It was the British Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, who said, “a week is a very long time in politics”, but the fall of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s president of 37 years, shows that even one day can be a long time in African politics.
Anything is always possible and it is folly to say “it will never happen!”
Some decades ago apartheid president PW Botha said that never, in his lifetime, would there be majority rule in South Africa and further, that Nelson Mandela could “rot in prison until he dies, or I die first, whichever happens first”.
He also reprimanded his foreign affairs minister Pik Botha for saying that if change did happen he – Pik – would be prepared to serve under a black president.
The pioneer progressive MP Helen Suzman told PW he was merely repeating what Rhodesia’s prime minister Ian Smith had said before he capitulated.
Yet PW must have been well aware when he said those words that it was his predecessor, Prime Minister BJ Vorster, who brought pressure to bear on Smith to forget about winning the war in Rhodesia and to negotiate with black leaders.
The minor stroke that PW suffered in 1989 was a blessing in disguise for the verligte National Party politicians who were desperate to initiate talks with credible black leaders.
In PW’s temporary absence the balance of power shifted to the moderates and when PW was discharged from hospital he was forced to resign.
PW was still alive when Mandela was inaugurated as president of a democratic South Africa and when Madiba subsequently paid PW “a courtesy visit” as a predecessor, the “Groot Krokodil” looked quite humiliated on national television.
But the tyranny of the majority in a democracy can be just as bad as it is under minority domination, and democracy becomes a farce when leaders are allowed to do as they please and become architects of decay.
Zimbabwe’s soldiers should never have been put in the invidious position of having to depose a very obstinate very old man who clung onto power like a naughty little boy crying for a broken toy.
But pride, they say, comes before a fall and history has many such examples.
King Louis XVI of France was a man of personal virtue but he was a weak leader, interested more in his personal life than public welfare.
He appointed and dismissed Robert Turgot and Jacques Necker as finance ministers but never supported their efforts to reduce national debt.
That debt escalated monstrously when France supported the US in its War of Independence.
In addition to his economic problems, Louis’ Austrian wife, Marie Antoinette, was notoriously extravagant and insensitive to the needs of the people her husband was supposed to serve.
When the historic people’s revolution began she advised Louis to oppose it – a mistake that backfired utterly. In the end both she and he were guillotined.
Postcolonial Africa has seen many human tragedies as democracy failed and leaders continued to enjoy the fruits of liberation and the spoils of power.
Zimbabwe is an example of how things can go quite well at the beginning, but sooner or later go horribly wrong!
Mugabe, said to be the highest educated head of state in the world, was once a statesman with good intentions for his people and for the image of Africa as a continent.
He harboured freedom fighters and brought a sense of hope to those who were still fighting for liberation in South Africa and Namibia.
The Zanu-PF government started by rebuilding the economy of a country shattered by world sanctions and war and Mugabe was an advocate of national unity and reconciliation.
He retained white security officers such as General Peter Walls whose army had slaughtered scores of Zimbabweans during the bush war.
He survived attempted assassinations and destabilisation by disgruntled forces and South Africa itself.
Jim Parker’s Inside Story of a Rhodesian Special Branch Officer gives a first-hand account of the Selous Scouts massacres and how South Africa destabilised Zimbabwe, long after Mugabe was inaugurated.
However, the Gukurahundi – the massacre of thousands of civilians in Matabeleland by the notorious Fifth Brigade from 1983 to 1987 revealed a ruthless, intolerant and insecure Mugabe.
Like Russia’s Joseph Stalin, he always smelt conspiracies for regime change. He purged his struggle comrades and Joshua Nkomo fled.
Zimbabwe became a divided country; national unity and reconciliation was no longer part of Mugabe’s speeches.
Prices soared and the national debt plummeted.
The military adventures into the DRC and Rwanda drained the budget and the structural adjustment policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund could not assist.
As the years went by Mugabe systematically nullified his struggle credentials and became a law unto himself.
Under severe stress, Mugabe became increasingly short-tempered and irrational. The land-grabs which started 17 years ago shattered the already fragile agricultural economy.
Zimbabwe had a wonderful constitution with a Bill of Right which Mugabe consistently flouted.
He ruled by force and had no respect for electoral results.
No longer was Mugabe the respectable astute diplomat he used to be when he was elected in 1980.
His second wife, Grace, was a serious liability to him and to the image of the country. Her outrageous spending and endless appetite for luxury and her ambition to succeed him as president exacerbated the problems.
Given Mugabe’s senility, it is quite possible that he was instructed to fire Emmerson Mnangagwa – the last straw in a series of events that were bound to lead to his downfall.
It would however be wrong to attribute the blame for all that went wrong in Zimbabwe to Mugabe, period.
He was certainly not alone.
Collective responsibility should be taken for all the wrongs that happened during his rule and the nation must be assured that such events will never happen again.
A public apology to the nation is the only way to remove the suspicions that there is possibly a hidden agenda behind the orchestrators of the non-coup coup.
Advocate Ntsiki Sandi is a Grahamstown lawyer and a former member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He writes in his personal capacity