Mugabe’s pattern of repression

Dumisani Muleya


THE ongoing government-sponsored demolition blitz on shantytown homes, “illegal structures”, including office blocks, and the black market is reminiscent of Zanu PF’s long record of political repression.


While all sorts

of theories have been unfurled to explain the repressive behaviour of the state towards its citizens, one thing is clear: the crackdown is evocative of government’s well-documented history of reckless abuse of power and autocratic tendencies.


Whatever the real motive of President Robert Mugabe’s government, this time round Zanu PF has only succeeded in reinforcing its credentials as an authoritarian administration malevolently abusing state authority.


As appalling as this might be, there is nothing surprising about it. Soon after coming to power in 1980 on the crest of a wave of popular support, Zanu PF — one of the main forces in the broad liberation movement against colonial rule — embarked on an aggressive power consolidation drive that later degenerated into dictatorship.


The main target of Zanu PF repression at the time was the major opposition party, PF Zapu. Then, as now, Mugabe suffered from a siege mentality and paranoia which bred repression. Because he was not in firm control, he seemed to fear losing his grip on power.


In the process, Mugabe developed institutions of command and support, such as a partisan state bureaucracy, monolithic party and politicised security agencies to back his rule.


This was driven by an exaggerated and almost irrational fear of Zapu and its functionaries in state institutions, especially the army, and the desire for untrammelled power which led to costly violent overreactions to any signs of dissent.


Mugabe himself has described his overreaction to the Zapu “problem” through Gukurahundi massacres as an “act of madness”.


Even though the campaign had ethnic overtones, it was largely about a brutal struggle for power and Zanu PF’s declared vision of a one-party state. Zapu was the main stumbling block to Mugabe’s socialist one-party state ambitions.


Zanu PF leaders were locked in a wretched Marxist-Leninist pretence, the mobilising ideology during the struggle, which soon evaporated as the party’s true colours began to show. The demolition campaign further shows how Zanu PF’s egalitarian dream has disappeared without trace.


This political pattern of Zanu PF repression — going back to the pre-Independence era — also manifested itself again after the ruling party suffered a humiliating electoral defeat during the constitutional draft referendum in 2000.


Instead of responding to the reversal graciously, Zanu PF, which has no established democratic temperament, angrily reacted with a society-wide repression through chaotic farm invasions.


This spawned political violence and killings of more than 100 people, mostly opposition MDC supporters, bombing and closure of newspapers, arrests and harassment of journalists, purges of professional judges from the bench, attacks on and cooption of civil society organisations, and lashing out at real and perceived state enemies.


The land invasions and the concomitant, sustained political assault had racial overtones. As he did during the long-running onslaught on Zapu and its supporters, Mugabe during the land reform campaign rallied his followers to launch a race war, saying:


“You must strike fear into the hearts of the white man, make them tremble, our real enemies!”


Up to 15 white farmers were killed during the farm seizures. At least six people have died during the current demolition campaign. The difference between Gukurahundi and the land grab on the one hand and the demolition campaign on the other is that the international community has voiced grave concern this time round.


During the 1980s, the international community, especially Britain under the Conservatives, turned a blind eye to the civilian massacres.


The current destruction of shacks, informal sector market stalls, tuck shops, hair salons, shebeens, flea markets, vegetable markets, home industries, urban home gardens and closure of offices fall well within a well-established pattern of repression.


Before the newly independent Zimbabwean state which was emerging from a protracted armed liberation struggle could settle down and set itself on a reconstruction and development path, the new form of conflict broke out, in all probability at the effective instigation of those in power.


Manipulating genuine teething problems of the new government, which could have been resolved differently without massacres, Mugabe and his regime invented the pretext of a mortal dissident threat and deployed the North Korean-trained Five Brigade to the Matabeleland killing fields for a five-year butchering campaign.


The ill-advised and grisly crackdown on a handful of army deserters, who had run away largely because of internal clashes in the army between Zanla and Zipra forces during the choppy integration period, claimed 20 000 civilian lives, unleashing far-reaching consequences on the national psyche and body politic.


What is happening now is simply a manifestation of similar Zanu PF tendencies in a different form. If there is anything Zanu PF has been consistent in, it’s undoubtedly repression.


Due to social dynamics of the time and also by political design, Zanu PF developed a parochial and intolerant form of nationalism shaped by an eclectic mix of class, ethnic and ideological interests and contradictions.


That is why in the current ethnic, nepotistic and regional ordering — which undermine democratic accountability and transparency — in state institutions and the professional bureaucracy are commonplace.


This is the trouble with Zimbabwe and it distinguishes great African nationalists like Nelson Mandela and Julius Nyerere from the likes of Mugabe.


Professor Brian Raftopoulos last month wrote in the context of the demolitions that Zanu PF’s uncanny brand of nationalism has grown increasingly “intolerant of diversity and insists on uniformity of outlook”, something that leads to the “simplistic dichotomies of citizen/alien and patriot/traitor”.


“Hence the anti-urbanism (Operation Restore Order and Murambatsvina) that has become one of the hallmarks of the ruling party’s authoritarian nationalism, as it repeatedly located national (identity) authenticity in the rural population,” Raftopoulos said, “and hurled insults at the ‘totemless strangers living under the spell of an urban ill-wind’.”


Raftopoulos said this view — which was publicly aired by Mugabe and a Zanu PF MP in parliament last week — showed “a good deal of continuity with the colonial state in this characterisation of urbanites who, under settler rule, were seen as temporary residents in cities tolerated as long as their labour is required”.


During the 1980s period, infighting in the army and apartheid South Africa’s “Total Onslaught” strategy gave government the excuse to commission Gukurahundi excesses whose impact on the country’s political and democratic development has been disastrous.


Zanu PF has polished the art of inventing threats to mobilise the people around a particular self-serving issue as a pretext to assert authoritarian control.


The low intensity civil war of the 1980s, which had its genesis in
the rough formation of the new nation-state, was one such invented crisis.


Usually the formation of a nation-state requires unity, but sometimes it is adversely affected by ethnic, tribal, regional, or religious factors when certain groups balk and refuse to give support to the political leadership of the new state.


This is where the test of leadership comes in. Some leaders use statecraft to forge unity while others fashion out a highly centralised system and use instruments of coercion to come up with forced unity in fear.


Despite his leadership failures, Zambia’s founding president Kenneth Kaunda, as well as Mandela and Nyerere, albeit in different circumstances, managed ethnic and racial diversity and their inherent contradictions much better than Mugabe whose legacy is damning.


Mugabe’s legacy includes a collapsed economy, a sea of poverty, and a politically and ethnically divided nation.


This overshadows his achievements in social services, education, health, infrastructure, and broad socio-economic advancement of the hitherto marginalised majority.


As the International Monetary Fund pointed out this week, Operation Murambatsvina has simply compounded Zimbabwe’s plight.


In the end, history will without fail judge Mugabe and Zanu PF harshly.