African Leadership

President Mugabe @90: the wrong symbol

by Takura Zhangazha

Mugabe birthday cake - 2 [660 x 300]

President Mugabe of Zimbabwe

President Mugabe turns 90 this week. He is probably the last of Zimbabwe’s liberation war generation who could articulate the cause with a specific populist consistency. But he failed to pass on the leadership mantle and in the process made many mistakes.

I last wrote about President Mugabe when he turned 88 in 2012.  In the article/blog that I wrote, I took the risk of describing him as a ‘revolutionary by default’.  I wrote those words with a bit of trepidation. Firstly because I could have been arrested for writing them. 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 slideshow of the president in the UK’s The Telegraph newspaper.

It came across more as an obituary, a narrative that is anticipated by the global media (though, when the time comes, they will not descend on our small landlocked country with as much enthusiasm as they did when former South African President Nelson Mandela passed on).

Well, not quite. Mugabe attends a church service in Bulawayo in 2008. (Photo: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP)

As it is, President Mugabe turns 90 this week. And yes, a number of colleagues in the media have asked me to comment on the feelings invoked by having a 90-year-old president (even at the risk of accusations 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 play the hand we have been dealt.  It is a hand that we have been at sixes and sevens to explain; how it is that we 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The truth of the matter is that President Mugabe at 90 no longer represents himself.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 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 he has to let go of power, inevitably. Even where he has argued that he must stay on 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.

Mugabe being sworn in for one of his numerous terms.

So there are no immediate essential threats to his party’s tenure in 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 the baton on 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 symbolise 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.
Mugabe (centre-left) and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma (centre-right) share a joke at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia Sunday, May 26, 2013. (Photo: Elias Asmare/AP)

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 centred. 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 enamoured of global hegemonies and more committed to the betterment of their people. President Mugabe is neither of these.  He remains a revolutionary by default. And the party that he leads, though much more organised than the mainstream opposition, remains one that has as 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 ‘finger on the button’ organic leaders.  At 90, President Mugabe can no longer do this.


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