What’s left of Zimbabwe? Part IV: Mugabe’s only constant

This is the penultimate journey of a five-part series through our northern neighbour’s tradition of leftist politics, from pre-independence to the rising tide of neoliberalism in the post-Mugabe era.

In the first chapter of Robert Bolaño’s Amulet, Auxilio Lacouture, the novel’s hallucinatory narrator, who also calls herself the “mother of Mexican poetry” but whose real identity is that of literary boheme, mourns the figurines she received as presents but has since lost.

 She also can’t find her philosophy books and her books of poetry. 

Lacouture laments: “From time to time I feel as though my books and figurines were with me still. But how could they be? Are they somehow floating around me or over my head? Have the figurines and books that I lost over the years dissolved into the air of Mexico City? 

Have they become part of the ash that blows through the city from north to south and east to west? Perhaps. The dark night of the soul advances through the streets of Mexico City, sweeping all before it. And now it is rare to hear singing, where once everything was a song.”

This state of being, in which something disappeared still retains more than a spectral presence, is the stuff of nostalgia, imagination and dreams. There is no other way to think about the Vashandi idyll. After Vashandi was defeated, as Bolano writes, it became “rare to hear singing, where once everything was a song”.

Even after the purge of the left, Robert Mugabe’s hold of the party wasn’t entirely secure, so there was another cull, this time not ideological, but of some of his nationalist foes that still remained in the party. 

As Mugabe consolidated his control and shaped the direction of the struggle, he immediately embarked on a project of forgetting. Whampoa Ideological School got a fresh staff of instructors and a new name – the Herbert Chitepo School, after the slain national chairman of the party, whose funeral Mugabe had chosen not to attend but whose memory and name he wanted to deploy for his own aims. 

A pseudo Marxist

The phrase “patriotic history” was coined by historian Terence Ranger to refer to a strain of history that “is different from and more narrow than the old nationalist historiography, which celebrated aspiration and modernisation as well as resistance, [and] resents the ‘disloyal’ questions raised by historians of nationalism”. The origins of the practice, one could argue, are around this time. 

By the end of 1976, Mugabe had picked up the shards of the tough language of the left he found lying in the wake of his assault and recrafted it for his own, self-serving Stalinist ends. To his old role from the 1960s as the spokesperson of nationalism, he also added the task of being Marxist theorist of the Zanu revolution. 

The most glaring proof of Mugabe’s uncertain grasp and acceptance of Marx is to be found in the fact that unlike, for instance, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, who set down his ideas in ujamaa (“extended family” in Swahili), the former Zimbabwean dictator’s ideas about a Marxist organisation of society never went beyond mantras. 

To reference Eric Hobsbawm in How to Change the World, Mugabe is neither a simplifier nor a falsifier of Marx’s thoughts for he was never a Marxist in the first place.  

Still, that never stopped him from pretending to be from the left. In 1978, when he was asked what kind of political system Zanu would implement in an independent Zimbabwe, Mugabe replied: “We have said in the past [that] we should like to establish a socioeconomic system which is based on Marxist-Leninism…” 

A suitable candidate

There was always the feeling, that old-style nationalists such as Mugabe’s adoption of Marx was expedient. In that interview, Mugabe felt compelled to say Chinese support in no way shaped the ideology of the party he now led. “But China has always said that they attach no strings to the aid they give us … never … they are not going to use that military aid as a weapon to orientate us in the direction of their own views … The fact that we get help from China doesn’t make us to get married to China as such.”  

In January 1980, on the eve of Zimbabwe’s first democratic elections, Andrew Young,  the United States ambassador to the United Nations, wrote about the electoral prospects of Joshua Nkomo, Mugabe and Abel Muzorewa, the three main contenders, and what the victory of each would mean for the new nation. 

Young observed that Nkomo “seems to be the implied, if secret favorite of the British, the Russians, Ian Smith and South Africa. They see in him a practical politician with trade union experience that makes him ideally suited to pull together a coalition to govern. He is also skilled at working out compromises necessary to protect the complex interests of racial, business and ethnic groupings.”

Young didn’t altogether dismiss Muzorewa, but didn’t think he would be a serious contender. When he turned to Mugabe, the eventual winner of the elections, the diplomat observed that Mugabe is the one who is “most feared by the white minority and the British”. 

The diplomat then recalled a conversation that he had had with some people from Britain: “Which of the black leaders would you trust to run your family businesses in your absence?” All of them had “unanimously” named Mugabe, “but hastened to add that while he may be the most disciplined and intelligent, he was not a good politician”. In other words, Young could have added, of the three, Mugabe was the most suitable candidate for the role of comprador bourgeoisie. 

Giving his own assessment of Mugabe, Young wrote: “The trouble with Robert Mugabe is that when you’ve got a Jesuit education mixed with a Marxist ideology, you’ve got a hell of a guy to deal with.” What Young was referring to were the various proclamations, mostly from the mid- and late 1970s, in which Mugabe slipped into communist sloganeering.

