Tendai Musikavanhu: My family’s history of Zimbabwe revolution

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The downfall of Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe and the swearing-in of Emmerson Mnangagwa spins us right back to where we were in 1980

In the country immediately north of SA, a black university student walked up to the tyrannical head of government and quoted a warning from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “Beware the Ides of March.” Predictably, that student was hurled into prison and not heard of again for three years.

It’s the kind of story that emanated often from the regime of Robert Mugabe. Except this particular story isn’t about Zimbabwe under Mugabe; it’s about Rhodesia under Ian Smith in the mid-1960s. The story is about my late father, Herbert Musikavanhu. It is also the reason I was born in London, after he was exiled by Smith’s white supremacist government.

The story of Zimbabwe affects SA more than many realise. This is not just because my family, like many others, straddles the Limpopo (my grandfather was South African), but because it is about African revolution, its complexity and its lessons.

Revolution is “a forcible overthrow of a government or social order, in favour of a new system”. It is also, as it happens, “the single completion of an orbit or rotation”.

The tumultuous past week in Zimbabwe was both. What fuelled celebrations was the hope that the Mugabe era would be followed by a better order. Mugabe’s reign spanned a generation: for my wife, he ruled from when she, a Zimbabwean, was in grade three until today, when her youngest child is in the seventh grade.

The revolution was as much about promoting the ambitions of a political faction as it was about preventing the rise of an unpopular leader

In the past week, the Zimbabwean military became the unlikeliest of heroes in a “coup that was not a coup”. But the maxim that history repeats itself has never been more apt.

Last week, we may have found ourselves back where we started in 1980 — a time when Mugabe was the conquering hero. It’s a revolution through time and space, where the duration of the rotation is a political cycle of 37 years, 217 days.

As in 1980, the newly inaugurated Emmerson Mnangagwa is now riding the crest of jubilation after the defeat of a dictator. As with Smith, those who dissented against Mugabe often met grisly ends. As in 1980, last week’s military intervention was pivotal in convincing the dictator of the day to acquiesce to the will of the people.

Echoing the country’s split from colonial rule, last week’s revolution was as much about promoting the ambitions of a powerful political faction as it was about preventing the rise of an unpopular leader. Then it was the undesirable Bishop Abel Muzorewa; last week it was Grace Mugabe.

It’s a chilling déjà vu. I remember being a child of the liberation generation who would find any excuse to celebrate freedom. So intoxicating was that euphoria in the 1980s that Zimbabweans did not notice some of their countrymen were still being butchered. The most salient difference is that this revolution was bloodless.

This is where the analogy breaks down and a different historical contrast is required.

A turn to freedom

Let’s go back to 1796 and George Washington or to Deng Xiaoping in 1979: both had the benefit of witnessing the aftermath of revolutions, and both saw that revolution for revolution’s sake would lead to little more than the people spinning, without establishing a new axis for progress.

As Mugabe showed, the more self-centred the axis of rotation, the more likely the path will be downwards. Washington and Deng proved more magnanimous and outwardly focused – the result was lasting prosperity.

Attention has shifted to Mnangagwa, and so the plea to him is this: it is up to you to ensure that your rule frees Zimbabwe from rotating around the same axis of oppression, revolution, partial freedom and reversion to oppression.

The freedom to exit the disorientating spin of African politics is to realise, as a wise president once said, “that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God”.

You, sir, are a human — the full realisation of the implications of that truth will free us all.

• Musikavanhu is CEO of One Stone Global, based in Boston, US. First Published by the Business Day