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Zim independence an empty shell, a travesty



WHEN the new independent Zimbabwe flag was hoisted at Rufaro Stadium in Harare at midnight on 18 April 1980 as the Union Jack was lowered by the United Kingdom’s Prince Charles (now King Charles III), there was a great deal of hope for the new nation and its people who had emerged from a long liberation struggle.

The country had been under colonial rule for 90 years. New Prime Minister Robert Mugabe took oath of office shortly after midnight in a ceremony at the then Salisbury’s main stadium, while representatives of about 100 countries and 35 000 cheering Zimbabweans watched in awe. Mugabe, the Zanu/Zanla leader, made an eloquent plea to the people of Zimbabwe to end hostilities and hatreds of the past, and move on.

“The wrongs of the past must now stand forgiven and forgotten,” Mugabe said in a speech he wrote. “If yesterday I fought you as an enemy, today you have become a friend and ally with the same national interest, loyalty, rights and duties as myself.

“If yesterday you hated me, today you cannot avoid the love that binds you to me and me to you.”

The independence ceremony, presided over by Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, had begun at midnight when the Union Jack was lowered for the last time in 90 years and the new five-coloured Zimbabwe flag was raised, signifying a new start.

The lowering formally ended the 128-day “Second British Empire” in Africa that began when the temporary British governor Lord Soames arrived on 12 December 1979 to oversee the transition from white colonial rule and the first democratic general elections that brought Mugabe to power.

The elections were marred by violence and intimidation, something which was to become a hallmark of Zimbabwean polls for a subsequent long time after independence up to this day.

The August 2023 general elections were no different. They were stolen in broad daylight.
Even at the height of its popularity, Zanu PF never held free and fair elections. The tension-filled and uneasy transistion followed British-sponsored peace talks , at the Lancaster House Conference, the previous fall in 1979, which ushered in a ceasefire and majority elections in 1980.

Mugabe and Zanu PF won the elections. The huge crowd, all there by invitation, was subdued for most of the British-oriented ceremony but it came alive and roared approval as a 21-gun salute accompanied the raising of the new flag.

Mugabe’s political rival Joshua Nkomo, the larger-than-life Zapu leader, was reportedly close to tears as the Zimbabwe flag went up. Nkomo was a nationalist and idealistic at heart, while Mugabe was a Machiavellian and ruthless pragmatist.

Under the gloss of the pomp and fanfare ran deep divisions and serious insecurities between Mugabe and whites who were loyal to former Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith and nervous about the future, and Nkomo and his supporters who feared an eruption of deep-seated hostilities between Zanu and Zapu, as well as ancient tribal hatreds.

Mugabe tried to assure whites and his local Zapu rivals that he would not be vengeful, but no sooner had he settled into office than he started showing his true colours.

From day one, Mugabe said in an interview in 1980 that he intended to rule the country “with a firm hand” which fast became an iron fist. At the beginning, he included Zapu and the Rhodesians in his unity cabinet as he tried to be inclusive.

That appeared promising. And the nation-building project seemed possible and viable at that point. Yet the simmering tensions in society were unmistakable and sweltering like the heat of the African tropical savanna.

And again his political model was based on a one-party state — which was part of Zanu’s election manifeso in 1980 — and the quest for political and ethnic hegemony, which quickly manifested themselves as he sought to swiftly consolidate and retain power.

 His one-party state model had Stalinist features and would be sustained at a huge democratic cost.

While on the economic and social fronts Mugabe tried to rebuild the country, make it work and improve the people’s lives, on the political sphere he tightened his authoritarian grip on the nation and its soul with a chokehold.

The result was significant gains on some crucial social spheres and human development indicators, particularly education and health. Zimbabweans were mobilised en masse to go to school and that helped improve literacy rates and the human development index. At one time, Zimbabwe became the most literate country in Africa. It is a major exporter of quality human capital, skills and labour, apart from its minerals and tobacco.

Agriculture is the mainstay of the economy despite massive disruptions through the land reform programme after 2000. The imperative and utility of land reform is one of Mugabe’s most contested legacy issues.

Most of the development gains of independence still do exist, although they are eroding due to national failure and collapse.

Some of the early gains like schools are still manifestating themselves in different ways, although millions who have been to school have no jobs or other opportunities. Zimbabwe is not a land of equal and rewarding opportunity, but a cronyism-driven society. Meritocracy and competence are frowned upon in favour of nepotism, hence a kakistocracy, rule by the least competent.

By many measures, government is now tantamount to rule by thieves, which is a kleptocracy. These are not just bombastic words or terms, but reality. Unemployment has become a social time bomb and a symbol of national failure.

