Many of us were shaken by the sudden and swift removal of Robert Mugabe from the Zimbabwean presidency. When someone holds office for 37 years, even though 93, it is hard to visualise his sudden removal. His departure seems to have met with a generally positive response on the part of the Zimbabwean population. It is important not to claim too little or too much for this achievement. For many people, the removal of Mugabe signifies that conditions of oppression are not immutable. The question is how thoroughgoing this change is and that relates to how we understand the problems of Zimbabwe and the extent to which these have been addressed through Mugabe’s removal.
Even if welcomed by the population at large, the entire process of deposing Mugabe and installation of Emmerson Mnangagwa as interim president has been overseen by the military and is essentially changing of the guard within ZANU (PF). There was no democratic process and with the exception of the short-lived attempt to impeach Mugabe, this change operated outside of the constitution. The military took control of the state and nothing could have been done without their consent, whether or not they avoided direct rule as in a conventional coup d’état. Interestingly, the one judicial pronouncement on the matter has declared the actions of the military to have been quite legal, something that is hard to visualise happening in South Africa today. (https://citizen.co.za/news/news-africa/1740475/zimbabwe-court-says-military-takeover-was-legal/).
That this change was initiated at the top and did not involve direct, popular or civic action or involvement, does not automatically preclude the change of conditions leading to or giving impetus towards substantial transformation that could better the lives of the poor, who are very many in Zimbabwe. We should not be prisoners of “revolutionary” purism and only credit mass insurrectionary activities or substantial mass organisations as agents for fundamental change, having the capacity to initiate significant improvement in people’s lives. It is possible that a change at the top can be part of something much more significant, even without that being the intention of those who initiate that action, which they may well conceive within very definite limits.
But how do changes at the top open the possibility for addressing the more fundamental problems, if not proclaimed as the goal at the outset? What is required for the change to become a more democratic and transformational process? Can it happen in Zimbabwe?
The same military that has made this change/coup has been a central prop of rule under Mugabe. It was involved in the killings in Matabeleland in the 1980s, that left some 20,000 dead and in the rigging of elections initially won by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), then still unified under Morgan Tsvangirai’s leadership. The military has been a central obstacle to the advancement of human rights, responsible for killing and maiming of people who have raised their voice to claim democratic rights. The man who has been installed as interim president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, a loyal supporter of Mugabe until recently, was at the centre of this repression.
There are many reports of violence and killing during this military intervention, targeting a faction within ZANU PF loyal to Grace Mugabe (known as Generation40 or G40). There have also been reports of clashes with the police, seen as loyal to Grace Mugabe and illegal actions and assaults against some leading police figures.
Put briefly, Mugabeism does not relate purely to the presence of Robert Mugabe but comprises a system of centralised, hierarchical rule, aimed at siphoning off the resources of the state and where opportunities arise, that of other states as in the DRC war, for the benefit of an elite within the military and ZANU PF. The condition for survival of this pillage and consequent running down of social services and resultant unemployment, landlessness and poverty is high levels of repression. The two factions that contested power before Mugabe’s fall do not differ over this model of rule, but over who the main beneficiaries should be.
The change that has been brought about through the removal of Mugabe has shifted power within Mugabeism, from the ascendant G40 group, to the Lacoste group, associated with the symbol of the crocodile, signifying loyalty to Mnangagwa. All the features of Mugabeism in relation to the resources of the country and the population at large remain in place and unchanged, though there may be a slightly different configuration of forces within ZANU PF. The changes can be exaggerated because some of the G40 group have already shifted their allegiance, something which is familiar to anyone following transitions in ANC politics. But the main concern ought to be whether there has been any change in Mugabeism, as a system of rule.
Relevance for South Africa
This interpretation of the changes that ensued obviously bears considerable relevance to the question whether or not we are poised to see a post-Zuma era and what that entails. We know that much of the media, candidates for the ANC presidency, leading figures in business and rating agencies see a change of ANC leadership in December potentially ushering in conditions that are conducive to fundamental change, in other words eradicating Zumaism. Referring to Zumaism is not to suggest that there were no problems of governance, corruption and legality in post-apartheid South Africa before Zuma’s rise. What is distinct about the period under Zuma’s leadership is the high levels of corruption, entailing “state capture”, readiness to act outside the law and the extensive use of violence against opponents outside and inside the ANC.
