Interest in Zimbabwe has spiked around the world following recent events in that African country. This affords an opportunity to consider not only the current political underpinnings of the crisis in Zimbabwe and the struggle for power by various political forces in the country, but also the much more serious and complex topic of the ideological legacy of Robert Mugabe.
The political outline of events is more or less clear. Two opposing forces have consolidated around the president of Zimbabwe in recent years. One of them includes his brothers in arms – former guerrilla warriors who fought against the white racist regime of Southern Rhodesia – who risked their lives and won freedom and independence for Zimbabwe from Ian Smith’s homespun white racists and the British colonialists. Figuratively speaking, they are like Old Bolsheviks. Most of them are elderly, with their leaders anywhere between 60 and 70 years old. This group is led by Emmerson Mnangagwa, who was Mugabe’s personal aide at the end of the guerrilla war and is now one of the two vice-presidents of that country. His dismissal triggered the crisis. Mnangagwa created one of the first black guerrilla groups in eastern Rhodesia – Manicaland – in 1964-1965. Since it was dubbed Crocodile Gang, his military moniker was Crocodile. So, with a touch of irony, his supporters are referred to as Team Lacoste in Zimbabwe in a nod to a famous clothing company which uses a crocodile in its logo.
Since many distinguished guerrilla war veterans now hold key positions in the Armed Forces, such as Commander of the Zimbabwe Defense Forces General Constantine Chiwenga who is leading this military revolt, and Air Marshal Perence Shiri, this group of people controls the army. The key political demand of Team Lacoste is that after 93-year-old Mugabe goes, Zimbabwe should be led by someone who fought in the guerrilla war, i.e only someone who risked his life for Zimbabwe's freedom has the moral right to lead the country.
A younger generation of politicians, who call themselves the G40 (the generation of 40-year-olds), opposes the elderly Mnangagwa and other Old Bolsheviks inside the Zimbabwean ZANU-PF ruling party. The name clearly indicates that their primary goal is to make room for young politicians. The group is led by Mugabe’s second wife, Grace, who is 40 years his junior. Grace Mugabe’s reputation in the country is mixed. She was nicknamed the First Shopper for her addiction to shopping at expensive international stores. She is also frequently involved in various high society scandals. Most recently, in August 2017, a major diplomatic scandal broke out between Zimbabwe and South Africa, when Grace discovered a South African model in her sons' room at a Johannesburg hotel and whipped her with an electric cord till she bled. First, the South African authorities were going to arrest her, but then recognized her diplomatic immunity and let her leave the country. However, despite these scandals abroad, Grace Mugabe and the G40 control the youth movement in the ZANU-PF party. In the current political culture in Zimbabwe, crowded youth meetings and the so-called direct action of the young people act as a trigger for many political campaigns. Among the uniformed services, the G40 controls the police.
It was no coincidence that the Secretary of the ZANU-PF Central Committee in charge of youth affairs was the only one to speak out against the military coup on its very first day, and the police tried to detain General Chiwenga himself when he returned to the country from China following resignation of Mnangagwa. However, loyal soldiers disrupted the attempt. It was also not accidental that the general police commissioner and the country's youth leaders were the first ones to be arrested by the military on the first night of the coup. The clashes between these two forces for influence on President Mugabe and who will lead Zimbabwe after him underlies current developments in Zimbabwe. It’s as simple as that.
However, to understand the current political crisis in Zimbabwe, we must understand the political and ideological legacy of one of the most complex and controversial figures of African (and international) politics, Robert Mugabe. People in the West, and often in Russia, customarily denounce him as a black racist, 90-year-old tyrant, and even immortal monster. Hollywood even makes movies about "the tyrant Mugabe" such as The Interpreter which directly alludes to him. However, the actual situation is not nearly so straightforward.
