ZANU PF officials were left seething with anger when South African opposition leader Julius Malema mocked Zimbabwe’s ruling party members for failing to show longtime President Robert Mugabe the exit door.
Malema, who leads the radical left-leaning Economic Freedom Fighters party, is a praise singer-turner-critic of Mugabe.
The vocal South African politician chided Zanu PF members, labelling them cowards for failing to tell “grandpa” Mugabe to step down. His acerbic remarks stirred controversy, triggering a volley of insults from Zanu PF officials.
For many, this was reminiscent of the 1990s when fissures within the ruling party widened.
Freedom fighter and former independent MP Margaret Dongo famously described Mugabe loyalists as “Mugabe’s wives”, a remark which attracted a rude backlash from Zanu PF supporters.
For daring to broach the thorny topic, Dongo was variously labelled “mentally unbalanced” and “an imperialist agent”. She was even accused of harboring a grudge against the “revolutionary leader” Mugabe. The name calling was all because she had challenged Mugabe and his government.
“I endured a lot of hardship under a one-party monopoly (in that parliament). You stand up and try to reason with him, and one tells you, “You are a bitch, go and cook in your house.” Or tells you to sit down, that you are a minority…,” Dongo said in an interview with Frontline World in 2006.
Dongo’s “Mugabe’s wives” rant to male Zanu PF members won her plenty of support not only in her Harare constituency, but also from people and organisations whose ideas and thoughts differed from those of Zanu PF. She even became a voice of reason within Zanu PF structures.
She became an icon of defiance against a system that many feared and at the time many thought was unconquerable.
Dongo showed that the one-party system could be challenged and dismantled, raising the spectre of new political organisations with value systems different to that of Zanu PF.
She is not the only one who has described Zanu PF members as cowards or fools.
Former justice minister Eddison Zvobgo also noted of the then Zanu PF-dominated parliament: “Half the members in this house are fools”. When asked to retract his remark, the affable legal guru, renowned for his wit, retorted:
“Half the members in this house are not fools.”
History surely has a way of repeating itself. This time it was regionally.
Fast forward, 20 years later, Zanu PF acolytes who were labelled Mugabe’s wives now have a new tag according to the firebrand EFF leader.
Malema told journalists in Braamfontein last week that President Robert Mugabe’s continued stay in power was not good for Zimbabwe, Sadc and “the African revolution project”.
“Zimbabwe’s situation is bad. President Mugabe can’t even control a spade. He is no longer capable of discharging his responsibilities,” Malema said.
“We don’t hate the man. They can respond and insult us anyhow they want, but they are a group of cowards, those comrades in Zanu PF, to be scared to say to an old man like President Mugabe, please, with due respect, let go.”
Malema said Mugabe should celebrate that he was not a South African president, as he would have been removed a long time ago.
Mugabe has been in power since the country’s independence from British colonial rule in 1980.
The Zanu PF first secretary, who turns 93 this month, has already been nominated by his party supporters as a presidential candidate for the 2018 general elections.
“We say this out of love, not because we hate him. We celebrate Mugabe, we celebrate what he has done. But, grandpa, it’s enough. Now you must let go and allow other people to continue with that legacy,” he said.
His candid remarks were followed by a series of attacks from those in support of the nonagenarian.
Zanu PF youth league leader Kudzai Chipanga, who described Mugabe as second to Jesus, said Malema was a “double coward” who formed a burial society (EFF) which is more like a drunkards’ club”.
Minister of Information Media and Broadcasting Services Christopher Mushohwe in a statement said Malema’s remarks were irritating and uncalled for, describing him as an ignorant youth and a talkative joker.
“The Government of Zimbabwe finds quite irritating and uncalled for insulting statements by the so-called Economic Freedom Fighters leader, Julius Malema, directed at Zimbabwe, and at the person of President Mugabe,” Mushohwe said.
“What made Malema’s statements irritatingly despicable was an informing presumption that in spite of his threadbare, prodigal political career, he visualised himself as important enough to comment and pass judgment on the leadership credentials and political career of so iconic a figure as President Robert Gabriel Mugabe.”
Zanu PF national secretary for administration Ignatius Chombo weighed in last week on Thursday with a hard hitting statement. He said Zanu PF fully endorsed the response given by Mushohwe to Malema’s utterances.
“The statement he (Malema) made exposed the degree of stupidity in him. The statements you make is how you are measured, your capacity to think and understand. The statement by Malema was very unfortunate. Unfortunate in that he was trying to talk negative about a man whose superlatives are too many to mention,” Chombo said.
As if not enough, one of the oldest political parties in South Africa, the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC), attacked Malema for the attack on Mugabe, denouncing the South African opposition politician as a Western agent assigned to disrupt revolutionary parties.
PAC national spokesperson Kenneth Mokgatlhe said his party “owes Zanu PF and Zimbabwe an apology for being insulted by one political party of South Africa which is handled in London”.
What intrigued some people the most was why Zanu PF’s officials — furiously frothing at the mouth — took umbrage with comments from a person they described as a “fool” who is “craving attention”.
Social media was awash with comments from Zimbabweans who found Zanu PF’s reaction ludicrous. “So much for people with no time for Mr Malema’s cheap talk!” “If he really is a nobody, why all the attention being paid to him, he must have touched a raw nerve,” were some of the remarks on social media.
But amid all this, there are clear signs that Zanu PF has been balkanised and the centre cannot hold. All this points to the structural issues that are now endemic in the party and which Mugabe himself cannot tackle.
Political analyst Eldred Masunungure said Zanu PF reacted in an aggressive way against Malema because the truth hurts.
“Let’s start by acknowledging simple reality that the truth hurts. When you are told the truth publicly it hurts the most. You are told the truth not only for the South African audience to hear but for Zimbabweans, the people in Southern Africa, Africa, the world as a whole,” Masunungure said.
“This is beyond the truth about the president but also it is about remarks that one may think are true about the leadership around the president. Malema also said denigrating remarks to the party and Zanu leadership as a whole.
This has made them (Zanu PF) to respond in a very viscous way. Some are angry on their own behalf. Some are angry on behalf of the president because it has its own rewards, defending the president. There may be consequences for not attacking those who have attacked your party leader.”
Masunungure said the writing is on the wall for the ruling party to reform or sink into oblivion.
“Let us not forget that about 20 years ago Dongo in the ’90s described Zanu PF leaders as Mugabe’s wives. Now its 20 years later and someone from another country is making the same remarks. If it was true that time, then perhaps its truer now. Malema struck a very sensitive node in the politics of this country, so sensitive that they can’t stomach it,” Masunungure said.
Social commentator Blessing Vava said Malema’s message really unnerved Mugabe’s sympathisers.
“Here is a man who represents their ideals and has been praising Mugabe and Zanu PF’s policies and, that message, it is the least they were expecting. They missed it and were made reactionaries by a party that is not only three years old but led by a youngster (35 years old), good enough to be a son of a majority of Zanu PF leaders who are old. They chose to respond to his person without tackling the issues he raised, meaning they accept he told them the truth,” Vava said.