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Thinking after Zimbabwe’s ConCoup: Now, Then, and Then Again

The events of December 6, 2017 in Harare reminded me of the old adage about men and their mid-life crises.

The house of the police commissioner, Augustin Chihuri, was burnt badly and a police officer alleged to have stolen a TV was shot by a soldier, one of many rushed in to solve the crime. This seemed to be a bit more of a fuss than warranted by a miscreant police officer. More ominously, the WhatsApp messages were saying, the military had taken over a few Harare police stations, refusing access to senior police officers. An audit was in progress because there were rumours making the rounds that Chihuri was in the midst of rounding up all the ‘books’ of road fines etc. to be destroyed at the Chikurubi prisons. (Context: Chihuri was not a participant on the winning side of the coup, which a couple of weeks previously had forced Robert Mugabe to resign, but had been a part of the faction against which the coup was directed. Indeed, the police had tried to arrest the coup-master, General Constantino Chiwenga, on his return from China to carry out the task of his career. The police and the armed forces have not been very friendly for a long, long time.)

Whilst I was reading the news about the above, I noticed a link on the right-hand side of the Bulawayo 24 News site. I clicked, and read about large numbers of people in the Kwekwe General Hospital who soldiers had beaten – one of them said it was because they had not registered to vote in the election. I remembered a Zimbabwean from the area telling me that the new president of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa, had lost a few elections in his constituencies in the Kwekwe area because he was so brutal. Furthermore, Harare’s informal street vendors were being bashed about again, but this time by soldiers, not police. Not long ago the soldiers were seen as a benign force when they replaced the bribe-hungry police.

Had we been lulled by this soft, soupçon, con(situational) coup into thinking that the worst was over, and Zimbabwe could go forth on a new path. We figured: ahh, this was just internal ZANU-PF faction fighting, resolved quickly and relatively amicably (to use one of the words in Constantino Chiwenga’s ultimatum to the president on the evening of November 13). ZANU-PF’s history is littered with these little fights, and it always comes together in the end to share the spoils of uninterrupted rule. Even the saturation of soldiers in the new cabinet, formed in the coup’s culminating moment on December 1, seemed OK: ‘the Crocodile’ had to thank those who helped him cross the river, after all, and democracy would be resumed fully with elections mid-year 2018.

Just like the ageing men who think one middle age crisis will be it, we thought this was it for ZANU-PF. The middle age crisis – in the personage of a 93-year-old patriarch brought down by his forty-something years younger wife, and the factions fighting over whether his oldest buddy or his second wife would succeed him – had passed. But the thing is with a middle-aged crisis is that they keep on coming, and so do the excuses for the bad behaviour that comes with them. It takes a lot of restraint to learn from the mistakes of middle-aged crises – and coups. It is not at all certain the ZANU-PF will recover from its middle-aged coup and the crises preceding it and emanating from it. It is more than likely that more crises will ensue. It will take social forces other than its internal ones to rectify its bad behaviour.

Can civil society do it?

Perhaps this question can be answered by a short analysis of the coup (‘now’) followed by a longer historical perspective (‘then’) and a glance at the present and future possibilities of progressive change within Zimbabwean politics and society (‘then again’). One hopes that a warning of the probability of repeated cycles and counter-cycles of crises and coups will help pre-empt them.


This very Zimbabwean coup emerged out of ZANU-PF’s feuding family. One of the most obvious causes was Robert Mugabe’s refusal to leave. He often said he would rule until he reached 100 years. God would take him. Some say, however, that he was ready to leave at the end of 1998, after being hit hard by the effects of the ESAP era, which culminated in him surrendering to – but also emerging victorious from – angered war veterans who cornered him and made the pensions + land deal. (The latter had a lot to do with the destruction of Zimbabwe’s economy). But he and some of his advisors figured ZANU-PF would not be able to fend off the new party rising over the horizon. He thought he was the only one in the party who could save it. And he might have been right.

This in itself indicates a big problem with Zimbabwean politics under the ideological sway of Mugabeism. This could be related to feudal tendencies – for Mugabe, similarly to Louis XVI before he was broadsided by the French revolution, it was l’état c’est moi et apres moi la deluge (I am the state and after me, the storm will come). Or this could be reminiscent of another moment in French history that Marx labelled as Bonapartism: when class struggle is stalemated a dictator emerges. The bourgeoisie’s liberalism fades in fears of the subalterns. There is no doubt however that ZANU-PF’s factionalism derives from a long party history (on this more later) presided over by Mugabe himself. It is in great danger of imploding with his departure.

