Countrymen, I come to praise Gushungo

By Paul Taylor

THE late great Professor Masipula Sithole once described Zimbabwe as a nation in waiting.


Waiting is in our nature.


Sometimes, as I stand on a London Underground platform, fuming because a train has been delayed by a few minutes, I remember the queues at home. I remember seeing a bus which had crashed on the Old Gwanda Road. The passengers had decamped, made fires and set pots of food to cook, knowing that it would take a long time for a replacement bus to reach them.


They knew how to wait.

It is a sad fact of Zimbabwean politics that a number of people are currently waiting, with barely concealed impatience, for the day that the life of Gushungo reaches its allotted span. In fairness, it must be emphasised that not all of these malicious people are members of the Zanu PF politburo.


We are indeed a nation in waiting. Locked as we are in a grim and dreary present, we all understand that a brighter tomorrow is but a heartbeat away.

Unsurprisingly, rumours about Gushungo’s health abound. Last week a story mischievously reported that Gushungo and his urologist were en route to Iran for specialist surgery.


The interesting thing about this story is that it is rumoured to have emanated from official South African sources. If the story did not emanate in South Africa’s corridors of power, it is certainly being told and retold there, with great glee.


Why anyone should want to play up worries about Gushungo’s health just as his politburo is about to discuss the vexed succession issue is anyone’s guess. It is as if people in high places want to weaken further the already weakening Old Man and accelerate his departure from power.


If the Mbeki government is Gushungo’s friend I would not like to imagine the stories that Gushungo’s enemies are telling about him. As it turns out, Gushungo did not go to Iran. Instead, having turned Zimbabwe into a desert, he went to Cuba to attend a conference about desertification.


I count myself as another one of Gushungo’s friends. As I am blessedly not in a position to write his obituary, I would like to offer instead an appreciation of his life’s work. It may be said that I come to praise Gushungo, not to bury him.


The Ancient Greeks believed that it was only possible to judge a man’s life when he was dead. “Call no man happy until he is dead,” they said.


But Gushungo is now very old and surely we can see at last the true nature of the man which has taken years to emerge. Surely he is now the figure he himself has secretly aspired to becoming through the years.


The little boy thirstily absorbing his lessons at Kutama Mission; the serious school master who sojourned at Empandeni Mission; the zealous freedom fighter who sat down beside Alexander Kanengoni by the rivers of Mozambique and wept, while drinking rotgut liquor in the cause of the liberation of Zimbabwe; all these figures belong to the past.


The Gushungo who has metamorphosed through all these stages is as unrecognisable as the mopane moth is from the worm that prefigures it.


Today he can be vividly described in just a few images.

The first image is taken from the opening of parliament. The ceremony has always been ridiculously ornate, even by pompous colonial standards.

Self-importance was always so immense in Establishment circles that it tended towards the constipative. But when Gushungo’s portrait suddenly materialised and he appeared to bow to his own image, a new standard of absurd self-importance was established. Gushungo caricatured himself so well that at a stroke every satirical writer in Zimbabwe was put permanently out of business.


I suppose we should just be grateful that he did not genuflect.

The second image, though not of Gushungo himself, is just as revealing as a portrait. It is a picture taken from the air of Gushungo’s new palace. Just as if he feels the need to fill Mobutu Sese Seko’s shoes before he follows Mobutu’s fate, he has built his very own Gbadolite.


The vulgar opulence, the luxurious ugliness, the massive scale of the place is stunning. The self-obsession, callousness and complacency it represents in a country where the mass of people survive only on the kindness of strangers is nauseating.


I am still surprised at my surprise at the picture of the palace because, like others, I have long been following stories about Gushungo’s wealth and its sources and its hiding places. But this tacky palace told me in hard materials, kitsch concrete and insipid ceramics, that the ascetic Gushungo who tells the world that Africans are prepared to eat cold food and sleep on hard floors in the struggle against neo-colonialism does not exist: and that it is true to say he never existed.


Instead, we have to face up to the fact that we are ruled, not by a great revolutionary, or a principled nationalist, or a true son of the soil, but by a callous, vulgar little hypocrite.


My late father had a certain respect for Gushungo. When he came to power and preached reconciliation my father believed that this fellow school master, this supposed Christian, might yet break the mould of flawed post-colonial leadership.


Before he died however my father would be cruelly disillusioned by the appearance of the Fifth Brigade in the rural Matabeleland in which he had spent his adult life. I am glad my father is not alive today to witness the final flowering of Gushungo’s cruelty and vanity.


Gushungo, you have become the mocking symbol of our nation’s mad decline. As Brutus was Caesar’s friend, so as your friend I say, I wish for the sake of your place in history that you had gone long before this day dawned.


Paul Taylor writes on civic issues.