“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
By Tafi Mhaka
The people shall judge President Robert Mugabe at the polls in 2018. As President Robert Mugabe shuffles toward an anti-climatic conclusion to almost four decades in power, with great reluctance and confrontational resistance to the irrepressible consequences of Mother Nature and the hideous certainties of harsh and inexhaustible economic miscalculations, Zanu-PF has kicked into an all or nothing and full, warlike survival mode.
An unquestionable feature of this all too familiar theatrical performance incorporates fantasising about how well the economy is performing and blaming the anticipated shortages of fuel, cash and basic commodities that surfaced last week on old and fresh political foes.
Mugabe began his present term in office with officious determination to mastermind an economic regeneration effort through the exploitation of mineral resources. He said, “The mining sector will be the centrepiece of our economic recovery and growth. It should generate growth spurts across the sector, reignite that economic miracle which must now happen”.
However, a whopping US$15 billion in diamond revenues vanished into the clean mountain air that circles the Chiadzwa diamond fields – ostensibly, and despairing economic chaos and social deterioration have impoverished well over 70% of the population and made jobless 90% of the adult population.
Still, when one considers the wafer-thin substance of the rambling speeches articulated by Grace Mugabe and her husband at the Presidential Youth Interface Rallies held across the country lately, certain electoral success, amid intense internal fissures, and not an excellent economic resurgence, remains all that counts for the octogenarian leader and Zanu-PF.
Change is on the horizon though – and notwithstanding the calm and collected demeanour Mugabe radiates in public spaces and his public endeavours to battle physiological decline, you can sense that he fully comprehends that nothing lasts eternally in this world.
So Mugabe is fighting against the physical restraints time places on all humanity and the economic consequences of his populist rule, while struggling to fend off all of his internal and external foes – in a desperate bid to shape the political and economic change that will characterise life after his rule ends.
Mugabe, in the fashion of a long-established strongman who is near his final moments in power, has become ever mindful of his legacy and obsessed with how he will leave office. The internal Zanu-PF squabble for power, between the so-called and Lacoste and G-40 factions, is simply a fruition of policy differences and personality clashes, and not really a full out war for power.
Mugabe will choose his replacement. He will not allow ordinary delegates from Gutu, Filabusi and Mutare, for instance, to decide on his successor. And neither will he leave it up to the Zanu-PF Central Committee or Politburo. He will not leave it up to the people of Zimbabwe if he has his way. It is just not the way things are done in the Marxist-Leninist world. Fidel Castro chose Raul Castro to succeed him in Cuba. Hugo Chavez chose Nicholas Maduro. Kim Jong-il, the late leader of North Korea, picked Kim Jong-un, his second son, as his successor.
So Mugabe is at the juncture where he feels obliged to protect his legacy and family and cement his place in Zanu-PF history further. Although he retains unqualified satisfaction with his pre-independence contributions, the fact that he threw verbal jabs at South African anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela disclosed his uneasiness with how Africa will recognise and gauge his achievements or lack thereof in light of the spectacular economic meltdown in Zimbabwe.
Mugabe understands well that the economy is staggering toward explosive disaster once again. Yet, as a cold-blooded and calculating politician at heart, he is determined to battle all and sundry, simply to sustain his preferred economic vision of the small and privileged world around him.
This drive has made him blind to the immeasurable sufferings of millions of poor people. It is, as Nigerian writer China Achebe puts it in Hopes and Impediments: Selected Essays, a rare phenomenon that affects wealthy people: “Privilege, you see, is one of the great adversaries of the imagination; it spreads a thick layer of adipose tissue over our sensitivity.”
So the exorbitant journey overseas to attend the 72nd ordinary session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and the subsequent staged verbal jabs aimed at Donald Trump – and the organised grandstanding at the soon-to-be-renamed RG Mugabe International Airport, are a part of a political repertoire that has worked well for Mugabe over the years, for such defiant performances on the international stage excite his base and enrich the Anglo-Saxon versus all-conquering African icon narrative which he utilises regularly, especially when he requires self-serving explanations for the economic hardships the nation is mired in.
Mugabe also plays the powerful patriarchal card to handsome and devastating reward. When Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) chair Justice Rita Makarau kneels before him at the State House, like an African child would do when addressing an elder at home, he will not ask her to stand up and sit as a colleague should do in the normal course of state business, because he understands and values the powerful impression and message such an act and published image will have on his cabinet, colleagues, high court judges and followers, and how that calculated subservience reinforces his dominance and establishes an unassailable know-it-all, “Godfather” like fatherly stereotype.
As a committed Marxist-Leninist leader, he has maintained rigid control over Zanu-PF and regularly redefined the party with Joseph Stalin like zeal and North Korean efficiency, through the humiliating expulsions of high-ranking colleagues. Just as Joseph Stalin expelled Leon Trotsky from the Communist Part in Russia, Mugabe has banished a long line of once-revolutionary colleagues to the political coldness and Emmerson Mnangagwa could be next on that dishonourable list.
The dismissive and authoritarian attitude Zanu-PF extends toward internal and opposition figures is consistent with communist strongman tactics and one party rule characteristics that stain the political scenes in China, North Korea and Russia. So is the suppression of parallel leadership and moral structures in business and social affairs that may disrupt this smothering and exclusive narrative.
While China and North Korea have banned religion altogether, Zimbabwe has witnessed premeditated onslaughts on individuals like the late Pius Ncube, Pastor Evan Mawarire and various local and international NGOs that do not toe the party line. Zimbabwe maintains the facade of a decent African democracy quite well, however, as a result of electoral violence, closed political spaces in rural constituencies and a lopsided media environment, no one knows for certain how popular Zanu-PF and the principal opposition party, the MDC, really are.
