ON Thursday 17 November 2022, Sapes Trust run by academic and publisher Professor Ibbo Mandaza convened a webinar on Zoom, titled Back to the Future: A Review of the Post-November 2017 Coup in Zimbabwe.
The webinar coincided with the commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the coup that is a historic event in post-colonial Zimbabwe. Below are excerpts of remarks from the panelists who were part of the public debate:
Dr Sara Dorman, University of Edinburgh:
Dr Dorman, a political scientist with interest in Africa at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, commented on former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo’s recent assertion that Zimbabwe’s 2017 coup opened the floodgates for new military takeovers at a time when putsches were slowing down in Africa.
“But I think it’s a bit rich of Obasanjo, who himself came to power through a coup, to come up with this very sanctimonious critique of coups without at least a little self-criticism. More to the point, I think it’s ridiculous to blame Zimbabwe for the rise in coups that we’ve seen in the past few years. You know, certainly, West Africa has seen more than its share of coups over the years.
“It’s true that there was a definite decline in coup action after around 1990, for some time, although there was still a presence of the military and politics in the form of mutineers and other sorts of engagement. But the question about Zimbabwe’s coup is surely why it was accepted.
“I mean, Zimbabwe’s coup leaders were extremely clever, you know, discursively, strategically, they were able to make a case that people wanted to hear people wanted to allow that to go forward. And they did that and that may have set a certain precedent. But coups since the 1950s in African states have almost always been the sort of correctional coup, they have always been coups that claim to be bringing governments back to democratic governance, back to constitutional governments. I don’t think there’s anything really very different here. In some ways it was very much in line with past precedents for those who study coups and coup practices in post-colonial African states as compared to elsewhere in the world. So it may have felt a bit exceptional at the time. I think, in many ways, it wasn’t particularly exceptional. It was just stage managed, very, very cleverly, and so a lot of people’s interests to turn a blind eye, and say right, let’s move forward. Let’s try to bring some change to Zimbabwe.”
Tendai Biti, senior opposition CCC official:
THE election is just one day that comes and goes, so we have to look at any solution to the Zimbabwean crisis that simply suggests that an election held one day can resolve 44 years of abuse, some would argue 100 years of abuse from 1890, I would go as far as 1350.
It’s not going to be possible.
So we need genuine dialogue that will, however, ultimately end in a situation and a scenario where the citizen is allowed to choose.
So that’s the end. So we need dialogue that focuses on creating and recreating an articulated common consensus, not the disarticulated, fragmented vision that we have at the present moment. What does it mean to be a Zimbabwean? What Zimbabwe do we want, our collective fears; if I am a war veteran, what is my fear? If I am a worker from Chitungwiza, what is my fear? If I am a Ndebele citizen from Tsholotsho, what is my fear?
What is Gukurahundi to me? What is the alienation and the ramifications that I have gone through? That conversation is not there and that is the conversation which we want. What does it mean to be a Zimbabwean and what is the Zimbabwe that we want? Ultimately, after that we can then go to elections.
Saviour Kasukuwere, former minister:
“If you to talk about what’s written in black and white, it is solid. When it comes to implementation, that’s now a very different ball game. And I think that’s the unfortunate part. And this is what that paper tries to say that if we can live up to the commitments or the views or the decisions that people have made over the years, that is to say, let’s apply to our society, let’s really control our resources, let’s do the best that we can to remove our people out of poverty; other countries have done so successfully. So I agree on the fact that the what is written in black and white in terms of the manifesto, in terms of the aspirations of the party — and they talk about the struggle — you can’t build a political party, ignoring the sacrifice by the people of Zimbabwe. Mind you, it is not individuals, but it was a collective responsibility by our people to fight in the liberation struggle. So many people died and they are buried perhaps in shallow graves or in mountains.”
On rejoining Zanu PF, Kasukuwere added: “I’m not sure when they talk about the weather, whether it’s really cold or warm. But this is what everybody thinks and this is the preponderance of Zimbabweans, we think we just have to have political power to be relevant. I think we need to disabuse ourselves of that notion. Let’s allow all sectors, let’s allow all fields of persuasion to become greater. It should not be about politics. Dr Ibbo, you and I, if I was to say to you who is the president of Switzerland, you don’t even know him. But what you know is that Switzerland is a powerful country, it’s a country, which is doing very well. But in Africa, we know more of the presidents, including the poverty that our people live in. And I think we need to get to a stage also where we say, can we start having a discussion around not just about the power of the individual. I’m still Zanu PF,” said Kasukuwere.
