Long Read | Unlearning the Zimbabwean lesson

As Zimbabwe turns 40, historian and theorist Sabelo J Ndlovu-Gatsheni ponders African nationalism as well as the ideologies of the liberation movements that fought for its freedom.

Percy Zvomuya: Why do you think Zimbabweans were willing to think of the coup of November 2017 as a new dispensation? 

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: It’s a bit of an ironic situation that a majority of Zimbabwean citizens bought into the narrative of the new dispensation, which was contradicted directly by the discourse of “the restoration of legacy”. The coup makers, in one breath, said loudly that “ours is a restoration of legacy”, and in the next, [President] Emmerson Mnangagwa, the direct political beneficiary of the military coup, introduced the discourse as a new dispensation.

So the issue of both restoring legacy and a new dispensation sits uncomfortably next to each other in the body politic of Zimbabwe. When the military staged the coup, they did not hide – they were very explicit about what they wanted to do. They said this is a restoration of legacy, but surprisingly nobody asked the question, which legacy? And the coup makers went on to say they were not targeting the then president, Robert Mugabe, but were focused on “the criminals around him”. In other words, what they were saying is the political [system] has been corrupted; it needs to be cleaned so that it goes back to its previous “purity”. But I am not sure which political purity they meant, because since the attainment of political independence by Zimbabwe in 1980, a toxic political culture has been suffocating the ordinary citizens of Zimbabwe.  

What is understandable, though, is that for a people who have been thirsty for political change for over 37 years, who had seen the face of Mugabe ever since, anything that smells like change was thought of as change, and that’s what blinded the citizens about the hazards of a military coup as a mode of transition for Zimbabwe in November 2017. 

That’s why, when the military moved into the capital city [Harare], it was embraced by ordinary Zimbabweans, including the opposition Movement for Democratic Change [MDC]. The people had endured one regime, one president, and not just the incumbency of a long-serving president, but coupled with debilitating economic failures, unemployment, hyperinflation and violent modes of governance. They ended up embracing anything that promised or looked like political change. 

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The country was by then governed by the “first family” – Robert and Grace Mugabe. Zimbabwean nationalism had degenerated to a privileged “founding father” and his wife as the centre of politics and nation. Given this background, you can’t blame the people for embracing anything that looked like change. What happened in November 2017 looked like change on many levels. There was gridlock change within the ruling party itself, where the two political factions – G40 and Lacoste – were battling each other, but no political change was coming forth. There was a gridlock outside the party, where the citizenry were powerless to effect political change. The democratic change pushed for by the MDC since its formation in 1999 was also gridlocked. Elections after every five years were producing predictable results. The only option then was to embrace the change which came through the military. Of course, there were some who were critical of the events of November 2017 and advised citizens to be cautious. 

Zvomuya: Why do you think change couldn’t happen in the ruling party? And, at the same time, why was the MDC powerless to effect change?

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: It is because of the political culture that has been in place since 1980. What I am going to say is that a liberation war is a school, and it depends on what you learn in that liberation struggle. It is a school that produces particular cultures. These can be cultures of democracy, human rights, equality. On the other hand, these cultures can be those of regimentalism, militarism, intolerance and violence. You can learn one or the other, including gaining “degrees in violence” [Mugabe once claimed to have degrees in violence] and developing a strong belief that violence is the best solution to the vexing political questions and power-related contestations. Zimbabwean politics is stuck in the lower gear. 

Liberation credentials frozen in time, rather than regular elections, became the basis of political legitimacy. To be in opposition politics didn’t mean being a political opponent, but an enemy of the state and the people. The office of the president was perceived to be a “straitjacket”. The lack of democracy in the party polluted national politics. In such a situation, how does one even expect change within the party and within the state? It’s a complex political matrix of power not easily given to change.

Zvomuya: Is this culture of violence in Zanu-PF, which may be distilled in its mantra ‘Zanu ndeye ropa [Zanu is a party of blood, or Zanu is a violent party]’, an anomaly in the liberation movement? Or is it a state of being in all liberation movements?

