Zimbabwe came to independence through a long and brutal war, but with much promise. Robert Mugabe, the leader of the dominant faction of the liberation movement, portrayed as an ogre by the colonial regime of the time, appeared to be anything but a monster. He was intelligent, educated, reconciliatory, charming, obviously a democrat, and to the relief of many, a good Catholic. Under his stewardship Zimbabwe would be democratic, safe and prosperous.
As a student at Wits University some 30 years ago I too was seduced by this promise. I organized a rally at the university to celebrate Zimbabwe’s independence and President Mugabe’s victory at the polls. Some of my colleagues thought this was not a good idea, not because they harboured the same prejudices as Smith’s Rhodesian Front, but rather because ZANU was no ally of the ANC. But that is a discussion for another day. For the record the rally was a huge success. Regrettably, that was the last time I had cause to celebrate anything that Mugabe or ZANU-PF has done.
What followed the ZANU victory was the political and ethnically inspired violent campaign to destroy ZAPU-PF, led by Joshua Nkomo, through the Gukurahundi violence in 1983. The instrument used to achieve this purpose was the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade. The campaign claimed the lives of more than ten thousand people. It was systematic, involving torture and rape, and it invoked memories of the methods employed by the Rhodesian security forces against the liberation movements and their sympathizers.
Ignored by the international media at the time, perhaps because the victims were not white, the Gukhurahundi shaped the character of the post colonial Zimbabwe state. The ruling party ensured that state institutions such as the police and the military would be firmly in control of the governing party, as would the state media.
Party cadres would be ‘deployed’ in these institutions, a term that we have become familiar with in this country. And during elections after independence, particularly after 2000, these institutions were used to harass and intimidate opponents with the state media ensuring that the sanitized version of what happened was broadcast.
Until then the Zimbabwean judiciary remained a functioning institution with a demonstrable reputation for independence and competence.
By 2000, ZANU-PF was firmly in control of the State’s coercive machinery but its control of patronage did not extend much beyond the party, and promises of land reform were not forthcoming. And so it launched a land confiscation program, which involved seizing the land of white farmers violently and illegally, and driving vulnerable farm workers off the land.
The instruments used for this purpose were the notorious ‘war veterans’, some of whom had never participated in the war. The ‘veterans’ were supported by the ZANU-PF youth militia. The State’s coercive machinery was deployed to ensure the campaign’s success.
And when the judiciary, as it was obliged to, ruled against the illegality the then Chief Justice, and other judges, was driven from his chambers. Cynically, newly appointed judges were rewarded with the very same land that was seized in this manner.
Except for one honourable exception, who refused to accept any land, most judges who I might add have no history of farming are now farm owners. The judiciary, like other state institutions, has lost much of its credibility and few turn to that institution with any hope of receiving justice.
ZANU-PF, as we know, lost the elections in 2008, but as is not unusual on this continent, remains effectively in power, largely because of the duplicitous role that SADC has played in that country. Instead of demanding that Mugabe stand down they have placated him.
The Global Political Agreement, which was supposed to have been a roadmap towards democracy, failed to touch on the key problem – Mugabe’s determination to cling to power through the use of state sponsored violence. The damage to that country is obvious and is eloquently described in Lloyd Sachikonye’s monograph.
South Africans should not be complicit in this duplicity. We should support the call for the perpetrators of violence to be held to account as a pre-condition for a genuinely democratic transition in that country.
And we should do so not only because Zimbabwe is our neighbour and because many Zimbabweans play a productive role in our country. But importantly, because what has happened in that country has lessons beyond it, including our own. Mugabe not only has admirers in this country. There are some who think that we should emulate his model.
That path involves the dominance of the post-colonial state by a single party in perpetuity, or as someone once said, ‘until Jesus returns’. The result of that sort of thinking is that the State is seen as instrument for wealth acquisition through party deployment, as in Zimbabwe – not one that provides services to its people on a non-partisan basis for which it is accountable to the people, as our Constitution envisages.
I recall having a conversation sometime ago with one of my erstwhile comrades who told me, without a hint of irony, that the problem in this country is that we (meaning the Party) appoint comrades to independent institutions and after a while they begin to think that they are independent.
In similar vein I remember one of South Africa’s most powerful present day politicians reminded his audience, of which I was a part of before I became a judge that we must remember that the party created the Constitution – the Constitution did not create the party. What he was saying was that our primary loyalty must be to the party not the Constitution.
More recently I was involved in a case where one of South Africa’s most controversial judges is alleged to have told another judge that some of his close friends, who are Cabinet Ministers, are concerned that some of some of our judges ‘do not understand our history’. Decoded this meant that judges, who do not make rulings in favour of the governing party, ‘do not understand our history’.
I do not suggest that these are the only or even dominant views of those who hold public office in our country, as they appear to be in ZANU-PF. But neither are they so isolated or sporadic that we can safely ignore them.
Reading Sachikonye’s excellent analysis on Zimbabwe, I could not help but reflect on the dangers that lurk in our country. I commend his excellent research not only to those who wish to understand the terrible impact that State violence has wreaked on Zimbabweans but also to those in this country who need to understand why and how liberators so easily, to borrow Sachikonye’s phrase, ‘turn on their citizens’. –