TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Zimbabwe and the Ritual of Settlement

To anyone familiar with Zimbabwean history, the newly formed government of national unity in Zimbabwe should come as no surprise. In fact, the formation of the GNU should be met with some apprehension: Zimbabwe has a short but recurring history of internal settlements within its political elite. On June 1, 1979, an internal settlement was reached which saw the formation of a government of national unity between the then-illegal white minority government of Rhodesia, led by Ian Smith, and a group of moderate black nationalists headed by A. T. Muzorewa.

At that time, the key players in the liberation struggle and guerilla war—Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo—rejected the talks on the grounds that the negotiations did not allocate equal rights and political agency to the black majority. Strategically, the settlement was meant to appease the British Crown, from whom the white minority government had ceded illegally. It was however, quite a naïve and improbable attempt to win over a black majority restless for the full rights of citizenship.

Popularly deemed ineffectual, the Zimbabwe-Rhodesia unity government was superseded by new negotiations, Lancaster House Talks, and disbanded by the 12th of December of that same year. Though the Lancaster House Agreement would pave the way to a legally recognized national independence in 1980, partisan strife amongst black nationalists (predating independence) would plague the young republic for the decade to come.

The State of Emergency enacted by the Smith regime in the late 1960s and continued under the Mugabe regime, in addition to the one-party apparatus put in place by the ruling party, ZANU, would ensure the marginalization of any political opposition. As a result, ZAPU, under Joshua Nkomo, a former ally of Mugabe, would wage a guerilla war in the southern region of the country. During the period between 1982 to 1987, now infamously called Gukurahundi (“The early rain which washes away the chaff”), between ten and fifteen thousand people were massacred by the ruling party’s military wing, the Fifth Brigade, in the Bulawayo region. In 1987 new negotiations were under way.

December of 1987 saw the consolidation of ZAPU into the ruling party. The post of vice-president—impractically resulting in two vice-presidential offices—was created for the liberation leader and veteran, Joshua Nkomo. Nkomo, once opposed to the one-party state solution, surprisingly conceded.

The deal excluded other political factions and civil society, making the negotiations a private affair that did not heed broader public concerns or wisdom. The country, in fact, began its slow but steady economic decline, which culminated in the present crisis. Repression of free speech and other human rights also increased. The once vital figure of Zimbabwean political life Nkomo, along with many political counterparts, would fade into the background. By token of the settlement, ZANU-PF was able to remain politically unchallenged until the rise of MDC in the 1990s.

Today we are again privy to another settlement, under the auspices of the newly ousted president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki. (See William Gumede’s Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of ANC. While Mbeki is under suspicion for conspiring against the current ANC President, Jacob Zuma, what is apparent is that his views and national policies on HIV, crime, and media rights in South Africa have been a public hazard.)

Under Mbeki’s facilitation, negotiations, which lasted for more than five years and cost Zimbabwe its infrastructure and economy, were another mysterious affair. What incentives brought Mugabe to the negotiation table are not clear. What stakes his generals, his former government officials and associates will have in the economy remain unknown.

The crucial and more practical question that arises from the formation of the GNU is whether this settlement will result in a real transformation of Zimbabwe’s political apparatus. In other words, does MDC alone have the means to transform a defective political culture which has, since 1980, shaped the country’s prospects? What guarantees are there that MDC will not be transformed by ZANU-PF?

Anyone who heard Geraldine Doogue’s interview with the head of the breakaway MDC faction (also included in the deal and new government), Arthur Mutambara, a month ago, would have reason for great concern about MDC’s transformative capacity. Mutambara, once a critic of Mugabe, uncannily sounded like a mouthpiece of the dictator. Devoid of tact, considering Zimbabwe’s desperate need for aid and investors, Mutambara brazenly purported a sense of self-reliance and exceptionalism that no sober-minded politician would feign, considering the grave task at hand.

A few days ago Zimbabwe’s National Constitutional Assembly released a statement concerning the ZANU-PF and MDC agreement. Aside from its concern at the absence of a realistic mechanism that would allow for the drafting of people-driven constitution, the NCA concluded that the settlement, by excluding civil groups and institutions with significant stakes in the present socio-political economic crisis, deprived citizens of a means of rightful participation–a trait reminiscent of the settlements of ’79 and ’87.

Isolated—like the black moderates of ’79 or ZAPU in ’87—from fellow stakeholders, MDC is vulnerable to the machinations of the ruling party. The likelihood of ZANU-PF and MDC continuing in the settlement tradition that has already taken precedence is almost predictable. MDC may simply be the new pawn of theatrical appeasement for an anxious public at home and abroad.

Thabo Mbeki’s tactics of secrecy, denialism and censorship, may not have fared well in South Africa, but they have triumphed in Zimbabwe. That negotiations took precedence over the electoral results, that secretive diplomacy has become the sole means of political deliberation should alarm us. That Mugabe still retains control of the military, that farm invasions continue, that MDC supporters are still being arrested and attacked should reinforce to the international community that Zimbabwe has yet to receive an intervention worthy of the crisis it faces. Settlements in Zimbabwean political history—colonial and post-colonial—may simply be a means of retaining power in the face of defeat.

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