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In the 1960s-1970s, Robert Mugabe was one of the leaders of the liberation movement of the peoples of Africa against colonialism and racism. He was a schoolteacher who received his first education in a Jesuit mission (Jesuitism is another label that goes with Mugabe). At the turn of the 1950-1960s, he left for Ghana, which was the first black African nation to gain independence, and witnessed the first steps of the first free African state led by President Kwame Nkrumah. It was there that Mugabe became familiar with the ideas of African socialism and adapting classical Marxism to the national liberation movement in Africa. He also met his first wife, Sally, in Ghana (the contrast between Sally's good influence and Grace's bad influence on Robert Mugabe is a stereotypical discussion topic among experts on Zimbabwe and public opinion in that country). Then, Mugabe returned to Rhodesia for a vacation. His friend, Leopold Takawira, a well-known black rights activist, invited him to speak before a rally as a teacher from the first free African country. His speech was a great success, Mugabe decided not to go back to Ghana, and stayed in Rhodesia. He quickly joined the activists of the ZAPU party for black rights in Rhodesia and, in 1963, after ZAPU split in many ways for tribalistic reasons, Mugabe became general secretary of the new ZANU party. He was subsequently imprisoned for 11 years and eventually released from prison under pressure, ironically, from then Prime Minister of South Africa Vorster, who believed that the more the white racist regime tightened the screws in neighboring Rhodesia, the more radical the black movement became in South Africa. After that, Mugabe left for Mozambique, which had just gained independence from Portugal. Ironically, he was held under house arrest for almost a year by the Marxist leader of the new Mozambique Samora Machel. Mugabe became the leader of the guerrilla war which the ZANU party led from the territory of Mozambique against the white racists led by Ian Smith only in 1977. It is Mugabe who managed to turn isolated guerrilla raids into a full-fledged war which was waged in eastern Rhodesia on three fronts. Such a massive anti-colonial war was unprecedented in Africa. Nothing even remotely resembling this war effort ever happened in South Africa, and even fighting in Namibia was of much lower intensity. As a result, Mugabe triumphantly won this war a couple of years later, and then diplomatically attained Zimbabwe's independence on the principles of democracy in the black majority country, winning the first elections in 1980.
Robert Mugabe’s biography is marked by yet another irony, which accounts for the mixed feelings he has engendered in the Soviet Union and then Russia. The Soviet Union supported a close alliance between the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party in South Africa in the anti-colonial movement in southern Africa, and was in contact with the partners of these organizations in neighboring countries. So, in Rhodesia, the Soviet Union supported the ZAPU party led by Joshua Nkomo, which in the 1960s conducted a number of joint military campaigns with the ANC. However, when ZAPU split, and a new party, ZANU, led by Mugabe emerged from it, the Soviet Union looked at them as secessionists and continued to work with ZAPU. In response, ZANU turned to another Marxist benefactor – Maoist China. Mugabe provided clear ideological clarifications for doing so. The peasant civil war promoted by Mao Zedong (based on his Chinese experience) corresponded much more to social realities in black Africa than the struggle of the proletariat emphasized by the Soviet Union, since the organized black working class in Rhodesia was far less numerous than the peasantry. And it was the peasantry that provided the bulk of military personnel for the ZANU-led guerrilla war. Thus, the political conflict between the Soviet Union and China found its way into the internal political struggle in the Zimbabwean black movement for freedom.
However in providing support to ZAPU and rejecting ZANU, the Soviet Union failed to take into account one circumstance which is the power of tribalistic divisions in Africa. ZAPU and Nkomo enjoyed the support of the Ndebele tribe, whereas ZANU and Mugabe were supported by the Shona tribe. The Ndebele accounted for about 20 percent of the black population of Rhodesia, and the Shona 80 percent. Hence, a straightforward logical conclusion: when the first free elections were held in 1980, the Shona voted for ZANU, and the Ndebele for ZAPU. The overwhelming demographic majority of Shona resulted in the convincing victory of ZANU and Robert Mugabe. The Soviet Union, which bet on the wrong horse, was left with nothing. That is why Mugabe, although a revolutionary and a Marxist, was seen by the Kremlin as someone who is not “one of us.” This accounts for the coolness toward him in the Soviet Union and then the new Russia. For example, during his African tour in 2009, then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who visited several countries of the continent in one trip (the first major visit by a Russian leader to that region following the collapse of the Soviet Union), did not go to Zimbabwe. The situation in bilateral relations changed only after Crimea became part of Russia, when in 2014 Zimbabwe joined 11 other countries in supporting Russia in the UN General Assembly during the first vote on this matter. In 2015, Robert Mugabe came to Moscow to attend Victory Parade and met with Vladimir Putin. It was then that the President of Zimbabwe famously said, "you have sanctions, we have sanctions,” we will fight together.
