The main question with Zimbabwe now is the question we used to ask about Sani Abachaâ€™s regime in Nigeria: namely, how bad can it get? As low as Zimbabwe has sunk lately, there are still further depths to mine. It is depressingly possible, even plausible, that events will continue to that point: mass starvation of the people lately forced out of the cities is conceivable. At the very least, many of them will redefine the standard of rural wretchedness if they are compelled to remain in rural areas.
One of my major jobs for this summer is to finish work on the chapter of my manuscript that deals with African nationalism and sovereignty in Zimbabwe. As I write, I continue to be haunted by the foreseeable nature of the current disaster. The mass evictions of recent weeks are no surprise at all to anyone familiar with Zimbabwe: they are neither a sudden or unanticipated development. Since the mid-1980s, before important international events, including the state visit of Queen Elizabeth II, the government has evicted or harassed squatters in Harareâ€™s townships. Traders active in the informal sector have often been the target of arbitrary police action and confiscation of their property.
When I was working at the National Archives of Zimbabwe in 1990, another researcher asked me why maize was growing wild in so many parts of the city. I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes and replied that it wasnâ€™t growing wild, that people were cultivating it in open fields and vacant areas as a cash crop or for food. The other scholar vehemently objected: â€œThat canâ€™t be: Iâ€™ve seen city workers burning the corn! Why would they do that?â€
At the time, I just thought that response was an individually naÃ¯ve oneâ€”and that the abusive actions of officials in the case of maize burnings or squatter harassment were largely idiosyncratic activities of brutal, inefficient or rule-bound bureaucrats. I should have known better, not just because there was already ample evidence of the nature of the ruling elite of Zimbabwe but also because government mistreatment of urban populations and informal sector traders was a part of life in other postcolonial African nations.
The truly depressing thing is watching individual men and women who have previously simulated some degree of decency or political conviction sell that away so easily: people like former academic Jonathan Moyo, who sold away his soul so he could declare that a free press is undesired in Zimbabwean society and otherwise act the fool in his shameless pursuit of power. Now the scales have fallen from his eyes after he was cast aside for showing his political ambition openly. Mugabe pegged Moyo pretty well in a mocking speech after the ministerâ€™s fall: â€œJonathan, you are clever, but you lack wisdomâ€. That sums up not just Moyo, but almost all of the scholars who wrote about the nationalist struggle and ZANU-PF in the 1970s and 1980s. Norma Kriger and a precious few others come out looking like they understood what was going on: the rest of us clever, not wise.
As something of an aside, this is what some (not all) of the current leadership of the US government didnâ€™t seem to understand about Iraq from the outset: that in a situation where youâ€™re trying to cultivate friends among the powerful and influential of a particular society but where your own activities are widely perceived as intrusive or unjust, the people who flock to your side most willingly are exactly the ones you donâ€™t want a close association with. The people you want on your side are the ones who will be badly compromised if they associate with you. You want to ally with them, you’ll have to make concessions, promises, guarantees, be constrained by scruple and principle–and you’ll have to keep your word.
For the same reason, playing the guessing game about whether one of the prominent leaders of ZANU-PF might be a secret reformer biding time until Mugabe dies is foolish. If there is a reformer with the will and skill to seize the reins of political leadership, itâ€™s going to be someone fairly obscure that almost none of us know, someone smart and principled enough to discreetly refuse to compromise himself with public stupidities or responsibility for disastrous policies. Anyone close enough to the inner circle of power to be known is going to have a lifetime of practice at repression, is going to have signed in blood on the top eliteâ€™s suicide pact. If any of them take over as the next leader, the best one could hope for is a momentary interruption of the slide into the abyss.