The recent history of factionalism could have started when Mugabe spotted and condemned the 2004 Tsholotsho Pact, made between Jonathan Moyo and Emmerson Mnangagwa to keep Joice Mujuru out of the upcoming spot in the Vice-Presidency. Joice Mujuru got the job. Moyo may have nursed a grudge because Mnangagwa never acknowledged their pact, nor apologized to Moyo, who was outside the ZANU-PF tent for a short time while Mnangagwa (who lost his seat to the MDC) was appointed Speaker in Parliament.

A decade later, Grace Mugabe aimed at Joice Mujuru’s seat. She helped Mnangagwa gain the VP post and vice versa: one can guess that she thought he got the spot to keep it warm for her. Perhaps she foresaw a messy future if she did not get the top job before her elderly husband left the mortal coil: in one of her speeches before the December 2014 ZANU-PF Congress, she mused that if Mugabe died Mujuru would “drag me in the streets, with people laughing while my flesh sticks on the tarmac”. She feared Gaddafi’s fate. In a couple of years Grace - with a PhD gained in two or three months and the help of the Generation 40 or G-40 faction, led by such characters as the infamous media manipulator Jonathan Moyo and including one of Mugabe’s nephews Patrick Zhuwao – took aim at the Crocodile or Ngwena.

Perhaps emboldened by her whipping a young South African model with an extension cord, Dr. Amai Gucci Grace paced Youth Interface rallies (where press-ganged scho0l kids must have been gob-struck with her behaviour) and church gatherings suggesting that the snake's head should be bitten off. Meanwhile, Jonathan Moyo showed the Politburo long videos about Ngwena’s indiscretions, later distributed to independent TV stations – and later still pulled from the web. Mnangagwa could only respond with oft-repeated allegations that Moyo was a CIA agent. At one point the Crocodile flew to a South African hospital very ill: he may have been poisoned – he certainly believed so. It was the last straw when some members of a Saturday crowd booed the First Lady: by November 6 Mugabe fired Mnangagwa, who scooted off to South Africa (and who knows where else? London? His protégé and later, coup-master, Constantino Chiwenga, was in China) via Mozambique.

One wonders how the G-40 ever thought they could get away with sending off a man so close to the military, who had Gukurahundi, winter-2008, and much more, under his belt. Social media (most likely untrue) on the day of the TV-theft suggested Israeli soldiers were ready to help. In any case, G-40 had to move fast, because ZANU-PF's extraordinary congress was slated for early December – perhaps moved forward a year due to Robert Mugabe's ailing corporeality – so a candidate would be ready for the mid-2018 harmonised elections. The generally reliable Zimbabwe Independent reported their plans to create three vice-presidencies, pushing the bumbling (but Ndebele, keeping in mind the promises of the forced unity with ZAPU in 1987) Phelekezela Mphoko to third place, with Dr. Grace in second and the then defence minister, the quiet Sydney Sekeramayi, first in line and so next up for Zimbabwe’s presidential palace.

None of this was to pass. Within a week the Crocodile and Constantino had rallied the troops (how did ED do this: with emails and WhatsApp?). The Italianised general (the last ‘e’ on his original name was changed some time ago to ‘o’) with an Ethics PhD from the University of KwaZulu-Natal took to YouTube (not the state-run ZBC-TV) to deliver a retirement ultimatum to the old President. This is just an intra-party affair, he said, but given ZANU-PF’s intimate ties with the state, it’s a big deal. ‘Counter-revolutionary infiltrators’ and purgeists have surrounded you: we will remove them if you don’t. We’ll do it ‘amicably’ and keep it all in the party’s ‘closet’. Recalcitrant to the end, the next day Robert Gabriel Mugabe and his party apparatchiks accused Chiwenga of treason. That instigated the armed personnel carriers in the streets and the royalist couple’s arrest under the Blue Roof, to be persuaded by priests, information gurus, and guitar-playing past presidents – and millions of dollars – to give up the ghostly apparitions of power. By Saturday the 18th the war-vets and their leader Chris Mutsvangwa (who had all been on the edge since water-cannons swept them away from a demonstration in early 2016) gathered thousands to the streets to cheer and jeer Mugabe out of power. Yet even when his party tried to sweep him away the next day he refused to everyone’s surprise, in one of the world’s most bizarre television speeches. By the time parliament got its impeachment act ready to roll, Mugabe rolled over. The Crocodile – now really born-again – swam home across the river praising the ‘father’ all the time. On his neatly prepared inaugural on the 24th, President Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa promised to revive the economy in a Paul Kagame-Deng Xiaoping sort of way, if everyone works hard. The opposition parties’ members who had been drooling over the chance to participate in a Government of National Union similar to that of 2009-2013 were left with mouths agape when they heard that ZANU-PF would go into elections as soon as possible.


