Conversations around the military takeover of the country in November 2017 now revolve around, at least according to a majority of pro-opposition opinion leaders, defining popular support for it as “a mistake”.
On social media some memes have gone relatively viral about how the 18 November 2017 march as enabled by the military and calling for Robert Mugabe’s ouster was “National Dzungu Day”. Translated into English this would be “National Confusion Day”. All because of subsequent disappointment at the Emmerson Mnangagwa successor regime. Mainly in relation to the fact that it won the subsequent 2018 elections as well as the fact that a Constitutional Court challenge of the results ruled in its favour.
With hindsight, what his was fairly evident is that November 2017 was rather dramatic for many Zimbabweans, almost like a soap opera and its typical character plots. That is, an ageing oligarch with a young(ish) ambitious wife and her hangers-on and the austere, sly uncle biding time to take over the family business.
And very few people can claim to have seen this coming. Not by a long shot.
I remember that I was in Johannesburg the week of 14 November 2017, attending a Zimbabwe Solidarity Forum conference on, wait for it, “Possible Scenarios as Zimbabwe Heads for the 2018 Elections”. The night before my presentation, I met up with a friend based in the Diaspora to discuss issues back home. And he shared videos from his social media feed of soldiers driving into town and raised his own suspicions as to what was going on in Harare. I refused to believe his immediate conspiracy that there was a coup d’état underway in Zimbabwe.
It turned out the following morning that he was correct. He shared the video of now Foreign Affairs Minister Sibusiso Moyo’s early morning statement announcing that then President Mugabe and his family were safe, adding that the military had moved in to protect their commander-in-chief from “criminals” surrounding him.
The conference I was attending changed tone and, in a media report by South African newspaper The Sowetan, I highlighted the following: “The crisis around leadership and succession did not emerge in the villages‚ not in the townships. It comes from within the Zanu PF politburo‚ the Zanu PF central committee and, in part, in the first family and its involvement in Zanu PF’s succession policies.” And I flew back that evening to a heavily guarded Robert Mugabe International Airport.
The subsequent events that followed, such as the war veterans-organised rally at Zimbabwe Grounds in Highfield, the attempted march on State House, a visitation by a South African delegation to Mugabe and his infamous “Asante Sana” statement were as eerie as they were unpredictable. By the time his resignation letter was read by the Speaker of the National Assembly to a joint sitting of both houses of Parlaiment, the process of national shock and fear had morphed into a national cathartic moment.
Where we fast forward from 2017 to the present, it is now apparent that with most moments of catharsis the aftermath sees an occupation with either regret at having been “overjoyed” or high expectations of what that moment should have come to mean.
In this, and for emphasis, it is worth recalling a couple of key issues about Zanu PF’s leadership transition in November 2017.
One of these being the fact that the ruling party and the establishment (including the military and private capital) strategically decided to turn the general lack of popular support for Mugabe and his wife Grace to its own populist advantage—at great risk to the country’s political stability. I am quite certain that they asked themselves the question: Who would not want to see the back of Mugabe? And they critically knew that the answer from a majority of SADC heads of state and government would be an affirmation of a desire to see the “old man” retire. Or that the mainstream opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai would accept Mugabe’s departure with relative enthusiasm at what he would have considered a new opportunity at the presidency. And, of course, the broader “international community” which viewed Mugabe as too much of a symbol of Pan-African resistance to the intentions of globalisation and global private capital.
The populist elements of the events of November 2017, therefore, eventually worked to confirm Mugabe’s lack of popularity across multiple societal and global interests.
What is also interesting in the contemporary is our continued desire for some sort of catharsis, or our apparent search for a seismic event that would hopefully and, once again, change everything. That was the case with the 2018 general elections which the ruling establishment decided to go ahead with. And all events that have occurred in between then and now around SADC, African Union or United Nations summits.
In recalling the tumultuous events of November 2017, we would do well to remember that the ruling Zanu PF put our country at great political risk with what it allowed to occur or refused to see coming. That it eventually got away with it via reverse populism and an awkward shared desire by many to see the back of Mugabe is something we will have to live with. And for historians to eventually give us multiple versions of the details that led to it.
What we should collectively agree on with hindsight and in the present is that if we improve our politics, this will never happen again. And should have never happened.
About the writer: Takura Zhangazha writes in his personal capacity and can be contacted on: (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)