By Ray Matikinye
More than a year ago events touted as an unfolding new beginning in this Southern African nation raised public hope. The Zimbabwean “benign” coup in November 2017 must be counted among the greatest of surprises for the spike in, restlessness it has spawned. The events somewhat mimicked Mikhail Gorbachev-style glasnost and perestroika rolled in one.
But true to form, history has lived up to its expectation, never found wanting in repeating itself in one form or another no matter how long it might take.
In decades since 1980 leading up to November 2017, virtually no political analyst or aspiring politician foresaw the impending collapse of the Robert Mugabe-led regime alongside its one-party dictatorship; state-controlled economy, and the ruling Zanu PF’s monolithic stranglehold over citizens’ social architecture.
Save for a clutch of exceptions, Zimbabwe’s splintered opposition and single-issue lobbyists did not foresee a monumental economic slide in the aftermath of that collapse.
When Emmerson Mnangagwa and his cohort securocrats became overly chagrined by former First Lady Grace Mugabe’s truculent daring of feuding factions in the ruling party, none of his contemporaries anticipated their reaction would trigger a deep-seated socio-economic crisis.
No one thought the frail, power besotted nonagenarian former school teacher, Mugabe — in unbridled power since 1987 when he assumed the executive presidency — would loosen his grip on power, at least not anytime soon and that his ignoble fall portended the onset of a crippling economic meltdown.
The failure by analysts and social commentators to anticipate the Mugabe administration’s collapse may partly be attributed to public indoctrination steeped in exaggerating his regime’s stability and legitimacy. Others who could hardly be considered as indisposed to dictatorship were just as puzzled by his regime’s dramatic demise.
But one percipient author though, in his book aptly titled Zimbabwe – A Revolution that Lost its Way, somewhat foresaw the demise of Mugabe’s toxic rule as did one of Mugabe’s contemporaries, Eddison Zvobgo, who once cautioned of the dangers of turning noble reform processes into “a racial enterprise”.
Zvobgo was referring to the chaotic, often violent agrarian reform which, alongside a raft of other hostile and out-of-sync economic policies, is credited with spawning a spectacular economic meltdown.
Yet even after the “soft coup”, the assumption that Zimbabwe would continue in its current state, or at most that it would eventually begin a long, drawn-out decline fuelled by disputed election outcomes seemed just as unpredictable. There is a slew of similarities between Zimbabwe under the so-called “new dispensation” and the Soviet Union under Gorbachev and his legendary glasnost and perestroika.
Picture this and wonder whether Mnangagwa’s putsch was cloned from a Gorbachev prototype which prompted the famed glasnost and perestroika.
In the Soviet Union the standard of living was much lower than in most of Eastern Europe, and most of other countries in the West. Shortages, basic commodity rationing, long queues in stores, and acute poverty were endemic.
Zimbabwe has been facing foreign currency shortages that have torched a socio-economic crisis with supplies of fuel, basic commodities and medical drugs drying up. Like the Soviet Union, Zimbabwe has witnessed far greater calamities and coped without sacrificing an iota of the state’s grip on society and economy, much less surrendering it. But the calamities here seem to have reached a fresh pitch attributed to endless political bungling, endemic economic mismanagement fuelled by corruption among the elite and disputed elections.
The rapidly advancing economic crisis appears underpinned by potential investors’ reluctance to take the gamble and loosen their purses and inject critical impetus to economic recovery in the aftermath of state-induced post-election violence that left seven unarmed civilians dead.
For a country that has a long history of state-sponsored violence, the controversial post-plebiscite ballot counting raised the bridge ahead of what might have been viewed as a clearer path towards international acceptance and investor conﬁdence. The post-election deaths took the wind out of the little prospects of sprucing up the pariah status Zimbabwe has long endured.
Stagnation during the ancien regime under Mugabe was obvious and worrisome. But from the regime’s point of view, the political circumstances were even less troublesome after decades of relentless suppression of political opposition, through capricious legislation that hamstrung virtually all prominent antagonists for democracy to thrive. Nothing seems to have changed.
