Out of Mugabe's frying pan

Andrew Donaldson says it is little wonder the euphoria at the old tyrant's ousting has been followed by anxiety


THE barmaid, Presence, had a setback this week. She was just pulling into the Mahogany Ridge parking lot to start the Thursday evening shift when she suddenly lost control of her old Volksie and drove into a ditch. 

Happily, she was unhurt and was able to take orders for our next round almost immediately. We were however moved to inquire what had happened.

Presence said something on the radio made her mad.

“It wasn’t Kieno Kammies, was it?” we asked.

“No,” she said. “I was listening to the news. All this fancy talk about Zimbabwe’s new dawn for democracy and the better times coming. I was overcome by platitudes, wishful thinking and wholesale stupidity. I couldn’t breathe. So I panicked and crashed.”

Presence, a former teacher, is not only one of the three million or so Zimbabweans who live and work in South Africa to support families at home, but she hails from Plumtree, a town near the Botswana border in the Matabeleland South province.

In that part of the world, she’ll tell you, they know all about former vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa, the man now described as an economic reformer and a pragmatist who was yesterday sworn in as the country’s interim president. They greatly fear him.

They point to the years that Mnangagwa, as Robert Mugabe’s chief henchman, was state security minister. From 1980 to 1988 he presided over the dreaded Central Intelligence Organisation and allegedly oversaw the North Korean-trained 5th Brigade’s brutal suppression and murder of some 20 000 Ndebele in the Gukurahundi operations.

Mnangagwa has naturally denied that he had anything to do with the massacres and blames the army and the 5th Brigade. But the CIO was directly involved in the torture and repressive measures taken to root out anti-Mugabe “dissidents” in Matabeleland, and it beggars belief that the head of the CIO had no idea what his agents were up to at the time.

There’s more, of course. The plunder of blood diamonds and other resources from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the farm seizures, rigging of elections, the attacks on opposition supporters. Mnangagwa was said to be involved in it all.

Little wonder, then, that the euphoria of Mugabe’s ousting has been replaced with anxiety in some quarters about the future. The biggest concern is the increasingly political role of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces.

It is now clear that recent events in Harare was not so much a coup as a carefully-orchestrated readjustment of the ZDF’s stranglehold on the ruling party. The military are in power there and they’re not about to let go.

Which brings us to the ZDF leader Commander Constantino Chiwenga, another “active participant” in the “land reform” programme. He has spoken of the “drastic action” needed to protect Zanu-PF from the “minor political differences” that can threaten “the social, political and economic security of ordinary people”.

He has been described as a “not very military” type. While detractors point to his colourful private life, and reports that he beat his first wife before leaving her to marry a model, our favourite Chiwenga tale is of how he tried to kill himself after he was caught cheating.

Shortly after independence, a British military training team oversaw a programme to integrate elements of the old Rhodesian forces and guerrillas into a united Zimbabwean army. Chiwenga, then a “student officer” in his twenties, was one of the bush war veterans who, in 1982 fell under the tutelage of a British officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Zach Freeth.

Chiwenga, Freeth told the London Sunday Times, was a “pleasant man” who sometimes struggled with his written assignments. One day, however, he handed in work that was far better than his usual efforts. “I realised,” Freeth said, “apart from one little sentence that it was word for word a copy of one of our own model essays.”

Chiwenga was confronted about his plagiarism. How did he account for the fact that the two essays were almost identical? “He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Coincidence.’ He knew he was in trouble,” Freeth said.

The next morning, Freeth heard that Chiwenga had shot himself in the chest and was in intensive care. “He had shot himself not once, but twice — but, amazingly, missed the heart and lungs.”

Freeth did not report Chiwenga for cheating. Had he done so, his military career would have been finished. He was allowed to return and complete the programme. 

And just look at him now.

As for our barmaid? She misses the place, but she’s in no rush to get back to Plumtree. We continue and to be touched by Presence. 

A version of this article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.