“The motive behind the coup is perhaps what we might also want to interrogate going into the future. While there will be mitigating factors or reasons why, who, who got so and so angry and so forth, those are all issues. But clearly, the party I belong to is the party I was a member of for a long time, some have a view that we will run this country forever. And there are individuals also in this system who say, ‘we will not give in to any other force, whatever it takes, we will remain in place alone, you have to do what you have to do’. So come the 2017 (coup). Perhaps it is best captured by the article written by Professor (Jonathan) Moyo and (Patrick) Zhuwao where on the second page, they basically articulate some of the features of how the young generation say the party failed, which is to say, we needed to obviously do away with this element of entitlement, we need to do away with this violence culture in our society, especially in the party. There is a number of things that they enumerate which perhaps made certain characters uncomfortable. I always say, who fired me? When I left that night, when I left the country I was still a member of Zanu PF,”
Tsitsi Dangarembga, award-winning author:
“The kind of personhood, Zimbabweanhood code, that we have developed, or that has been inculcated into us, puts us in a position where it is very difficult for us to master that agency that could result in change. For example, when it seemed as though people needed external people, countries needed justification for the coup, we had the military come and tell us to go out onto the street. If we had been able to stay at home at that day, we could be talking about something different now. But we were not able to stay home. We all went out, I was surprised. But that is the problem that we have. And that is one of the levels at which serious work needs to be done.”
On cyber activism, Dangarembga said: “That kind of agency, which is carried out generally in the digital space, is very limited. And Zanu PF is very aware that it is only a tiny percent of Zimbabweans — which is one reason why data prices are so high — it’s to make sure that people do not have access to those platforms. So until we can get the average Zimbabwean to understand the issues and somehow begin to rehabilitate from this national trauma that we have, it is going to be very difficult. Do you know it is not something that a Zimbabwean is ashamed of to say. Oh, I’m not going to stand up for anything because I might get killed. You know, but it is so much part of our nation, our fabric, that is an excuse that people say. I’m just going to watch and let them do whatever they want, because they might kill me. That is where Zanu PF has brought us. And I think that is even a worse stage than we had been brought by white colonialism.”
Zimbabweans are traumatised, said Dangarembga.
“(The late public intellectual Dr Alex) Magaisa, and other people have documented how, at every point in Zimbabwe’s history, where power was potentially to be redistributed, these tactics of the liberation struggle were brought up to bear against the people and the people had memory. So in the memory of trauma is that the next instigating factor does not have to be as strong as the initial factor to draw out the same reaction or even a greater reaction. So this is the situation that we are in with Zanu PF and the people of Zimbabwe. We are a psychologically traumatised people.
“We will do anything that Zanu PF says because of this trauma. There was a little moment after Independence, where it seemed as though some people — they are not even all Zimbabweans but just some Zimbabweans — were going to be given a period where they could maybe rehabilitate and begin to develop their own agency. And that quickly came to an end, when it was seen that by educating people and allowing any kind of free debate, you were allowing space to grow, where powers that might actually be able to move against you. So the real problem is the traumatisation of the people of Zimbabwe, the fact that there has been no psychological, social psychological recovery from that trauma. And until we begin to see this as an important factor, I don’t think that we can even be surprised when people suddenly say we are going to do this, we are going to do that and Zanu PF click their fingers, and they all lie down. This is going to be the way it’s going to be.”
Petina Gappah, international trade lawyer, author and former government technocrat:
“If you guys really think that that extraordinary series of events happened just so that Zanu PF could go into opposition in 2023, I think we really need to start talking seriously here.”
On why she left the government post after only 18 months in office, Gappah said: “I was sabotaged, I was attacked, because people couldn’t quite work out what my agenda was. And my agenda was very simple. It’s an agenda, unfortunately, that is not shared by many people, which is why I left and my agenda was the country. Right, I want Zimbabwe to do well, and I left because I felt that the level of ambition was too low. But that’s pretty much why I left.
