The only thing we have to fear is 'The Fear' itself

When I got the email inviting me to the Johannesburg launch of Peter Godwin’s new book, The Fear: The Last Days of Robert Mugabe (Picador), complemented by a discussion with Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Roy Bennett, I dutifully forwarded it to some of the people on my contact list.

Three friends wrote back. One said he might attend; the second said: “You know how I feel about Godwin but I will forward to NGO types.” The last one simply said “no” in a way that can’t be repeated in a progressive newspaper.

On further prodding, she wrote: ‘I am getting sick and tired of how white Zimbabweans…think that their story is black people’s story; that their experiences of ‘dispossession’; their pain at whatever it is they think they have lost; and their definition of what is wrong with Zimbabwe…is a shared perspective with working class/peasant/excluded/marginalized black Zimbabweans.”

She was “also tired of how the white Zimbabwean’s discourse has taken up so much air time, gets so privileged, often displacing and excluding the struggles of those whose voices have very little hope of taking up as much air time in their own right”. 

Godwin’s narrative is set mostly in mid-2008, “when the violent re-run campaign was launched”.

‘The Fear’
The election run-off period is dubbed “The Fear”, a brutal campaign launched by Mugabe to destroy the Movement for Democratic Change’s (MDC) grassroots structures ahead of the polls in June.

The Fear begins as Godwin (author of Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa and Rhodesians Never Die: The Impact of War and Political Change on White Rhodesia, c.1970-1980, a book he co-wrote with Ian Hancock), on a United States passport, is flying “home to Zimbabwe, to dance on Robert Mugabe’s political grave”. The March 2008 elections “have spun out of control” and the “world’s oldest leader is about to be toppled”.

Godwin’s book is not easy to read. It’s doleful, its pages congealed with the blood and pus of those who dared to vote against Mugabe. The book exhaustively captures the fear and terror that hung over Zimbabwe before the June 2008 election but it’s also heavy because it’s a simplistic book, reducing the crisis in Zimbabwe to the tragic three months of blood and fear of 2008.

The crisis in Zimbabwe is much more than the suppurating wounds, welts, and the swollen faces of MDC activists.

Mugabe is described as a “belligerently unrepentant” (which he is) ruler who won’t accept his hand in the crisis, “blaming the country’s ills on the West—Britain, the former colonizer, in particular”.

The “tyrannical villain”
The Mugabe of Godwin’s imagination is a monster that can’t be explained; it seems one day Zimbabweans woke up to find a leader who had turned into a blood-sucking ogre. He can’t find the exact moment “when the liberation hero transforms into the tyrannical villain” because, for him, there was no such moment.

“If you rewind to the early days of his tussles for his leadership of Zanu, you will see ample evidence of the bloody feuding by which he seized the helm of the party.”

That’s not what most accounts say; according to Edgar Tekere, a founder member of Zanu and an opponent of the long-serving leader, Mugabe didn’t show much ambition to take over the leadership after Ndabaningi Sithole was deposed.

In the 1970s, when Tekere, Moton Malianga, Maurice Nyagumbo and Mugabe were in prison, and Zanu’s leader Sithole was making compromises with Ian Smith’s secret police, a motion was passed to topple Sithole.

Even though Mugabe stood to benefit if Sithole was removed, Mugabe abstained from voting. “He sat silently in the meeting and did not raise a finger ...

Indeed, he actively did not want the sacking of Sithole, just as he had not wanted [Joshua] Nkomo to be sacked,” Tekere writes in A Lifetime of Struggle.

Guerrilla war
The guerrilla war that ended Smith’s racist reign comes up for scrutiny and doesn’t quite pass the test.

“The guerilla war itself may have been a justified struggle for democracy, but as a teenaged conscript in the Rhodesian police, I witnessed ... the gruesome punishment of black civilians.”

What’s disappointing about this book is that Mugabe and the security cohorts who set up torture camps, beat up people, disappearing others are attacked mercilessly, yet the same standards are not used for former Rhodesian policemen whose support of the Ian Smith regime and conservatism is glossed over.

There is one Brian James (now an MDC mayor of Mutare) who during the war served in the police reserve running patrol boats on the Zambezi, blocking the guerrillas infiltrating the country from Zambia.

James used to be a “main-stream white” (what’s a main-stream white? I hear you ask), not a “great liberal or activist”.

During the guerilla war, “I thought a gook was a gook, and that they were going to stuff the country up”.

James had a political epiphany when a Zanu PF provincial leader, Oppah Muchinguri, “liked the look of his poultry farm, The Grange, near La Rochelle and decided to jambanja [Shona slang for “violent overthrow] it.

James joined the MDC, and helped provide logistical support to Oppah’s rival candidate, Giles Mutsekwa, who trounced her in the following election”.