As sure as the sun has risen every waking day since the day Zimbabwe attained independence from Britain, all elections since 1990 have been disputed for one reason or the other. And rather pitifully, so will the forthcoming 2018 elections. Even though Zanu-PF won the 2013 elections convincingly, the 1 million or so ghost voters reportedly identified by the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) and the thousands of voters who discovered that their names did not appear on the voters’ roll on election day, cast a shadow over that disputed victory.
So voters do have their suspicions about the authenticities of polls, for as Stalin suggested a long time ago, rulers like Mugabe do not believe in elections and scarcely ever conduct them impartially when they do hold electoral polls: “It is enough that the people know there was an election. The people who cast the votes decide nothing. The people who count the votes decide everything.”
Accordingly, next year, Zanu-PF will do just enough to entice the opposition to participate in the elections and nothing more. That is the real problem all opposition parties face if a fresh economic landscape is to be built through free and fair elections.
Even if repressive laws like POSA are repealed and all-important security sector and state media reforms are introduced and applied quickly – and that looks highly improbable at the moment – the real game changer for all opposition parties could be the millions of Zimbabweans who live in exile.
Plus – as the economic situation depreciates further – more potential voters might leave for foreign lands in the near future. But few will return to either register for the 2018 polls or vote next year. Travel is an expensive exercise and that could render the current registration effort a lost cause for millions of economic exiles – more so because ZEC has been operating at a pedestrian pace and that has created tremendous uncertainty over how much time one actually needs to register as a voter under the new Biometric Voter Registration regime. Is it a day, two days, or one week? Consequently, whatever it will take – ceaseless protests actions and structured boycotts and all, people who reside in the diaspora must be able to vote from whatever country they live in.
And although nobody can assume that all economic migrants will vote for opposition parties, you can practically deduce that a good number of them will vote against the economic mismanagement and social deterioration that led them across borders in the first place. ZEC shenanigans are not all that can hinder the emergence of an economic revival though.
The opposition must find appropriate policies that speak to several crucial electoral challenges: for one, voter apathy among the youth who live in urban areas remains high. Estimates from the Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) say voter registration amongst the youth in the 2013 elections was as low as 14%. So the improbable rise of Pastor Mawarire, as a leading figure in opposition politics, could be related to this particular, youthful indifference to the electoral process for approximately 41% of eligible voters and illustrates abundant dissatisfaction with politics.
Although electoral dispiritedness is common in Africa, unlike rich and stable countries that have less of an essential need to realise economic change, this silent and non-participatory bloc could become a decisive factor in 2018. And, quite worryingly for forces bent on economic and political regeneration, Pastor Mawarire appears to be the only opposition leader with a Zimbabwean flag and video camera, who is willing to be arrested for his Youtube and WhatsApp troubles. Where are the rest of the opposition leaders, though, in this time of economic and social crisis, and how do they spend their nights and days when Pastor Mawarire is always jailed alone?
Another game changer is the rural-based vote. While all consumers suffer when the costs of fuel, electricity and basic commodities rise in astronomical fashion, that is probably not all that poor rural-based voters consider when deciding on which party to vote for. Mugabe has built considerable brand equity for Zanu-PF in the rural areas through his historical contributions to the liberation war effort and the land reform agenda and ring-fenced this electoral capital with brutal violence.
This brand equity is so strong, land reform, a need that strikes at the heart of African identity, pride and financial freedom, has become synonymous with Zanu-PF charity. 1970s war veterans have become the often-ferocious custodians of land transfers and Zanu-PF power in the rural areas. Nonetheless, farmland, like fresh water, is a national heritage and a communal resource that has nothing at all to do with political establishments.
So opposition forces should discontinue preaching to the choir of well-informed masses who reside in urban areas and concentrate on the millions of voters who refuse to vote for opposition candidates out of fear that a vote against Zanu-PF could disrupt their agrarian way of life. Sceptical voters might well have insufficient information about the different political picks available.
So Zanu-PF and Mugabe are near default options all the time and intimidation and violence in the rural areas can influence their choices. And rural-based voters might be swayed by the Africanist appeal Mugabe creates. He spares no effort in identifying with the struggles of rural-based voters and publicising the disastrous effects of fabricated colonial conspiracies. All the while, his children live in absolute extravagance in Johannesburg. Nevertheless, rural-based voters still identify closely with him and accept his so-called struggles as theirs too.
Which means the opposition has much work to do if it hopes to match this Africanist fascination with Mugabe and present an alternate vision for the future. But without an objective national media, it is fair to conclude that the task at hand, for all opposition parties, is huge. A conflation of state and party mechanisms, such as the Command Agriculture scheme – together with the millions of dollars in
Agricultural inputs it offers, operates as an electoral weapon. Not to mention the daily news bulletins that showcase countless instances of so-called governmental philanthropy and cabinet efficiency. The power of incumbency is vastly resourceful in Africa when the electoral playground is not level.
And remember that in the depths of the biggest economic crisis Zimbabwe has ever had, Morgan Tsvangirai polled only 5% more than Mugabe, under extremely difficult circumstances. Zanu-PF is well aware of the electoral pitfalls it should avoid to win the upcoming elections and the unbalanced conditions it must construct to corrupt the electoral landscape. Thus, the opposition must realise that, while change is in the air, it will take more than protest actions to dislocate Zanu-PF.
It will take a free state media, enlightened rural-based voters and postal ballots for citizens who live in the diaspora, to win the elections next year. Because a frail but still-calculating Mugabe will fight extraordinarily hard and dishonourably to retain all he has put in place for his family, close associates and securocrats since 1980. So it will take the mother of all electoral conquests to realise a new Zimbabwe in 2018.