All of this, many on the left will assure me, always happens within the capitalist system. That is true, but the conventional operations of capitalism are mediated in contemporary South Africa by the need to siphon off resources in an irregular manner that does prevail in some other countries but has become systemic in South Africa.
No doubt many South Africans, including Zuma and those who would like to remove him have watched developments in Zimbabwe in recent weeks. There are obviously many interpretations and I do believe that it is important for us to examine the removal of Mugabe in relation to rebuilding democracy in South Africa
It should be noted that the Zimbabwean deal was not forged with the involvement of the people of Zimbabwe nor even many from ZANU PF or other political parties. It was an elite deal involving the military and the Mugabe family and their supporters and presumably the consent of the incoming president. What authority do they have to strike such a deal? Certainly, in real politik they can get away with this.
It is precisely this undemocratic and élite feature of the removal of Mugabe that may well resonate with many of those who wish to succeed or remove Zuma and Zuma himself. There is no intention of initiating a democratic process involving the masses, who were so central to discourse and much of the practice before 1994.
Zuma, like Mugabe, will not go quietly. The ANC December conference could see the election of Cyril Ramaphosa or possibly Zweli Mkhize, seen as less sympathetic to Zuma than Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. This may evoke pressure from their supporters, despite not being likely to constitute an overwhelming majority of the ANC support base, to recall Zuma.
Zuma does not play by the rules. Unlike Thabo Mbeki he may well ignore an attempt to recall him since he is constitutionally elected as state president. Given the fragility of support for whoever becomes ANC president there may be reluctance to move towards a vote of no confidence or impeachment. The package that Mugabe received may have some appeal here and it has been claimed by Richard Poplak that such a package has been raised with Zuma some months back. (https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2017-07-15-trainspotter-the-a-bomb-a-r2-billion-amnesty-package-for-zuma/)
The problem is whether it is legal and whether it is democratic. The Zimbabwean deal appears to have allowed Mugabe to hold onto all his properties and wealth and that of his family, however obtained. But Tendai Biti, formerly Minister of Finance when the MDC co-governed with ZANU PF, says that is so in terms of his lawfully acquired properties and wealth. That which has not been lawfully acquired is not the property of Mugabe, but part of the resources of the people of the country. (https://www.timeslive.co.za/sunday-times/news/2017-11-25-tendai-biti-show-us-the-ill-gotten-wealth-mugabe/).
But what this points to for South Africa is that ideas of packages to get rid of Zuma amount to similar anti-democratic dealings, above the heads of the masses and citizenry generally, in order to remove this individual. The fruits of this deal will not be to enhance democracy. The very means of removal point to the continuation of the types of deals that have constituted Zumaism itself.
Not only would an attempt to emulate the good fortunes of Mugabe (for Zuma) be elitist and anti-democratic. It is also likely to be illegal, insofar as it may entail allowing the president to escape prosecution for the various criminal acts he is alleged to have committed.
What South Africans need to ask is whether removal of Zuma is the overriding goal that is so important that all other conditions are of little consequences. Alternatively, do we want to remove Zuma in order to inaugurate a reign of legality, reduction of debt and unemployment, broad transformation and non-violence? If we do not see a way of achieving this within the parameters of existing official politics are we doomed to live this way forever?
The answer to this question relates to how we conceive our democratic life and some may see my perspective as romantic. It derives from both experience and studying the history of democracy, internationally. If the power of reasoning fails, history has taught us that the power of the people may be deployed in order to reinforce the impression that not only Zuma must go, but that we must rebuild democratic life. That the masses are involved is itself an important precursor to such a change, but it cannot happen just like that, even though conditions are dire and urgent.
Mass or civic action has been seen on repeated occasions in recent years but it has been episodic. For the action of the population or the citizenry to count as a form of power, means it needs to be organised and organisations need to unite behind agreed visions and programmes. That takes patient work in building structures. However well-meaning the demonstrations for Zuma’s fall have been, they have not been sustained in organised form. There needs to be a lot more listening to what participants want to see in their future and this needs to be incorporated within a vision that can attract overwhelming support, which becomes a force that bears the power of legitimacy and numbers.
Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a Part-time Professor attached to Rhodes University and an Emeritus Professor at UNISA. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s prison has recently been reissued with a new introduction covering his more recent “life outside the ANC” by Jacana Media. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner