By Yash Tandon
He is an emblematic, historical figure. He is a giant, whose boot steps inaugurated a revolutionary era in the early years – boots that, sadly, became too heavy for him, and too painful for the ordinary people for whose liberation he had fought.
If the following reads like an epitaph, this indeed is what it is. The end of Robert Mugabe’s political life at the age of 93 is like an end of his life.
Mugabe has been the lead story almost globally – even in the western media – for the whole of the past week. How so? There are two reasons for this. The most superficial reason is that at the age of 93 he is the oldest ruler on earth. His 37 years rule spans two generations. People born when he came to power in 1980 are now in their late 40s. Hence the formation of a group called Generation 40, better known as G40. The second reason is that he will be remembered as the leader of a guerrilla movement that finally ended the rule of the white man in what was then Rhodesia (named after the arch-imperialist, Cecil Rhodes). He is an emblematic, historical figure. He is a giant, whose boot steps inaugurated a revolutionary era in the early years – boots that, sadly, became too heavy for him, and too painful for the ordinary people for whose liberation he had fought.
There are those who might be tempted to drag Mugabe down to an ignominious end. And I must confess that if I were one of the millions who have suffered pangs of poverty, deprivation and neglect, I too might, perhaps, be tempted to take the same view. So I do not stand in judgment of people whose living life has been as if they were dead, as if their lives did not matter, people who are now dancing in the streets of Zimbabwe at the end of this dictatorship.
My shared empathy with people who have suffered does not distract me from presenting another perspective. I remember Mugabe from the time he came to Dar es Salaam in mid-1970s. I had gone with the late Comrade Nathan Shamuyarira to meet him and other militants of ZANU. During those years, I had an opportunity also to meet with Comrade Joshua Nkomo, leader of ZAPU, another revolutionary leader. I will not go into the feud between ZANU and ZAPU, which later reconciled and joined forces. Zimbabwe was our second home where my wife and I stayed longest (for 23 years) after being exiled from my home, Uganda. I did not take up Zimbabwean nationality, but I am a Zimbabwean. So I am qualified to say that in my eyes, both Nkomo and Mugabe qualify as the “fathers of the nation”.
Mugabe will be remembered for the good he did for the nation. He refused to compromise with imperialism; at independence, he was generous enough to open his arms even to those with whom he had been fighting in the bush for twenty years. Along with his party, he transformed the lives of the ordinary people by bringing education, health, water, sanitation and housing to millions of rural people. I was witness to all this. Instead of joining the University of Zimbabwe (which is what Shamuyarira expected, I (with my wife, Mary, and the late Ludwig Chizarura) worked with communities in the rural areas for over two decades.
I also worked with Morgan Tsvangirai, when he was leading the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) – jointly co-editing a small book on five Zimbabwean trade unions – including the General Agricultural and Plantation Workers’ Union (GAPWUZ). I witnessed the move for land reform starting in 1998. I was hired as consultant by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to help design a planned, systematic and efficient five-year program of land reform. I attended a meeting of donors, where countries such as Sweden, Norway and Germany were willing to put in money for compensation and development, but it all came to nothing. It was aborted by the British government which refused to be part of it, and so the others also withdrew. Following this, the War Veterans Association organised marches in Harare, more or less forcing Mugabe to fast-track land reform. Land reform has its critics – especially in imperial Britain – but its account by the late Prof Sam Moyo is the most objective analysis. Land was one of the reasons for the guerrilla war – an objective that the South African government has not been able to fulfill (yet) – more than twenty years down the road.
The land reform was the last revolutionary change in Zimbabwe. Already, as Mugabe was presiding over the land reform, his Finance Minister, the late Bernard Chidzero, was negotiating with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a loan to bail the country out of a debt situation – created largely by a massive importation of machinery (including farm implements) to revolutionise the economy. Mugabe was never a good economist (I had several opportunities to discuss economics with him). So, against better judgment of people like Shamuyarira and Ibbo Mandaza, Mugabe fell in line with Chidzero. The government signed an agreement with the IMF in 1989, which ushered in an era of the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAP). This was effectively the real “regime change” – yes, a change in regime – now led by the empire with Mugabe as its head of state!
There was some opposition in the cabinet. Fay Chung resigned her post as Minister of Education. The other person who wanted to resign was Shamuyarira. We talked about it. I suggested that he, too, should resign. He said he was under pressure from Mugabe to stay. He did, but Nathan confided in me that he had told Mugabe that time had come for those who had fought for the Chimurenga to make space for a new generation of leadership. If Shamuyarira was alive today, he might have joined forces with the G40. Shamuyarira died in June 2014, penniless and neglected by Mugabe and the party.
Reigniting peoples’ revolutionary spirit
After a last minute attempt to retain his position as Chairman of ZANU (PF) – wanting to open the party’s December conference – Mugabe yielded to pressure and saw wisdom in throwing away his baton today (21 November) resigning as President. Sadly, he may still not recognise that he has been on the wrong side of history for at least the last two decades.
I agree with SADC Council of NGOs statement of solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe – released on 15 November – on how Zimbabwe has been “auctioned at the altar of counter-revolutionaries”. I also agree with the recommendations of the more than a hundred Zimbabwe civil society organisations (CSOs) made on 16 November.
Mugabe’s resignation opens the potential for returning to the revolutionary yonder days. I say “potential” guardedly … for the pro-ESAP, pro-IMF, pro-austerity regime is still in power, and likely to remain in power … unless challenged. The people power is on the streets, but not in the corridors of power. The pro-democracy, pro-justice CSOs, the trade unions, and progressive intellectuals and anti-imperialist nationalists in the private sector – with the participation of the people at large – might want to set up a “steering committee” (or something like that) to monitor the development of the country in the coming months and years. There should be not a single person in Zimbabwe who should go without food, clothes, shoes, water, free education until secondary school, housing, employment … and yes, freedom of speech and movement … and dignity. These are going to be difficult days!
This is also the time – the eclipse of a great nation – to remember all those who sacrificed their lives for the people. We all have our stories about a country that was once a revolutionary beacon in Africa degenerating into a beggar nation. Mugabe is not the only leader who has lasted for so long; he is not the only corrupt leader to have profited from the rich diamonds and gold of the country. He is not the only person responsible for the degeneration of this great nation.
Mugabe is a stubborn old man, a hero to young people in South Africa wishing that South Africa had emulated Mugabe’s programme of land reform, earning him the wrath of the West. At the same time, let us not forget that his mistakes have been monumental, indeed staggering, but the weight of responsibility should fall on the shoulders of the whole party – ZANU (PF) – and its current leadership.
So, give the old man Mugabe the dignity that the “father of the nation” deserves.
In solidarity and peace.