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: Liberation movements, of course, vary in character, behaviour, ideology and political culture. However, the prosecution of an armed liberation struggle leads to the emergence of particular political cultures and political practices that are common to most movements. In each liberation movement, there are always teachers of ideology, known as “commissars”, who practically disseminate particular political understandings and indeed define the political DNA of each political formation. The culture of intolerance of diverse political views is an aberration that is haunting Zimbabwe now. Of course, there were military and political exigencies which dictated this culture. 

1978: A poster of a Zanla guerilla addressing a crowd during commissariat outreach, published by the Zanu Central Committee. (Photograph by Basler Afrika Bibliographien)
1978: A poster of a Zanla guerilla addressing a crowd during commissariat outreach, published by the Zanu Central Committee. (Photograph by Basler Afrika Bibliographien)

My point is that the duty of the commissariat of each nationalist movement was to teach the recruits that the party they belonged to was the only authentic party – that any other organisation is a deviation from the national and “patriotic” goal. In one of his reflections on the understanding of the inter-party violence between Zanu-PF and [Zimbabwe African People’s Union] Zapu, which resulted in the Gukurahundi and the death of 20 000 people in Matabeleland and the Midlands, emeritus history professor Ngwabi Bhebhe says this kind of indoctrination taught young people to hate each other. It is therefore inevitable that one liberation movement will perpetrate violence against the other, because you have been taught this one is an enemy. 

How do I maintain an identity separate from the other liberation movement unless I say what is wrong with that liberation movement, mainly for political expediency? That’s why Bhebhe says he is not sure that had Zapu won the election, we would have avoided the issues associated with Zanu-PF rule. My critique of this position is that we will never know, because Zapu never ruled Zimbabwe. 

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From that premise I drew this conclusion: we teach people for war, but we then don’t unteach them for democracy. We put them in a war mode, make them imbibe militaristic cultures, but when we demobilise we don’t make them unlearn those cultures. At a leadership level there are two things that can happen: when we are beginning to think about armed liberation struggle – the very physical killing of the enemy and prolonged military fighting – in reality, we push young men and women to gaze into the abyss full of monsters, to borrow a Nietzschean concept. Colonialists were monsters. When one gazes into the abyss, there are two things that can happen: either one is quickly monsterised by that gaze, or one moves away and detests monsters.

Perhaps the Mandela-Mugabe dichotomy symbolises this monster dialectic very well. The former moved away while the later was monsterised to the extent of embracing violence as a mode of rule. 

Zvomuya: I find it interesting that at this point in the conversation you raise the Mandela figure. To take a slight tangent from the metaphors of Mugabe and Mandela: did Mugabe embrace violence because of a personality flaw (in Greek tragedies they speak of hamartia – a tragic flaw in the character of the protagonist), or was it perhaps that the Zanu-PF system through which he found prominence was inherently violent and militaristic?  

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: I think there is a character [flaw] but I don’t want to emphasise character more than sociogenesis – political socialisation. Perhaps it’s a combination of character and socialisation. But as I have said, the liberation struggle is always a school. It socialises and in that socialisation it is important for us to understand the forms of socialisation Mugabe was expected to imbibe and adhere to for him to continue as both leader of party and army. 

There is in armed military liberation movements a thorough socialisation in the line of regimentalism and militarism. For legitimacy, when one stood in front of armed men and women, he or she had to speak to exhibit this military situation and speak in the radical language of war. That socialisation means you speak with courage and embrace the militaristic language of war, openly demonstrate no fear of spilling blood, and turn to worship the barrel of the gun. Only in that way did the civilian leaders win the hearts and minds of armed men and women. 

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You had to prove that you believed in the efficacy of what they were carrying. If you waver, that’s where [founding president of Zanu] Ndabaningi Sithole and [prime minister of the short-lived Zimbabwe Rhodesia republic] Abel Muzorewa lost it. However, Mugabe knew that in order to lead an armed movement, he must speak their language, because it inspired the armed men and women, whether he believed it [or not]. When it comes to Mandela, of course he underwent military training in Algeria but then spent 27 years in prison. But I am certain that if he had been outside, in exile, leading a political party with an armed wing, his rhetoric was going to be more radical. For how else do you lead armed men and women? You are the president of a party and commander in chief of an army – you necessarily have to speak both languages and you lead at both levels, and this changes your identity. 

