The tragedy of brilliant Jonathan Moyo

By Chido Makunike

CHIEF Mugabe propagandist Jona-than Moyo is one of the most fascinating figures to have come onto the public stage in Zimbabwe in recent years. Several years after he swung from eloquent an

d erudite Mugabe critic to being chief spokesman, his conversion still stuns even the most hardened and cynical political observers today. We may be accustomed to politics being more about alliances of convenience than about conviction and principle, but even then, Moyo’s switch from key Mugabe critic to being his right hand man has few equals in the annals of political flip flops.


For years Moyo had brilliantly chronicled how Mugabe and Zanu PF had betrayed the principles that once made them heroic, unparalleled freedom fighters. What caused Moyo to throw away all that he had written and said to join them will remain the subject of debate for a long time to come.


It is not my intention here to attempt to address the intriguing issue of the possible reasons for Moyo’s about turn in any depth. But certainly the gathering storm of charges of financial impropriety from the Ford Foundation and Wits University, both prestigious institutions where he had become a high flier, greatly narrowed his options. It is plausible to surmise that had he not found shelter under Mugabe’s wings, his prospects in the donor and academic world would have been severely limited by the allegations against him.


From an academic who was quite happy to work for white-funded and run Western institutions when it benefited him, he metamorphosed into a fire-breathing born-again anti-white, anti-Western ideologue when he was accused by them of misusing large sums of money! It remains to be seen whether his unabashed repudiation of so much that he had said and written about over many years and volumes of published works can be reduced to such a simple, tragic case of human folly seeking political refuge, or whether there are deeper reasons for his change.


Whatever the motivations for his change from fierce Mugabe critic to his spokesman, how has he fared in that portfolio? Dismally, it must be said.

Despite a large budget, unparalleled access to and control over the state media, and absolutely ruthless tactics against opponents of Mugabe, Moyo has failed to win over the opinion of the section of the public that most of his propaganda is targeted at. The constitutional proposals he was initially hired by Mugabe to sell to the electorate were rejected. The subsequent general election where he unleashed his venom with characteristic ferocity had the upstart opposition MDC party win almost half the seats.


Last year’s presidential election in which Moyo was in wickedly fine form on behalf of his boss was narrowly “won” by the latter in messy circumstances neither Moyo nor Mugabe will ever really live down, and which are the cause of many of their problems today.


To put it kindly, Moyo has been a public relations disaster for the Mugabe regime.


Yet this has seemingly not affected his standing with Mugabe so far. The president may admire Moyo’s fierce advocacy of the cause of keeping Mugabe in power, whether out of conviction or self-interest. That dogmatic adherence to that cause mirrors Mugabe’s own single-mindedness of purpose. Also, Moyo’s ineptitude at winning over opinion has become less of a handicap as Mugabe becomes increasingly autocratic, only holding on to a few vestiges of democratic government and in the most perfunctory, cynical way.


This evolution in Mugabe’s tactics of control has saved Moyo’s hide, as his performance is judged more by the enthusiasm of his defence of even the most destructive and counter-productive of his boss’s words and actions, than on results produced in winning public opinion over to Mugabe. As Mugabe’s popularity and respect from the public have plummeted, so have Moyo’s powers under Mugabe increased. He is allowed to get away with terrible gaffes, he has often stepped on the toes of ministerial colleagues.

He has also alienated many of his seniors in a Zanu PF in which he is held in sullen, muted suspicion and resentment for his sudden, Johnny-come-lately closeness to the emperor and heavy-handedness respectively.


Seemingly recklessly oblivious of the limits and temporal nature of political power, especially that based on patronage, he has alienated many more across all sectors of Zimbabwe’s political spectrum, including many in the ruling party whose support he would need if he hopes to have a political career beyond Mugabe’s tenure. If a parliamentary election were to be held with Mugabe still firmly entrenched in the presidential palace, the traditional thing to do for such a high profile unelected minister would be to arrange some safe rural seat for him by hook or by crook.


Fixed elections have long been a part of the repertoire of holding on to power and giving a gloss of democracy and legitimacy in Zimbabwe, but there is little evidence of enough warmth for Moyo anywhere to convincingly pull off such a stunt for him. Not that being convincing about anything seems very important to Mugabe’s regime anymore. Moyo’s personality traits are fascinating in their own right. He seems to barely contain huge amounts of explosive, generalised rage.


This inexplicable incendiaryanger is often expressed in intemperate, undiplomatic and undignified outbursts against his and his master’s foes that are often very funny and childishly clever, but that reduce his and Mugabe’s government’s stature to that of buffoons. He has often seemed to take personal delight in the misfortunes of his detractors, sneering and cackling in ways that have gone way beyond the decorum of political disagreements.


There will be many enemies he caused himself, often quite unnecessarily because of the reckless zeal with which he wanted to prove his loyalty to a Mugabe he had pilloried over the years, who are biding their time waiting for the patronage of Mugabe that has made Moyo so powerful to end. Moyo’s fate after Mugabe’s demise may be too ghastly to contemplate.


On his behalf I appeal to all the individuals, organisations and even countries Moyo has so liberally insulted in the harshest terms to please show him some mercy when his time comes, perhaps he has a personal problem we don’t know about. How else would you explain the complete lack of concern about even trying to seem at least half-heartedly consistent about matters of principle over one’s life, brilliantly diabolical laws whose intent is the opposite of their names, and the blood-curdling rhetorical viciousness that has reduced political discourse in Zimbabwe to record lows since the Moyo-run advertising campaign for the government’s rejected draft constitution of 1999? At about 50 years of age, he shows no sign of mellowing. It is difficult to imagine him chilling out, laughing at himself or taking a joke directed at him in good humour. One may admire the sheer cleverness of Moyo’s word play, vicious double meanings and barbed insults, but one is also left amazed at the sheer pettiness of a government minister behaving in this way.


* Chido Makunike is a Harare-based writer.