In the midst of Chiwenga’s November 13 ultimatum, he mentioned that the armed forces had ‘amicably’ resolved ‘Vashandi 1 and 2’ as well as the Nhari-Badza rebellion. He gave the soldiers the credit for ZANU-PF getting through the Chitepo assassination, and what he called the Sithole rebellion after that, as well as some of the ‘shenanigans’ in ZAPU. It was clear to the soldiers, and to anyone with a sense of history, that factionalism in Zimbabwean politics is nothing new. It was also clear that the interpenetration of party and military is deeply rooted historically and tighter now than ever before. What still remains is to figure out what led to this factionalism, and how to smooth out some of its rougher edges.

If we think of vashandi 1, which I like to consider my forte given my long and very fortunate friendship with Wilfred Mhanda aka Dzino Machingura, we can combine generation and ideology. The vashandi leaders (c. November 1975-January 1977) were in their twenties when they took over the war in the post-Chitepo vacuum that Mugabe finally filled when he sent them off to Mozambique’s prisons. They were creative Marxists, having blended Soviet and Chinese varietals as they hammered together a political army trying to bring ZANLA and ZIPRA together, and establishing Wampoa College to get their ideology through the war. They didn’t have enough time to even start, though.

Today? It is a bit of a stretch to consider the members of G-40 ‘young’. Chombo is 65. Jonathan Moyo is 60 (he was trained for a while in the liberation war but escaped, to wind up eventually with a doctorate in Public Policy from the University of Southern California, where, the rumour-mongers claim, he befriended Condoleeza Rice and Jendayi Fraser, thus became deeply embedded in American pockets). Patrick Zhaowo is 50. Kasukuwere might be the youngest at 47. Ideology? They are all very very rich, have their farms and various other properties; but they did spout the ‘radical’ indigeneity rhetoric and the ‘fast-track’ land reform discourse.

As for the winners, Ngwena has yet to convince his detractors that he actually has 75 years under his belt – he could be older. The cabinet is seen widely as ‘the old guard’. Ideologically, the Lacoste (French for crocodile and also the brand of shirts and shoes worn by many armchair sportsmen) faction sounds like the World Bank (see the new budget for that language). But the way in which its members have accumulated fits ‘predatory’ and ‘resource curse’ labels rather than the puritanical capitalists the international financial institutions like to think will man a whittled down developmental state. The older guard's wiping out of so many Ndebele folks was accepted by the ‘west' in the Cold War days because Gukurahundi was perceived as a good way to keep the ANC – run by the Russians, Margaret Thatcher and company thought – from using Zimbabwe as a base. The new ideologies of world order are neo-liberal authoritarianism and anti-terrorism – those who fear the radical brands of Islam infecting South Africa like to have strong military cordons sanitaire around Africa’s most pivotal of states. The securocrats around the world – always worried that democracy can go one step too far for them – seem to rather like coup-lites.

The other historical factor behind factionalism is ‘tribe’. What Chiwenga referred to as Vashandi 2 was probably as much about ethnic battling as anything else, although Rugare Gumbo did get into trouble for his somewhat ideological – but too late – critique of the way Mugabe and company ran the war after side-lining the real vashandi. The Manyika, Zezuru, and Karanga faultlines cannot be erased from FROLIZI (the Zambians called it the Front for the Liaison of Zezuru Intellectuals) through to the Chitepo assassination and the Gumbo-Hamadziripi imbroglio of 1978 (during which Chihuri spent weeks in a pit). And of course, the larger Shona-Ndebele divisions loom larger than ever, given the predominant role of many of the new government’s commander/cabinet ministers in Gukurahundi.

Overshadowing all of these cleavages is one that might be specific to Zimbabwe: the intellectualist pretensions of many of its ‘graduates’ is palpable and possibly debilitating. It has been around for a long, long time too. It played a big part in the 1963 split when the ‘intellectuals’ enamoured of Ndabaningi Sithole’s books and flowery speeches looked down on the more plebeian – and working-class – comrades in Joshua Nkomo’s camp. Such divisions have also plagued the now withered opposition parties, while every ZANU-PF leader lines up to collect PhDs.

