Why Zimbabwe’s Coup Was An Isolating Experience For Me

“He has resigned.”

The three words in the Whatsapp message that had just come through from my friend didn’t need further explaining. Robert Mugabe – the only president most of us had known our whole lives – had finally bowed to popular pressure to step down after a week of some of the most incredulous sights during Zimbabwe’s short-lived coup.

I was not in Zimbabwe at that time, having travelled to the US at the beginning of November for an official trip, thereafter extending my stay by some weeks for personal visits. But I remember that just prior to leaving, there had been a deepening air of uncertainty; a feeling that something had to give as the vitriol (shared mostly by First Lady Grace Mugabe) targeted at ZANU-PF’s supposed instigators of party factionalism grew louder and more audacious.

When Grace Mugabe had been awarded a dubious PhD by the University of Zimbabwe and promoted to Secretary of the ZANU-PF Women’s League in 2014, I recall an international media platform getting in touch with me to write an opinion piece about what this sudden rise to politics by Robert Mugabe’s wife meant. I searched myself over days and days to try to rationalise or understand the move, but in the end, I decided that I didn’t know enough about the internal state of ZANU-PF at the time to offer a realistic opinion. And so I turned down the offer to write.

Perhaps, to be more succinct and honest, I just did not believe that Mugabe’s faction within ZANU-PF’s internal feuding genuinely believed that Grace Mugabe was the best weapon in their artillery to win this infighting. But with the passage of time and the unfolding of events, it appeared that indeed, Grace Mugabe was their supposed political linchpin. Or at worst, the disposable woman whom they had decided to put on the frontlines.

A foreboding atmosphere

As I said, I was not in Zimbabwe at the time of the coup. But just before leaving, I recall having had a few conversations with different people where we voiced our dis-ease with the general mood in the air. In the rush just before my departure I did three things that were a response to this unnameable but urgent atmosphere; I put in an application for a new passport, even though my current one still had a few pages left, I renewed the prescription for my spectacles and I had the last of my wisdom teeth extracted, even though my orthodontist had been impressing upon me the need to get it taken out for almost a year. I don’t know what Zimbabwe I envisaged returning to in December of 2017, but I sensed it might be rife with instability and uncertainty as the factionalism feud waged on.

I did not, however, see the coup coming. And I think, if most of us are honest, we’d admit to that. When I woke up to the news on 15 November 2017 that the military had seized control of the national broadcaster, issuing a statement that they were targeting ‘elements around President Robert Mugabe’, I was just as shocked as most. Of course, the air had gotten more tense within the first few weeks of November, with one of the key moments being the expulsion of Emerson Mnangagwa as Vice-President, and thereafter his vow – which many had laughed off – that he would return in a short time to lead the people of Zimbabwe.

But with the military now fully on the side of Mnangagwa’s faction, and with military tankers mobilised to occupy certain areas of Harare, the twists and turns within this iteration of ZANU-PF’s factionalism (because factionalism has always been a feature of the party) had reached its crescendo.

With an ageing Mugabe and the question of who would take over after him increasingly become urgent to answer, the infighting within ZANU-PF – whose most prominent purge until Mnangagwa had been another Vice President Joice Mujuru in 2014 – had been simmering for some years. The coup may have just lasted a few days, but the political manoeuvring that preceded it had been years, even decades, in the making. And thus, quite spectacularly, by 17 November 2017, ZANU-PF’s provincial coordinating committees and politburo that had just a few days before backed Mnangagwa’s removal as Vice President did an about turn and endorsed a motion to remove Mugabe as president.

The optics of solidarity

Around this time, there were calls for some sort of ‘citizen-led action’ to further reinforce the growing mantra that “Mugabe must go”, and on Saturday 18 November, thousands of Zimbabweans took part in a march which was overseen by the military to show and share their frustrations about Mugabe and call for his resignation, alongside Mnangagwa’s faction.  My reading of the coup and the march was always a very simple one. ZANU-PF was engaged in a protracted internal battle that they had realised they could no longer resolve among themselves; therefore, they had to rely on an equally disgruntled opposition, groups of citizen-led movements and unaligned citizens to come out on to the streets to provide the world with the optics of collective purpose and solidarity; and more importantly, to ensure that should an impeachment process need to be carried out, parliamentarians across the political divide of ZANU-PF and MDC would band together to remove Mugabe.