Hardly blushing
Another MDC activist, Mike Musto, is described as “hardly a blushing liberal” mainly because his brother had been “killed by terrs”—a Rhodesian abbreviation for terrorists ( I am surprised the word is still being used).

The fight against Mugabe has brought Musto close to black people: “before, there was an us-and-them gulf, but that has been bridged now… the population must understand that they can change the government. Having a common enemy and facing common threats. We are on the same team, rely on each other.”

Godwin’s narrative returns again and again to Bennett (yet most of the individual vignettes of black victims don’t get more than a few paragraphs), whose farm was seized and who is fluent in Ndau, a Shona dialect.

Godwin writes, rather vaguely, that Bennett “has black populist appeal, yet a Rhodesian back-story”.

Could this back-story be his career in the British South African Police, Smith’s enforcers? Or that in 2000, Bennett was a candidate in Zanu PF’s primary elections before defecting to the MDC?

The chaotic land-reform process is consistently referred to as jambanja.

Godwin writes that “most of the farms were doled out as bribes to his own elite.” That’s not true.

Mugabe has done a lot of bad things there’s no point fabricating stuff. (Godwin’s narrative is so exhaustive to the point that it fills one with nausea).

A different look
If you want the most complete catalogue, brace yourself and read Breaking the Silence, Building True Peace, a Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace publication that looks at the Gukurahundi genocide in the south of Zimbabwe.

Ian Scoones from Sussex University’s Institute of Development Studies researched the land-reform process in Masvingo, producing a study, “Zimbabwe’s Land Reform, Myths and Realities”, showing that two-thirds of the land Mugabe confiscated from white farmers went to ordinary Zimbabweans.

According to a report on the BBC, Scoones accepts that some of the seized farms, especially in the fertile areas around the capital Harare, went to Mugabe’s “cronies”. But, he insists, “the [cronies] gained a relatively small proportion of the overall land seized across the country”.

Certain parts of the book are outstanding, especially when Godwin is talking to ordinary people or when he recounts the incident between US ambassador James McGee and a bullying police officer.

People will read this sensational, well-written book and think it provides insight into Mugabe and his violent campaign. In some ways it does, but it’s difficult not to notice neo-Rhodesian prejudice, its attendant self-righteous angst and a barely disguised nostalgia for the old world.

‘A better bet’
To get a sense of what’s really going on in Zimbabwe don’t go to journalists. Historians and researchers are a better bet. Making History in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe (Peter Lang), is by Oxbridge-educated Zimbabwean researcher in African politics, Blessing-Miles Tendi.

The book is an interrogation of the making of history in Zimbabwe, an arena dominated by “patriotic history”.

This phrase was coined by nationalist historian Terence Ranger to describe the version of history championed by Zimbabwe’s nationalists. Ranger celebrates the book as a “very rare thing-a study of African politics which is about ideas”.

Tendi’s book is not apologetic for Mugabe’s excesses, but a critical, historical take on the origins of the crisis; and the making of history in Zimbabwe in which a patriot/sell-out dichotomy exists.

While Godwin is dismissive of Mugabe, describing him as “crazed” and his speeches as “imperial musings”, Tendi is gracious enough to give Mugabe credit.

Quoting Stephen Chan, Tendi argues that Mugabe “is the most intellectual of the African presidents…a philosopher who lost his way as a king-Nietzsche sitting in the rubble of Harare”.

We might not agree with what Mugabe says but there’s no point dismissing the substance of his talk.

At its core, Tendi argues, “patriotic history plays on real grievance,” a narrative that “must be treated seriously”.

One nationalist intellectual told Tendi that “we have differences with Mugabe but on the land issue he was right ... Many people who do not like Mugabe would have died for him in the third chimurenga because of the land issue.”

The fate of liberation movements
Zanu PF faced defeat in the parliamentary polls of 2000, the fate of liberation movements such as Unip in Zambia and Kanu in Kenya that had outlived their usefulness.

Zanu PF had to resell its message to an electorate tired of nationalist clichés, effete gestures and hollow slogans.

There was a ready-made nationalist past that had long been stranded in stone warehouses but that was dusted off and sold anew.

The party “presented itself as the ordained guardian of Zimbabwe’s political past, present and future”.

The MDC concentrated on a present of pain, suffering and economic collapse. The MDC said that Zanu PF had reduced Zimbabwe to a shell, an argument that Zanu PF couldn’t win. But that wasn’t enough.

The MDC should have done more, tapped into the nationalism doctrine that Zanu PF was adopting exclusively for itself. After all, some of the first nationalist moans in Rhodesia came from the mouths of trade unionists such as Charles Mzingeli and others. 

“One-party democracy”
Tsvangirai and his fellow trades unionists could easily have placed themselves on the continuum that went back to the 1940s and 50s. Tsvangirai wasn’t born in 1999, the year the MDC was formed.

He had been active in the 1980s, fighting Mugabe, standing up to a “one-party democracy”.