Zvomuya: What kind of political culture(s) did Zanu-PF’s rule inaugurate in Zimbabwe? 

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: If my memory serves me well, there is a short article which [Zanu politician and founding member] Eddison Zvobgo wrote, titled “The Zanu Idea”. In the piece, there is a self-definition of a political formation and very clear features emerge: Zanu is more radical than any other party that came before it; Zanu is an unwavering revolutionary party; Zanu believes in the slogan coined by Sithole that “We are our own liberators”; that nothing else will liberate us except the gun; and in this chosen path any contestation and dissent must be eliminated. 

If you take these mantras and then paste them onto 1980 and beyond, it tells us the type of political formation we have. We then have, in the words of [academic and author] Norma J Kriger, a “party nation and a party state”. This means the party is supreme to everything. And bear in mind, when [Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army] Zanla guerillas were mobilising villages in the bush, they were very clear in their delivery of the slogan to reflect the importance of the political entities: always the party first, the leader second, the armed wing Zanla third, and then last they mentioned the people of Zimbabwe. You are conditioning the people to think that what’s supreme is the party, that’s what supreme is the president. These are young men and women in their teenage years and their twenties. Loyalty is also important and if you don’t have it, Zanu-PF’s axe will descend on your neck. 

After 1980, they used the same logic – that anybody who supports another party which is not Zanu-PF is an enemy. Opposition parties were described as the “enemy”, a military term, and not as political opponents in a liberal, democratic sense of political competitors. And an enemy of Zanu-PF is an enemy of the state. Mugabe even expressed surprise that [Zapu founder Joshua] Nkomo wanted to maintain Zapu as a separate political party when independence had come. The reasoning was “we have gained independence and we need one party, one nation and one people”, and therefore, Mugabe didn’t understand what Nkomo was opposing. Zanu-PF had delivered independence and if Nkomo was indeed a “patriot”, according to the Zanu-PF mentality, he had to dissolve his party and join forces with Zanu-PF. In 1987, Nkomo had to do just that after five years of war waged by Zanu-PF against him as a person, his political leadership, his support base and the former Zimbabwe People’s Republic Army combatants. [Zipra was Zapu’s military wing.]

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In the thinking of nationalists, independence is an arrival. “We have arrived, so what else are you talking about? The labour movement must be for the party, the women’s movement must be for the party, the church movement must be for the party, the student movement must be for the party – the party which made Zimbabwe possible.” Anything else and any other politics are against the party, state and nation. By that definition, the party owns the nation and the state. The state is a creation of the party. The nation is a creation of the party. Liberation and freedom are the gifts from the party. This reasoning is what later enabled such phrases and notions of “chinhu chedu” [a mantra which means “our thing”, popular in the military faction that eventually toppled Mugabe]. “This thing, we fought for it, we delivered it, it’s our thing.’’ 

I have a maternal uncle who is a war veteran, who used to say to me whenever we discussed politics and especially the opposition: “Who is [the former MDC leader Morgan] Tsvangirai? Where was he when we were fighting the war? So, somebody who never experienced the tough crossing of the Zambezi gorge with us wants to claim this country?” And I always felt he was speaking from his heart and from a political standpoint that anyone who didn’t suffer cannot claim a right to lead the country. He always posed the other question: “Do you know what fighting for your country means?’’ The theme of sacrifice and dying for the people is embedded in Zanu-PF political thought. And those who fought for the country somehow claim the status of ‘‘first citizens”. This idea seems to be in practice not just in Zimbabwe, but in the United States as well. I was in the US recently, and at the airport there was a special call for war veterans to board the plane first. I didn’t know which struggle this was – Vietnam, Iraq?   

