People all over the world are still fascinated by events in Russia in 1917. Even a cursory glance at this period shows they were momentous times to live in, with history unfolding in front of people seemingly under its own power.
It must have been quite something to directly experience the collapse of the old order, the two revolutions and all the hopes, dreams and despair of different sectors of the population. As they happened in an age of film and photography, within the lifetimes of people most of us knew, those events seem both real and fabulous even today.
There have been many revolutions since. But the latest developments in Zimbabwe are the closest thing we have yet seen to what happened at the end of the Romanov dynasty. University students have spent a century studying the Russian Revolution in detail, trying to divine lessons about power, ideology and social order. We should therefore be watching every move in Zimbabwe closely, as no one reading this article now is ever likely to see such a phenomenon again.
How are the mighty fallen
The cast of characters is very similar to that of the legend of 1917. Robert Mugabe is the incompetent dictator who has ruined the lives of the masses through mismanagement and arbitrary terror. His wife Grace is a combination of Empress Alexandra and Rasputin, a despised outsider considered to wield a malign influence on the President. The ruling ZANU-PF party and the army are the cadre of aristocratic monarchists trying to preserve the system by removing the cancer at its heart. The masses, finally unafraid to come out into the streets, just want an end to their suffering and the individual they blame for it.
On 15th November the Zimbabwe Army placed President Mugabe under house arrest. It then went on TV insisting that this was not a military coup but an action to defend the regime they had installed though a long guerilla war against the white minority government of Ian Smith. Veterans of that war have been the foundation of Mugabe’s power since 1980, when he was fairly elected in the first universal suffrage election, perhaps the only one he would have won legitimately. They have defended him since because he has given them all their privileges, whilst impoverishing everyone else. But that has suddenly come to an end.
It seemed Mugabe could get away with anything by bribing his chosen few with land in the name of “helping ordinary African victims of repression”. He clearly lost the 2008 election to his former friend Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change, not even being able to win on the official tally released three weeks after the poll. He stayed in power then because Tsvangirai withdrew from a runoff on the grounds that his supporters were being systematically abused, and even murdered, by Mugabe loyalists. Tsvangirai himself had been detained and tortured, and anyone who reported on his condition risked his life doing so, often unsuccessfully.
Now those who have grown fat on the back of Mugabe’s corruption are afraid of losing their ill-gotten gains. All those old war heroes, real or self-proclaimed, have spent the last two decades jockeying to succeed the 93-year old leader when he finally decided to retire, continuing his policies where they benefited themselves. That dream died an abrupt death on November 7th, when he sacked Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa on the grounds of “disloyalty”, a coded signal that he wanted his 52-year old wife Grace, the extravagant socialite accused of assaulting his son’s girlfriend in South Africa, to replace him.
The army, that other pillar of Zimbabwe’s war veteranocracy, warned on November 13th that it would intervene if the “values and prosperity we once fought for” were threatened. Zimbabweans who had lived in justified fear of reprisal saw which way the wind was blowing, and began protesting in the streets. When Mugabe was placed under arrest, apparently amicably, these protestors saw it as a victory for the people. It is not often that a military takeover is thought to be a restoration of democracy, but this was one such case.
Those same people came out in greater numbers from November 16th onwards, with the tacit approval of the army and ZANU-PF, which had previously broken up such demonstrations before they could get going. Both army and party still referred to Mugabe as the president, and insisted it was the people around him, preying on what was suddenly a vulnerable old man, they wanted to remove. But just as the Provisional Government of February 1917 could not resist the power of the Petrograd Soviet, the “reformers” soon had to change their minds when confronted with the strength of hostility towards continuing the Mugabe regime in any form.
ZANU-PF is now trying to keep itself in power by purging itself of its worst elements, as the public sees them, and inviting Mnangagwa back to lead a more acceptable regime. On November 19th Mugabe was sacked as party leader, and given 24 hours to resign as president, but still the party was insisting there was nothing wrong with him, he had merely been “hijacked by bad elements” like Tsar Nicholas II. So why get rid of Mugabe himself, if you have an actual case against those elements?
Mugabe himself probably saw it that way, as he refused to go, forcing his opponents to show their hand, if they had one. This they promptly did, by beginning impeachment proceedings, though on what authority was never clear. These finally drove Mugabe to resign on November 21st, having been granted assurances that he would not be prosecuted, despite the impeachment proceedings which amounted to the same thing.
ZANU-PF can’t imagine a country which isn’t ruled by itself. Therefore it has to pretend Mugabe is a victim of bad outsiders to defend its legacy from the people, just like the Tsarists did in 1917. But even if there is a coherent plan for Zimbabwe without Mugabe, there is no guarantee the people will take any notice when the source of all privilege, and their own lack of it, is no longer around to blame while many others who supported him, or entered into coalition with him, still are.
Mnangagwa did indeed return, as expected. But he is likely to end up like Kerensky. Both he and Tsvangirai, who claims he was not asked to join the new government despite Mnangagwa stating the contrary, had a political base in the Mugabe era. But if that is now over, do they have the same relevance?
On November 15th the people wanted food, jobs and a currency which wasn’t being used as toilet paper. No one yet knows what they will want when they can impose their own future on the country, or who will offer that future and what they will do to achieve it. The fact that two of Mnangagwa’s first Cabinet lasted precisely two days in post doesn’t bode well for building national consensus.
