We ought not to be surprised any more by rumours of Robert Mugabe’s imminent demise.
This week they were prompted by an article on exile news website the Zimbabwe Mail, citing an unnamed Zanu-PF official as the basis for a claim that the president was fighting for his life in a Singapore hospital.
Despite the thinness of the sourcing, the story rapidly went viral and was picked up by some major international news outlets. Of course the claims were quite false, as Mugabe proved by returning home “as fit as fiddle”.
But the furore is instructive nonetheless. So frozen is the political process and so bereft of meaningful progress that many of those who hope for an alternative to Mugabe’s brutal and corrupting rule can conceive of change only as a product of his death. This thinking has it that no other event would shock the system violently enough to throw the succession process in Zanu-PF open and, with instability, create scope for forward movement.
Of course, something much worse might happen.
The most nihilistic elements of the security forces and the party’s hardliners might well extend their control of the country and the awkward, muddling stasis of the global political agreement could be replaced by renewed repression.
The point is not to ask whether Mugabe’s eventual death would be “good” or “bad” for the political process in Zimbabwe, but to rather highlight that speculation about his health is a product of the way that both his critics and supporters are fixated on him. The Zim problem is irreducibly the Mugabe problem.
And Zanu-PF’s inability to convince him that it must plan for succession only deepens that sense. Rumours about his death, fuelled by slipshod reporting and perhaps wishful thinking, are the natural consequence of this distorted political environment and a secretive government information system that refuses to communicate honestly with citizens.
They will not stop until Zimbabweans find credible alternative stories to map their future.