Tendi’s book show Zanu PF recruited intellectuals but some of those are impossible to take seriously; for instance one argued that “whites have no history” and another, Tafatawona Mahoso, favourably compared Zanu PF to other anti-imperialist states such as Salvatore Allende’s Chile in weekly, rambling pieces in the state-owned Sunday Mail.

In Tendi’s chapter, “Patriotic History and Public Intellectuals Critical of Power”, he interviews and reviews the work of intellectuals across the political divide.

One critical public intellectual whose death the MDC must mourn is Masipula Sithole, brother of late nationalist Ndabaningi Sithole. Masipula analysed Zanu PF’s failures in a historical context.

His death robbed the MDC of intellectual spine, as most scholars opposed to Zanu PF didn’t sufficiently critique patriotic history or situate their struggle as the one begun by trade unionists such as Mzingeli.

An incident involving an octogenarian shows the dearth of intellectuals in the MDC.

An 84 year-old man visited MDC leader, Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga. He had a walking stick in one hand and had a copy of the Sunday Mail in the other. “I got a shock when he started waving his copy of the Sunday Mail in frustration and asked me, ‘could somebody please respond to Mahoso’”.

Matters became so ridiculous that Fidelis Mhashu, an MDC leader, said to the BBC that, if elected, the MDC would return confiscated land to white farmers as they were “the ones who knew how to farm”, a statement Zanu trumpeted as proof that the MDC was a stooge of the west.

You got a sense that in some MDC circles chanting slogans and demonising Mugabe was enough.

Tendi argues that the MDC should have listened to Arthur Mutambara’s exhortation to take away the initiative from Zanu PF. “It is not enough to ride on a wave of popular discontent and engage in reactive anti-Mugabe politics.”

Blame
Land is a central motif in patriotic history; Mugabe has blamed his failure to redistribute land on the British government.

Tendi says Mugabe couldn’t give out land for a number of complex reasons. But the nationalists found the tactless letter written by Clare Short, Britain’s former secretary for international development, immensely useful.

“I should make it clear that we do not accept that Britain has special responsibilities to meet the costs of land purchase in Zimbabwe. We are a new country from diverse background without links to former colonial interest,” she wrote in 1997. The nationalists used this in their fight with the British.

For instance, Tendi shows that land reform had slowed down because of the Land Acquisition Act. Passed in 1992 to speed up the process, it was “far too esoteric and complex” and was easily challenged by the Commercial Farmers’ Union.

People have often wondered why former South African president Thabo Mbeki refused to censure the Mugabe regime over its land reform. Tendi’s book suggests a plausible reason, publicly unacknowledged.

When the South African transition kicked off in the early 1990s, Emeka Anyaoku, the former Commonwealth secretary general, warned Mugabe “not to touch the land when the Lancaster Constitution’s protection of white farmers ended ... I told Mugabe that taking over white farms would scupper what [FW] de Klerk was trying to achieve.”

Tendi writes that Mugabe was initially reluctant but “saw the force of my argument” and “agreed to protect white farms until the transition was finished”.

The place of whites in patriotic history is uncertain.

In 1978, Josiah Tongogara, the Zanla commander declared that “many of the white farmers have contributed more to the armed struggle than the Africans”. In the 2000s, however, they are presented as “racist” and “exploitative” of blacks.

White heroes of the struggle such as Guy Clutton-Brock (buried at National Heroes Acre) are not mentioned when black heroes connected to them are being laid to rest. But the western media made it easy for Mugabe to cast the MDC as a stooge of the west, argues Tendi.

Invariably, stories and broadcasts concentrated on the “plight of the white farmer,” ignoring the farm workers. The bungling Peter Hain, minister for Africa at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, alluded in April 2000 “to the possibility of airlifting ‘desperate’ whites from Zimbabwe.”

Tendi’s book can be read also a short history of the MDC and why it was never able to shake the perception that it fronted other interests.

‘Kith and kin’
Founding member Welshman Ncube, now a minister in the government of national unity, points out that the party believed that Britain’s interest in Zimbabwe had more to do with white farmers than black Zimbabweans.

Mugabe’s argument that the former imperial power was looking after the interests of its “kith and kin is real,” Ncube says, and adds “that is why we attracted so much attention”. Tendi’s work is fascinating, a critical scholarly analysis backed by in-depth interviews with some of the main actors in the Zimbabwean struggles.

Another historian whose work I find exciting is Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, among the most interesting of Zimbabwe’s new scholars. His work, Do “Zimbabweans” Exist? (Peter Lang), deconstructs Zimbabwe’s history. The title is borrowed from Immanuel Wallerstein’s paper Do Indians Exist? and Ivor Chipkin’s book Do South Africans Exist?