Let's go back to the 1980s. After winning the election, Robert Mugabe became one of the most popular figures of the national liberation movement internationally. He proved that guerrilla warfare against a vastly superior enemy can be quite successful, and devised a genuinely brilliant strategy for mobilizing the masses to fight. However, as leader of Zimbabwe, he did not conduct any radical social experiments or plunge the country into economic chaos (as was the case, for example, in Mozambique and Angola). He appointed a white man – the head of the Commercial Farmers' Union Denis Norman – to the position of the Minister of Agriculture in his first government, which was a key position for a country of extensive agricultural exports (tobacco, meat, grain, etc.). In his memoirs, Norman describes the first five years of independent Zimbabwe as a huge economic success. The capital of the new Zimbabwe, Salisbury/Harare, quickly started drawing in businessmen and civil activists from around the world. The cosmopolitan and open atmosphere of Harare during the first years of independence is described in many memoirs as a kind of Beirut of the 1960s, before the civil war. Leading posts in the army, intelligence and police, as well as the post of Finance Minister, also went to the whites. Black nationalist Mugabe was able to maintain interracial dialogue, whereas Marxist Mugabe was capable of delivering rapid economic growth.
However, three events took place which dramatically changed Robert Mugabe’s views. The first was in 1985 when the new parliamentary election was held in the country – the first since the "elections of independence" in 1980. Under the diplomatic terms of transferring power to the black majority in the first years of independence, the white community of Zimbabwe, even though it accounted for only a couple percent of the country's population, received a guaranteed 20 seats in the 100-seat parliament of Zimbabwe. In 1985, during the elections, the whites voted not for moderate candidates supporting Mugabe, but the old racist party – Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front – which despised Mugabe and openly ridiculed him (hundreds of dogs at rich white farms were nicknamed Mugabe back then). As a result, 15 out of 20 white seats went to Ian Smith’s racists.
Denis Norman recalls that Mugabe was terribly disappointed at the time, saying that he did everything for the whites, and that they became much richer on his watch than they were during the period of sanctions, and that he wanted to build a harmonious multiracial society, but no matter what he did, they still considered him an enemy and an outcast. Norman admits that the white community of Zimbabwe was unable to rise above racial prejudice and acted absolutely irrationally to the detriment of its objective interests and the country's development. Following these elections, Mugabe had a change of heart with regard to the local white people. However, white pragmatist Norman blames whites not Mugabe for this.
The second breakdown occurred in the early 1990s. The regime of apartheid was dismantled in South Africa, and Nelson Mandela was released from prison. In 1994, he became president. Despite a wave of interracial violence that swept South Africa in those years (nothing of the sort happened in Zimbabwe right after it gained independence), Mandela quickly replaced Mugabe as the world leader of the national liberation movement. Now, he was the one to travel around the world, speak at the UN and draw rounds of applause. Everyone seemed to have forgotten about Mugabe and his achievements. Mandela had not led anything like Mugabe’s victorious liberation war. Indeed, apartheid in South Africa was abolished from above through the good will of President De Klerk, and was not gained as a result of a war like in Rhodesia. Mandela was quietly doing his time in prison when De Klerk released him. Mandela then proceeded to quickly push aside all other leaders of the ANC and the Communist Party who had actually been fighting all these years (for example, Oliver Tambo, Chris Hani, and Joe Slovo, and, from the standpoint of the logic of the struggle, became president "undeservedly"). In addition, taking advantage of South Africa's not yet destroyed economic power, all African leaders quickly reoriented their policies toward Mandela, and the role of Mugabe in African affairs also began to decline rapidly. Mandela was fully aware of this change of focus and openly promoted it. Mandela once said about Mugabe, "he was the star, until the sun came out." Thus, a sharp momentary (and undeserved) denial of global recognition of his merits in the national liberation movement of Africa further altered Robert Mugabe’s outlook. This time, with regard to other leaders of the third world and the global public opinion.
