Long Read | Part two: Unlearning the Zimbabwean lesson

In this second of a two-part interview, historian Sabelo J Ndlovu-Gatsheni discusses Robert Mugabe’s failure to mould a new nation and the political culture needed for the future.

Percy Zvomuya: Let us segue into the Gukurahundi, the event and process which turns the Shona into anathema among the Ndebele-speaking people of Zimbabwe. Twenty thousand people are believed to have been killed by an army unit known as the Fifth Brigade, which was working with the Central Intelligence Organisation. 

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: If we take seriously the issues I have discussed in part one of this interview, it would seem that the dark chapter in Zimbabwean post-colonial history was almost inevitable. Political opposition was never tolerated. Anti-colonial nationalism failed to mature into post-colonial horizontal comradeship and pan-ethnic patriotism. Ethnic thinking re-emerged in its most detestable forms. The Western powers were against [Zimbabwe African People’s Union] Zapu and [Zimbabwe People’s Republican Army] Zipra because of their alignment with the Soviet Union. Rhodesia generals and intelligence officers were giving [Robert] Mugabe toxic advice. Our neighbour, South Africa, was against the Zapu-ANC and Zipra-uMkhonto weSizwe alliance [the latter were the military wings of the former]. 

Part one:

During the liberation struggle, [the Zanu-PF military wing, Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army) Zanla had conquered Mashonaland and Manicaland for Zanu-PF and Mugabe, but Matabeleland and the Midlands had escaped the Zanu-PF and Zanla “shock doctrine” of instilling long-lasting fear and then capturing the people for the party and its leader. Operation Gukurahundi, from 1982 to 1987, extended it to Matabeleland and the Midlands regions of Zimbabwe.        

Zvomuya: Yes, former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere talks about it in 1979. In an interview he did at the time, Nyerere said: “No liberation – no country – has had two armies. You can’t have a country with two armies. But you know Zapu and Zanu are fond of the British parliamentary model. I say to them, ‘Look, if you follow the British model, then you must have only one army because Britain has only one army.’ I have told them they must overcome this problem, and we have discussed it until I think they don’t even want to hear me anymore.” 

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: In the first place, the historical record informs us that there was bad blood between Nyerere and [Zapu founder] Joshua Nkomo. But let me proceed to say the telltale signs were always there that something bad was going to happen between the triumphant Zanu-PF and Zanla, and Zapu and Zipra. After winning elections, Zanu-PF and Zanla became very reckless in their songs and music and slogans, as though the newly born Zimbabwe was already a one-party state. Remember also that colonialism had always refused to allow black people to coalesce into nations. It always wanted to see black people as ontological tribes. Ethnic consciousness was supported while national consciousness was criminalised. Divide and rule was a colonial modus operandi. So the failure of nation-building is both a failure of nationalism and a deliberate strategy of colonialism. 

But let’s go back to [former Zambian president Kenneth] Kaunda, who says the crisis of post-colonial nation-building was in fact in the failure to translate popular anti-colonial nationalism into post-colonial patriotism. We failed to do that. Leadership was needed, especially bearing in mind that a nation doesn’t come into existence just by declaration. You can’t say, “I have named the country Zimbabwe, so tomorrow there are going to be Zimbabweans.” I dealt with this question extensively in my 2009 book, Do ‘Zimbabweans’ Exist? Trajectories of Nationalism, National Identity Formation and Crisis in a Postcolonial State

You will need to constantly build, and at this point I will bring [Nelson] Mandela into the discussion. Mandela’s five years in office, from 1994 to 1999, were mainly spent trying to build a rainbow nation for which ethnic and racial diversities were a sign of national richness and cultural treasure. His only mistake was to think only in terms of black and white, so he invested a lot in trying to bring the whites in – to the extent of ignoring pertinent questions of social and economic justice, including the land question. Let me underscore that nation-building is a constant process; it is never complete. 

Related article:

Zvomuya: But isn’t that what Mugabe did with his famous national reconciliation speech? 

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: It began with Nyerere in Tanzania. But Mugabe’s reconciliation was Mandela type, only extended to white people and addressing white fears. It was never written into any substantive policy. I remember the Zimbabwean scholar Ibbo Mandaza’s interesting critique of reconciliation policies – his argument was that it was proclaimed from a very high moral ground by a weak African leadership that is too quick to join in the post-colonial embourgeoisement project alongside whites. There was a misguided belief that black people were already one people who needed no effort to unite. But Mandela worked very hard, also, to bring the province of KwaZulu-Natal into the national fold without sending in an army to kill people. For Mugabe and Zimbabwe, it is only the Unity Accord of 1987 that speaks black-to-black national unity, after we have the disaster of the Gukurahundi. 

