To the casual observer, nothing much seems to have happened in Zimbabwe of recent times. Robert Mugabe, the world’s oldest head of state, remains president. And Zanu-PF is still the ruling party, more than 35 years after it took power. But there have, in fact, been tectonic shifts in the nation’s politics. The opposition – like Zimbabwean society itself – has become deeply fractured. The united front presented by Morgan Tsvangirai in the early 2000s now seems light years away, as does any meaningful co-operation between the multitude of parties that have split from the original Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Yet such fragmentation extends now to Zanu-PF itself – and that’s a big deal.
Zanu-PF has always been riven by factions. During the liberation war of the 1970s, it was nearly torn apart by these divisions. Differences between personalities and subethnic groups continued after independence in 1980. But much of what has made Mugabe so successful a politician has been an uncanny ability to manage these conflicts and turn them to his advantage. A strategic sense of balance has been key. Internal opponents and troublemakers were isolated and, where necessary, excommunicated or worse, while their supporters were frequently left only to contemplate the price of dissent or suffered lesser forms of punishment. For the reformed, there was always the hope of rehabilitation. By these and other means, Mugabe managed for nearly 40 years to prevent schisms from becoming wide enough to threaten the structural integrity of the party.
That has now changed. Over the last 18 months, an unprecedented purge has effectively demolished this delicately-balanced edifice. Whether or not the party will survive Mugabe’s departure is moot, but what is certain is that it can never be the same. Most conspicuously, former Vice President Joice Mujuru and many of her allies were expelled from the party en masse in 2015. It is almost impossible to imagine Mugabe endorsing an action of this nature in his heyday; mortality finally appears to be having its way not only with his body but with his mind and influence. A driving force behind the ructions in the party is the First Lady, Grace Mugabe, who has neither the standing nor thenous to play the hazardous game played so cunningly for so long by her husband. Since the ousting of Mujuru, Grace and her faction have antagonised and provoked ambitious groupings around Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa and security services chiefs. Many now fear that violence will erupt when Mugabe dies.
Meanwhile, Mujuru and other Zanu-PF rejects have joined the unfamiliar ranks of the opposition. Many inside and outside Zimbabwe see in her and Zimbabwe People First (ZimPF) – the political party she recently established – as the potential leader of a coalition capable of garnering enough of the traditional Zanu and MDC constituencies to win elections due in 2018.
However, Mujuru – like Mnangagwa and others who are trying to reinvent themselves as Mugabe’s death looms – have significant problems ahead of them because of what lies behind them. Coming from a party which has perennially traded on its liberation credentials – and with equal enthusiasm used a selective narrative of the liberation to assault and insult Tsvangirai and others – Mujuru et al are now finding that the past is not simply a useful stick but a two-edged sword. The problem is this: for most of Zimbabwe’s voters, the abuses wrought by Zanu-PF since independence are far fresher than the events that preceded it.
Predictably, awkward questions have already arisen – and the unconvincing attempts made to deal with them have merely served to increase scrutiny on the personal histories of Zanu politicians who seek Mugabe’s throne. Indeed, the Zanu-PF post-independence narrative is not so much one of selective memory but total amnesia. For a group so preoccupied with the past, it is remarkable how little they appear to remember of the years after the war.
The period that current and former Zanu stalwarts would most like Zimbabweans to forget is the Gukurahundi, when thousands of Ndebele-speakers were slaughtered by the army’s 5th Brigade in 1983-4. The pretext for these massacres was the emergence of a “dissident” or bandit problem in Matabeleland, which the government disingenuously alleged to be orchestrated by Joshua Nkomo’s Zapu party and its supporters. Mnangagwa recently denied a statement from 1983, quoted in a book by lawyer David Coltart, in which he threatened to burn down “all villages infested with dissidents” and asserted that the campaign against dissidents could only succeed if the “infrastructure” which nurtured them was “destroyed”. Coltart pointed out that he had done nothing more than cite a contemporary account in the government-controlled Chronicle newspaper.
