A day dawned with an early call.
Mugabe was dead.
And then, nothing. Nothing at all
in my heart and mind.
Just a gaping, blank canvas, waiting for a clear script to form out of the morass of both shadowy and sharp memories that had defined so much of the texture of the past four decades.
A day later, the emptiness begins to fill, first with older images floating up like old newsprint, in black-and-white. Hopeful ones like the signings at Lancaster House, a new flag raised, the jubilant mass rallies of the first independent elections. But others too: the dark silhouettes of government soldiers and brutalized bodies from the Gukurahundi era. Then full-color clips start to run like a speeded-up film. A collage of the personal and the political. Times of optimism and loss at both the intimate and the national scale. A spectrum of people and places reconstituted over time by the fortunes and misfortunes of Zimbabwe, shaped so profoundly by the dominating presence of Mugabe.
Mugabe, the grand overseer of progress, and simultaneously the master of darkness. A figure of national liberation and narrow authoritarianism. Discordance between promises and deeds, between narratives of inclusion and practices of exclusion. The constant abuser of ordinary hope within an increasingly heartless political landscape.
I came to know these contradictory forces early on, soon after independence, working together with committed ex-combatants and bureaucrats in government ministries in the “development decade” of the 1980s and into the early 90s. There was the invigorating energy of sharing a seemingly common national project of transformation with tangible results, but only if one wasn’t critical in any way of The Party (Zanu PF); only if one didn’t confront its self-proclaimed authority. The threats were either subtle or not, depending on who and where you were.
Into the 1990s, the trans-continental wave of democratization eased some of the tight constraints of authoritarianism, and generated a new sense of political freedom. But it was accompanied by the debilitating effects of neoliberalism and structural adjustment, undermining government’s ability to deliver public goods, and sowing seeds of discontent in many quarters. The Party began to lose its credibility and monopoly of control, as multiple oppositional voices emerged and began to make political headway, embodied by the successful mobilization of a “no” vote in the constitutional referendum in early 2000, countering Mugabe’s call for a “yes.”
The backlash by Mugabe and The Party was immediate and extreme. Shrewdly rebuilding political legitimacy through a radical redistributive land reform program, widely recognized as necessary, it facilitated wide-scale and sustained violent attacks on all forms of opposition throughout the decade. The mask of an inclusive nation was crudely stripped away. Instead, the language of national belonging became narrower and narrower, reinforced by a discourse that linked the opposition with a form of neo-imperialist alliance.
For ordinary Zimbabweans, the everyday effects of the combined political and economic crises and mass rural and urban displacements were extensive, even while a political, military and business elite linked to Mugabe and his second wife Grace, dug in deep, indeed benefitting from the chaos of crisis.
A brief period of respite came in 2009–2013, when the devastation of the economic crisis forced concessions by Mugabe, and gave the main opposition MDC a foothold in a unity government. Sadly, through its own fragmentation, inexperience, and limited national vision the opposition squandered the opportunity to consolidate its political credibility, to the immense disappointment of so many that had suffered in the struggle to support it. To be fair, Mugabe’s political experience, backed up by The Party’s machinery and history of control, not least of the security sector, was hard to counter. Once again, Mugabe—by then over the age of 90 out-maneuvered his opponents, “winning” his seventh successive election as Head of State.
Repeatedly, Mugabe’s presence dominated not only the political landscape, but the everyday lives, future possibilities, and consciousness of all Zimbabweans, one way or another. When he was finally deposed through a non-violent “non”-coup in November 2017, the relief of an imagined Mugabe-less future was, for a vast majority, momentarily exhilarating. Yet that future didn’t come. Instead, Mugabe’s legacy of intolerance and violence, that had defined The Party from the outset, continued to dominate its trajectory, even in the face of his demise.
Now with Mugabe’s death, some might wonder if at last there might be space for a new self-definition as a nation, as a broad family of nationals, with a shared national project. Sadly, this seems doubtful. With current President Mnangagwa’s public reverence for his predecessor, who was his mentor and protector for decades—despite being the man who deposed him—we are still refused the kind of closure of a Mugabe-dominated era we had so long hoped for.