Game of thrones

The Hindu Business Line/ 24 Nov 2017
By Professor Sukumar Muralidharan


With all the competition that despots in Iraq and Libya offered, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe succeeded early this century in enthroning himself among the most reviled of world leaders. He seemed not to care, since, in his imagination, he still wore the halo of the liberator. His near-neighbourhood was indulgent, deferring to his status as an elder and disinclined to entertain faux Western outrage, seen rightly as an effort to prop up fading colonial privileges.


Mugabe was astute at balancing internal power factions, but his judgement was perhaps unhinged by advancing years and the flattery of courtiers. Liberation was the sacred totem around which political legitimacy in Zimbabwe revolved. And Mugabe may have made another fatal error in moving too fast towards a transfer of power to a generation that came of age after liberation. Within his ruling party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Popular Front (ZANU-PF), the faction aligned with his second wife, the much younger Grace Mugabe, was impatient for change, and perhaps too unmindful of the old guard.


Mugabe’s summary dismissal of Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa set in train the events that led to a motion for his impeachment within a matter of days. Prior to that, ultimatums from the military and the top leadership councils of his party were ignored. The military humoured him for a while, allowing him the daily rituals of leadership. But as the chorus customarily raised to sing his praises began demanding his departure, Mugabe gave in.


Zimbabwe’s liberation stood at a point of inflection in that cycle which began with the chaotic withdrawal of Portuguese colonialism from Southern Africa in 1974. Angola and Mozambique were plunged into internal strife as rival factions fought over the mantle of liberation. Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe then was, became the staging post for a reassertion of imperial power within the newly independent nations, both transformed into surrogate battlegrounds of the Cold War.

Zimbabwe won its independence by forswearing the radicalism that had excited western anxieties in Angola and Mozambique. The Lancaster House agreement, under which the rogue Rhodesian regime of Ian Smith agreed to majority rule, also embodied several concessions to white settler privilege. That was the template, perhaps, for the far more momentous transition to majority rule in South Africa in the mid-1990s. The Cold War had run its course and, after years when the West clung to the defence of white privilege and used South Africa as a staging post for continuing havoc in Mozambique and Angola, the ideological challenge, it seemed, had abated.


South Africa had suffered a denial of legitimacy in world councils, despite the strenuous efforts by the prophets of neo-liberalism Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to render apartheid pretty. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the risks of majority rule seemed successfully contained, since white privilege now expressed itself as the freedom of the market.


Majority rule in South Africa proved the salvation of white privilege, freeing it of both the moral burden of apartheid and the economic sanctions that had begun to bite deep. In Zimbabwe, the Lancaster House agreement, which committed the majority to honouring the property interests of the white minority, expired by 1990. But Mugabe still stuck to a policy of restraint and, as Zimbabwe was beset by droughts and economic crises through the ’90s, entered with stoic resignation upon the structural adjustment programmes dictated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).


Patience was at an end by the late-’90s. In 1998, in its first overt expression of restiveness at the neo-liberal chokehold, Zimbabwe intervened in the civil war in Congo. There was perhaps an underlying political solidarity there, though the greater incentive may have been to secure a share of Congo’s mineral booty for Zimbabwe’s top military clique. And then, in 2000, came the “fast-track land reforms”, done with an elaborate pretence of legality, though frequently descending into forced seizures of white-owned farms.


The West was swift with its condemnations, with Britain and the US, in particular, imposing the kind of sanctions that had been road-tested in Iraq through the 1990s. As the IMF withdrew all forms of assistance, the West stepped back in seeming satisfaction that its prophecies of economic doom were fulfilled. Except there was an alternative narrative that emerged and gained traction: that the eagerness to sanction Zimbabwe by those very nations that had proven the most solicitous of apartheid South Africa, was Western double-standards at their most blatant.

Where does Mugabe’s departure now leave Zimbabwe? Those expecting a new dawn of freedom could be sorely disappointed. The likely successor, Mnangagwa, has been among the most ruthless of Mugabe’s enforcers, with a stellar role in the brutal suppression of the rival liberation movement, Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African Peoples’ Union (ZAPU) through the ’80s, and in the elimination of political rivals through the 2008 cycle of elections.


Mass unrest at the yoke of neo-liberalism is, meanwhile, growing, not merely in Zimbabwe but also in neighbouring South Africa, the political and economic pivot of the region. “Rhodes must fall” is the slogan that rings out among the youth of South Africa today, the insistence that relics of the colonial past must be dismantled. This converges with “the fees must fall” call, an expression of youthful protest at the denial of fair opportunity in the post-apartheid university system. Mugabe’s fall is certainly a step towards a transformative politics in southern Africa, except not quite in the manner the West anticipates.