The third, final and most important change in Mugabe’s stance occurred in 1997 and is related to Tony Blair’s arrogance. As the former colonial power, Britain committing itself to financing a special fund to promote the agrarian development of Zimbabwe was one of the key conditions for granting independence to Zimbabwe (and an outstanding diplomatic victory of Robert Mugabe). His goals included providing funds for the gradual and voluntary buyout of white-owned farms to provide black peasants with land (the key goal of ZANU's guerrilla warfare) in order to avoid forced nationalization and associated violence and chaos. This decision was presented as recognition of the responsibility of the colonial power, since the British captured the land owned by the blacks at the turn of the 20th century at the end of firearms and swords, and Mugabe refused outright, as he said, to buy out the people's land which was taken away from our ancestors by force. The British fund was the one to provide funds for these purposes.
As long as the Tories (Thatcher and Major) remained in power in Britain in the 1980-1990s, London made good on its commitments. However, when the Labour Party won in 1997, and Tony Blair became the new prime minister, Britain's position changed. Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development in the government of Blair, sent a very rude note to the government of Zimbabwe stating that "we are a new government from diverse backgrounds without links to former colonial interests." Short stressed in her letter that "my own origins are Irish, as you know, we were colonized not colonizers," and, breaking every rule in the book of diplomatic etiquette, advised Mugabe to no longer disturb her government.
Notably (and this fact is recognized by all his unbiased biographers), Robert Mugabe was an anglophile despite the national liberation struggle he led. His love for English traditions and the everyday ways and customs was well known, and he publicly stated that the United Kingdom brought to Africa not only violence and racism, but carried out an important civilizing mission as well. For a black nationalist, this train of thought seems unlikely, but this represents one of the ironies in the complex nature of Mugabe. In the ethical code of relations between a metropolis and a colony that was extremely important to him, paternalism and the responsibility of a "good metropolis" for its colonies occupied a key place, and this responsibility was not supposed to stop with independence. When Blair and Short refused to share it, it became more than just a diplomatic blow or a financial issue for Mugabe. This became, if you will, an existential challenge to his entire outlook on life and all the principles and values of his political destiny. It was after this demarche by Blair that the world saw a completely changed Mugabe. It was then that his hatred of colonialism, racism and Britain as their embodiment eclipsed everything else in him.
Everyone is aware of what happened next. If Great Britain was unwilling to support Anglo-Saxon farmers, why should Zimbabwe do so? The white farms were forcibly nationalized not by the police or the government, but from below by two new civic forces – veterans of the guerrilla war who fought for land, and the young people who were deprived of it. From that moment on, the two forces, which are behind the current conflict, namely, the military veterans, who formed the basis of the support for Team Lacoste, and the youth which supports the G40 became very influential in the political culture of Zimbabwe. In response to the nationalization of white farms, the West imposed sanctions and launched a large-scale campaign to demonize Mugabe. The spiral of escalating the confrontation was taken to the next level.
Robert Mugabe said in one of his rare recent interviews: "I do not make enemies. Others make me an enemy of theirs." No matter how the political events in Zimbabwe unfold now, one has to admit that Mugabe is a revolutionary and political thinker who has been misunderstood by the world. Moreover, the world has tried in every way to ridicule this man and refused to take him seriously. Perhaps this is the saddest part of the current situation in Zimbabwe.