In 2014, while working on a project in Zimbabwe, over a few weeks, an incident occurred that would be my first (and hopefully only ever) tense encounter with the security apparatus that has been the eyes and ears of the Zanu-PF elite for decades – and which over the last few weeks has been the “darling of the people”, or at least parts of it.
We left the Rainbow Hotel, on a warm and sunny Saturday at noon. The security men dressed in those brown, familiar, colonial-inspired uniforms that shout “authority”, friendly waved us away, as they lifted the boom gate. We’d left a prize ceremony early. The streets were a usual weekend affair, people milling about, attending to their day-to-day business. Buying uniforms, selling newspapers, withdrawing whatever cash, scarcely held, had passed through many hands. Before long, our driver brought to our attention, in an uncharacteristic whisper, a tall building with a simple, yet elegant shape. A rectangle approaching the sky, with a triangle, emblazoned with a black rooster. The letters written on the side of the triangle, where it meets the rectangle, made me realize that our driver, was correct. These were indeed, the headquarters of Zanu-PF; one of the most revered, admired (and feared) liberation movements-cum-governments in Africa. It looked rather different from Shell House or Luthuli House. My excitement at the thought of being able to visually share the moment on Instagram, and my generosity, to offer to take a picture of the “Zanu HQ” for my colleague in the front-seat, was however short-lived.
As we approached the red traffic light, a man carrying a wireless land-line, that looked like it came straight out of the Verimark early 2000s catalogue, approached the driver’s door. He spoke to our driver in Shona, and our companion’s fear was palpable. At that point, my mind recalled the many stories my Zimbabwean friends on campus had recounted, of encounters with the Zimbabwean Secret Police, the CIO.
Our driver had taken us through the routine many times in the villages we had visited to gather data for the Zimbabwean Foundation we were working for. We would first stop over at the “President’s Office”, where we would report our arrival, much like to a chief in a village, to the local CIO officials. The officials in the rural areas, would check our documentation, and in some instances, chatter away in a mix of isiZulu and IsiNdebele, and we’d be on our way. Nothing untoward or discomforting. However, in the city, on a warm Saturday morning, our dressing down would be much colder.
He asked me where I was from, and why I was taking pictures of a “security key point” (or something of that sort), and whether I would have been “allowed” to do the same in South Africa. He ventured to use Eskom as an example. He then asked my colleague in the front seat, a white South African, where she was from, and what we were doing in the country, capturing images of the ruling party’s headquarters to boot. After a few reassurances, that we were excited, in a tourist-like fashion, at the sight of the “revolutionary house” we had often heard about. He took our details, and promised to call us later.
Our driver and colleagues, would later inform us that the man may have been a “poser”. However, the imprint remained. For many of us as outsiders, the stories were numerous and plenty, of folk who had spoken too loud and asked to many questions. Folks who had ended up in Chikurubi Prison. We thought nothing of the incident after reassurances from our Zimbabwean colleagues. Clearly it wasn’t uncommon.
I was reminded of this when the events of the last weeks unfolded in Harare. One would’ve been forgiven, for thinking Vladimir Lenin was referring to Zimbabwe when he spoke of decades where nothing happens, and weeks where decades happen. Many in the South African media referred to this quotation frequently on the many Zimbabwean “crossings” we saw over the last week. A week that had even veteran journalist, Peter Ndoro, moving from excited interest, to over-informed boredom, and back, as the coup that wasn’t a coup unfolded. As we were all glued to our TV screens and the glass screens covering our Twitter timelines for more information, we asked, “would the old man take the hints, and say goodbye?” On a Sunday evening, he sat us all through a Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) feed, to tell us he’d “officiate” at the upcoming congress of the party. It would take a lot more negotiation in secret, “spiritual counsel” and public outrage than that to get rid of him.
The army generals, whose gentlemanly palace coup delivered Emmerson Mnangagwa to State House, understood the currency of information. Give the world, trickles of it and you’ll have them, and the people, salivating for more. The stuff of Cold War spy literature of the John le Carre archive. The play is simple; keep as much out of the scrutiny of the public, and the reliance on the army as a purveyor of information on not only Mugabe’s future, but that of the 16-million Zimbabweans. Do that, and you can control the outcome. For the Zimbabweans who’ve seen many uprisings and the subsequent suppression that follows, the army may have started as a group secretly moving tanks into the capital, who later became the “content producers” on the ZBC, they would later become more. They became the 21st century hero in a political moment that meant different things to many people.
