Zimbabwe: ‘It’s the subculture, stupid’
7 Mar 2019|

It’s like watching a drunken sailor go down in increments. A stumble, a forehead to the counter, a wild grasping, followed by a crash of bottles. That’s the trajectory of Zimbabwe’s post-Mugabe ‘new dispensation’—all in not-so-glorious, super-slow-mo Technicolor.

There were the post-election shootings last August, a currency crisis, fuel price protests in January—and another round of violence by the security forces that reportedly left at least 17 dead and more than 80 with gunshot wounds.

So the instalments of this very public debacle are clear to all. But it’s in the quest to find explanations that things become almost infinitely murky. Theories and rumours abound.

For some, there’s a breach between the president and his deputy, Constantino Chiwenga, an alleged hawk (among doves, no less?) who has the backing of the military and is attempting to sabotage the reformist agenda of his boss, Emmerson Mnangagwa. Others contend that the pair are playing a sophisticated ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine, with Chiwenga doing the dirty work at home while Mnangagwa seeks re-engagement abroad.

The problem is, efforts to disentangle the interpersonal relationships and factions within the ruling party, Zanu-PF, are fraught with peril. The confidence of assertions about intraparty ferment tends to be inversely proportional to the grounds for such conviction. When someone claims to know what’s going on, it’s usually a sure sign that they don’t.

One of the reasons is that neat factions simply don’t exist in the party. Self-interest and distrust are perennial; alliances are ephemeral. Often, not even those on the inside know precisely what’s going on, let alone those on the outside. That doesn’t mean factional moods and movements can’t become important—they ebb and flow and flare—but there usually isn’t enough reliable data to make a judgement in real time.

The realms of harder data yield some answers. ‘It’s the economy, stupid’, as the Americans might say. Certainly, the government is in a jam. Many recent events are the outworkings of complex economic problems.

The twofold increase in the price of fuel is not ‘inexplicable’, as some have described it. Nor is Zimbabwean fuel now the most expensive in the world, as the media have repeatedly told us. Fuel had been massively subsidised, making it some of the cheapest in Africa. Demand surged, and the consumption of petrol rose 650% between April and October 2018. On-selling and cross-border smuggling became rife—all at the expense of the public purse, and it couldn’t go on, even if (as usual) Zanu’s crony capitalists were, behind the scenes, the life of the latest party. The price change was a correction, bringing Zimbabwe’s fuel closer to parity with regional prices in US dollar terms.

Yet that abrupt volte-face also dealt a blow to the already-screaming hip pocket of ordinary Zimbabweans. Most get paid in ‘bond notes’ or e-dollars, a local currency that the government—until recently—said was equal to the US dollar, but which was in fact trading at a ratio of 4.3/1 and climbing at an annual rate of 183% (a month later, it’s heading towards 6 and inflation is over 250%).

The Mnangagwa administration has virtually no productive tax base and no one who will lend to it on the scale required, so policy on the fly is the order of the day—layers of contradiction, distortion, graft and increasing chaos—a ‘ramshackle edifice’ that will grow larger and more precarious as the months roll by.

Downward trends and further economic shocks may trigger more instability before the year is out, but they are, ultimately, symptoms, not causes. They are weather vanes that speak of the present and warn us of the imminent, yet they are not seminal and are poor indicators of the longer term.

For those who would try to read the swirling tea leaves, broader and deeper factors are the better bet. The word ‘system’ is inadequate because the core of it is more profound, more organic and more enduring than that. Zimbabwe is what it is because of a political subculture, centred on the ruling party, that has hegemony and subjugation as its highest ideals. Violence, disdain, paranoia and plunder are among its natural progeny. It is fundamentally antithetical to genuine political competition, dissent and notions of stewardship.

The attitudes and instincts that together comprise the culture are audible at every turn, if we are tuned to the right frequency. Asked during a trip to Ethiopia about the numerous allegations of rape during the recent crackdown, Mnangagwa retorted: ‘It’s all stage-managed. We are challenging anybody, anybody, local or foreign, to produce the women, so that the world can see them, and say this is what happened.’ Regarding the killings: ‘We’d want to see evidence. We see all this in social media. But we’d want to see evidence where the 17 people were killed. Where were they buried?’ And then the sterile references to external manipulation; the protests were part of ‘a regime change agenda which is not new’.

Back at home, speaking at a rural rally, he went on: ‘Those who we fought during the liberation struggle, the whites, are still fighting so they can claim power again … Our enemies are not resting.’ But, away from the international glare, he was unable to restrain the urge to brag. ‘We don’t want violence, so I said soldiers go and silence these people, they were silenced.’ Protestors were of ‘Legion’—a multitude of demons—and the government would ‘sort them out … We will crush our enemies, and they are being crushed.’

It’s another of those moments in Zimbabwe when time seems to stand still. Semper eadem, as Elizabeth I described herself. Ever the same. In some respects, at least. In the 1980s, when Zanu’s violence reached its zenith, reports of atrocities were ‘utterly false and fabrications of … fertile imagination’. ‘Show us the graves’, they jeered. Critics were ‘megaphonic agents of their external manipulative masters’. They were ‘in league with Satan’ and other ‘evil forces’ who sought to overthrow the government, and they had to be ‘crushed with all the force possible’.

History is littered with unexpected events and the shattered reputations of those who sought to prophesy. Yet for those who would dare to guess, the longer threads—not the frayed edges of Zimbabwe’s social fabric—suggest that it’s not going to make any real difference if Mnangagwa, or Chiwenga, or any of their fellow travellers, rule—much as it’s made little difference that Mugabe has gone. Lest we forget: as long as the generation of supremacist nationalists and its proselytes remain, so will the mindset.

For those occasions when the cut, thrust and chaos of current events may seek to distract and confuse, both part-time analysts of Zimbabwe and those who hope to be more should leave a note to self in a prominent place: ‘It’s the subculture, stupid.’