War veterans remain a potent political force in Zimbabwe and SA

News Analysis

In November, the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association (ZNLWVA) played an intriguing role in trapping former Zanu-PF and Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe in his endgame. As deliverers of Zimbabwe’s Independence from Britain in 1980 following a protracted, widespread and bitter liberation struggle, the battle-scarred war veterans wield symbolic political and moral power in the country and ruling party.

The ZNLWVA flexed their muscles a month before Zanu-PF’s extraordinary elective congress. It had dawned on them that the pendulum of the internecine power struggles to succeed Mugabe as leader of the ruling party and the country was swinging powerfully in favour of the Generation 40 (G40) faction. Former First Lady Grace Mugabe was the front-lady of Zanu-PF’s G40 coterie — comprising the party’s ambitious young Turks mostly without liberation war credentials. The G40 was in contention, with the Team Lacoste clique backing then vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa in the ruling party’s game of thrones. The ZNLWVA were in liberation war stalwart Mnangagwa’s corner.

The ZNLWVA accused the G40 cabal of destabilising the revolutionary party and reversing the gains of the liberation struggle. They saw the G40’s hand in the systematic purging of war veterans from Zanu-PF that culminated in Mugabe’s axing of Mnangagwa in early November. The quasi-dynastic ploy to shoehorn Grace Mugabe into Mnangagwa’s former position at Zanu-PF’s upcoming December congress and thus anoint her successor to her husband’s throne was too ghastly for the ZNLWVA.

Ousted war veteran leader, Jabulani Sibanda, once famously likened this to a bedroom coup in which political power would be “sexually transmitted” from Mugabe to his wife. The military interceded to protect the revolutionary party from the G40 and asked Mugabe to resign in a comradely manner. ZNLWVA chair Chris Mutsvangwa, who Mugabe had also fired from government and ZANU-PF, then declared the game was up for Mugabe.

The ZNLWVA called for unprecedented mass protests to “finish the job which the army started.” When Mugabe defiantly dug in his heels and refused to vacate the top job in the ruling party and government, the ZNLWVA spearheaded a Zanu-PF central committee meeting, which fired Mugabe as party head and his wife as head of the party’s women’s group. The meeting expelled Grace Mugabe and her G40 acolytes. The central committee nullified Mugabe’s expulsion of Mnangagwa and made him interim party supremo in what was a classic palace revolution. These decisions are expected to be ratified at the ruling party’s extraordinary congress this week.

Mugabe eventually resigned after Zanu-PF initiated parliamentary moves to impeach him as the country’s president, with the explicit backing of the ZNLWVA. ZANU-PF’s political succession drama had taken a turn few had imagined. The answers to the longstanding ‘What Happens After Mugabe?’ question are now unfolding.

Ironically, Mugabe’s liberation movement-cum-government had attempted to officially suppress the establishment of the ZNLWVA in the late 1980s. It saw the idea of bringing the politically significant liberation war veterans together as a threat. The ZNLWVA was eventually launched in 1989 with Mugabe, the heroic liberation war leader, as its patron. This marked the beginning of a love-hate affair founded on the couple’s sense of entitlement to rule until the second coming. Scholar Norma Kriger succinctly characterised the relationship between Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and war veterans as one of “power seeking agendas, their appeals to the revolutionary liberation, their use of violence and intimidation” and their “simultaneous conflict and collaboration as party and veterans manipulate one another.”

The ZNLWVA aggressively lobbied for government recognition of their liberation war roles, welfare support and to become relevant in the ruling party and country’s body politic, particularly under the leadership of Chenjerai “Hitler” Hunzvi. From 2000, the ZNLWVA played a prominent political role in keeping Mugabe on the throne and safeguarding the revolution. Mugabe’s regime discovered war veterans who were on the dole as pliable political partners in a ferocious election campaign trail. This included violent oppression of the formidable MDC opposition, civil society activists and the land grab of white commercial farms, ostensibly to address the unequal access to land aligned with racial identity. The war veterans were castigated in some quarters as having turned from liberators to oppressors.

Zanu-PF re-entrenched its political hegemony in the country through a skillfully engineered 2013 election. After the ruling party’s 2014 elective congress, Mugabe announced a Zanu-PF politburo with a new department for war veterans’ affairs. Significantly, ZNLWVA leader Mutsvangwa was subsequently assigned as head of a newly created ministry to cater for the welfare of war veterans and associated groups that played significant roles in the independence war.