Against his own tide
Whenever a long-serving leader is overthrown, people ask why he ruled for so long in the first place if he was so bad he has to be booted out now. ZANU-PF and the army are not asking that question, but the Zimbabwean people are. Whether the people get what they want, whatever they ultimately decide that is, will greatly depend on whether the international community is prepared to face up to the answers.
During white minority rule, when Zimbabwe was known as Rhodesia, Mugabe was one of a number of native African leaders pursuing different paths to ending that regime and establishing a state where the majority of citizens could vote and have civil rights. Other well-known names from that period were Joshua Nkomo, the leader of ZAPU, and the clergymen Abel Muzorewa and Ndabaningi Sithole. No one really cared which one of them eventually prevailed, as long as the black majority took power, and the ideology of the age of decolonisation, promoted by great powers on either side of the Iron Curtain, was proven correct.
Rhodesia had become an international pariah in 1965 when it unilaterally declared itself independent because the British were allowing other former colonies, who had not previously governed themselves, to become independent while Rhodesia, which had governed itself efficiently longer than most, was prevented from doing so because it had not implemented black majority rule. For 15 years Rhodesia held out against international sanctions under Ian Smith, who never accepted he was a racist but pursued policies which had that effect.
Under Smith Rhodesia clung on to voting qualifications based on tax, property and education status which had been quite common when first introduced in the early 20th century but were long outdated in 1965. The white minority, around 5% of the population, had almost all the voting rights and effectively ran the country to suit themselves. Smith insisted that blacks would only be allowed to vote in proportion to their “contribution to the fisc” (i.e., how much tax they paid), whilst ensuring very few blacks would ever be able to make that contribution, such was the white dominance of commercial and agricultural life.
The international community would not accept this, but Smith justified his position by maintaining that if the blacks took over Rhodesia would be plagued with Communism, economic mismanagement corruption, cronyism and repression because other majority rule African countries already were. At the time, this was seen as an excuse. The accepted ideology was independence under majority rule, and anyone who resisted this was seen as morally deficient, seeking ways to continue oppressing the African population for the benefit of the few, however accurate their description of independent majority rule countries actually was.
Mugabe was treated as a statesman and a hero when he won the 1980 election, after waging a long guerilla war to get to that point. He had removed the immoral deviants, and shown that the international community’s will was irresistible. Even when he retained the most despised aspects of the Smith regime, the security laws, and used them to protect his friends, few raised serious protest, thinking this an inevitable by-product of swinging what was now Zimbabwe the rest of the world’s way.
But it didn’t stop there. The same Robert Mugabe who had once been a Sunday School teacher under the reforming white Prime Minister Garfield Todd began to prove Smith right in every particular. He introduced Marxist economic planning and continued with it long after its failure had condemned Communism to an agonising death in Eastern Europe. He confiscated land for his supporters and abused his opponents, including former supporters such as Todd himself. The breadbasket of Africa became a cronyist basket case, in which anyone who stepped out of line could expect to find themselves the latest murder victim, with few caring as long as Mugabe either remained in power to bribe them further or stayed out of their way for long enough to enable them to escape.
The international community was right to vilify Ian Smith. Yet many of the same black Zimbabweans who everyone assumed would demonise him forever began to revere Smith for his genuine achievements and implacable opposition to Mugabe’s misrule – which came after he had given a positive appraisal of Mugabe after meeting him for the first time since he had taken power.
For many years the international community criticised Mugabe, but always in the hope that he would somehow reform and rescue them from themselves. If Smith was right and the international community wrong, where does that leave the world? This question will be increasingly asked in the vacuum which will emerge post-Mugabe, and all is there to be gained by whoever will save the rest of the world’s face by finding an acceptable answer to it.
Same mistakes, different days
It is unlikely that Robert Mugabe will end up murdered, like Nicholas II and his family. But one way or another, all his regime stood for will be torn down. A new generation which doesn’t remember Smith isn’t so entranced by the idea that “war heroes” who fought him should be the only people in Zimbabwe allowed a tolerable standard of living. It is very likely that anything Mugabe did, even positive things, will be thrown out simply because it was done by him.
As in November 1917, many will be seduced by an egalitarian dream. The old privileged class will be punished in the name of “the people”, who will elect leaders who know very well that “the people” don’t exist. The more you build a system from the bottom up, a notion always beguiling to many, the more you have to control that system from the top to prevent those at the bottom thinking for themselves. Zimbabweans who associated Communism with Mugabe’s central planning measures will face a very unpleasant reality if they think that “liberating the people” will create any alternative.
But the Mugabe years have left a blank slate. The country now called Zimbabwe has had two incarnations: white minority rule and Mugabe rule. Going back to the first is untenable, and the second has failed the very people it was supposed to help. All the alternative models, either local or international, are associated with either minority rule or majority nationalism in different ways. Zimbabwe is due a long period of self-loathing, in which it might embrace any sponsor, but may find that no one wants it, given what Mugabe has done to it.
All is set for a completely new system, hitherto little known or understood by the Zimbabwean public, to be introduced simply because those who espouse it have a strong secret network. Think Iran in 1979, as well as St. Petersburg 1917. Then everyone will gather to study, and take a position on, its successes and failures.
But the fewer certainties people have, the smaller the number of people who can benefit from that situation. Whatever hopes Zimbabwe might arouse today may well be dashed by the time anyone can draw any lessons from the events of November 2017.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.