I’ve never been good at compromise, although I do try, sometimes, to ameliorate my stoic insistence on a particular action when someone else’s humanity is at stake. (To be clear, I agree that “no compromise” can also hide a tendency to self-destruct.)
Humanity’s propensity to succeed and yet to fail is what defines us most, I believe, leaving aside (if I may) all other external factors that impact on our existence. So, I hold to the notion that we all are capable of achieving greatness in whatever era or place or circumstance we find ourselves, and also of making the most monumental fcuk-ups that destroy others’ humanity, not least our own.
But when one looks over a person’s life, it must be the sum total of all the acts of great courage and all the moments of total weakness, that defines a legacy.
So it is with Robert Mugabe.
My knowledge of Zimbabwe is limited and certainly vicarious. As a consequence, I find there is little of worth for me in contributing what might purport to be finely considered and attuned commentary on the fall of Mugabe, except to regard the fall as another lens through which to see our own country, our own situation. That lens provides a few useful lessons.
There once was a role for Mugabe – (choose your version from) brave leader in mortal battle to overthrow a deadly oppressor, articulating a cause, a nation’s right to be restored in the commonwealth of others, perhaps even a sage voice at times of national or global uncertainty.
But Mugabe the self-serving, malevolent dictator, who led a regime guilty of gross human rights abuse, surrendered that role very many years ago. And, no, standing up to some racist in the north (or south) in no way mitigates the evil that has systematically been committed in destroying, annihilating a country.
A tenet one sees in so many men – yes, almost to a person, these personalities are all male – is the self-delusion that only their “firm” hand can steer the ship of state (or business or family). That’s undoubtedly the reason Mugabe clung to power. His messianic attributes were what would save his country and his anointed successor(s).
In reviewing the 37 years of Mugabe’s rule, it is too easy to think that he’s just become a bad old man; that throughout his life he was generally a superb individual, with some character flaws; successful mostly in leading his country but with a few mistakes. I think that, as is the case for all of us, the seeds of his own destruction and that of his country, lay within himself throughout his life. Mugabe ended up a bad guy probably because he was mostly a bad guy to start off with 37 years ago, and even before.
It is a lesson we must learn in South Africa, as we examine those who currently sit in government, those we wish to remove and those who would have us install them at the top of our constitutional structure. The cabal that has taken over our government is not an aberration. History teaches us – and Stephen Ellis among others has done so eloquently in our context – that the roots of our current situation lie deep in our colonial, apartheid, Bantustan, exiled and necklaced history.
People can recover from a mistake, maybe even a few mistakes. But an almost innate propensity – developed over a lifetime – to commit evil, does not easily allow for a change of behaviour. I have been seeing too many expressions of hope that the once “glorious movement” (taking my cue from our own appellation of the liberation movement) of ZANU-PF will self-correct in this post-Mugabe era.
We cannot compromise in turning our backs on these so-called leaders.
A second lesson, I know, will not carry favour among most.
My psyche struggles to get around how we allow those who have brutalised, raped, plundered, murdered, to strut off into the sunset of their lives with every part of their inhumanity still intact, their loot – from a life of criminality at the expense of others – secure, the impact of their deceit, greed, violence left to linger for decades like the worst bad smell in the lives of those who lived with them.
In universal terms and over the centuries, there are many who have got off scot-free, and continue to do so. And our world still suffers the consequence of those acts.
We must argue and agitate, write, shout it out from the rooftops, take to the streets so that scumbags who have destroyed lives in our country do not get away with murder. No compromise. The bastards must face the consequences of their conscious evil decisions. They were not aberrant. They did not make a mistake.
The third lesson and the thing that gets me most about Mugabe though – and I want to be clear that this is not a victim-blaming narrative – is how the bastard got away with it for so long. I’ve always wondered how people (more than the solitary #ThisFlag pastor) could not summon the courage to stand up against the president and his thugs, when all about them those they loved and the things they cared about were being systematically destroyed.
We’ve already taken far too long to rid our own country of those who would destroy us.
No compromise. Face the bully, stand up to the henchman, oppose the autocrat, stick your finger in the eye of the abuser, put your body on the line before the murderer.
A final lesson to ponder.
Much is made of the fact that the army’s takeover in Zimbabwe a week ago was unconstitutional and that democrats ought not to be supportive of such means. A constitutional order is premised on the common good and our laws must deliver according to the best intentions and interests of most of the people in our society. But if a constitution cannot deal with the particular and the peculiar, we run the risk of becoming a society which is immeasurably impacted by evil deeds. And if such impact is not to be irrevocable, equally just means must be found to overcome the evil.
For black South Africans under apartheid who didn’t have the vote and, therefore, the ability to change their conditions through the ballot box, it was morally justifiable to stand up against the government – even violently so. Although we have a form of the vote today – albeit we don’t directly elect individual representatives and members of government – our vote may be rendered meaningless by those who manipulate the system legally or who would resort to electoral fraud and even state capture.
There may well come a time when South Africans have to go even further in confronting a government that relentlessly opposes our interests.