WATCHING President Robert Mugabe being booed and heckled by opposition MPs in parliament during a state of the nation address on Tuesday was a sad spectacle and pitiful sight. It just showed how he has now fallen from grace to grass.
Editor’s Memo by Dumisani Muleya
At the height of his power and popularity in 1980, Mugabe was liked — and hated too — by many who saw him as a liberation struggle hero and a progressive leader who could change his people’s lives and the continent for the better.
Many believed — on the basis of his rhetoric and promises rather than substance or evidence — he wanted social equality through promoting equal opportunity.
Mugabe initially seemed credible as he appeared to support economic and social interventions to promote social justice within a socialist framework, and a policy regime involving welfare state aspects, hence regulation of the economy supposedly in the general interest and redistribution of income and wealth.
He looked as if he opposed the excesses of capitalism such as inequality, poverty and deprivation, while rejecting a free market economy in favour of a planned structure. He also seemed to support trade unions and collective bargaining for workers.
Mugabe’s policies were purportedly based on advocacy for social rights to ensure universal access to education, healthcare, and workers’ social security.
While he made progress on education and human capital development, most of his promises have remained a pipedream. In fact, dreams have become nightmares.
Although posturing as a democratic leader, something which allowed him to cultivate a personality cult and hobnob with the rich, powerful and famous around the world, Mugabe was clear from the start he wanted a socialist one-party state. By insinuation, given the zeitgeist — spirit or mood of the 1980s defined by the ideas and beliefs of the Cold War era — he also wanted to be president for life.
So in order to consolidate power, he started rolling out his authoritarian project before quickly allowing his regime to descend into systematic, deadly repression.
Throughout the 1980s and during some parts of the 1990s, coercion, violence and murder became his lethal weapons to silence dissenters, critics and the opposition. After 2000 following the emergence of the MDC and thus a new form of threat to his grip on power, intimidation, brutality and killings resumed with ferocity.
This prompted studies on whether Mugabe is the Stalin of modern Africa? Or is he a patriot fighting to reverse the effects of colonialism and white domination?
Stephen Chan, for instance in Robert Mugabe: A Life of Power and Violence, sought not to demonise him, but to interpret him in his role as a key political player in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa.
Chan showed how Mugabe’s story is Zimbabwe’s — from the post-independence hopes of idealism and reconciliation to electoral victory, intervention in regional politics and resistance to apartheid South Africa even though of course declassified documents in Pretoria have now exposed his opportunism and duplicity.
Chan described how a darker picture of Mugabe emerged early, with the savage crushing of Zapu and Joshua Nkomo’s supporters in the south-western region, elimination of political opponents, growing corruption and disastrous intervention in the Congo war, all worsened by his lust for power and trappings of office.
As a beleaguered leader in the face of growing social unrest, Mugabe resorted to desperate measures — seizing white-owned farms, grabbing companies, increasing presidential powers, arresting journalists and muzzling the media and crushing any opposition.
Chan’s narrative, based on close personal knowledge of Zimbabwe, depicted the emergence of a ruthless and single-minded despot amassing and clinging to political power. He showed how the triumphant nationalist leader who reconciled all in the new multiracial Zimbabwe 1980 degenerated into a petty tyrant consumed by hubris and self-righteousness, and now facing an endgame of tragic proportions.
Mugabe’s mask has now fallen irretrievably. The jeering in parliament this week said it all.