstacles or possibility of return. May the digger’s spades be sharp and the hearse’s engine well-oiled. I say to bury him facing downwards, so that in case he awakens and begins to claw his way, he will only dig himself deeper.

When I say go well Mugabe, I mean go, and don’t come back, jack.

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