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BOOK REVIEW: Zimbabwean dream is elusive but we dare not give up



Book review

Zimbabwean dream is elusive but we dare not give up

Title: In Search of the Elusive Zimbabwean Dream (Ideas & Solutions, Volume III)

Author: Professor Arthur G.O. Mutambara

Publisher: Sapes Books

Reviewer: Brezh Malaba

PROFESSOR Arthur Mutambara’s latest book is finally available in print and, having had the honour of previewing the manuscript, I can only encourage you to grab a copy.

This is his third book in an autobiographical trilogy on thought leadership. It covers the years 2009-2023.

Collectively, the three books are based on his political interpretations, leadership opinions and philosophical disposition over 40 years, from 1983 to 2023.

Mutambara explains why he found it necessary to tell the story of his generation from his own perspective and in his own words.

“This is an era in which my generation and the rest of the nation have sought to become the change they wish to occur in Zimbabwe. It is a period whose hallmark is a growing political consciousness and involvement of my generation in an effort towards political and socio-economic transformation and regeneration.”

Having read the opening two books in the trilogy, I was curious to find out what Volume III had in store.

Politicians in Zimbabwe seldom write books on their experiences in public office. This unfortunate state of affairs has often stymied well-informed public discourse, hampered the documenting of first-hand accounts of crucial events and processes in Zimbabwe’s political history, and created room for untested hagiographies that are of no value to citizens. Mutambara’s new book – 720 pages in the hardback edition – is not only useful but also comes at an opportune moment in the post-Mugabe era. Mutambara became Deputy Prime Minister at 42, a relatively young age in a country where the ruling party’s youth league is routinely led by politicians in their 50s and 60s.

In that lofty position as one of the principals of the power-sharing Government of National Unity (GNU) which subsisted from 2009 to 2013, Mutambara found himself face-to-face with President Robert Mugabe, a wily schemer whose repressive state apparatus had previously sought to crush him during his days as a fiery student leader and later an opposition agitator. The book brings to the fore some fascinating detail on the different shades of Mugabe: the Machiavellian operator; the authoritarian strongman; the doting father; the vulnerable dictator; and yesterday’s man.

Autobiographical tomes tend to be subjective write-ups, shaped by an author’s personal vantage point and world view. But such strictures do not hamper Mutambara. Through his considerable intellectual resources and polemical gifts, he manages to weave a compelling narrative on matters of statecraft.

The GNU years were intriguing. Belonging to neither the ruling Zanu PF nor the main opposition MDC, Mutambara was uniquely positioned. He was largely viewed with mistrust by basically everyone in the polity – it has to be remembered that even his relationship with his own party was fraught with immense difficulties. But it is precisely in this unencumbered role as a young technocrat, a rising political star and an intellectual of considerable gravitas that he provides the unique lens through which we can scrutinise Zimbabwe.

For example, one of the most puzzling aspects of the GNU is how Mugabe ran rings around the opposition and deftly quashed demands for far-reaching political and economic reforms. The key deliverable of the power-sharing government was supposed to be the implementation of a raft of genuine reforms leading to a credible and undisputed national election. This was not achieved, despite the memorable spectacle of opposition leaders enjoying tea with Mugabe at State House every Monday. The court of public opinion says the mercurial Mugabe – deploying guile and sleight of hand honed over decades – dribbled past the opposition leaders and firmed his iron-clad grip on power.

There are lots of fascinating titbits in this book which shed light on the inner workings of Zimbabwean politics, particularly in the years from 2009 to 2013 when political rivals sat alongside each other in cabinet meetings.

During that period, Mutambara says, he enjoyed the unique opportunities of spending a lot of time in one-on-one discussions with Mugabe. He describes the long-time president as a great storyteller who would entertain his inquisitive mind for hours on end. Typical of Mugabe, he would hold forth, narrating vivid stories of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle. He gets to hear tales of great fortitude, sacrifice and immeasurable commitment to the cause. But he also gets to hear tales of struggles within the struggle, deception, tribalism and betrayal. Politics can be brutal.