Then Again

How can civil society help surmount these problems in this period between epochs of the rule (to repeat one of Gramsci’s aphorisms: the crisis consists in the fact that the old cannot die and the new can’t be born; many morbid symptoms appear in this interregnum)? When horizontal divisions in society such as class disappear with the demise of industry and thus the working class and its unions, surely the basic component of progressive civil society is gone. What replaces this solid foundation? Surely not donors? What about the ‘classless' and relatively universal idea and practice – the discourse – of democracy? It has both ‘thin' versions – those of elections, the rule of law, freedom of assembly etc. – and ‘thick' ones – wrapped up in the sometimes gradual and sometimes quick increases in the capacity of working people and the poor across gender and generation to participate in the decisions affecting their everyday lives. The two sides of the democratic equation cannot be separated: the civil freedoms of assembly and the press are essential components of working class, peasant, students, and gender-based organisational capacity; but all the liberties in the world are rendered the property of baseless rhetoric amidst poverty, poor education, and gross inequalities.

There were some key moments in this con-coup indicating that the past two decades of Zimbabwean and regional struggles to deepen democracy made an appreciable impact on the moment of Robert Mugabe's forced retirement.

First: the coup-masters were extremely cautious about naming the reality of their moves. For one thing, if excessive force had been used SADC and the AU – forbidding coups – would have been pushed into a very tight corner. This would have undoubtedly been a key part of the Crocodile’s conversations when he was exiled in the neighbourhood. How many coups have been announced in advance with a polite request for the executive to retire from his party? The request – or order – was made within party bounds.

With the refusal to accept that warning, the Lacoste soldiers were very careful to avoid killings whilst executing the Blue Roof arrest.

Following that, Lacoste tried to use ZANU-PF’s party constitution to wipe the slate of G-40 members and vote in the Lacoste gang. This was probably done unconstitutionally: perhaps leading to Mugabe’s volte-face on the fateful Sunday evening.

The next step was a victory for democracy on the streets. On Saturday the 18th Zimbabwe’s history of decades of street action moved into top gear. As Mnangagwa put it the people had spoken, and that was equal to the voice of God. That is a step ahead of Grace Mugabe saying a few weeks before that God had anointed Mugabe.

Finally, parliamentary democracy took up the gap. Since the beginning of the coup, both the Lacoste faction of ZANU-PF and the MDC worked tirelessly to implement the constitution’s impeachment clause. The crafters of Section 97 in the 2013 constitution should take a bow. The numbers might have been tight, but they were close enough to make Mugabe’s call for a cabinet meeting no more than a whistle in the wind. That, along with Kenneth Kaunda’s tears, did it for the ancien regime premiere. The second old regime is starting just now.

Civil society and the opposition’s long history of resistance kept this a very light coup indeed. If they keep pushing, the little crack in the authoritarian wall opened up by this intra-party fight may widen markedly. It will be a long, hard push.

I am not too sure exactly what civil society is, aside from an intelligentsia that but for the demise of the state during the ESAP (structural adjustment) of the 1990s would be bureaucrats. Where is its power, which, as Deprose Muchena stated, is at the root of the regional political economy? Is it in something that could be called ‘intellectual capital’? What ideas can civil society intellectuals offer to get Zimbabwe out of its massive unemployment problem, its huge humanitarian crisis (did I read that 25% of Zimbabweans rely on aid for food?), and the not unrelated fact that those who just carried out a coup may soon be fighting among themselves rather than leading a developmental state with democratic characteristics. Pardon me if that sounds a bit like “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and “it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mouse,” both Deng Xiaoping’s words of wisdom: and he is purportedly one of the new President’s role models.

What would be the parameters and limits of engagement with this possibly re-minted party-state? What about the pretenders to the political throne, from the opposition array? It has been argued that civil society is still burning from a too-close relationship with the MDC: how to create its own space and keep its distance?

Perhaps, if party politics fail to take off at the next electoral gate and the new-old ZANU-PF does take on Rwandan hues, civil society will continue to carve out a democratic space. Yet if some of the discourse that arose from the meeting by Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition is indicative, liberal norms in the realm of rights need buttressing with a language anchored in the material reality of debilitating poverty. That may mean serious engagement with capital, both local and global, so the historical modes of extraction in Africa can be tamed.

By 2023 a truly new generation will be near the helm. New compasses will be needed to steer the ship through waters that will be no less stormy than now.

David Moore, PhD, is a Professor of Development Studies, University of Johannesburg

Revised Paper for the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition Regional Advocacy Program

Regional Dialogue on Shrinking Democratic Space in Southern Africa, 6-7 December 2017

Some reading, in order of appearance in the text:

Contemporary analysis of the coup include:

David Moore, ‘A military coup is afoot in Zimbabwe. What’s next for the embattled nation?’,, November 15, 2017, at <<>>.

