by Benjamin Paradza
18 April 2020
At 40, Zimbabwe should be celebrating a milestone—forty years of independence from our former colonial masters.
18 April 1980 was indeed a milestone for Zimbabwe. Yet, we stand today on 18 April 2020 heartbroken and confused about what independence really means for us. Is it something worth recognising and celebrating or it is just a façade, a false hope of what we could have been as a nation?
Today it is tempting to look back to Ian Smith’s era with some miffed and muted envy: miffed because, from where we now stand as a nation, that time in our history can appear quite enviable; muted because we feel guilty if we openly acknowledge that, even when disparities are taken into account, Smith’s world was better for Africans as much as it was for his white Rhodesians. Rhodesia had well-established, functional institutions of governance and service provisions that worked for everybody. What Zimbabwe is battling to provide today, Rhodesia had in abundance. Health services, public transportation, buses, trains, reliable fuel supply, telephone services, good road and rail infrastructure, a banking system—you name it, it was all there! So why do we now feel like we have been devastated by a massive cyclone and we are slowly edging from destruction to death. We are a traumatised and oppressed people. What is the reason for our pain, our helplessness and our trauma?
Robert Mugabe was the greatest liar and deceiver this world has seen in a long time. I concur with his own assessment of himself: he was a “Hitler tenfold.” He started his deception on April 18, 1980 immediately after taking the oath of office. With the oratory of a demagogue, addressing a world with eyes focused on Zimbabwe, he lied about reconciliation and forgiveness. Swords were going to be turned into ploughshares and, if yesterday you were my enemy, today you were going to be my brother, regardless of who or what you were. Was he telling the truth? Did he mean what he was saying? I believed him. We all did—black, white, Asian, everyone. White people, at whom his message was specifically aimed, believed him. The world believed him. What a statesman he was, they said. We started to question the significance of the war that had just ended. Was it worth the loss of lives and property? He was not a terrorist after all!
But it was all deception. Look at what happened down the line. What he really wanted was to psychologically defeat and subdue all potential threats to his power, to achieve total control of everything and everyone.
Gukurahundi happened because ZAPU, ZIPRA, and the Ndebele people were a force that could not be ignored. The Ndebele posed a threat. Mugabe wanted them wiped off the face of the earth. With new boots and a standing army, ZAPU was a real threat. A lie had to be created to justify a genocide. So he invented the lies about arms caches on ZAPU properties, reports of malcontents in the military (later called dissidents), whose numbers he obviously knew because they had defected from the National Army. As it turned out, there were no arms caches on the ZAPU properties. The number of dissident was so small they just could not justify the genocide that Gukurahundi turned out to be. An entire military brigade was deployed to stamp out fewer than 150 dissidents and slaughtered 20,000. Mugabe wanted nothing short of annihilation of the Ndebele. He was afraid of them—they were a threat to his power. He wanted dominance and control of the only real opposition that was there. It was part of his grand plan of lies and deception.
The deception and lies went on during Mugabe’s reign, right to the end. He lied about the constitution-making process and denied NCA ownership of that process after stakeholders grouped under the NCA banner in 1997. When the MDC was formed, he threw mud at them and convinced those who cared to listen that they were a gang of imperialist puppets— and that mud has stuck to this day. He even lied about land reform, saying he was giving land to the people when, in fact, he was rewarding his cronies.
But what is the way forward? What lessons have we learnt? The only value in looking back must be in learning lessons from our mistakes. Let us recognise what has happened, leave the past in the past, and now focus on moving forward.
The liberation war came with its own characteristic political philosophy, derived mainly from the eastern bloc. During my stint in military operations in Zimunya in 1979, one of my tasks was to introduce and set up village and ward committees in what we described as “liberated zones” to replace the long established kraal and village heads, headmen and chiefs. They were ‘colonial’ and therefore part of the oppressive imperialist agenda that we were removing. The legacies of Chiefs Chirau in Zvimba and Khayisa Ndiweni in Bulawayo in the 70’s had left the role of chiefs and headmen in a new Zimbabwe in tatters. All the functioning Rhodesian infrastructure and institutions mentioned earlier suffered the same fate. They were relics of capitalism and imperialism and the colonial past. They had to be dismantled.