Mutambara’s book confirms that Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the main opposition MDC and Prime Minister in the GNU, lacked the requisite leadership skill set that would have enabled him to navigate his way through the treacherous political chessboard at national level.  However, Mutambara appears to downplay Tsvangirai’s contribution to what had been envisaged to be Zimbabwe’s transition to democracy, while hyping up his own role as Deputy Prime Minister.

What Mutambara is not alive to is that although many commentators cite Tsvangirai’s so-called modest intellect as a fatal flaw, such a personality attribute was, by far, less ruinous than Mugabe’s much-vaunted divide-and-conquer politics.

This perhaps explains why a large number of voters in the 2008 general election easily chose Tsvangirai over Mugabe. Many Zimbabweans consider Joshua Nkomo and Morgan Tsvangirai as the best presidents the country never had. Mutambara’s insights in this new book will enrich that debate. A good book sparks debate; this is how ideas are formulated and refined.

It has to be mentioned, though, that Mutambara has his own limitations and blind spots. His narrative on the political dynamics of the power-sharing government is profoundly captivating, but it is hampered by what seems to be his limited access to information on the intricate workings of the deep state run by the notoriously powerful and unaccountable securocratic cabal who literally call the shots in Zimbabwe.

The full story of Zimbabwe’s GNU era is yet to be told. For this reason, many scholars, journalists and citizens in general will be salivating at the prospect of reading Mutambara’s new book.

It was Nietzsche who famously said: “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” Today, we might add: The opposition must be careful when working closely with a cunning dictator; he may not only neutralise dissenters but also charm them through sheer guile.

A “monster” in this case is not necessarily a literal ogre; it can be a false belief, dogmatic ideology or philosophical missteps. And Mugabe had no shortage of those.

A close reading of Mutambara’s book provides a startling reminder that Mugabe — far from being the glorified uber-mensch of African liberation — turned out to be yet another archetypal authoritarian ruler who presided over the plunder and destruction of a once-promising country.

He rose to power on an anti-colonial platform, but proceeded to brutalise and terrorise citizens in independent Zimbabwe, slaughtering thousands and ruining livelihoods.

To Mutambara and many others who share the same view, the military coup of November 2017 which swept Emmerson Mnangagwa to power was tragic for Zimbabwe. Not because Mugabe was a saint — there are no saints in politics — but because, as far as Mutambara has assessed, Mnangagwa is simply a non-starter when it comes to the idea of 21st century leadership. He remarks that Zimbabwe has jumped from the frying pan into the fire.

Mutambara, a straight talker of note, pulls no punches. The Mnangagwa regime is described as “shamelessly incompetent, corrupt, authoritarian and patently directionless — kleptocracy par excellence”.

At the level of ideas, the autobiography underlines the importance of a simple formula for national prosperity: Meritocracy plus Pragmatism plus Honesty. It worked for Singapore and it can work for Zimbabwe.

One of the central planks of Mutambara’s personal brand is that of “a man of ideas”. His journey has been remarkable. On account of academic merit, he finds himself at the University of Zimbabwe, Oxford University in Britain and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States.

There is, in fact, no harm in taking some thoughtfully selected Western or Eastern economic, political and cultural ideas and “domesticating” them for our African setting. As the Canadian philosopher Andy Lamey has succinctly observed elsewhere:

“What matters is not where an intellectual or artistic framework comes from, but how it might be used alongside indigenous ones to meet the needs of formerly colonised peoples.”

Mutambara’s track record as a leading scientist and public intellectual evinces a man who takes seriously the importance of defending African agency. One gets the distinct feeling that although Mutambara’s feet are firmly anchored on African soil, his vision for a better Zimbabwe and a winning Africa is inspired by a cosmopolitan grasp of statecraft.

Democracy, freedom and prosperity are proving elusive, but we must not be afraid of dreaming — otherwise how else do we wake up from Africa’s prolonged existential nightmare?

About the reviewer: Brezh Malaba is a journalist based in Harare. He is assistant editor and co-founder of The NewsHawks, Zimbabwe’s leading digital investigative journalism and breaking news publication.

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