Zim’s 2017: Political year that will not end soon (not for democratic reasons)

There are many ways to review Zimbabwe’s political year that became 2017. Whichever way one tries to look at it, it’s a given that it was seismic and borderline catastrophic. The military intervention/coup or as officially described “Operation Restore Legacy” was the most significant event that never had to happen. At least politically speaking.

Guest Column with Takura Zhangazha

It put the nation at high risk of direct intervention (militarily so) by Southern African Development Community (Sadc) and as a result thereof, greater political instability and uncertainty.

But so far, they pulled it off to what turned out initially to be popular support, which has now become more or less popular acceptance.

With hindsight it never had to happen. And the military would never have had to leave their barracks in order to solve what was an internal and political ruling Zanu PF succession battle. But it happened under former President Robert Mugabe’s “confined” watch and with some self-confessed orchestration by his former deputy and now President Emmerson Mnangagwa (he claimed he was in perpetual contact with the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) commanders during his exile).

In the run-up to this major and unprecedented military intervention/coup, Zimbabweans had been subjected to rallies and the playing out of Zanu PF’s succession politics on State television and the mainstream media.

There had also been widespread public outcry against the state of the national economy through protests. The extractive role of the State (via the pernicious actions of the Zimbabwe Republic Police), allegations of massive corruption and the precarious nature of social service provision, however, remained a sore spot.

These issues dominated social media conversations, alongside Zanu PF succession politics satire and derogation.

The official opposition was hamstrung by its own internal succession dilemmas and the self-inflicted, but complex challenges of building a coalition to oppose Mugabe or what they considered a would be “weaker” successor in the scheduled 2018 elections. They, as with everyone else save for those in the Zanu PF elite loop, did not anticipate a direct intervention by the ZDF on behalf of Zanu PF.

What is clear as the year 2017 is considered in retrospect is that the events of November did not occur in strict isolation.

A combination of the lack of popularity of the then Zanu PF leader, Mugabe and his wife together with a national economy that was/is bleak, an ever ambiguous and undemocratic constitution together with a lackadaisical political opposition and a politically hamstrung media created the optimum conditions for what we now know as “Operation Restore Legacy”.

But the effects of the latter are not going to disappear with the turn of the year. They are here to stay for the long term.

These being the militarisation of our national politics in a more direct manner in the name of the “legacy” of the liberation struggle, hence, we now have those that are senior war veterans (in the literal sense). And also why there are statements by Presidential Adviser and war veterans leader Christopher Mutsvangwa that Zanu PF will also use the ZDF in the 2018 electoral campaign, a statement that he later denied. But the import to the same subtly betrays the intent of the ruling party at winning the elections by all means at its disposal. At the moment the strongest of these is the overtly military-political complex that it has become.

The only rider here is that there is a public perception that “any change” from Mugabe (as President of the country) is good.

So a lot of Zimbabweans may not see the undemocratic undercurrents of this new regime. Or they may not be allowed to. It has no major democratic reforms on its cards. Its claim to legitimacy, apart from the post “Operation Restore Legacy” constitutional provisions it utilised to get Mnangagwa into power is that of promising a better performing national economy.

They are going to pull out all stops to appear to make this work, including rejuvenating the propaganda around any of their economic policies, but also more significantly giving the impression of a “progressive” neo-liberal economic outlook to court foreign direct investment.

It may work in the short term for electoral politics but austerity always has serious political ramifications for small economies like Zimbabwe’s. And we have the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme of the late 1980s and 1990s as history’s instructive lesson to draw from.

But they are going to try it anyway and ensure that there is limited national opposition to their policies in a number of ways. First and perhaps most important to the new establishment is to dominate the national political narrative through what they hope will be an internationally accepted (at least by Sadc and the African Union) elections. In the process their envisaged electoral victory will make any question of their legitimacy significantly undisputed and as a raison d’etre for continuing with a neo-liberal Zimbabwean national economy.

But that also require that it “manufactures consent”, hence, the media and its offshoots are going to be key. State and private media will be under severe pressure to carry the narrative of “progressive change”, never mind the de-unionisation of workers, the benevolent (as opposed to actual observance) attitude toward human rights and seeking longue duree Zanu PF leadership of the country’s government(s).

This means they will also keep the opposition in safe check, including the possibility of co-option into their neo-liberal project. In this they warmly welcomed the initial support of the opposition for their “Operation Restore Legacy” and will work to ensure that the opposition continues to support it as a fundamental point of political departure that can only be attributed to themselves or where its denigrated, they will remind the same opposition of having initially supported it.

Both in its occurrence, but more significantly in its meaning (“give the new government a chance”).

So, 2017 is a year that is going to stay with us for a while. Even to the point of making 2018 of limited significance without thinking of its “predecessor” year. And also 2023, as its probable most significant political future year.

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