Undated: Guerilla leader Robert Mugabe leading the ‘masses’ to victory. (Photograph courtesy of Basler Afrika Bibliographien)
Undated: Guerilla leader Robert Mugabe leading the ‘masses’ to victory. (Photograph courtesy of Basler Afrika Bibliographien)

Zvomuya: By this time, Zapu was a regional party of Ndebele speakers.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: Zapu was a national party at its very formation in the 1960s. Yes, throughout the liberation struggle and beyond, Mugabe and Zanu-PF always pushed the “provincialisation” and “denationalisation” of Zapu. After 1980, Zapu’s leadership remained representative of both Ndebeles and Shonas. But there were concerted efforts to give Zapu a regional identity – remember how Nkomo and Zapu were prevented by Mugabe and Zanu-PF and Zanla to campaign in Mashonaland and the Midlands. 

Zvomuya: I remember the late nationalist Cephas Msipa, a former Zapu official, telling me that his mother told him that she wouldn’t vote for Zapu but for Zanu-PF, because the latter was saying if it didn’t win the vote in 1980 it would go back to the war.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: Yes, Zapu’s popularity in parts of the Midlands and Matabeleland and its limited electoral victory presented Zanu-PF and Mugabe with a free kick in branding Zapu as just a Ndebele party. During the election campaigns for the independence elections, Mugabe is said to have said to the [last British] governor, “Look, Lord [Christopher] Soames, that Nkomo must campaign in his own country [Matabeleland]”. Mugabe claimed Mashonaland and other parts of the country outside Matabeleland as his own country. But this episode must not surprise us. People born under colonialism will think in the way the coloniser wants them to think. If he said that, his conception of the nation was dangerous. 

Related article:

But because he was popular, nobody said, “No, no, no, we don’t want to be led by somebody who thinks like that.” But at the time there was so much hope, so people didn’t listen to the nuances of things. Mugabe was never clear on the subject of tribalism, unlike Nkomo. Even under threat to his own life, which led him to escape to Britain in 1983, Nkomo vehemently refused to degenerate into tribal politics. Even when white journalists put pressure on him to say the Fifth Brigade, which was killing people in Matabeleland and the Midlands regions, was a Shona army set against the Ndebele, Nkomo refused and said, “It might be a political army. That’s why I insisted to the prime minister [Mugabe] to have a commission of inquiry to find out what’s going on.” Nkomo was not a pretender to nationalism – he was the father of Zimbabwean nationalism. He could not turn against what he produced. I always link this to [Ghanaian president Kwame] Nkrumah, who said Africa was born in him, in response to those who were questioning the existence of Africa as a product of the tyranny of map making. In the same manner, Nkomo was not born in Zimbabwe; Zimbabwe was born in him. 

Zvomuya: To what extent is Mugabe’s stated position to protect white capital interests important in him being accepted by the West? Some might say despite his professed socialist ideals, he becomes a de facto part of the constellation of states of [then-South African prime minister] PW Botha’s imagination. 

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: Go to South America – when the Spanish, and later the Portuguese, are leaving, who do they leave power to? It’s the mestizos, the assimilados, the educated people, not the native Americans. Similarly, there was no way the British would leave the country in the hands of someone who wasn’t showing signs of a deep embrace of British culture and was eloquent in English like them, as if he was their child. 

Remember, eloquence in colonial languages within colonial modernity is always associated with being civilised and intelligent. Mugabe met the criteria very well, despite his pretences to Marxism and Maoism. At the Lancaster House Conference of 1979, the British and the Americans practise effectively the strategy known as “colonisation of decolonisation”, whereby they not only actively participate in the negotiations, they also choose their preferred African leader among the contending African nationalist leaders who will best serve their interest. The negotiations were like an interview for the job of the first black leader of a liberated colony. 

When we think about how Zimbabwe is born, this is clear: Zimbabwe is born as a neo-colony first. The signifier of that is the Lancaster House Constitution, in which they were told they couldn’t distribute land in the first 10 years of independence. Once you fall into such a trap after a 15-year armed struggle, you have fallen into the trap of neocolonialism. What is so special about these people whose property can’t be touched and who have 20 protected parliamentary seats? And when you accept these arrangements, you have already fallen into neocolonial relations. 

Related article:

It is said that the logic was this: so these people are coming into power without property and within 10 years they would have accumulated property. And therefore they won’t be speaking the language of socialism. They are still speaking the language of socialism because they are coming from the war and have nothing. Once they begin to own things, they will stop speaking like socialists. So these 10 years are a period of corruption; you corrupt them with wealth and power and after 10 years they won’t be putting on military fatigues. And, in fact, even before the 10 years have lapsed, they are implicated in the Willowgate scandal [a car-selling racket in which several ministers were implicated]. 