Mnangagwa might have been better advised to point at his colleagues rather than deny the obvious. Such statements were regularly issued by Zanu ministers in that period and enthusiastically reported by the state-owned media. Mugabe, for example, said in April 1983 that “communities which sympathised with dissidents must not be shocked when the government viewed them as enemies of peace as much as the dissidents themselves. Communities which helped dissidents must not be surprised if they were punished as severely as the dissidents.”
Amnesia over the Gukurahundi is not confined to the Mnangagwa faction. A prominent defector to Mujuru’s ZimPF is retired brigadier-general Agrippah Mutambara, who said he was not forced out of the ruling party but had left as a matter of principle: “Conscience forbids me from remaining in Zanu-PF given its track record of intimidation and violence”. Naturally, he has said nothing of his own record in this regard. During theGukurahundi, he did not shoot the messenger – he raped her instead. Judith Todd, the daughter of a former Rhodesian Prime Minister who was forced into exile in the 1970s for her support of the nationalist cause, was the first person to approach the government with documented evidence of 5th Brigade atrocities. The material in her possession had been compiled by the Catholic church, which was seeking to transmit it to Mugabe. As Todd described in her 2007 autobiography, she was raped by Mutambara after being instructed to liaise with him. The officer who directed her to Mutambara, and who presumably issued an order for her to be taught a lesson for her audacity, was Solomon Mujuru, the then chief of the army and Joice Mujuru’s late husband.
The bad news for Mujuru and company is that such exposure is set to increase rather than decrease with time. This incident, like that involving Mnangagwa, has long been a matter of public knowledge, even if awareness of it has been limited. But there is much that has been hidden which will shortly come to light – with more to come over the next five years. Foreign archives, which are a treasure trove of formerly classified information on events in Zimbabwe during the 1980s, are progressively disgorging masses of documents that will make for uncomfortable reading for those who have suppressed discussion and investigation of the period. There are also many Zimbabweans keenly awaiting the moment when they will be able to testify safely about what they saw and heard. These include members of the civil service and security sector, some of whom are already speaking with greater boldness as Zanu-PF’s disintegration accelerates.
The threat posed by such inconvenient truths is well-illustrated by the case of Didymus Mutasa, a long-time confidant of Mugabe’s who went out the door with Mujuru and who is a high-profile founding member of ZimPF. Mutasa’s latter-day conversion to democracy has come under fire from Jestina Mukoko, an activist who was abducted and tortured by government agents in 2008 when Mutasa was minister of state security. Mutasa subsequently issued a ministerial certificate protecting the identity of the abductors. Mukoko has since taken Mutasa to court, declaring that “it does not change anything that he is no longer with Zanu-PF and he is now with People First; he is still Didymus Mutasa … The message to Zimbabwe is that as Zimbabweans, we need to hold people to account. People need to be responsible for their actions”.
Mutasa, for his part, has come out swinging at his detractors, suing opposition leader Tendai Biti for allegedly stating that he was responsible for the death of a child who was incinerated during an act of politically-motivated violence in 2013. Mutasa’s deposition claimed that he was “internationally well-known” and of “unimpeached character”; Biti had struck at his “professional reputation and good character”, causing injury to his “good name, reputation, social and political standing”.
Mutasa and others like him will have to become more accustomed to such humiliation and the prospect of legal action. To be sure, whether Mutasa will, in the short term, receive a sympathetic hearing from a compromised judiciary seems largely irrelevant. Recently released documents show clearly that Mutasa’s predilection for violence extends back over decades. In 1985, when Zanu-PF was piling massive personal pressure on Joshua Nkomo in order to compel him to dismantle Zapu and fold it into the ruling party, Mutasa boasted to a diplomat that Nkomo had been “very difficult” in the past because he had made “impossible demands”. “This time,” however, “they had tried to ‘beat Nkomo up’ by using strong-arm tactics against him … these tactics seemed to be successful in that Nkomo had come to them very much cap in hand and begged for unity.”