A Zimbabwean Defence Force soldier poses for selfies with civilians as they take part in a march in the streets of Harare, on November 18, 2017. (Photo credit STR/AFP/Getty Images)

I watched in wonderment as many posted their photographs along the march’s path. I remember remarking to a fellow contrarian friend that it was incredible to me that the military, usually the symbol  of terror and fear, had become a symbol of solidarity so much so that a hashtag #SoldierBae had emerged on social media with folks posting their photos, laughing and smiling with military personnel. If the military, so often read as the murderous hands of Mugabe’s regime, could so easily be redeemed then what did this mean in terms of holding the new regime – or ‘new dispensation’ as it called itself – to account?

While I was surprised, I also understood why the moment represented a watershed for many; it was a moment to release their frustrations about Robert Mugabe and freely walk through the city calling for his removal. For some, it was a moment to hope for a better Zimbabwe. I could understand all those reasons for people to participate, but in a country where physical bodies are still so often mobilised – by both ZANU-PF and the MDC – to great effect as political signifiers and collateral, I was never convinced of the action being more than the use by ZANU-PF of bodies and numbers to further an internal party agenda.

I recall a friend who did not take part in the march mentioning how she had bumped into someone, later that Saturday evening, who quizzed her about why she had not participated. The tone of the conversation was almost accusatory; as though if you had not marched, or believed in the ideas behind the march, it automatically meant you were a Robert Mugabe apologist. The un-nuanced black and white reading of Zimbabwe’s political discourse and participation – ‘it’s either you are with us or you’re with them’ – was again rearing its head, and I was already dismayed. Similarly, I got asked such questions as I had simply chosen to stay silent and not comment on any posts or threads that day. I found it interesting that those who had chosen to keep quiet so as not to rain on other folks’ parade were then asked to do further emotional labour by explaining themselves, especially at a time where a reading of the coup as not a revolutionary act was met with both distrust and dismissal.

(Un)Popular dissent

And so on 21 November, just as parliament was to sit to begin deliberations about an impeachment process against the resolute Mugabe, the news broke that he had finally resigned. In response to my friend’s message, I phoned her and we talked through what we were feeling. We both felt that nothing would change, at least in the short term, and that while it was momentous to have Mugabe leave, it was important to remember that ZANU-PF was a system of power, and not a single man.

But soon thereafter, I started getting congratulatory messages which I didn’t know how to respond to. What were we celebrating? Why was it assumed we were all celebrating? Perhaps my biggest mistake on that day was to go on social media. If I was already feeling like I was losing my mind for not feeling happy or excited, social media was the final  trigger that sent me into a weeping mess. “What is wrong with me?” I started to question. “And also, why is there no one else who is seeing what the very few of us are seeing?” There perhaps is no worse or isolating feeling than wanting to put aside the questions in your mind and simply feel the exhilaration that seems to come so naturally to others. And yet you cannot; because those questions sit heavy and real upon you.

Zimbabweans celebrate outside Parliament after news of Mugabe’s resignation. (Photo credit: Ben Curtis, Associated Press)

When an older activist posted to her Twitter timeline the following warning, “Kupemberera shavi muchiti mudzimu.” [Celebrating an evil spirit believing it’s an ancestral spirit], I remember watching as people viciously attacked her, calling her anything from an “annoying old hag” to a “know it all”. I was disheartened by the lack of space online to speak about any misgivings people had.

Eventually, after much convincing, I wrote a thought piece a few days later in which I voiced my opinions. Titled ‘Why I’m Struggling To Believe In A New Zimbabwe’, I finally found some release for my lack of enthusiasm about goings on. And as to be expected, this article brought with it the worst of the trolls and their crassness.

November 21 2017 symbolises very little to me. And I asked myself, even as I thought of writing this, why I was writing. Perhaps it is simply to exorcise a few more of my demons from that hellishly isolating time. Perhaps it is to remind myself to always speak my own version of an event or process, no matter how contrarian or unpopular it may be. But maybe more importantly, it is to engage in a conversation about what change – real substantive change – looks like and what it will take. And to ask you this question, “If you knew that the change you so want to see was not possible for decades to come, or perhaps even in your short lifetime, would you still fight for it?”

Main photograph is taken from http://www.nbcnews.com and was shot by Jekesai Njikizana for AFP.


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