Zvomuya: It’s not a coincidence that even though the Land Acquisition Act is passed in 1992, Mugabe doesn’t touch white commercial farmers’ land until 2000, when his own political survival is at stake. 

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: One argument for Mugabe’s delay of land reform is that he was persuaded not to do so while South Africans were still fighting and negotiating with the apartheid regime. It was feared that such a move would push white South Africans into a panic mode and they would dig in politically. The other observation is that it was Nkomo who, after the Unity Accord of 1987, began to push the question of land reform into the public arena. Mugabe was busy pushing for a one-party state. Nkomo even warned about the possibility of another war unless this land issue was resolved. Nkomo combined the necessity of land reform with that of national unity. 

Zvomuya: How important is ethnicity in Zimbabwean political discourses? 

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: If you over-privilege ethnicity, like [scholar and author] Masipula Sithole did in that celebrated book Struggles within the Struggle, you then lose other nuances of markers of exclusion and delegitimation in Zimbabwean politics. If we shift the paradigm a bit from ethnicity as a category of analysis, partly because ethnicity itself needs to be explained, we come to the category of political identities. Political identities as a category is useful in that Zimbabwean history is rich in political coinages – “quisling”, “Tshombe” [after Moise Tshombe, the secessionist leader of the Katanga province of the Congo), “sellout”, “born-free” and “war veteran”, and many others. These are political categories produced by nationalism itself and they are used immediately to justify liquidation, exclusion, inclusion, legitimate, delegitimate, and to make alliances. [Ugandan academic] Mahmood Mamdani provided a very good understanding of political identities as they emerged from colonialism in his Citizen and Subject book. Political identities are more malleable; they are never permanent. 

For instance, Nkomo was embraced as “Chibwe Chitedza” [big, insurmountable igneous dome] in the 1960s; “Father Zimbabwe” in the late 1970s and early 1980s; and when Mugabe and Zanu-PF were bent on destroying Zapu and trying to decimate Nkomo’s social base, they called him the “father of the dissidents”. Yet by the time he died in 1999, he had become Father Zimbabwe again and a supra-nationalist – “Umdala Wethu”, our beloved old man. 

I want to posit that in the Gukurahundi this question of who was the “father” of the nation was very present. How can a politician who lost elections continue to call himself Father Zimbabwe? Mugabe envied that “Father Zimbabwe” title, so they had to find ways to delegitimise Nkomo. This is why they took the Zapu archives – so that they could rewrite history. 

Undated: Robert Mugabe’s first official portrait as president of Zimbabwe, a position he assumed in 1987. (Photograph courtesy of Basler Afrika Bibliographien)
Undated: Robert Mugabe’s first official portrait as president of Zimbabwe, a position he assumed in 1987. (Photograph courtesy of Basler Afrika Bibliographien)

Zvomuya: This rewriting of history for self-serving ends in some ways goes into the preoccupations of late-period [historian] Terence Ranger. Ranger, your PhD supervisor, is the man who coins the term “patriotic history” when he begins to question the nationalist historiography he had done so much to produce. 

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: The idea of Zanu-PF ruling by history, or as Ranger would put it, rule by historiography, is an intriguing one. The issue is if you rule by historiography, first of all you must repackage it. I am empathetic to the rewriting of a national history, but Zanu-PF is not writing a national history. What it is doing is writing a party history as national history, and Mugabe’s hagiography as national history. 

It writes the party into the nation, into the state, and it even uses party symbolisms as national symbols. In 1980, the deputy president of Zapu, Josiah Chinamano, complained about how Zanu-PF was denigrating Nkomo, Zapu and Zipra. He said that was dangerous for the country because it could provoke armed Zipra cadres, who were not yet integrated into the national army or demobilised, to react violently. Chinamano highlighted that television and radio should not play a divisive role during volatile times when a national army was being forged and the nation itself was being built. We need inclusive narratives. 

Related article:

Taking into account what was happening politically, one can speak of the beginnings of the Zanufying of the nation and the state, as well as the Zanlafying of the national army, yet even these categories are not without their problems. For example, one can pose the question: if the army was Zanlafied, why then did Mugabe see it logical to create another army – the Fifth Brigade – to deploy in Matabeleland? It seems he didn’t trust the unified national army to carry out Operation Gukurahundi. 