Barely a year later, however, the ZNLWVA was disaffected with Mugabe’s cash-strapped government’s failure to fully deliver statutory welfare benefits for its mostly destitute membership. Mugabe’s dictatorial leadership, and his failure to stop Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown, corruption, widespread poverty, and the ascendancy of the G40 amid expelling of liberation war stalwarts, deepened the ZNLWVA grievances. In November 2016, the influential ZNLWVA scrapped the position of patron, which Mugabe held, from their constitution. This sealed the ZNLWVA’s divorce from Mugabe whom they dubbed “a hard-sell” for Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe’s 2018 national elections. The writing was on the wall for Mugabe.

There are parallels here with neighbour South Africa’s relationship with its liberation war veterans. ANC military veterans will form part of the 5‚240 voting delegates who will choose the ruling party’s new leadership at its 54th National Elective Conference in Johannesburg next week. The veterans’, women’s and youth leagues constitute 10% of the voting delegates. A hefty 90% of the voting delegates are branch delegates. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and ANC NEC member Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma are deemed the front-runners to take over the reins from President Jacob Zuma‚ who has been at the helm of the ANC since 2007.

The Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans’ Association (MKMVA), led by Kebby Maphatsoe, is backing President Zuma’s preferred candidate, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, to be the next ANC leader. This was predictable. MKMVA cadres provided political and symbolic support to Jacob Zuma in his battle for the ANC presidency against Thabo Mbeki. Then, the MKMVA leadership felt that Mbeki’s government had not done much for their livelihoods despite paying lip service to the veterans’ liberation struggle efforts.

A significant outcome of ANC’s 52nd elective conference in Polokwane in 2007, at which Zuma was elected president of the ANC, was a resolution to urgently establish a dedicated Ministry of Military Veterans. The ministry would, inter alia, manage a new comprehensive social package for liberation war veterans. The ANC, which had neither taken MKMVA cadres as serious political players nor inclined towards a ruling party-war veteran coalition, now appeared bent on strengthening ties with them in a manner reminiscent of some aspects of the peculiar Zanu-PF-war veteran relationship.

Following his election as the president of South Africa in 2009, Zuma reorganized the country’s defence ministry into the Ministry of Defence and Military Veterans, entailing separate administrative and budget structures tasked with the concerns of war veterans. Despite the fact that this came about 15 years into South Africa’s democratic independence and fell short of war veterans’ hope for a stand-alone ministry, this was a significant step. MKMVA chairperson, Maphatsaoe, was appointed by Zuma to double up as the deputy minister of defence in charge of military veterans’ affairs.

This came with a new dynamic in the ruling ANC’s relationship with the MKMVA. At its fourth national conference in October 2012, the MKMVA resolved to defend “the Black, Green and Gold” – the colours of the ANC – promising to deal “with attacks of ANC leadership in public and defend its integrity at all cost.” The relationship between the ANC and the Maphatsoe-led MKMVA under Zuma’s government saw veterans getting due recognition for their armed struggle role in exchange for expressing loyalty to their patron, Zuma.

The MKMVA leadership bashed any perceived critic of Zuma. Not even the former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela was spared as Maphatsoe accused her of being an American spy in 2014, after she found that Zuma should refund the state for upgrades at his personal Nkandla homestead not related to security. In 2016, Maphatsoe stirred a hornet’s nest when he lambasted and questioned the credentials of ANC stalwarts who had called upon Zuma to step down due to his misdirection of the ruling party.

However, Maphatsoe’s war veteran credentials have themselves been questioned amid allegations that he deserted an Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) camp in Uganda. Furthermore, the MK National Council, a faction of ANC’s liberation war soldiers, disputes the the legitimacy of Maphatsoe’s MKMVA leadership.

Notwithstanding this, Maphatsoe’s MKMVA managed to locate war veterans’ issues at the heart of the internal power dynamics and political decision making of the ruling party just like the ZNLWVA’s Hunzvi, whose authenticity was also disputed. Indeed, the ANC’s 2017 policy conference reconfirmed the decision taken in the 2007 Polokwane elective conference to create of a fully-fledged military veterans’ ministry by 2019 ditto Mugabe’s post-2014 ZANU-PF congress move.

It remains to be seen whether the MKMVA’s vote at the ANC’s elective conference will contribute to the ascendancy of their preferred candidate, Dlamini-Zuma, to the helm of the ruling party. What we do know is that, decades after the end of the liberation wars in Zimbabwe and South Africa, war veterans remain a crucial political constituency in both countries.

Gwinyayi Dzinesa is a freelance peace and security researcher. His latest book Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration in Southern Africa: Swords into Ploughshares? has just been published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Gwinyayi Dzinesa
Gwinyayi A Dzinesa

Gwinyayi A. Dzinesa is a freelance peace and security researcher. 


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