These “strong-arm” methods included the arrest and torture of people close to Nkomo, including his personal assistant, Primrose Ncube, and were the last straw for an old man who had experienced the devastation of his party and his people – and an assassination attempt – during the then recently-ended Gukurahundi. Mutasa was undoubtedly right. Nkomo had received the message loud and clear. He privately told the same diplomat that he had no choice but to surrender: there would be “horrible things” if “unity” talks between the parties broke down, and resistance by the Ndebele “could lead to their race being wiped out”.
Oral testimony is more damning again for Mutasa. In a demonstration of the extent of Mutasa’s involvement in political violence, a former member of 3 Brigade based in Mutare who left the national army and fled to South Africa – nicknamed “Mbokodo” – has recounted how he had once been required to accompany Mutasa to a Zanu-PF “base” during an election campaign in the early 2000s. Such makeshift camps were scattered throughout the rural areas, manned by Zanu youth and war veterans, and notorious as places of torture for MDC supporters. On arrival, the company was greeted by the sight of a member of the opposition, trussed up and prone on the ground. Mutasa then delivered to onlookers a lesson none were intended to forget. “This is how we used to deal with sell-outs during the war,” he told the crowd as he poured petrol on the man and set him alight. Tragically, Mbokodo himself became another casualty of this atrocity. He showed increasing signs of mental breakdown during his exile and eventually took his own life. The Mutasa killing and other experiences seem to have played an important part in this process.
In another piece of sublime irony and self-delusion, Mutasa has declared Mnangagwa “unelectable”, but where does all this leave Mujuru? In an attempt to present her party as a unifying factor and something more than stale broth, reheated and repackaged in the hope that memories are short, she has made uncertain noises about the need for a national truth-telling exercise akin to Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Yet, for many, a yawning credibility gap is likely to grow yet larger for as long as she remains mute about those in her own ranks. Nor is that the end of her trouble. She herself has been implicated in the Gukurahundi by diplomatic documents. An Australian cable released last year recounts a conversation with Edson Zvobgo, a member of Zanu’s Central Committee, at the height of the killings in 1983. Zvobgo spoke of a “decision of the Central Committee that there had to be a ‘massacre’ of Ndebeles”. Before the inception of the politburo in 1984, the 20-member Central Committee was the party’s peak policy-making body – and Joice Mujuru was a member of it, as were Mnangagwa and Mutasa.
Mujuru is yet to react to this disclosure. To be sure, she faces an unenviable dilemma. An honest account of what she saw, heard – and did (or failed to do) – during the Gukurahundi and other periods of abuse would win her the support of many Zimbabweans who yearn for real and deep reform. On the other hand, such a move could alienate a large constituency within her fledgling party and provoke dangerous elements in Zanu-PF. The temptation will be to continue to sit on the fence. But the risks of inaction are also significant. Attacks on ZimPF’s integrity will persist, new information will continue to surface, and that credibility gap could become a yawning chasm. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that, sooner rather than later, Joice Mujuru will have to choose whether she will be a leader or a political operator, whether she will head a movement or just another of Zimbabwe’s opposition parties.
Her dilemma is, in a sense, that of the nation itself. Mugabe’s passing will lead to either regression, continued stagnation or some form of genuine change. Given the backdrop – which makes for an “operating system” riddled with malware – options one or two seem most likely. At the same time, human history is not simply about forces beyond our control, but about human beings and the choices we make. That is why Zimbabweans, despite the crushing disappointments and griefs of the post-independence period, keep hoping against hope that change will come. – The Daily Maverick
Dr Stuart Doran is a historian and the author of a forthcoming book, Kingdom, Power, Glory: Mugabe, Zanu and the quest for supremacy, 1960–87.