The trajectory of Zanlafication, which I haven’t explored much, is a very interesting one. It’s about eliminating Rhodesians and Zipra simultaneously. If you move on, after Zanlafication, there is Zezurufication of the top echelons of the army, and that’s when the national project degenerates into tribe. Can one now, under President Emmerson Mnangagwa, speak of Karangasation [Mnangagwa is of the Karanga people] of the army? Time will tell. 

Zvomuya: In 1990, [Zanu co-founder] Edgar Tekere rebounds on the scene after he leaves Zanu-PF. This time he is the leader of the Zimbabwe Unity Movement (Zum) and is calling for a new revolution.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: In the 1990s, the students and the labour movement had started to say, “We need to reconstitute the political system.” I like that concept, because it is rarely used in Zimbabwe. They are saying, “We don’t want the way the political system was constituted from 1980 to the 1990s.” Some of the intellectuals who were part of this debate were liberal oriented and they uncritically embraced post-Cold War normative notions of liberal democracy and human rights. There were also Marxists like law lecturers Kempton Makamure and Munyaradzi Gwisai, who were still committed to class analysis and the mobilisation of workers, peasants and students for revolutionary change. 

Zvomuya: When you speak of liberal intellectuals, I think of the late political scientists Masipula Sithole and John Makumbe, and Jonathan Moyo. Moyo, against the popular currents of the early 2000s, joins Zanu-PF, the party that he had criticised so much in the 1990s. There is also the law lecturer Welshman Ncube, who becomes a prominent figure in the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).  

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: It was in the 1990s that other activists campaigned for state-assisted embourgeoisement through such processes as affirmative action and indigenisation. The emerging black bourgeois message was “let’s take it away from the whites and create a national black bourgeoisie”. Prior to the 1990s, there were scholars like the Kenya-born radical law lecturer Shadrack Gutto who were committed to assisting Zimbabwe in its “road to socialism”.

Related article:

Zvomuya: Are you saying they believed Mugabe was a socialist? 

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: I think they were some [of those] who believed the party and state socialist rhetoric. Remember, the fact that Zimbabweans fought a protracted 15-year armed struggle was taken by others to be an indication that in Zimbabwe there were highly conscientised people critical of capitalism and neocolonialism. Such institutions as the Zimbabwe Institute of Development Studies was a centre for political economy analysis, and it attracted radical scholars from elsewhere. However, the expulsion of Gutto from the University of Zimbabwe and his deportation exposed the sense that the state was hostile to genuine Marxists who believed in the socialist project.  

Zvomuya: In 1999, the MDC is formed. What do you make of it?

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: By the time the MDC is formed, the liberals have taken over and the left has been decimated. This is the ideological crisis of the MDC: the issues of human rights and democracy are important, but in terms of ideological content, what do you mean that is tangible beyond civil rights and liberties? The ideological crisis was not just in the MDC; it was global. I am not here dismissing democracy and the human rights discourse – rather, I am arguing for linkages with demands for social and economic justice. 

Zvomuya: Mugabe then took advantage of this worker- and peasant-friendly ideological vacuum in the MDC to say, “My party, Zanu-PF, is taking the land.” Yet it is something about which he had done nothing for close to a decade since the passing of the Land Acquisition Act.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: Mugabe comes back into that vacuum as a neo-Marxist and neo-nationalist and wins the hearts of the people. But the issue of reconstituting the political system is still our crisis even now. How do we reconstitute the system if we agree the political cultures we inherited are not the right ones that can take us into the future? We need to rethink our values, our cultures and our systems. Masipula Sithole was prophetic when he said we could sort our economic problems easily, but the issues which would haunt us are our values. From there I have tried to develop this idea of the political system: what are the elements that constitute the current system which we live by and celebrate? 

Zvomuya: In early 2018, I was at the funeral of [MDC leader] Morgan Tsvangirai in his rural home of Buhera, together with thousands of other mourners. I was sitting by the fire and Nelson Chamisa-aligned activists were laughing at the beating of people opposed to Chamisa’s forcible takeover of the MDC presidency from Thokozani Khupe. People are being attacked at a funeral – a taboo, in most cultures – to force through Chamisa’s takeover of the seat that Tsvangirai, at this point still not even buried, has just vacated. This wouldn’t be out of place in Zanu-PF politics. 

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: Yes, you are talking about violence, about masculinity. In Zimbabwe, besides Operation Gukurahundi, there was Operation Clean-up, which targeted women who were walking in town at night. They were labelled prostitutes. That’s a masculinist state, and if you link it with Mugabe’s ideas of “indoda sibili”, real man, you can tell that it’s a rule by man. There is a belief that the woman is weak and that she needs a man by her side. Then there is the phenomenon termed the “Zanufication” of opposition politics, in which the culture of violence and impunity are embraced by the opposition and it ends up behaving like Zanu-PF. This makes violence endemic in the opposition, as it is Zanu-PF.  You should bear in mind that most of the supporters of the MDC were once supporters of Zanu-PF. 

