Thursday, 20 February 2014

President Mugabe @90: Leadership by Symbolism

By Takura Zhangazha*

I last wrote about President Mugabe when he turned 88 in 2012.  In the article/blog that I wrote, I took the risk of defining him as a ‘revolutionary by default’.  I wrote those words with a bit of trepidation. Firstly because I could have been arrested for writing that. Secondly because I felt it would get me into some sort of trouble with my then employers who were a bit prickly about not only my history of political activism but also because of my inability to steer clear of political controversies. 

I would have left it at that until I came across a picture montage of the president in the United Kingdom’s The Telegraph newspaper early this week. 

It came across more as an obituary, a general narrative that is anticipated by the global media. Though they wouldn’t descend on our small landlocked country with as much enthusiasm as they did when former South African President Nelson Mandela passed on. 

As it is, President Mugabe turns 90 this week. And yes, a number of colleagues in the media have asked me to make some comments on what political feelings it invokes having a 90 year old as president (even at the risk of being accused of ageism).

My answer has been consistent. We might not deserve to have a man of such advanced years determining our next five years as a country, but we deal the hand that we have been dealt.  A hand that we have been at sixes and sevens to explain how it is that we have come to have gone against the global grain. (Italy has a 39 year old Prime Minister)

The truth of the matter is that President Mugabe at 90 no longer represents himself. He has become more symbol than he is leader of the day to day governmental activities of our country.  He, instead, and to much international chagrin represents our country’s history (and not triumphantly) for better and for worse. 

At 90 he has come to a sort of political Rubicon, where he knows, inevitably he has to let go of power. Even where he has argued that he must stay on in order to keep his party united, it is his impending departure from office that keeps it divided.  In any event, prior to the July 2013 election, where it was argued that he was the only one who could take Zanu Pf to an election victory, that same said victory in its occurrence to a two thirds majority in Parliament, means that argument holds little water. At least until 2018. 

So there are no immediate essential threats to his party’s tenure in government office. And while it is not my brief to justify a call for his departure from office,  I would still stand by the argument that he has no specific justification as to why he should not pass on the baton stick to someone not only younger but also capable of understanding our country’s domestic and international placing with greater urgency. 

Beyond his own personal political considerations, President Mugabe, at 90, has come to symbolize a number of issues about our country, nationalism and Pan Africanism.

In Zimbabwe, he is probably the last of the liberation war generation who could articulate the cause with a specific populist consistency. He is also the only one who has been at the helm of the same said cause without demonstrating any intention of passing on the leadership mantle. Almost as if time has stood still for him.  And in the process he has made many mistakes.

From Gukurahundi, through to Economic Structural Adjustment, the economic meltdown of the late 90s and repressing the opposition, in being prime Minister and eventually executive president, Mr. Mugabe has failed to understand the passage of time and the limited impact an individual human being can have on it. 

On the African continent, where there is applause for him in stadiums, it is less a celebration of his persona than it is a desire for political movements that do not negate the values of the struggle.  The applause therefore becomes that of Africans in general wanting political movements that are organic and people centered. They would like movements that speak to their collective history and the pain it entailed to be where we are. 

When the state controlled media celebrate the applause given to him, they misunderstand the very fact that Africa is in a bad place, politically and economically (don’t believe the hype about Africa rising).  We are in need of leaders that are less enamored to global hegemonies and more committed to the betterment of their peoples. President Mugabe is neither of the latter.  He remains a revolutionary by default. And the party that he leads, though much more organized than the mainstream opposition, remains one that has its major indictment, an inability to renew its own leadership. 

Because the country faces so many challenges, it can no longer rely on political rhetoric.  It needs committed and ‘fingers on the button’ organic leaders.  At 90, President Mugabe can no longer do this.

*Takura Zhangazha writes in his personal capacity (