“I cannot see why a white man cannot be a Marxist in Zimbabwe,” he stated in 1979. “There are millions of white Marxists in the world.” On another occasion, he reportedly said: “We will seize the banks as soon as possible. Pensioners of the colonial state cannot possibly look to the state to pay them pensions after many years of oppression. Anyone attending church, possessing a bible or teaching children about God will be jailed or executed.” 

The chameleon of nationalist politics

The years living in Maputo, Mozambique, seeing at close quarters Samora Machel’s communist project, had provided a template for how to organise society in the new nation. “The experience we have gained from Frelimo will help us in focusing the direction of our economic planning social reforms, and to remove and expose those among us who may not be committed to genuine socialist transformation,” Mugabe said. 

This explains why he had been painted as the Marxist ogre, how in the Rhodesian media he was known as the “terrorist chief”, the devil who would ban churches, the man who would disrupt life as Rhodesians had known it and bring communism into a country that had been run like a corporation since colonial conquest. 

It was therefore a monumental about-turn when, on arrival at the Salisbury airport in January 1980, Mugabe disavowed all that had been central to the identity of his party. “We are pledged to the creation of a true democracy based on equality where there won’t be any discrimination on the basis of race or colour. 

There is, therefore, no need for any anxieties or fears that have been expressed, for we mean what we say. We have been honest in the struggle, fought gallantly for what we considered to be an honest objective. We will be honest in peace to achieve a society where all have a place. This is our goal and this is what I have come to ensure is achieved. There won’t be any hampering or impeding of religious practices by anybody. We say so in our manifesto because that is one of our fundamental principles,” Mugabe said. 

Zanu-PF, he reassured people at the airport, would neither nationalise land, industries nor people’s property. The land his government would target for acquisition would be that which was “underutilised and abandoned”, or that owned by absentee landlords; if it ever became necessary, the state would buy land, and the farmer would be fully compensated. 

If elected into office, Mugabe would take into account the fact of Rhodesia as a capitalist economy, but, in a nod to his left-wing audience probably astounded at this shift, he would ensure the protection of workers’ rights, that they are in leadership positions, and that they are involved in decision-making. 

This is why Silas Mundawarara, deputy prime minister to Muzorewa in the short-lived state of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, described Mugabe as the “chameleon of Zimbabwean nationalist politics”. “Never have we seen anyone change colour so fast from deep red, to mild pink, and then to snow white,” he said.

On the way to structural adjustment

In a 1981 interview with Ambassador International, Mugabe had to address the nagging belief that his much celebrated reconciliation programme was “no more than a convenient strategy”. The journalist wasn’t sure if Mugabe had “chosen a rigid Marxist ideological position or a pragmatic position”. I guess by “pragmatic position”, the journalist meant leaving the architecture of the Rhodesian capitalist economy untouched while the industrialist class allowed him, through borrowing, to build roads, schools and clinics.  

In response, Mugabe insisted that, “as a party, we stand by the socialist ideology deriving, to an extent, from Marxism and Leninism”, elaborating that “if private enterprise must continue, then it must be localised as much as possible. There must be local predominance in the control of the industries. We have not promulgated any law at this stage, but we are prescribing this as a requirement, as a state objective, and we leave it to the particular enterprise to bring in more local shareholders than external shareholders. We also expect a greater reinvestment of dividends to create new capital.”

It’s a breathtakingly naive statement for him to make, for Rhodesia was a closed economy in which only state companies and white Rhodesians were allowed to thrive. 

Soviet journalist Victor Koshak, like anyone who had his eyes open, wasn’t fooled by this Marxist facade. The writer from Moscow News found it ironic that Mugabe espoused socialist principles yet showed a “respectful” attitude towards the free market. “Thanks evidently to this manoeuvring between ideology and the rigid demands of the [market] economy, the years spent travelling along the path of socialist orientation have not hit Zimbabwe as they have hit those who desperately rushed from colonialism into socialism [in] Mozambique, Ethiopia and Angola.” 

Perhaps Koshak had looked at Mugabe’s cabinet, which housed people such as Bernard Chidzero, a neoliberal economist who had worked for the World Bank in the 1960s and who, in the 1990s, as Mugabe’s senior minister of finance, became the face of the structural adjustment programmes imposed by the World Bank.  

In 1982, to remove doubt about Mugabe’s dalliances with socialism, Chidzero reassured bankers at an international conference: “We are socialists. Are we encouraging you to come so that tomorrow we can grab your [property]? Life is more serious than to be controlled by ideologies. Life is very down to earth. Let us just look at the realities of life. And I believe that good businessman enter into riskier areas where we talk about ideologies without doing much about it.”  It seems hardly surprising that Euromoney  magazine named him “banker of the year” for 1986. 

This is part four of a five-part series through our northern neighbour’s tradition of leftist politics, from pre-independence to the rising tide of neoliberalism in the post-Mugabe era.

Read more:
– What’s left of Zimbabwe? Part I
– What’s left of Zimbabwe? Part II: Less than conscientised
– What’s left of Zimbabwe? Part III: Too late for change
– What’s left of Zimbabwe? Part V: The struggle dreams in mbira

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