For 37 years this systemic unbundling of these institutions was part of Mugabe’s grand plan to control every institution and enterprise. Think of any institution that survived during his reign; Mugabe ultimately controlled every one of them. CEOs of parastatals, government agencies, corporations like Ziscosteel, the electricity provider ZESA, transport companies, construction companies, you name it, as in Game of Thrones the proverbial king’s hand was there.
In government Mugabe loathed the idea of independent institutions such as the Judiciary. In the end he succeeded in creating a subdued judiciary by hounding out the ferociously independent white judges and the likes of Ishmael Chatikobo, James DeVitte, Moses Chinhengo and yours truly who refused to be compromised and fall under the spell of Bob’s quest for power and control.
He did whatever he could to compromise the autonomy of democratic institutions. In 1999, he was embarrassed and visibly angry when, at the conclusion of the democratic Constitutional initiative, a referendum of the people rejected what he wanted. His anger showed when he unleashed hordes of hooligans claiming to be war veterans to seize commercial farms under the guise of land reform. We saw that eventually lead to a total collapse in the fortunes of our once prosperous economy.
Mugabe’s minions were embarrassingly successful in infiltrating the opposition movement. Characters like Gabriel Chaibwa came out of the CIO straight into the welcoming arms of the MDC and was with them in their top structures for years until he was recalled and went back to ZANU PF. I was targeted in a similar manner by a CIO operative named Pearson Mbalekwa. After my arrest and release on bail in 2003, Mbalekwa came over and was introduced to me by someone I know. He wanted me to join him and form an opposition party. I refused and told him to go away. I was a judge and was above politics. At that time, I still genuinely believed
I was never going to be politically active.
Today, the opposition still has not succeeded in developing a philosophy and cultivating a culture of how they want to do politics.
In the lead-up to the 2018 elections, ZUNDE, which I have the privilege to lead, worked tirelessly in public and behind the scenes to form a united opposition. I was often confronted by the question, “But you have no structures?” as if it was essential for our movement to have ZANU-PF-style structures. We believed that organizing ZUNDE in the way ZANU PF is organised would be to buy into the system that ZANU PF has perfected. The MDC has fallen squarely into that trap. Instead of fighting against the system, they are fighting to become part of the system. They are emulating ZANU PF without understanding the reason behind structures, that they represent entrenched Mugabeism. They fail to appreciate that structures are where rigging begins. When you structure people, you organise them into a system that guarantees you votes regardless of how you perform between elections. Structures ensure you will be voted back into power regardless of performance or policies or what kind of people you are. You are voted in solely because of the unthinking allegiance of your captured supporters.
The MDC and opposition parties need to review how politics is done in Zimbabwe. Followers must be allowed their freedom to be citizens instead of being co-opted as supporters. Citizens are free to attend any gathering of any political formation—to listen, to debate, to evaluate and to decide for themselves—whereas supporters are viewed with suspicion for doing so. They are labelled ‘sell-outs’ if they do that, risking their lives in the process.
The purpose and conduct of political rallies needs to be re-evaluated. At present all they do is whip up emotional fervour and compel supporters to declare their allegiance by wearing party regalia. Rallies and regalia inhibit the freedom that is the democratic right of citizens.
As we mark the end of our fourth decade of independence,
I cannot help but see Emmerson Mnangagwa standing before a mirror to adjust his green presidential sash before going out to preside at official Independence Day ceremonies. I grieve for Zimbabwe because he will glory in seeing the reflection of Robert Mugabe as is portrayed in a popular social media meme.
In Zimbabwe’s fifth decade we must set out to radically change the way that we do politics in Zimbabwe. We need servant-leaders who will govern, not rule. We have inherited a parliamentary system that can serve us well if we put constitutionalism above populism, policies and integrity above party structures, and look to our traditions of Ubuntu/Hunhu for the principles and values that will guarantee good governance and the rule of law. Only then will Zimbabwe prosper.
Benjamin Paradza is the exiled judge of the High Court of Zimbabwe and is now President of ZUNDE. He writes from Wellington, New Zealand.