Since news broke out earlier this week that military tanks were headed for Harare and that the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) had taken control of the country’s national broadcaster, people across the globe have braced themselves for what appears to be the end of President Robert Mugabe’s 30 year rule.
From arrests of cabinet ministers to talks of a ‘transitional government’ led by Emmerson Mnangagwa who was fired by Mugabe as Vice President, the situation in Zimbabwe has been notably peaceful.
The defence force Commander General Constantino Chiwenga, has gone out of his way to assure the international community that this is not a coup d’état but merely an intervention to rid the country of “criminals around the president”.
However, this has not stopped many in Zimbabwe and around the continent (myself included) from hoping that these developments are a sign of a new beginning for Zimbabwe.
While we are right to harbour hopes for a change in Zimbabwe, we shouldn’t be naive.
First, what has happened in Zimbabwe in the past few days is not a coup d’état in the historical understanding of an illegal military takeover of a government, Sure, there is a semblance of a coup but don’t be fooled into believing that this is the French Revolution reloaded.
Second, the view that the Zimbabwean army is now suddenly on the side of the people and wants change in the country on that basis is a fallacy. This is not about seeking a change in direction from the downward slope Zimbabwe has been on but rather, this is a factional battle of the Zimbabwe African National Union — Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) playing itself out publicly.
Since Mnangagwa’s sacking, his supporters in the ruling party including leaders in the military have been incensed by the purging of those who have fallen out of favour with Mugabe and what we see now is a retaliation.
The military doesn’t seek regime change in Zimbabwe they simply want a different leader from the same party. For decades, Mnangagwa has been an ally of the president and his record reveals that he isn’t too different from Mugabe. So no, this is not about change.
Despite this, those of us who want to see change in Zimbabwe are not misguided in our hopes. A successful removal of Mugabe would result in a fractured ZANU-PF and this would give impetus to those who are actively fighting for reforms in the country. This can only be good for the people of Zimbabwe the majority of whom live in pitiful conditions under decades of ZANU-PF rule. We need to stand ready to support them.
Naturally, these calls for change are not without criticism. Some commentators have challenged the army’s actions and assert that Mugabe shouldn’t give into demands to step down as he is a democratically elected head of state who can only be removed through an election.
Other critics have warned that if attempts to remove him are successful this would result in even more instability and violence in Zimbabwe. They are also concerned that if this happens, it would spark similar action up and down the continent.
Then there are those who accuse people, who are advocates for change, for being “agents of the West” seeking to undermine African leadership. A consequence of this is that you can be branded as “anti-African” because when you openly disagree with what you view as poor African leadership and it must be a result of Western influence not because you are an independent thinker.
Some here in South Africa hold the view that because Mugabe was a freedom fighter and stood with us during the dark days of apartheid, we should be eternally grateful and excuse the suffering he has afflicted on his own people. I don’t subscribe to this school of thought.
I would like to make clear that you can hold what may appear to be contradictory views. Surely it is possible to acknowledge the role Mugabe played in fighting for liberation whilst also criticising the damage he has caused in his country. We need to realise our leaders are not deities and are merely human — they are liable to failure as much as success. Liberation fighters shouldn’t be exempt from criticism particularly when they become the new oppressors.
People like me are vilified when calling for a change of government in countries like Zimbabwe because those with opposing views deliberately misconstrue our intentions. We want failed leaders like Mugabe to step down precisely because we are pro-African. If Zimbabwe succeeds, South Africa succeeds too because prosperous neighbours make good customers. The same is true if Zimbabwe doesn’t succeed.
What would be “anti-African” is turning a blind eye to the suffering of fellow Africans all in the name of believing someone has earned the right to do as they please because they have struggle credentials. An African oppressor is no different to the colonial powers before them. If anything, the actions of the past week are a clarion call to all of us to demand a better Africa and in some instances this will mean fighting the former liberators.
Mondli Zondo is a columnist and a Mandela Washington Fellow. He writes in his personal capacity.