Ndlovu-Gatsheni recognizes that the present crisis has its roots in the past, both recent and distant. His work is a refreshing break from the “praise texts — that emerged under the conditions of nationalist triumphalism”.

One of the questions the book answers is “how did an African people known as Zimbabweans come into being?”

The book’s central argument is that violence in Zimbabwe, luridly portrayed in The Fear, can never be understood “without a clear understanding [of] how Zimbabwean nationalism emerged in opposition to a fundamentally undemocratic and violent colonial rule”. His Derridean project is most welcome as history and “rule by historiography” are central to the regime in Harare.

One of the ways of contesting the regime’s foundations is by challenging Zanu PF’s interpretation of history. “Chimurenga”, which is Zimbabwean, as opposed to Shona, for “revolution”, is a central trope of the country’s history of the last century.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni argues that “the making of Zimbabwe has been a tale of violence and its memory…”.

Violence defines events that include the arrival of Mzilikazi and the Khumalo fleeing Shaka’s wrath in the early 19th century; the establishment of white-settler rule in the 1890s; the dislodging of Ian Smith’s racist government in 1980s; the suppression of dissident activity in the 1980s and the wanton killings of Ndebele that went with it; and MDC’s present challenge to Mugabe’s rule.

“Degrees in violence”
Violence and its exercise occupy a special place in Zanu PF’s make-up which is why Mugabe once boasted of his “degrees in violence” and party intellectual, Nathan Shamuyarira, observed that “the area of violence is an area in which Zanu PF has a very strong, long and successful history”.

This is a hangover from the pre-independence days, Ndlovu-Gatsheni argues. Violence is not “isolated and episodic,” he explains, “it has taken the form of a culture”.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni writes that finding a name for post-colonial Rhodesia was among nationalism’s earliest and proudest moments. There were some who wanted to call the country Matopos, after the hills near Bulawayo where Cecil Rhodes is buried.

Zimbabwe, coined by nationalist Michael Mawema, was part of defying the white man, argued Lawrence Vambe, “who argued that we were far too primitive to have been capable of constructing such a sophisticated structure as the great Zimbabwe edifice”.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni concludes by saying the victors of 1980 were not “the only active ones in the making of Zimbabwean nationalism”.

When Tekere dies he probably won’t be buried at the National Heroes Acre even though he’s a founding member of Zanu PF.

People who fell out of favour with Mugabe, politicians like Sithole and Muzorewa, have been written out of Patriotic History as sell-outs.

There’s so much to admire about his breathtaking and exhaustive analyses, his interviews, his multi-disciplinary approach that unravels some of the most enduring myths about Patriotic History.

Dedicated to “Those Who Stand in Defence of African Sovereignty”, A Fine Madness (Ayebia) by Zimbabwean ex-soldier, Mashingaidze Gomo, fits snugly into patriotic history’s expansive folds. Written in verse, it includes a preface by one of Africa’s most famous writers and intellectuals, Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

When it came out a few months ago it was compared to Aime Cesaire’s Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. It’s not straightforward fiction, if we could dare call it that; rather it is a “collage of verse and prose narratives, memories, images thoughts and characters against the background of the 1998 Congo war,” Ngugi writes.

It’s a trance-like narrative, angry, belligerent, weaving in and out of patriotic history. Mbuya Nehanda, one of the first Chimurenga’s heroines, is celebrated in Gomo’s work. She’s described simplistically as the “mother of that resistance”.

New historical work coming out now acknowledges her sterling role but also notes that her importance is often overstated.

Tenets of the land
A Fine Madness incorporates patriotic history’s founding tenets of the land. It is set in a fluid Pax Africana site extending from Zimbabwe to the Congo, where the war against imperialists is being waged.

It features a Zimbabwean soldier who finds himself in the Congo propping up Laurent Kabila, the Lumumbaist who toppled Mobutu Sese Seko in the late 1990s.

If Tafatawona Mahoso and others are the revolution’s patriotic intellectuals, Gomo is patriotic history’s chief fictioneer.

He hates all things British and finds particular pleasure in adopting a name, Takawira Muchineripi, a moniker a British priest had refused in Sunday School.

“He had said Muchineripi was too pagan and suggested/ some such names as Amos, Joel ...”—names he “refused for fear of offending old grandfather/ who had given me the name”.

Muchineripi wanted a name that would reflect the circumstances that he had born into “because no black person born into the colonial era was/ born into peaceful settings”.

If Godwin is in the service of the MDC, Gomo is furthering the cause of the nationalists in Zanu PF. A Fine Madness is a quite forceful, if at times simplistic narrative that could be benefit from looking beyond patriotic texts. The work is propelled by its hectoring tone and its inward-looking gaze.

Furthering a non-partisan approach, I end with a quote from Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger: “It’s the ruin not the original which moves men; our Zimbabwe ruins must have looked really shit and hideous when they were brand-new.”

Percy Zvomuya

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