‘Zimbabweans must draw on years of democratic struggle to stop a repeat of Mugabe's militarism’,, November 22, 2017, at <<>>.

Brian Raftopoulos, ‘Zimbabwe – Caught between the Croc and Gucci City’, Solidarity Peace Trust, November 2017, at <>>.

On “Mugabeism”:

Sabelo Gatsheni-Ndlovu, ed., Mugabeism? History, Politics and Power in Africa, London: Palgrave, 2015, including my ‘Robert Mugabe: An Intellectual Manqué and his Moments of Meaning’, pp. 29-44.

On Gukurahundi:

Stuart Doran, Kingdom, Power, Glory: Mugabe, Zanu and the Quest for Supremacy, 1960-1987, Midrand: Sithatha Media, 2017.

Hazel Cameron, ‘The Matabeleland Massacres: Britain's wilful blindness’, International History Review, 40, 1 (2017), 1-19.

Books and articles on factions and fighting within the nationalist movement include:

Blessing-Miles Tendi, ‘Transnationalism, Contingency and Loyalty in African Liberation Armies: The Case of ZANU’s 1974–1975 Nhari Mutiny’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 43, 1 (2017), 143-159.

Wilfred Mhanda, Dzino: Memories of a Freedom Fighter, Harare: Weaver Press, 2011.

David Moore, ‘Democracy, Violence and Identity in the Zimbabwean War of National Liberation: Reflections from the Realms of Dissent,’ Canadian Journal of African Studies, 29, 3 (Dec. 1995), 375-402.

David Moore, ‘The Zimbabwean People’s Army Moment in Zimbabwean History, 1975–1977: Mugabe’s Rise and Democracy’s Demise’, Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 32, 3 (October 2014), 302-318.

David Moore, ‘Lionel Cliffe and the Generation(s) of Zimbabwean Politics’, Review of African Political Economy special Lionel Cliffe memorial edition, 43, S1, (September 2016), 167–186.

Luise White, The Assassination of Herbert Chitepo: Texts and Politics in Zimbabwe, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.

On some of the contradictions of liberal democracy and elections in Africa:

Rita Abrahamsen, Disciplining Democracy: Development Discourses and Good Governance in Africa, London: Zed Books, 2000.

David Moore, ‘An Arc of Authoritarianism over Africa: Toward the End of a Liberal Democratic Dream?’ Socialist Register 2016: The Politics of the Right, eds. Leo Panitch and Greg Albo, Vol 52, London: Merlin Press, 2015, pp. 193-212.

David Moore, ‘Coercion, Consent, and the Construction of Capitalism in Africa: Development Studies, Political Economy, Politics and the “Dark Continent”’, Transformation, 84 (April 2014), 106-131.

On elections in Zimbabwe:

David Moore, ‘Zimbabwe’s Democracy in the Wake of the 2013 Election: Contemporary and Historical Perspectives’, Strategic Review for Southern Africa, 36, 1 (2014), 47-71.

David Moore, ‘Death or Dearth of Democracy in Zimbabwe?’, Africa Spectrum, 49, 1 (2014), 101-114.

David Moore, ‘“When I am a Century Old:” Why Robert Mugabe Won’t Go,’ Roger Southall & Henning Melber, eds., Legacies of Power: Leadership Change and Former Presidents in Africa. Cape Town & Uppsala: HSRC Press & Nordic Africa Institute, 2005, 120-150.

David Moore and and Brian Raftopoulos, ‘Zimbabwe’s Democracy of Diminished Expectations,” Sarah Chiumbu and Muchaparara Musemwa, eds. Crisis! What Crisis? Exploring the Multiple Elements of Zimbabwe’s Crisis, Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2012, 241-267.

Brian Raftopulos, ‘The 2013 Elections in Zimbabwe: The End of an Era’. Journal of Southern African Studies, 39, 4 (2013), 971-988, at <<>>

Derek Matyszak, ‘Back to the Future: Legitimising Zimbabwe’s 2013 Elections’, Southern Africa Report 12, Pretoria: Institute of Security Studies, 2017, at <<>>

On Zimbabwe’s Political Economy:

Jabusile Shumba, Zimbabwe’s Predatory State: Party, Military and Business, Scottsville: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2017. Pre-reviewed in David Moore, ‘Op-Ed: In the “New Zimbabwe”, will the looting continue?’,

Daily Maverick, December 6, 2917.

Richard Saunders and Tinashe Nyamunda, eds. Facets of Power: Politics, Profits and People in the Making of Zimbabwe's Blood Diamonds, Harare: Weaver, 2016.

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