By Fay Chung
A group of Robert Gabriel Mugabe admirers, linked to Zanu PF, has published a profile of Robert Mugabe. They are trying to provide a profile of the late president, combining both the positive and negative aspects of his character. This is an important exercise. We need to know more about this key personality. That this book, Re/Membering Robert Mugabe, Politics, legacy, Philosophy, Life and Death, published by LAN Readers (Zimbabwe) 2021, under Sapes Trust, of the African Association of Political Science, is authored mainly by admirers, is itself important.
The book comprises chapters, by 14 authors, and is a very ambitious endeavour. Some of the chapters are excellent, making the book an important initiative for past and future references, both of which will be very important for Zimbabwe as a whole. The experience, both positive and negative, will affect the future of Zimbabwe.
Weaknesses of the study include the lack of personal detail, with the only personal view being that of Zanu PF leader, Obert Mpofu, who praises Mugabe fulsomely. Another serious weakness is that it depends mainly on published opinions about Mugabe, admiring him from African sources and denigrating him from other sources.. We get a summary of these divisive views (“great African nationalist leader” on the one hand; “authoritarian dictator” on the other hand).
Mugabe never wrote his own biography and political philosophy, unlike nearly all major African leaders, so we do not know how he really projected himself and the challenges he faced. This is a fundamental lacuna with which we could have compared with what happened during the period and what changes took place in his views.
Another serious weakness is the lack of detail regarding the political and economic background, situations and institutions which led to the changes in Mugabe’s political and policy views. It is evident that during the first 20 years of being in power, Mugabe enjoyed enthusiastic praise both from overseas, and from national sources. In fact there is a consensus that his best years as leader were the 1980s and 1990s. What happened to change his character and achievements?
The first major change is the ideological one, from Marxist-Leninist Socialism, to the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme, Esap, in 1991. This was a major transformation not yet profoundly explored by Zimbabwe as a whole. We never clearly examined as a society what Socialism entailed, other than the three outstanding programmes of the 1980s and 1990s, viz, universal and free primary education; newly accessible health facilities in rural areas; and clean drinking water in urban and rural areas. All three achievements have survived, although there were visible weaknesses by the 1990s.
Esap was imposed from above, allegedly to provide better economic growth. The population accepted this analysis passively. They believed the leaders knew best. The population has never examined and discussed the detailed political policies of incoming political parties.
Esap was a major international political and economic programme introduced worldwide by the US and Western countries through the IMF and the World Bank, but ended up mainly dominating developing countries whose funds were heavily influenced by the IMF and World Bank. Esap supported global competitiveness, promoting the most efficient and cost-effective producers. Developed countries were advantaged. By the mid-1990s Zimbabwe was importing rather than growing its own food. This resulted from the removal of economic subsidies to communal and small-scale farmers through the GMB, in 1996.
Although Esap was supposed to be nationally planned, it is now evident that it was planned from outside and imposed, due to the weaknesses of Zimbabwean planners and civil servants. Government went through an exercise in the 1990s to remove its senior civil servants with a very generous “golden handshake”. ESAP wanted as many as 25 000 civil servants removed, and this was done, in order to lower the cost of State salaries, but were these ministries more efficient as a result? Zanu PF was happy to see the removal as some of these senior civil servants had opposed and blocked ministerial plans and wishes. They were replaced by Zanu PF selected replacements who believed their role was to obey ministerial wishes.
The aim of cutting out civil servants was to lower the level of State salaries, but in fact the opposite happened. This was because by 2001 Zimbabwe was threatened by Tony Blair’s proposed military attack on Zimbabwe. To obviate this threat the security forces and Zanu PF youths were reinforced. As a result more than 90% of the State Budget now went to salaries. This meant there were few funds for economic development. This British threat was avoided by the actions of former South African President Mbeki, former Mozambican Samora Machel and former Namibian President Sam Nujoma.
Another problem was the failure to distinguish between Keynesian and Esap capitalism. Keynesian capitalism had been successfully implemented by Japan and Western countries between the 1940s and the 1970s. Esap became popular in the 1970s. Keynesian capitalism gave a huge role to the State, whereas Esap removed the State from the capitalist economy. When Zimbabwe removed the role of the State in economic development, it removed its greatest strength.
The inherited and developed Zimbabwean institutions at the beginning of Esap had major weaknesses. Economically there was a very small formal economy dominated by White capitalists, unwilling and unable to take over State operations. Cabinet was becoming less rather than more powerful. The 1980s Cabinet was not wholly selected by Mugabe: he was influenced by the need to include inherited Zanu staff as well as PF-Zapu and Rhodesian Front leaders. Britain exercised influence in appointing the critically important Minister of Agriculture, Dennis Norman. Working under the political leadership of Canaan Banana, Mugabe’s role concentrated on professional details.
The Executive Presidency in 1987 changed all this. Mugabe was now able to appoint Cabinet ministers according to his own personal choices. He also could decide on their power positions. He could not consult many members of the ruling party, Zanu PF, removed through the Willowgate car resale trials in the late 1980s. The most senior, Maurice Nyagumbo, committed suicide. This increased the isolation of Mugabe. Appointments now also reflected more on the strengths and weaknesses of Mugabe’s character judgements. He had to select as colleagues people whom he didn’t know well.
Some of the book authors provide original insights. One of the most original is the article “Fictionalising Activism, Voicing Contested Terrains and Survival Strategies under Mugabe’s (Mis-) Rule” by Nelson Mlambo and Jairos Kangira. They examine seven short stories to see how the Mugabe regime works behind ordinary people. An excellent example is the story by famous novelist Petinah Gappa. The narrator, a woman married to a famous war veteran, faces desertion from a wildly promiscuous husband. He dies and is declared a hero, to be buried at Heroes Acre, with the eulogy by the President. Ironically she uses her position as “official widow” to promote her own political position so that she can carry out her political aspirations. This ironic story reflects her survival after the real tragedy of her marriage. War veteran Alexander Kanengoni’s hero, white farmer Flemming, helps to plant on his newly divided farm, saying “no matter who comes to power If he doesn’t resolve the land issue, the people will chase him out of office.”
Land is covered in an article by Chipo Chirimuuta and Margret Jongore entitled “The Land Question and the Legacy of Robert Mugabe: Thinking Zimbabwe’s Agrarian Reform Beyond Mugabe.” The Lancaster House Independence Agreement was a direct contradiction of the Party’s land policy.
Mugabe negated his earlier role by supporting the Fast Track Land Resettlement Programme, FTLRP.
What is the future of land in Zimbabwe?
Finally the book makes much of Mugabe’s popularity being dependent on his excellent English. Four million Zimbabweans have left the country for the diaspora. They are popular because of their good grasp of English.
The Zimbabwean school curriculum places greater emphasis on English than on African languages. Is weak emphasis on national culture and languages one of the causes of under-development?
This book should be the precursor of future studies of the political future of Zimbabwe. Much discussion followed regarding the divisions and factionalism within Zanu PF today. What systems, situations and institutions are needed to ensure that we do not repeat the weaknesses of the past?
- Chung is an educationist. This weekly column New Horizon is published in the Zimbabwe Independent and coordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, an independent consultant, past president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society and past-president of the Institute of Chartered Secretaries & Administrators in Zimbabwe. — firstname.lastname@example.org or mobile: +263 772 382 852.