To the Zanu-PF faithful; a resolution to the ongoing succession debate that may have started in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and a rebranding of the “legitimacy” of the party as a responsive and responsible “liberator”. For the opposition and other new-age movements emerging, it presented a breakthrough, to a new era, which by no means was a victory or an “arrival” at the envisaged destination; but a realignment of “political” opportunities.
The army, neatly (and some naively say, neutrally) intervened in a fight between two contending elite factions, represented in both state and party. It was similar to what Antonio Gramsci in his Prison Notebooks, referred as to as the role of the army in containing a more dangerous movement of a fed-up peasantry and urban working people during crisis. In so doing, militaries often make allies with the most unexpected erstwhile adversaries, such as students, traders, civil servants and other social activist groups.
“…...it (the security apparatus) finds a certain political and ideological unification; it finds allies in the urban middle classes – reinforced by students of rural origin now living in the towns and it imposes its methods on the upper classes, which are compelled to make numerous concessions to it…”
The main concession and “ideological unification” uniting all these erstwhile adversaries was the exit of Robert Mugabe. Very little else brought them together last week, nor today; aside from the constitutional commitment to elections next year, and the exit of “Mdala”, little else. Zimbabwe is certainly different now that Mugabe no longer, occupies the prized seat of the ZANU Central Committee or the armed men with eyes on every corner who look over the street that is home to State House, no longer answer to him. However, much remains. The shadowy securostate and its political economy of patronage, extraction and its interest in reproducing itself, remains. Old habits and alliances (even in the face of seemingly new ones) die hard.
They however, exist in a different milieu now. Anyone hearing the rapturous applause received by youth leader Acie Lumumba in a large rally in Harare two weeks ago, would testify that the youthful crowd lived in a moment different from 1980. The hero had not only turned unwanted villain, but the well of hope ran much drier than in 1980. Rightfully so, the celebrations now, carry a different aura. It is one of ‘let’s celebrate now’. However tomorrow morning presents a moment to defend even the smallest gains. It is no longer a naïve hope, but a determined hope. It is the hope of a generation of black market forex peddlers, tired and anxious migrant waitresses in Johannesburg watching from afar, bitcoin miners and dealers, hairdressers and over-qualified con-men with many certificates in oversized suits.
It is a story with many lessons, even for us here in South Africa. The commonly understood form of exit of the first generation post-liberation elites is often characterised by violent seizure of power and delegitimising of the ruling party or coalition. Zimbabwe shows us that this is not always the case. Aside from the violent intimidation of the G-40 faction (with a few fatalities, we are told), in a show of force the coup/handover was peaceful. Moreover, Zanu-PF emerged from the entire exercise, with a new layer of legitimacy as a vehicle willing to change its directions after enough cajoling from its drivers, the people. This is the Kool-Aid we’ve been sold, and many of us have thirstily drunk it up.
Such a narrative is on offer, because the path to an Mnangagwa presidency for the army wasn’t lined with a considerable and threatening opposition. Were this the case, the peaceful approach may have been less desirable for General Chiwenga and company. The fragmented opposition has done a shoddy ideological and political job, in presenting a way out of the socio-economic crisis that faces Zimbabwe. This may also account for why the liberatory sentiments surrounding brand Zanu-PF and its legitimacy, are not in question.
The opposition has not proposed a genuine, pro-poor and liberatory programme, out of product shortages, rising costs of a dollarised economy short on dollars, unemployment, rapid de-industrialisation and re-integration (or better yet “de-linking”) from the global markets. Moreover, in the post-2008 global environment and Donald Trump world order, the opposition as Leo Zeilig notes, “has failed to wrestle the language of anti-imperialism and radical Pan-Africanism away from the government”.
One certainly hopes, naively so, that this moment presents an opportunity for the Zimbabwean people to find a common programme to resolve the socio-economic crisis the country faces and reorganize how its affairs and democratic expression is governed. Without external interference and jockeying. Its geopolitical alliances will be crucial, and these will influence its re-integration into the political economy of trade, finance and industry.
Christmas may have come early this year, but dollars and rand don’t magically appear in Harare’s Mbare township. Much more thorough-going change will be needed for that to happen, and that will need less palace politics and more change from below. Ironically, it may happen sooner, if the alliance between the people, the opposition and those who watch over the tall building in the Harare skyline with an emblazoned black rooster, is sustained around a clear national programme. Maybe when I next visit, the CIO “posers” might have smartphones, and we can take a “selfie” at the HQ, just like the people did with the army on the streets when Mdala left. One can only hope. DM
Riding a Black Unicorn Down the Side of an Erupting Volcano While Drinking from a Chalice Filled with the Laughter of Small Children is the title of a dark cabaret album by 'Voltaire'