There seemed to be other signs Mnangagwa’s glasnost and perestroika of a pre-putsch crisis, including other traditionally assigned causes of state failure — external pressure often cited by the ruling Zanu PF elite as punitive illegal sanctions imposed by the West and its allies for pervasive human rights abuses. Between November 2017 and now, the state and its economic system have evidently begun to totter towards the brink.
The latest Zimbabwean revolution, akin to Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika, extended well beyond the necessity to correct the economic malaise or make the international environment more benign.
The core of Mnangagwa’s enterprise is undeniably idealistic:
He wants to build a more modern Zimbabwe — a middle income economy as his trite mantra claims. For though economic betterment instantly became his government’s clarion call, there is little doubt that Mnangagwa and his ruling clique set out to tinker with uprooting corruption rather than confront economic wrongs head-on.
One of the reasons trotted out for the benign putsch was to weed out a corrupt cabal behind Zimbabwe’s moribund economy through corrupt practices among the elite beholden to Mugabe.
It still remains an insurmountable hurdle to overcome even though a facade is often put up that weeding out corruption among the elite is a priority.
Only a small part of the oligarchy has been prosecuted, much to the nettling disdain among the citizenry who thought putsch leaders had hit the ground running.
Most of what the architects of the putsch said publicly in the early days now seems no more than an expression of their sorrow over the decline and corrosive effects of the Mugabe regime’s past. For the putschists much of it was the same scenario Gorbachev faced in 1985.
It was the beginning of a desperate search for answers to the big questions with which every great revolution starts: What is a good, dignified life? What constitutes a just social and economic order? What is a decent and legitimate state? What should such a state’s relationship with civil society be? The Soviet ruling elite, like the leaders of the “soft coup”, initially purported to do, was to espouse pragmatism and face reality, as Gorbachev’s prime minister, Nikolai Ryzhkov, succinctly put it: “We stole from ourselves, took and gave bribes, lied in the reports, in newspapers, from high podiums, wallowed in our lies, hung medals on one another. And all of this — from top to bottom and from bottom to top”.
These are hallmarks of Zimbabwe’s ills, too stubborn to wash.
Former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze was just as pained by ubiquitous lawlessness and corruption and told Gorbachev: “Everything is rotten. It has to be changed.”
One can easily draw similarities between Gorbachev and Mnangagwa. The latter’s initial narrative seemed cloned from the Gorbachev prototype.
“A new work ethic is taking shape in the country,” Gorbachev told the central committee at the January 1987 meeting where he declared glasnost — openness — and democratisation to be the foundation of his perestroika, or restructuring, of Soviet society. “A re-appraisal of values and their creative rethinking is underway.”
Zimbabweans mistakenly felt the ideals of a new dispensation had come at an ideal time amid their increasing indignation at corruption, brazen thievery, lies, and the obstacles in the way of honest work. Anticipations of “substantive” changes were in the air.
Mnangagwa is still a troubadour of the mantra of a new dispensation even though ordinary people seem not to derive any joy from that rhetoric. And that is where the similarities with Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost end.
It might be instructive for Zimbabweans to come to terms with the fact that it may be enough just to bring down the ancien regime, but not to overcome in one fell swoop, a deep-seated authoritarian national political culture. The roots of the democratic institutions spawned by morally charged revolutions may prove too shallow to sustain a functioning democracy in a society with precious little tradition of openness.
More than a year now, Zimbabweans still wonder if a revolution from past malpractices has occurred. Most seem to regret their participation in an event that rallied them onto the streets and seem to think that they have clapped their hands too early.
Their frustrations found expression in January this year in a national shutdown triggered by Mnangagwa’s announcement of a hefty price hike in fuel prices that spawned nationwide looting, resulting in further civilian deaths when security forced opened fired on rioters, killing 16 and injuring scores of others in an unprecedented crackdown.
Government’s heavy-handed reaction battened down international belief that nothing much had changed regarding its blighted record of human rights abuse.