“I left in sorrow, not in anger. I left in disappointment, not bitterness. I’m very proud of my work. Because I went in there, we now have a world standard investment treaty Zida (Zimbabwe Investment and Development Agency), right. That was my project, right. I went in to draft Zida, shepherded it through Parliament. I went in to help attract investment, I went in to help project Zimbabwe on the international arena. So I’m very, very proud of that work.”
Tendai Dumbutshena, journalist:
“What it (the situation in South Africa) has done is to show (that) the people who are agitated by that issue are not concerned about what’s going on in Zimbabwe. They just want the migrants out, right. Now the ANC government over the years turned a deaf ear to be more engaged in Zimbabwe to sort out the economic and political situation there, right. But they were not interested at all.
“And between 2002 and 2009, that’s the period when the exodus from Zimbabwe to South Africa was at its most intense. And I recall (former President Thabo) Mbeki in Parliament being asked what he was doing to ensure that conditions changed for Zimbabwe to stop this. His answer was, well, South Africans just have to learn to live with Zimbabweans. Now that has changed because the issue of migration has become a hot-button electoral issue. Now the ANC is losing a lot of votes in poor areas, especially in Gauteng, and is now responding to the feelings on the ground about migrants, but, obviously Zimbabweans constitute the highest number of migrants in South Africa and so the issue of migrants in South Africa is synonymous with talking about Zimbabweans. But that has not translated yet into South Africa seeing the need to seriously engage Zimbabweans about sorting the political and economic situation they are in.
“Because they have always said a million times that South Africa cannot influence events in Swaziland (Eswatini) where people have no political rights, they’re not allowed to form political parties. They’re not allowed to form trade unions. They’re treated like feudal slaves and Swaziland is right in the belly of South Africa, is almost dependent for its economic survival on South Africa. But the government in Pretoria is unwilling to do the right thing for Swaziland by insisting on political reforms in Swaziland. Now if they can’t do it in Swaziland, forget about Zimbabwe.”
“Well, I’m afraid as far as Sadc is concerned, the Zimbabwe issue is resolved. The constitutionality and legality of the Mnangagwa regime is not in question. And they have decided that not only should sanctions against Zimbabwe be lifted, but that it (the country) should be fully rehabilitated as a member of the international community. So there is no chance in hell of Sadc changing its current posture on Zimbabwe. And we must also be honest with ourselves, Sadc is largely dysfunctional, it’s leaderless, the country that’s supposed to provide the leadership, South Africa, is in a chaotic state in itself. The ruling party is in chaos, you are all following news in South Africa. You realise that the ANC has never been in such a mess to the extent that Mbeki expressed concern to the national executive committee about the future of the party, especially if Cyril Ramaphosa is impeached and he (Mbeki) asked them if they have any plans to respond to that possibility. So you have a South Africa which on paper is by far the most powerful country in the region in total chaos, unable to project any power or even influence beyond its borders. So that’s where we are with Sadc and, shouldn’t expect much from that quarter.”
“I’ll be thrilled if somebody gets back into the Commonwealth if only because it means Zimbabwean students will be eligible for Commonwealth scholarships. Again, I think that’s one real practical thing. But on the whole there’s not a lot of benefit to being a member of the Commonwealth. What it does is it’s a much more symbolic shift. And I think that’s why there are mixed feelings among activists, among others who think it’s kind of whitewashing and turning a blind eye to continuing imprisonments, to continuing political violence and so forth in Zimbabwe, but it seems like a process that has started and is likely to continue but, as I said, I think the logic there of the diplomatic community is always towards inclusion and working with not towards this sort of (culture), very typical, of putting people off, putting them outside,”
“I think that we need to redefine how we see the international community as I find it very offensive that when we talk about international community, we are talking about predominantly white democracies, somebody who is a part of the international community doesn’t need to be re-admitted, is a member of the United Nations, right? The Commonwealth joining was a two-pronged strategy that was developed because the Commonwealth rejoining was a message Osira says is a symbol that an old quarrel had been mended. But in terms of membership, I mean, honestly the Commonwealth in terms of membership, it means nothing, is as important as the African Continental Free Trade Area, for instance which, as you know, is where I’ve been working, and I’m very passionate about that. And we don’t see any conversations about that. But the Commonwealth really was supposed to be symbolic in nature, to indicate to the world that the quarrel with the old colonial master had been resolved. And that’s really all it ever was.”