Zvomuya: How did Zimbabwe drown, in the words of Fanon, in the pitfalls of national consciousness? In the Vashandi movement, the workerist movement led by Wilfred Mhanda and Sam Geza, Zimbabwe had an opportunity to try out a socialist utopia.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: Pitfalls of national consciousness inevitably emerge from the problematic emergence, invention and positionality of the colonised within a colonial system, which is a major cog of the modern world system and its shifting global orders. Bear in mind that colonialism was never a mere event, but an expansive and vast system which defined human subjectivities, invaded the mental universes of its victims and, in the words of [academic and author] Mahmood Mamdani, “defined” and “ruled” Africans. What emerges from the Zimbabwean liberation struggle is that cadres and comrades had differential ideological consciousness. People like [freedom fighter] Wilfred Mhanda and his comrades who formed Zipra were highly ideological, and they imbibed Marxism to the extent that their understanding and deployment of class analysis would reveal and threaten those pretenders who embraced Marxism tendentiously while still retaining their petit-bourgeois sociogenesis. 

I am one person who is empathetic and not sympathetic to liberation movements, because I think we need to understand the logic with which they work. The concept of empathy means we do a critique of nationalism that is historically grounded and politically sound. In academic spaces, I say we don’t distort something in order to criticise it. There is work we need to do to understand nationalist logic, problematic as it is: what is the view of the country, of the people, of the nation, of the government and of the party? Nationalist logic is always ambiguous in the sense that it is interpellated by what [the liberation movements] are trying to fight against. The logic of colonialism interpellates the logic of nationalism. For example, remember the idea of a nation state is a colonial, Eurocentric concept and based on the Westphalian template of the nation state. 

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African nationalism, despite its many creativities and originalities, picks up this idea and runs with it. They [African nationalists] really put everyone on the front line for it. They then believe strongly in the Westphalian notion of one nation, one identity, at least one language and one culture for a nation state to live by. They believe that to be the best model, which is why in nationalist movements the slogan “for the nation to live the tribe must die” was popular wisdom. In the conventional nationalist world sensing, there are two threats they are fighting against: colonialism and imperialism, or both, and tribalism. 

If it’s after independence, the two evils are tribalism and neo-colonialism. You can understand where this comes from – it’s a logic they believe in but one they don’t practise. This might be due to the fact that ethnicity and compradorial challenges permeated the liberation movements and haunted them through and through. For instance, and with the benefit of hindsight, we see that Zanu-PF continues to be haunted by [the] Karanga, Zezuru, Manyika [tribes] and ethnic-clannish tendencies. And during the liberation struggle, they exterminated each other along tribal lines despite the fact that they always railed against tribalism and claimed to be standing for monolithic unity. So nationalism’s rhetoric and its practice don’t go together. At the rhetorical level, every nationalist will say, “I love my nation to the extent that I am prepared to die for it.” But are these same people not tribalists during the night and behind the scenes? Are these not the same people who mobilise on ethnic grounds – the same people who make the nation fail before it is even born?  

Zvomuya: When nationalism began in Southern Rhodesia in the 1950s, there was a conscious effort by the movement’s prime movers – George Nyandoro, James Chikerema and others – to pursue this ideal of killing the tribe. They reached out to Nkomo, then a figure more well known in Bulawayo and its environs, and invited him to come and lead this formation, the Southern Rhodesia African National Congress. The figure they reached out to happened to be a broad-minded guy, one opposed to tribe and tribal thinking. Where then do we get it wrong? 

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: Read the work of Enocent Msindo, a Zimbabwean historian at Rhodes University whose book is titled Ethnicity in Zimbabwe: Transformations in Kalanga and Ndebele Societies, 1860-1990. He studied ethnic associations such as the Monomotapa Offspring Association, Kalanga Cultural Society and many others which existed right into the 1950s, and how, during the nationalist movement, some leaders were still belonging to both ethnic associations and nascent nationalist formations. 

Msindo enables us to develop a nuanced understanding of the making of Zimbabwean nationalism, if not nationalisms. One can appreciate how, not in a linear, Whiggish historical fashion, ethnic consciousness grew into national consciousness to produce broad-based organisations such as the Southern Rhodesia ANC and the National Democratic Party, Zapu, Zanu. From there they split into even smaller units, but when they break up, they don’t confess to divisions because of the ethnic ghost. Instead, those who break away say they are doing so on ideological grounds – who is radical and who is not? – but the ghost of the ghost is always there. 

