Mugabe the tyrant is dead. Long live Comrade Bob the liberator!

Thursday September 12 2019


By Daniel K. Kalinaki

There are no excuses or justifications for the excesses of what Robert Gabriel Mugabe – who died last week aged 95 – subjected his people to, either in the early days in Matabeleland, or in latter years with the brutality and economic collapse that brought a once-promising country to its knees. Even with its sad and tragic ending, however, the story of Mugabe and Zimbabwe is a useful reminder of the unfinished business of African independence and the search for a second and, in some cases, a third economic liberation.
Mugabe’s death coincided with the latest wave of xenophobia in South Africa where angry locals, mostly Black men, have long harboured resentment towards foreigners they believe are taking away their opportunities. Although Nigerians appear to have been particularly targeted in the latest unrest (triggering revenge attacks in Nigeria), such xenophobia has previously been meted out towards migrants from frontline states like Mozambique, Angola and Zimbabwe.
Now, let us imagine we were having this conversation around the year 2000. Mugabe was already being accused of forcefully grabbing land and giving it to his cronies, harassing political rivals and stealing elections. Next door Mzee Mandela had served one term in office, handed over to Thabo Mbeki and was spending time with family as a retired and respected statesman.
Many African leaders did not understand why Mandela left office so easily. After all the “sacrifice,” including 27 years in jail, he could be forgiven for wanting to enjoy the perks of power longer. But Mandela knew that political power was the easy part; getting economic control was never going to be easy. He decided, sagely, that he had done his bit and it would be up to others to deal with the thankless task.
The land-grabbing in Zimbabwe, the ANC’s Black economic empowerment policy and the xenophobic attacks are all different ways of trying to deal with the same question of how to give ‘natives’ skin in the economic game. This has been the challenge of post-colonial Africa.
After independence, most African leaders quickly came to the realisation that they had been given byoya bya’nswa (the useless wings of white ants, or empty baskets). Where the land wasn’t owned and occupied by settlers, the economy was in the hands of foreign capital and designed to dance to its tunes. Natives were merely a factor of production: Cheap labour!
Leaders of newly independent African states who tried to wring back control over their countries’ resources soon discovered that they had something in common: A significantly shortened life-expectancy. Patrice Lumumba was done in by the Belgians in Congo, Thomas Sankara by French quisling Blaise Compaore in Burkina Faso and Mozambique’s Samora Machel by the apartheid regime’s agents. The Empire strikes back. When Obote made leftist and nationalist noises in Uganda, Empire replaced him with Idi Amin, then went after him when he went rogue.
In the Cold War that followed, two important developments occurred. First, the pursuit of African liberation and pan-Africanism was sacrificed at the altar of empty nationalism. Freedom fighters and liberators discovered, as soon as they got into power, that they rather liked the idea of being in power themselves, even if they were big fish in small ponds. Thus the pursuit of an African identity and polity was subsumed by small border skirmishes and civil wars fuelled by tribal identities.
Secondly, a new crop of opportunistic leaders quickly emerged. This crop of quislings was willing to manage the new African ‘overseas’ territories on behalf of Empire. They pledged to oversee the flow of economic surplus back to the foreign capitals and were allowed to do whatever was necessary to keep them in power. Mobutu was the poster-boy but he was not alone. Others, including some still in power today, went as far as appropriating the language of resistance, revolution and pan-Africanism. They became the proverbial ‘house niggers’, but with attitude.
Mugabe’s folly was in trying to be all things to all men (and one particularly luxury-loving woman): Deliverer of political independence, retriever of ancestral lands, restorer of economic rights, patron of war veterans, and husband to Gucci Grace. It was always going to end badly.
Both Mugabe and Mandela are now gone, after long and eventful lives. One is serenaded by the world, the other vilified by it. But ultimately both failed. As the xenophobic violence in South Africa reminds us, there can be no political independence without meaningful economic participation. To that end, and considering the fights he picked, the most amazing thing about Mugabe is that he lived so long.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter.
Twitter: @Kalinaki.