By Imraan Buccus
The world is celebrating the downfall of Mugabe; even though the future seems uncertain. It is the end of an era, and people are hoping the future would be brighter now. And there is cautious optimism about Emmerson Mnangagwa, the interim president.
But the fact that the Mugabe era is over warrants jubilation across Zimbabwe, and indeed the world. The Robert Mugabe regime did not, as some will argue, start off well and slowly descend into authoritarianism. It was always ruthlessly and violently intolerant of opposition.
There are at least several crimes against humanity for which Mugabe and his junta should have been brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague; well before we reached this point.
The first is the massacre of 20 000 Ndebele people in Operation Gukurahundi between 1984 and 1987.
The second is the Zimbabwean involvement in the second Congo war in support of the tyrant Laurent Kabila. The Harare junta entered the war with its eyes on the same wealth of natural resources that attracted the colonialists and Kabila duly rewarded Mugabe, his family and his allies with contracts in mining and logging worth hundreds of millions of dollars. But the financial cost of the war was borne by ordinary Zimbabweans—it destroyed the Zimbabwean economy. (The human cost was borne by ordinary Congolese.)
The third crime was Operation Murambatsvina in 2005. The eradication of shack settlements and informal traders from the cities affected more than two million people.
The fourth crime against humanity is the state-led campaign of violence, including rape, torture and murder, by which Zanu-PF stole a third election victory. Each of these crimes would, on its own, justify prosecution through the ICC.
Mugabe lost the support of the Zimbabwean elite that he was previously able to buy off with plunder from his “land reform programme” and his part in the militarised rape of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Moreover, he lost the support of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and in South Africa civil society, trade unions and democratic elements in the ANC were in open rebellion against former President Thabo Mbeki’s support for Mugabe. Despite Mugabe’s recourse to torture, rape and murder in a last-ditch attempt to intimidate his people, the tide began turning a while ago.
In South Africa we are confronted by some urgent questions.
The first is how we continue to offer solidarity to Zimbabwean refugees in our country. The widespread attacks on Zimbabweans by ordinary people and the reaction by our police need to be urgently opposed. We need to recall the solidarity shown to South African exiles in other African countries and demonstrate basic human decency.
The second question that we need to consider is the nature of the flaw in our political elites that has allowed them to become complicit with tyranny.
The struggle against apartheid was supported by governments and civil society around the world. One would have thought that we would have taken a similarly activist position towards tyranny in other countries. But instead we have taken the same position towards tyranny in Zimbabwe, and Tibet that Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher took towards apartheid – “constructive engagement” or, if you recall Mbeki’s spin, “quiet diplomacy”.
Why did our elites instinctively side with state power rather than people power? Is this a part of a Stalinist history in the liberation movement? We need to think about this very seriously.
The third question we must ponder is the question about what went wrong in Zimbabwe. The argument that Mugabe was a good leader who went rotten holds no water.
It is clear that the political culture of Zanu-PF was authoritarian and rapacious long before the recent meltdown.
Zimbabwe has been governed by a ruthless and predatory elite for a long while. The seeds of the later crimes, the plunder of the Congo and the ruthless suppression of internal opposition, were planted early on.
What this means is that it is essential to think holistically. Just because a man and a movement opposed one form of tyranny does not mean that they are opposed to tyranny.
There is a tremendous difference between using democracy to come to power and being democratic. A democrat is not defined as a person who came to power by democracy.
A democrat is defined as a person who, when in power, welcomes debate and dissent. By this definition it is clear that Zimbabwe has never been a democracy.
The fourth question of urgent importance for us is the question of what we can do to avoid a similar fate.
The first point to make here is that we began our journey on a much firmer footing. It is clear that there is an anti-democratic stand in the country, but there are also vigorously democratic elements and the democratic spirit of the community struggles of the 1980s was never fully extinguished.
Today we have a vibrant media and civil society that is gathering its strength. Social movements have shown that there is a popular willingness to challenge power even when this is difficult.
If we are to ensure that we avoid the fate of Zimbabwe, we need to build and defend the democratic streams in our national culture and to oppose the anti-democratic streams vigorously and fearlessly.
No one must allow themselves to be intimidated by the claim that it is unpatriotic or even racist to be critical of a liberation movement.
On the contrary, those who wield the most power must accept the most criticism. And a real liberation movement is one that welcomes dissent.
Real patriotism abhors slavish obedience and celebrates debate and dissent. That is the stand by which we can defend and depend on our democracy against what Jeremy Cronin famously called the Zanufication of our society. That is the challenge we must all take up.
Buccus is Al Qalam editor, Research Fellow in the School of Sciences at UKZN and the academic director of a university study abroad program on political transformation. Buccus promotes #Reading Revolution via Books@Antique at Antique Café in Morningside.