What Mugabe’s red carpet tumble means

Wednesday, February 4 2015, could not have been going any better for President Robert Mugabe.

After returning from the 24th summit of the African Union in Addis Ababa last week, Mugabe landed on home ground at Harare International Airport to an enthusiastic crowd that welcomed him back. It was the welcome of heroes, with singing, ululation and posters of his face held aloft.

Mugabe had defied all odds. Here he was; he had succeeded in being appointed the new chairperson of the African Union. He had rubbed criticism of his 35-year rule in the face of Zimbabwe’s former coloniser Britain and its “evil” cousin, the United States. Now he could again say: “Blair keep your England and I will keep my Zimbabwe” on behalf of all Africans, and not just Zimbabweans.

Not only would he tell off the imperialists, he would have the whole year ahead to remake his battered image on the African continent. In the twilight of his years, fate had smiled on him; he would reinvent his image and build a legacy that would resonate with the whole continent.

On home ground, he comfortably and easily asserted: Africa is for Africans. As he finished his victory speech on the airport tarmac, he turned to walk the few steps to his waiting Mercedes Benz. Then as he walked off confidently down the steps, an event, stranger than fiction took place: he missed a step and tumbled to his knees. 

His usually-vigilant bodyguards were too far off to hold him up. His loyal wife, Grace, who usually props him, was absent, recuperating from a recent operation. The army chief, police commissioner and the airforce boss were there too – but just a step too far off. 

What they feared the most happened in an instant: Mugabe had fallen. Mugabe, in whose name so many atrocities have been committed, but portrayed as innocent. The one whom his own people cannot speak against. Mugabe, who has almost become imortalised by those around him, had miscalculated a simple step and was on his knees. In an instant, he became human, his pristine image of perfection, shattered.

While the bodyguards rushed to help him back to his feet, the ever-present and feared Central Intelligence Organisation operatives sprung into action, swarming media photographers and demanding that photos of Mugabe on his knees be deleted. But it was too late. The proverbial horse had bolted.

To be reduced to nothing
Dictatorships cannot stay ahead of new technology. By the evening, photographs of Mugabe on bended knees, which someone had taken on their mobile phone, were awash on social media. On mobile platform WhatsApp, Zimbabweans shared them with glee and delight. Most Zimbabweans could not hide their feelings of euphoria.

Those in peacekeeping missions in Sudan, those who sought political refuge in the US, those making a living in Australia, Nigeria, Namibia and the United Kingdom – Zimbabweans could not hide their collective pleasure. They just loved the fall of a dictator who caused them to flee to foreign lands.

Yet a nasty hatred accompanied that happiness, that left me struggling to join the merriment of Mugabe’s fall.

Like all Zimbabweans, none of us, at home or abroad, have been immune to the disastrous policies of Mugabe’s government. To be harassed for voting. To be an unemployed graduate. To have no bread. To see loved ones turned away from hospital because there is no water – or electricity or doctor or nurse – but hear from government that Grace, the First Lady, is away recuperating in an Asian hospital from an appendix operation. No one knows that pain better than Zimbabweans.

To be repressed and persecuted for expressing oneself. To be at the mercy of Zanu-PF’s constant infighting – yet nothing is done for the ordinary people. To have ones entire life savings wiped out by hyperinflation and Mugabe’s self-serving policies. To have electricity once in four days. To drink dirty water from city taps. To drive along more pothole-ridden roads than tarred roads. To see the brazen looting and destruction of our country. 

To flee to distant lands and struggle with identity in often unwelcoming lands. To bury loved ones from cholera and typhoid outbreaks due to unclean water, and still have government proclaim that all is well. To be dispossessed of land and property on racial and political lines. To have a government still deny brazenly that Gukurahundi (a 1980s tribal massacre of over 20 000 mostly Ndebele people) happened. To be denied that chance to find out the truth. To be left destitute. To be reduced to nothing. This is the pain of Zimbabweans.

An architect of his own misfortune
Yet with that pain, I cannot celebrate an almost 91-year-old man tumbling down. Hunhu (a Shona term similar to ubuntu) is not something one can learn from academia. It is a way of life. The respect of an elder; to feel for the suffering of others (even those who have no hunhu), to help my community, to share the little I may have, to raise my neighbour’s child as my own. 

It is who I am as a Zimbabwean. This is my culture. So I cannot find joy in Mugabe’s misfortune.

Having lived the pain of Mugabe’s regime, I, like many Zimbabweans, would like to see Mugabe’s back. That is no secret. There is no hiding that he is the symbol of destruction of hope for so many.

Mugabe and those around him are the obvious architects of his own misfortune. At almost 91-ripe-years-old he should be retired. The spitefulness surrounding yesterday’s fall is a pinch compared to what will be witnessed when Mugabe is eventually no more. Many did not hide that they wished he had breathed his last breath while on his knees.

The hatred and hurt harboured by so many Zimbabweans is festering and will manifest in a post-Mugabe era.

By falling, Mugabe became a mere mortal. In the full glare of the public, the propaganda machinery could not spin him out of his ordinariness in that moment. But by his fall he also laid bare the trauma of Zimbabweans in the diaspora and at home. The national conversation must now begin in Zimbabwe to heal the future.

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