Related article:

To some extent, the opposition MDC is not practising alternative politics. What it practises is alternative personalities. The issue of alternating people is not a solution to our problems. The issue is we should have alternative politics. But this is a lot of work, because it entails rethinking the thinking of the political system itself. 

Zvomuya: What lessons could South Africa draw from the experiences of Zimbabwe? 

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: There are a lot of lessons South Africa can draw from Zimbabwe. Maybe, to draw the question back: we expected Zimbabwe to have learnt the lessons of those who decolonised in the 1960s. They must have learnt that the idea of one nation corresponding with one state doesn’t work in Africa with its kaleidoscope of identities, cultures, languages and religions. They must have learnt that the authoritarian forms of government don’t work since the one-party state and military juntas all failed in West and East Africa. They are not amenable to economic growth and all that. They must have learnt that personality cults destroy politics itself and politics becomes individualised. But they did not. 

The other lesson we thought they would learn is … remember, we are working in a very hostile environment. Let’s call it a neocolonial environment. How do you negotiate a neocolonial environment? It’s an important skill that any leader needs, whether in Zimbabwe or South Africa. It’s no use to shout at the global colonial matrices of power, but the one who survives is the one who learns how to navigate them – not to maintain them, but so that they must be destroyed eventually. Here I am thinking about the Zimbabwe fast-track land reform: if the Southern African Development Community states had worked in concert and did land reforms concurrently, it was not going to be easy for Zimbabwe to be isolated and destroyed. 

Zvomuya: Perhaps they couldn’t implement land reform concurrently because to Mugabe land was just expedient, a gimmick, a tool to be used to hang on to power, not properly thought through?

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: One lesson was from Nyerere, who practised effective pedagogical nationalism – to mould a new nation – and was able to resolve the ethnic problem in Tanzania. Kaunda was also successful in dealing with ethnicity. 

South Africa has to learn that the long incumbency of one person in power is always a recipe for disaster. Leaders lose touch with realities, then they reduce themselves into symbols of the nation. The Zimbabwean situation is embarrassing in that we ended up with a wife-and-husband team feared by everybody. How did we end up with a situation in which a wife and husband were tormenting everyone – in the party, outside the party, everywhere? 

Related article:

Authoritarian nationalist alternatives don’t work and nor do uncritical liberal alternatives. The era of the Mugabes, Zumas and Mandelas seems to be over. But the era of Mnangagwa and Ramaphosa going neoliberal also doesn’t work. If Mnangagwa takes stock of the situation, he should ask himself why he can’t join Chamisa, because they are both speaking the same neoliberal discourse. If they can’t, it means it is the clash of individuals. What Mnangagwa has done with the “Zimbabwe is open for business” mantra is that he has pulled the rug from under Chamisa. So Chamisa’s argument becomes about “you rigged the elections” and now the Supreme Court has thrown the same accusation at Chamisa. You see where we are now? 

The crisis in Zimbabwe might kick off in South Africa. It would be the crisis of politics itself and when the political is reduced to business, you will have problems. It becomes about who can do business better. 

Ibbo Mandaza spoke about a transitional authority, but a transitional authority needs to lay the ground for another politics, for another logic of running things, of engaging the world. If you go back to the old way of re-engaging the world, like that going on in Zimbabwe, of just saying “come, come, we are open for business”, you haven’t changed anything. There is no politics, no strategy in that.  

Zvomuya: Any concluding remarks to wrap up our talk? 

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: Let me end with a thesis on knowledge in politics. A crisis in knowledge manifests itself in systems and institutions. An epistemic crisis manifests in systemic and institutional crises. The crisis of thought manifests itself elsewhere, not necessarily in thought itself. What I am driving at is that we must understand that epistemology frames ontology. Knowledge creates reality. Why did God, after creating the world, put at the centre of the Garden of Eden the tree of knowledge? If one ate those fruits, one became aware of one’s nakedness. 

This means that knowledge also creates consciousness of oneself. This biblical story shows that knowledge creates reality. If we get the thing right in knowledge domains, we will get it right in our systems and institutions. Thus, to set afoot alternative politics, one has to have alternative knowledge. To paraphrase [American poet] Audre Lorde, the knowledge which gifted us the current problematic political cultures and practices cannot be the same knowledge that takes us into the future.

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.