When an incendiary tragically blew up right in the middle of the President’s entourage in Bulawayo on the 23rd of June, it was glaring evidence that, [since the November coup] the political and military class is still treading on extremely shaky grounds. More often than not when political power is traded from one political faction to another elite faction using tanks, guns and a midnight pronouncement (coup) the aftermath is one of deep distrust. The political class in Zimbabwe is now engaged in a multiple front ‘war of position’ a demanding election at home, pressure from a collapsed national economy; a restless pauperised citizenry; a revived MDC Alliance under Nelson Chamisa, internal fissures within the ruling class and increased scrutiny from the international community.
The response of the usurpers of November has been to present themselves as modernisers who will follow the Chinese, or more like the Rwandan Kagame model of authoritarian developmentalism to deliver a transformed Zimbabwe. It remains to be seen whether the ‘epigones’ of November, meaning the military-political class, that usurped power in the ‘November days’ will be able to re-establish a legitimate hegemony in which political power is based on the popular will. A popular will gained from the consent of the governed rather than from the barrel of a gun, rusty tanks on the streets and stoned faced balaclava commandoes with their fingers curled on machine guns.
The flurry of speeches, regional and international gallivanting by the President reflects the disease that has inflamed the heart of the epigones – which is that military might is no longer seen as a legitimate way of gaining political power. So on the one hand they allow in troops of international observers while on the other hand the public media remains partisan, traditional leaders are used for their campaign, the army men are doubling up as ‘commissars’ and the state machinery is placed to the advantage of the President. The President preaches ‘democracy’ and ‘constitutionalism’ but the Finance Minister emasculates the independent commissions established by the constitution of 2013 The President preaches anti-corruption but plays games with the Anti-Corruption Commission by establishing his own ‘crack unit’ accountable only to him. Most significantly they preach agrarian reform, via command agriculture, but refuse to give title deeds to farmers to maintain a party hold on their loyalty and to block the formation of an independent accumulating class outside the clutches of party-state power.
The Political Limits of Military-Nationalism
When the epigones of November struck, they did with impressive blitzkrieg speed, but it was not in defence of the constitutional republic and this they made clear in their press statements. The blow that struck was a garrison covered fist, with military might, but the muscle that was being flexed was an ‘economic class’ muscle. Jabusile Shumba in his book, Zimbabwe’s Predatory State: Party, Military and Business (2018), has brilliantly painted how the military class has become the business class of a parasitic-speculative type. Under the old emperor, the men in uniform had been loosened across the broad spectrum of the polity, and they spread the tentacles, of power, accumulation and intrigue, feeding on the party and the state, and when the emperor tried to discipline their ambitions, he provoked too many enemies from all angles. And they did come knocking at his opulent mansion to put paid to what the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) Commander called ‘treacherous shenanigans’. But what has replaced the Mugabe nationalist authoritarianism is a political class with thin paper loyalties and ever at the ready to blow each other into oblivion, the crown is the prized possession in a state that has consumed its business class.
As the national political economy collapsed and the business class melted the state, the party became the sole vehicle of class mobility and the arbiter of state largesse. Accumulation, illicit and licit became impossible outside the state and the indulgence of the party, so the security apparatus became a business class, not an industrial capitalist class, but just a parasitic hedonistic ensemble. The men in green fatigues felt the power and the threads that unravelled on that day in November brought into open recrudescent military-nationalism in its very crude form. To marshal tanks onto the streets is a matter of ‘command’ but to build a political movement based on winning minds through ideas is another realm in which the epigones are out of their depth. As a party, ZANU PF had long ceased to exist and it only rumbled with the clothes of state power and any attempts to separate the two will send the political class into the political wilderness.
The Political Economy Disease Facing the Epigones
While the ‘armed prophets' have won this phase against the old guard nationalist class, the diseased political economy faces them in the face with a vengeful menace. The president has been quick to sign ‘mega deals’ and preach that ‘Zimbabwe is open for business’ yet at the core of the challenge is the vast array of political elites that have been feeding fat on the carcass of the collapsed national economy. Deep within the state lies a network of elites who have skimmed and carted off the country’s wealth and any attempt to wean this class off the party-state will unravel a cobweb of relationships that cannot be easily undone without chipping away party power itself. And if Operation Restore Legacy were to be carried out to its logical conclusion even the President' dearest friends will be ensnared, so the rhetoric rises higher but the action is muted. The tactic to allow some free civic space, recalibrate foreign policy and to restrain the party from its logic of violence is aimed not at adhering to the dictates of a constitutional republic but to carry out a public relations exercise so vast that even usually sane people have capitulated to its seduction. Charamba gave an honest submission about the ruling class’ strategy, when he said that these elections are about restoring international engagement and legitimacy. He rightly puts it: “It must be honest, it must be transparent, it must be free, it must be fair, it must meet international standards, it must be violence-free and therefore it must be universally endorsed because it is an instrument of our international policy that is where we are”.
And this is the qualitative challenge; the political machinery has now shed its civilian face and is now wearing camouflage, shined boots and is driven in military guarded convoys. In his ‘prison notebook,' the late freedom fighter Wilfred Mhanda (a.k.a Dzinashe Machingura) shredded to smithereens the limits of old-style nationalism and attempted to marshal the national liberation movement towards a more transformative national project. For that, he and his ‘vashandi' (workers) were carted off into foreign prisons and yet the ‘military class’ of Dzinashe Machingura is back in action but as both ‘farce and tragedy’ in one mix. The revolutionary military class has shed off its ideology and certainly no longer dares to be revolutionary in the sense of heading a national project that is industrial and therefore anti-feudal and transformative. The class of ‘Mgagao’, with its cartful of yesterdays’ ghosts, has returned to the national stage, in its most idealess form, led by its most corrupt elements, with ‘designer wives’, opulent decadence in hill top mansions and tender -comparador-type business network. In that scheme, the election is just one coronation and another detour from to the National Democratic Revolution.
Tinashe L. Chimedza is Associate Director of the Institute of Public Affairs in Zimbabwe (IPAZIM). Can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org