The folly of ‘wait-and-see’ politics in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa, center, gestures to the cheering crowd as he leaves after the presidential inauguration ceremony in the capital Harare, Zimbabwe Friday, Nov. 24, 2017. Mnangagwa was sworn in as Zimbabwe's president after Robert Mugabe resigned on Tuesday, ending his 37-year rule. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

Robert Mugabe’s face was a common feature in our household. To this day there’s an election sticker of Mugabe’s once youthful face (despite it having been used for the 2013 elections), stuck onto the side of our garage door. I peel a little of it off every time I go home, but it won’t come off without leaving a bit of a mess. It seems as stubborn as Mugabe was, in power from 1980 to December 2017.

Mugabe’s face was also boldly printed on the hideous shirts that my late father, Amos Midzi, a top official, wore to every major party event. He served as a senior government minister and as Zimbabwe’s Ambassador to the United States and, earlier, Cuba.

My father’s favorite response to questions on when exactly things would change for the better for Zimbabwe was, “let’s wait and see.” His default sentiment was that at its core, the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) was a revolutionary party that had the people at heart and was worth fighting for.

President Mugabe left behind a legacy of negligent leadership, and cyclical political, economic and social violence. Emmerson Mnangagwa, sacked as Mugabe’s deputy only weeks before, took over as the new president before Christmas 2017. While I’m always hopeful for a better future, I’m acutely aware of the collective pain we all need to heal from.

Appearance in my father’s party was everything. The party spent a great deal of time and resources on regalia, media coverage and creating a narrative that depicted them, particularly Mugabe, as visionaries and the only sensible choice for leadership of any office, public institution or electoral position. But the cosmetic has always been their specialty – billows of seemingly successful smokescreens hid years of incompetence and violence. My shame about this particular part of my father’s life never goes away.

Membership cards were a way to keep track of Zanu-PF members and often acted as an access card to patronage and other benefits. From being prioritized during food aid distributions in drought-stricken areas of the country, to being allowed to sell your produce at some of the informal markets in the city, to being physically assaulted during election season by hired Zanu thugs for not having one – the card giveth and taketh away, all the while working in the favor of those who possess it.  

Ironically, my father was reduced to what was called an ordinary card-carrying member before his death. In early 2015, he was suspended from the party, accused of supporting former Vice President Joice Mujuru in planning to overthrow Mugabe. Former Information Minister Jonathan Moyo once said, “It’s cold outside Zanu” – he was right. So cold, that Zanu members my father had known for years refused to attend his funeral for fear of being associated with the outsiders who had been kicked out of the party. Our new president was one of them. So deep were the divisions in Zanu-PF, that even the funeral of a close and generally well-liked top official wasn’t enough to bring them together. In state where patronage links ran deeper than the Zambezi, Amos was the ordinary card-carrying member whose life and sacrifices for the party suddenly meant nothing.  

Zanu’s internal violence spilled over into the state, and Mugabe’s regime will forever be remembered for it: there was the rounding up of unaccompanied women accused of prostitution in 1983, named Operation Chinyavada; the Gukurahundi massacre of an estimated 20,000 largely isiNdebele speaking people also suspected supporters of the opposition ZAPU that was led by Joshua Nkomo in the western and southern regions of the country. Then, one of the more shameful memories associated with my father, there was the demolition of informal housing and businesses in Murambatsvina; followed by the election violence in 2008; and what has become the systematic forced removal of vendors in city centers year after year. Murambatsvina, depicted as a way of “cleaning up” the “filth” of informality in urban areas, was swift and brutal; carried out in the height of the winter cold, rendering hundreds of thousands homeless and desperate. Amos was pictured in one of the local newspapers in a white dust-coat, holding a broom and sweeping away the remains of people’s make-shift structures. I remember staring at the picture of him sweeping away the livelihoods of the people him and his colleagues implied were “filth.” The opposition party, MDC, argued that the operation was an intimidation tactic to rid urban cities of its supporters at a time when more and more Zimbabweans were looking to an alternative political leadership. I believe them.  

To date, millions of dollars have been lost to corruption and mismanagement – resulting in a failing healthcare system, a struggling education system, a cash shortage and a leadership unbothered by the plight of our people. It is these collective memories that many of us revert to when thinking of our future.  

But as we end an era of repression and poor leadership, we enter one led by the very same people who served alongside the man that so many feared and loathed for so long. Recently, Mnangagwa has spoken of “a New Dispensation” – signaling his desire to break from Mugabe’s style of leadership. But as the dust settled after my people danced in the streets when Mugabe stepped down, it is apparent that the fight for true transformation has only just begun.  

While there are those who use the memories of violence to hold our new(ish) leaders to account, there are others who weaponize them against anyone who is seen to be critical of Mnangagwa. The new president has recently been on a charm offensive, conducting multiple interviews with western media organizations – “re-engaging the world” after Zimbabwe’s isolation from world powers under Mugabe.  

From interviews with the Financial Times, to Mnangagwa’s appearance at the World Economic Forum in Davos 2018, the message is the same: perhaps we should give him a chance. Mnangagwa’s favorite phrase has been: “Zimbabwe is open for business.” Its target audience isn’t Zimbabweans, however, but foreign investors. He has spoken boldly about the need for economic recovery, his commitment to seeing it through, and a much-needed shift in the way government operates. Before anyone could say “asante sana” (Mugabe’s infamous parting shot during his aborted resignation speech), Mnangagwa has threatened corrupt officials with jail time and demanded that members of Cabinet and heads of parastatals declare their assets publicly. It is no doubt that he is working hard to counter the incompetence and mediocrity that had engulfed Zanu’s leadership, but is it enough?

There are glaring social issues that Mnangagwa has yet to address, one of the biggest being an apology for his complicity in Gukurahundi – the “moment of madness” (as said by his predecessor) that has left deep wounds on our society. While he has acknowledged the need for healing and has tasked his deputy to head a commission regarding this, his role in carrying out the horrific violent crimes against what were called “dissidents” at the time, requires more action.  

Mnangagwa has also kept many a minister in government who has been accused of corruption, violence and other crimes, casting doubt on the chance for a “clean slate” for Zimbabwe. Minister Obert Mpofu has been accused of, amongst other crimes, taking a $10 million bribe in return for mining concessions during his time as Mines minister; Health Minister David Parirenyatwa was accused of entertaining a conflict of interest by accepting a $100,000 payment from a health insurance company that was struggling to stay afloat, affecting its members’ ability to access the most basic health services. The changes needed for true transformation include an overhaul of the kind of leadership that has landed Zimbabwe here in the first place, and this is unlikely to happen now.  

Unlike my father, my default sentiment is this: there is a continued violence that Zanu-PF seems to never stop engaging in; a refusal to fully and truly engage with their culpability. I recognized it in my father, and I recognize it in our president and leaders now. Some people might say that we need to give Mnangagwa a chance – give him the benefit of the doubt and stop being so quick to criticize:

I would say that this is what got us into trouble in the first place, and that where criticism is deserved, it should be accepted, confronted and addressed adequately. After all, he said that we should “judge him from day one.” My day one started with his legacy in a party that has largely been the cause for the country’s decline. It’s time that we see true transformation in Zimbabwe, and that the cosmetic actions of the past are shunned and replaced by meaningful actions towards a better country.

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