In Zimbabwe, ethnicity is a ghost that people don’t want to confront. When you meet Zimbabweans, the question of ethnicity is one they don’t want to talk about. But we can’t run away from this question, one which sits in the subconscious of the Zimbabwean people and all the people who emerged from colonialism. 

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It’s clear that we missed so many opportunities to create a nation, and Zimbabweans are not the only ones who failed at this. The late 1950s and ‘60s was one opportunity where people were really ready to be mobilised by a genuine nationalist leader and constitute a nation. The period of the armed liberation struggle – 1972 to 1979 – was another lost opportunity. Zanla guerillas would say, “Down with Nkomo!”, “Down with Zapu!” I am not sure whether Zipra guerillas were also fond of saying “Down with Mugabe!”, “Down with Zanu!” in their mobilisation campaigns, but none of them openly said, “We are fighting for a tribe.” Everyone agreed that the struggle was for the nation, for Zimbabwe. 

Zvomuya: We were fortunate in that Ndabaningi Sithole, ethnically Ndau, was raised and socialised as Ndebele and could not only speak the language, but also wrote in it. Do you want to talk about his strange trajectory?

Ndlovu-Gatsheni: In some ways, the trajectory of Sithole encapsulates the descent into tribe, perhaps through no fault of their own, but because of political circumstances. Sithole was born in Nyamandlovu, Matabeleland, and ended up living in Mashava, Midlands, where his father was working and where he developed his nationalist consciousness. It was here that he became a teacher, joined the nationalist struggle and became the founding leader of Zanu. Yet, by the time he died, he was back to his tribe, in Chipinge, where he was reduced to a leader of a small political party called Zanu-Ndonga. Sithole wasn’t even born in Chipinge.  

Remember, it was Sithole who authored the book Umvukelo waMaNdebele, a study of the 1896 Ndebele uprising against the British South Africa Company colonialism, and it was also him who wrote African Nationalism (1959) and many other classics on Zimbabwean nationalism and national consciousness formation. However, by the time he dies, he is stuck with Zanu-Ndonga and his party’s only parliamentary seat is in Chipinge, the Ndau heartland. His trajectory tells a story: it’s a metaphor of the degeneration of nationalism from nation to tribe, to clan, and indeed until one finds himself physically in your village. 

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If you look at the African trajectory, we start as pan-Africanist with pan-African congresses being organised right up to the famous 1945 Pan-African Congress held in Manchester in the United Kingdom. Then we begin to de-escalate into continental pan-Africanism, symbolised by the All-Africa-Conference of 1958, which was held in Accra in Ghana. Then we see pan-Africanism degenerate into territorial nationalism, which gifted us with all the 54 different African nation states. Then, over time, ethnicity rears it ugly head.

Look at Mugabe: at the end, it was him and his wife at their mansion claiming a centre stage in Zimbabwean politics. Yet the reverse is supposed to be true: we are supposed to move from clan, then to ethnic, then to nation, then to pan-African identity. This is not just Zimbabwe’s trajectory, but everywhere in Africa. In his biography, the late nationalist Edgar Tekere said that when he came back from the war, he represented Mabelreign constituency, in suburban Harare. But by the time of the next election in 1985, he was back at home in the province of Manicaland, in eastern Zimbabwe, representing the Mutare urban constituency. He said he was told to go back home. What about Nkomo? Which seat did he hold in 1980? It was a seat in the Midlands. By the time he is swallowed into Zanu-PF, he is representing the Lobengula constituency in Bulawayo. Political cynics like Enos Nkala would try to depict Nkomo as a self-proclaimed successor to King Lobengula Khumalo, the last Ndebele king, who was violently deposed by the colonialists after the Anglo-Ndebele War (1893-1894).  

1980: A poster of Robert Mugabe leading the Zimbabwean people to victory, published by the Zanu Department of Information and Publicity. (Photograph by Basler Afrika Bibliographien)
1980: A poster of Robert Mugabe leading the Zimbabwean people to victory, published by the Zanu Department of Information and Publicity. (Photograph by Basler Afrika Bibliographien)
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