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Robert Mugabe: a complex legacy

Robert Mugabe died on September 6th in Singapore after a long illness, and the press has been full of commentary about his legacy. There is a deep fascination with him in the UK. Despite the drama of Brexit, his death was top news across the papers and TV channels. I was taken aback  when I saw his image on a massive news screen at King’s Cross station in London announcing his death. Once feted by the Queen, now almost universally reviled, what is it about the dramatic tragedy in the narrative of a transition from ‘hero’ to ‘villain’ that so captivates people, but also blinds us to the complexities of history?

This complexity, and the importance of a deeper history, comes across in some of the better reflections on his death. There is much that’s already been written, but there are a few articles that have stood out for me. The piece ‘Mugabe: a man of more than one story’, for example, highlights the multiple threads of a complex narrative, as does Alex Magaisa’s BSR piece, which urges us not to forget the victims of Mugabe’s regime. Perhaps surprisingly, but like many Zimbabweans of his age, Tendai Biti, once tortured by the regime, says ‘I don’t feel bitterness. I feel indebtedness’. The missed opportunities of the liberation are reflected on in many pieces, including by Fadzayi Mahere, who argues that he ‘killed the freedoms he had worked so hard for’. Roger Southall, meanwhile, reflects on his legacy alongside other liberation party leaders in the region, pointing out that he is ‘as divisive in death as he was in life’. A typically quirky take comes from Percy Zvomuya focusing on deeper family backgrounds and historical contingencies in the piece, Robert Mugabe: the leader who shouldn’t have been. And my favourite of all is the 2017 article by Everjoice Win, widely recirculated in the past days, which captured the moment around the ‘coup’, but seems even more apposite today, and reflects the feelings of many.

Why has Mugabe’s passing attracted so much attention, particularly internationally? Some while ago, Miles Tendi, a Zimbabwean scholar and professor at Oxford University, pointed to the roots of the media fascination with Mugabe in the UK:

“Mugabe is the British media’s bogeyman for everything that is wrong with Africa and one can never escape the naked reality that the fallout from ZANU-PF’s violent eviction of white farmers in Zimbabwe from 2000 onwards, many of whom were British descendants, continues to attract a disproportionate amount of international focus compared to other more severe crises…”

In a similar vein, back in 2008, the renowned Ugandan scholar, Mahmood Mamdani pointed out in his controversial essay for the London Review of Books:

“It is hard to think of a figure more reviled in the West than Robert Mugabe. Liberal and conservative commentators alike portray him as a brutal dictator…. There is no denying Mugabe’s authoritarianism, or his willingness to tolerate and even encourage the violent behaviour of his supporters…. [but this] gives us little sense of how Mugabe has managed to survive. For he has ruled not only by coercion but by consent, and his land reform measures, however harsh, have won him considerable popularity, not just in Zimbabwe but throughout southern Africa. In any case, the preoccupation with his character does little to illuminate the socio-historical issues involved”.

Mugabe’s death reminded me of the screening of Simon Bright’s film, Robert Mugabe… What Happened? at Sussex some years ago. An earlier blog observed that it is a powerful documentary, using fascinating archival footage, together with interviews with key figures in the opposition movement in Zimbabwe. It tells a sympathetic, historically-informed, but still highly critical, story about the man. With Mugabe gone, it is well worth watching again.

It is considerably more nuanced than much of the mainstream commentary that has emerged following his death. This typically follows the hero-to-villain storyline, often attached to the positive then evil influence of his two wives, Sally and Grace. Land reform in 2000 is often marked as the turning point, with the story of land reform being given the usual, misinformed gloss of disaster, turning Zimbabwe from ‘breadbasket to basket case’, the result of party cronies being given the land, and poorly qualified poor farmers making matters worse. I have largely ceased to engage with these narratives, coming from many who really should know much better by now, and I am not going to rehearse the argument again that these views are grossly misinformed here. There are now 360 blogs on Zimbabweland, and many more research articles besides, which together give a more nuanced story.

Too often in mainstream accounts, the role of the British in the Mugabe story is glossed over. Yet the British government’s complicity – for example in the silence about the massacres by the Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland in the 1980s – was significant. The failure of the British to push a more complete settlement at Lancaster House in 1979, and of course the diplomatic gaffe of the infamous ‘Clare Short letter’ in 1997, are all part of the picture. The resentments and hostility rose to a head in the late 1990s, as Mugabe and Blair locked horns. And, while commentaries are critical of white Rhodesia and Ian Smith’s UDI rule, they often do not explore the failure of a more complete reconciliation and integration of whites in the new Zimbabwe following Independence.

At our film screening panel discussion back in 2012, this was an issue tackled by Denis Norman, who served in Mugabe’s cabinet after Independence, and came from being the head of the white Commercial Farmers’ Union. He conceded that more could have been done back then, especially on land reform. There was an unwritten political contract between white farmers and the new state that whites could farm and make money, but not be involved in opposition politics, and land reform, despite the liberation war rhetoric, was parked. This fell apart with the launch of the MDC, and the support of white farmers of an opposition movement. The failure of the donor-brokered land conference in 1998 was a key moment, as no side was willing to compromise. The land invasions that followed were then perhaps inevitable.

As a number of the more sophisticated commentaries highlight, countering the hero-to-villain narrative means emphasising the continuities in the way politics have been played out in Zimbabwe since Independence, with Mugabe at the centre. A lack of tolerance of alternative views, violence and oppression have all been a consistent pattern, and stretch into the the pre-Independence period and the nationalist struggle (and indeed in particular the ‘struggles within the struggle’). A transition from militarised, violent liberation war struggle to peaceful, democratic governance did not happen.