Education is now collapsing, just like health and everything else, including infrastructure. The current rehabilitation of roads, airports and dams pale in comparison to the destruction.

After extended periods of mismanagement and looting, the country has plateaued and stabilised in crisis.

At the beginning, Mugabe’s authoritarian project saw him clandestinely going to North Korea as early as 1980 to train a crack military unit to crush his Zapu opponents who were fired from government only two years down the line, intensifying the showdown.

 This followed confrontation between Zanu and Zapu, dating back to the 1960s, with clashes in the military circles during turbulent integration process, subsequently leading to army desertions and deserters who became known as “dissidents”.

That set a theatre of conflict in a Cold War context, bringing in South Africa, Britain and other powers in a geopolitical power play. The developments also became a precursor to the Matabeleland military lockdown in 1982 following the Entumbane clashes in November 1980 into early February 1981, heralding bloodshed.

That led to Gukurahundi starting in January 1983, which eventually morphed and degenerated into genocide. Gukurahundi killings remain a scar on the conscience of the nation. The atrocities started in Matabeleland North in 1983.

 In 1984, Mugabe launched a fierce scorched earth policy in Matabeleland South. Killing camps were opened. Soldiers became zombies in the Matabeleland killing fields as they simply couldn’t cope with massacres as one Gukurahundi commander, the late Zimbabwe National Army commander Lieutenant-General Edzai Chimonyo, confessed.

Then there was the urban warfare during the 1985 elections and retributions. After five years of widespread systematic violence, brutality and a flood of bloodshed amid massacres, the Unity Accord was signed between Zanu and Zapu in 1987.

 The democratic cost of that was a de jure one-party state, which firmly put Zimbabwe on the path to a repressive authoritarian state.

The country persisted on that route as opposition parties, civil society and communities reeled under the jackboot of political repression. Mugabe consolidated power and became a Stalinist despot in the process.

The economy started failing through the 1990s, especially towards the end of the decade. The command economic model of the 1980s had faltered and was abandoned for a free market economy in the 1990s, amid liberalisation and deregulation under the Bretton Woods institutions’ tutelage.

This followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Soviet Union and end of the Cold War by 1991. With economic failure came inevitable political and social discontent. The war veterans also grumbled.

Mugabe’s Congo War adventure and war veterans’ extortionist demands bankrupted the economy, triggered currency volatility and exchange rate-driven inflation.

The labour movement became the main channel for growing demands for change and social unrest. With growing opposition, repression intensified. By the turn of the millennium, the labour and constitutional movements crystallised into a major opposition force, MDC.

 The land reform programme was unleashed more for Mugabe and Zanu PF political survival than redress of injustices of the past and empowerment of the subaltern. Then simultaneously began an era of disputed elections and a new wave of repression which have lasted to this day.

 Economic mismanagement, looting and corruption led to a meltdown and hyperinflation in 2008/2009 — basically the final nail in the economy’s coffin. Zimbabwe’s economy crashed and burned largely due to leadership, governance and policy failures under targeted Western economic sanctions.

Mugabe became unpopular internally and his succession internal strife led to elite disintegration and infighting. His brinkmanship with the military, which had put him into power through the Mgagago Declaration in 1975, became precarious.

All the while, Mugabe had begun to rely more and more on the army to remain in power at all costs.

He gave the military more power and resources to suppress the growing opposition, yet those capabilities were also going to used to oust him in 2017. In-between the years, Mugabe outmanoeuvred and crushed his internal opponents with devastating force. Some were sidelined, discarded into the dustbins of history or killed.

 From being an international darling of the West, Mugabe became a rogue and pariah leader. That fueled his vulnerability at home as he tried to rally former liberation allies and the Global South to rescue him from international isolation.

Isolated and sanctioned by the West, Mugabe “looked East” for political support and economic lifelines. After 40 years at the helm of Zanu PF and 37 years of Machiavellian rule, Mugabe was finally removed by his own lieutenants led by his key enforcer, now President Emmerson Mnangagwa, in a coup in November 2017.

 After that, Mnangagwa is now in charge, but his rule represents more of continuity than change. Self-evidently, after 44 years of its troubled independence, Zimbabwe has nothing meaningful to show for it.

On Independence Day on 18 April this week, officials were making vacuous speeches in Murambinda and across the nation full of sound and fury signifying nothing — just like a tale told by an idiot.

But the majority of people are currently unemployed, millions have fled the country into neighbouring countries and overseas, while the nation has been looted dry, bankrupted and its people desperately impoverished.

All the gains of independence pale in comparison to the sea of troubles engulfing the country. As Zimbabweans commemorate — not celebrate — independence, one thing is clear: the country is now an empty shell; a crude and fragile travesty of what it might have been.—The NewsHawks.

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