It is not a question of seeing a golden age of the 1980s to contrast with the period since 2000. While there have been important changes, there are also repeated patterns. This is why the much-hailed 2017 ‘coup’ was doomed to failure, and perhaps no surprise that the Mnangagwa regime has seen much continuity, notably in violent repression of opposition forces. This is of course why a democratic transition, with a strong constitutional base, remains so critical; to shed once and for all this violent history.

In assessing Mugabe’s complex legacy, the positive legacies of massively improved education and health services for all in the 1980s and land redistribution to smallholders, especially post-2000, have to balanced against the persistent use of violence, gross economic mismanagement and the failure to develop a democratic state. As opposition politician, Tendai Biti, noted on his death, Mugabe was a ‘coalition of controversies’.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

Photo credit: President of Zimbabwe Addresses UN General Assembly, 25 Sep 2009. UN Photo/Marco Castro. www.unmultimedia.org/photo/ via flickr)



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Who are the authors? The challenges of positionality, partiality and reflexivity

All writing is inevitably positioned and partial. We all write from our experience, our history, our politics. But this does not mean that we can never engage critically with empirical realities. In our acceptance of a social constructivist take on knowledge, we should not resort to a desperate relativism where anything goes. There are plenty of philosophical traditions – critical realism being the most prominent – that help us think about how to balance commitment to empirical investigation with critical reflection on positionality, and so the inevitable partiality of any exploration of complex realities. This requires transparency, accountability and reflexivity in research and writing.

This is of course particularly important when engaging with a subject as contested as land reform in Zimbabwe. In our book, we attempted to do this up-front in the Preface and Acknowledgements. As well as our declarations of institutional affiliation and funding from the UK government (ESRC and DFID), we had this (page ix):

“The Livelihoods after Land Reform project research team in Zimbabwe was led by Dr Nelson Marongwe, an urban and rural planner, of the Centre for Applied Social Sciences Trust in Harare. He has been supported by Professor Ian Scoones, originally an agricultural ecologist, based at IDS, and Dr Chrispen Sukume, an agricultural economist from the University of Zimbabwe. The Masvingo province field team was led by B.Z. Mavedezenge, formerly the regional team leader of the Farming Systems Research Unit (FSRU) of the Department for Research and Specialist Services in the Ministry of Agriculture, but now of the Agritex (agricultural extension) department in Masvingo. He is also an A1 resettlement farmer in the province. He worked with Felix Murmibarimba, formerly also of FSRU and then Agritex, but now a full-time A2 sugar cane farmer in Hippo Valley, and Jacob Mahenehene, who farms in the communal areas near Chikombedzi, as well as having a new resettlement plot in an informal site in Mwenezi district”.

Roger Southall in his review of the book in Africa Spectrum picked up on this:  “It is interesting, in this regard, to note that three of the authors, Blaise (sic) Mavedzenge, Jacob Mahenehene and Felix Murimbarimba, are themselves beneficiaries of the land reform”. He continues: “There is certainly nothing wrong with this, and the research probably would have been impossible to conduct without their ability to negotiate the political and administrative landscape. But it does raise the question of whether their backgrounds shaped, blunted or constrained the political judgements of the research team as a whole”. In a similar vein, Blair Rutherford in his excellent review in the Journal of Contemporary African Studies (a forthcoming blog will discuss this in more detail), argues that “the authors’ positioning of the book as a detached promotion of the empirical realities contradicts their textured analyses of contested histories and masks their own politics”.

These are interesting commentaries reflecting directly on the challenges of positionality, partiality and reflexivity in authorship. On the following page to the quote above, we state:

“The research team came from very different backgrounds, with different experiences, outlooks and political persuasions. It made for an interesting, but productive, dynamic. We were always there to challenge each other’s assumptions and biases, but what held the group together was the commitment to explore the empirical realities on the ground, and root our analysis and policy recommendations in such solid evidence”.

Revealingly, neither Southall nor Rutherford particularly picked up on this passage. Yet this was an attempt – perhaps inadequate – to be honest about the challenges of being positioned, but also to describe how we managed a reflexive process as an authorial group. Multiple authorship is challenging at the best of times, but it is especially so when interpretations are politically charged and contested. This is why we presented the book in a highly empirical way, while still engaging critically with the interpretations. The myths-realities contrast became the device to present these, with the aim of raising the debate about what happened during land reform. In this, as both Rutherford and Southall remark, we succeeded.

Southall argues that land reform beneficiaries on the team may have coloured our judgement. I would beg to differ. Our methods and process of analysis would not have allowed for this, and as explained above we always engaged in a collective debate about findings. It has been implied that we had a bias towards ZANU-PF politics in our team, but this is not the case either. Around the 2008 elections, I recall that of those who could vote, we had one strong MDC-T supporter, one ZANU-PF (but not Mugabe for president) supporter, one Makoni supporter, and two who were equivocal, and said they probably would not vote at all. As for myself, I cannot vote in Zimbabwe, but would not count myself as a supporter of any political formation – indeed, as these blogs show, I am critical of them all!

Given backgrounds, politics and interests, it is therefore not surprising that the group did not agree with everything! It is also why, particularly at that time, it was not easy to write about the wider political context, and some of the political implications of our findings. This is a valid criticism of the book, made by both reviewers. This is now easier, given the passage of time and the change in political dynamic post 2009, and it is reflected, I hope, in our more recent writings which I will discuss in a forthcoming blog on ‘Missing Politics?’

Meanwhile, I would defend our methodological stance and our findings, and object to the dismissal of our research for example by David Moore as showing only ‘positivist rectitude’. Of course any study will be positioned and partial, but a reflexive approach, combined with a critical stance, surely allows some valid insights from empirical study that cannot be so easily dismissed as simply emerging from personal, political or professional biases. I am all for revealing these, and discussing them explicitly. I wish some more of the commentators on Zimbabwe did so too!



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