It took us seven days to end a bully's thirty-seven year rule.
|After a short holiday in the Amazon rainforest in early November 2017, I returned to a very different Zimbabwe compared to the one I had left ten days earlier. For the first time in 37 years the autocratic rule of Robert Mugabe was under serious threat. Although he’d been threatened in the past he’d always been able to rely on the support of his army and political party to ensure his dictatorship remained. He was renowned for the ruthless way he dealt with his opponents. Some have been incarcerated for treason; others have died in car accidents.
A true dictator, Mugabe has never been directly involved in dealing with anyone he deems a threat to his rule. He has relied on his henchmen to eliminate any hint of opposition. But this time things were different; the army’s support for President Mugabe was no longer assured, and his Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) political party was divided.
The army backed Emmerson Mnangagwa as Mugabe’s successor. His loyalty to Mugabe was absolute; he had supported Mugabe since the 1960s, when the country’s liberation war began. Until recently, his role as Mugabe’s heir apparent was assured.
At 93 years of age, Mugabe was the world’s oldest leader. His age was becoming an issue – he was photographed sleeping during meetings and falling down stairs. Grace, his wife, was determined to establish a Mugabe dynasty. She is 42 years younger than her husband, and quickly moved to position herself as his successor. Her love of expensive clothes and designer labels earned her the nickname “Gucci Grace”. Her reputation for corruption, her arrogance and greed has not endeared her to the Zimbabwe people. With the support of a group of ZANU PF politicians she embarked on a very public campaign to discredit Mnangagwa.
She was blamed for poisoning Mnangagwa at a political rally in August 2017. He survived after being flown to a South African hospital for treatment. On his recovery he refused to discredit Grace Mugabe for the poisoning, but was eventually dismissed from his position as vice president on 6 November, 2017. Two days later Mnangagwa fled Zimbabwe for South Africa, after being warned he was to be arrested or assassinated. During the following week over one hundred of Mnangagwa’s allies in the government were targeted and censored by the Mugabes and their supporters.
A week in the heart of the Amazon meant we heard nothing about the events in Zimbabwe. After collecting me from Harare International Airport my parents updated me. I have to say I was surprised; 37 years of living under a bully means one gets used to intimidation and oppression. For the first time in many years the entire country began to imagine the unimaginable: life without the Mugabe family.
Harold Wilson once said: “A week is a long time in politics”. In the seven days following my return from the jungle his words were justified, and are best described from my diary.
Tuesday, 14 November, 2017.
On our return from grocery shopping we pass Bona Mugabe’s house. She is the oldest of Robert and Grace Mugabe's three children. There are no police vehicles guarding her home. During dinner my brother sends photographs of military vehicles on the roads into Harare. My parents are going back home to Bulawayo the following morning. We decided they should stay with us in Harare. By the time we go to bed the photographs are being shown on news networks all over the world. There’s an electric atmosphere all over the country, and an eerie, expectant silence. It’s exciting.
Wednesday, 15 November, 2017.
Solo wakes me at 2 am. My poor dog is terrified of fireworks, and jumped on the bed. I am groggy but feel him shivering. Suddenly I hear loud explosions from the direction of Borrowdale suburb, followed by gunshots close to my house. I am immediately alert. Mum and Dad are also awake, and we sit in front of the television with cups of coffee. As dawn breaks Major General Sibosiso Moyo holds a press conference from the dilapidated and antiquated Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation’s headquarters at Pocket’s Hill in Borrowdale. He informs us the military is targeting a “cabal of criminals” around the president, and that Robert Mugabe is safe. We hear no further news for the rest of the day, and people continue with business as usual. Military vehicles are on the streets, but we do not feel intimated or threatened. Rumours are rife. The soldiers are armed, but friendly. We do not feel threatened. It’s a surreal feeling – change is in the air. It sounds like we’ve had a coup, but the army denies it’s a coup. They call it: “Operation: Restore Legacy”.
Thursday, 16 November, 2017.
We learn the early morning gunshots were fired at the home of Ignatius Chombo, one of Grace Mugabe’s main supporters and reputedly one of the richest men in Zimbabwe. He was being protected by three Israeli security guards, two of whom were apparently killed when soldiers stormed his house. Photographs emerge of batches of banknotes totalling US$10 million recovered from his house. In a country where cash is virtually non-existent this makes us all rather angry. We learn that two more prominent Mugabe supporters – Jonathan Moyo and Saviour Kasukuwere – managed to escape from the soldiers sent to arrest them on Monday. They fled to Mugabe’s house for protection. There is little sympathy for these men; both have become millionaires while playing a major role in destroying Zimbabwe.
Friday, 17 November, 2017.
More arrests are reported, including that of Augustine Chihuri, head of the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP). He had run the ZRP as his own mafia-style collection agency, authorising the establishment of countless roadblocks all over Zimbabwe, with drivers forced to pay “on the spot fines” for petty offences, from failing to stop at a red traffic light to driving a vehicle with torn seats… from dusty number plates to reflective tapes displaying the wrong pattern or being a couple of millimetres below or above the statutory requirements. We learn that each policeman had a set target to collect every day. Any money exceeding the target belonged to them.
My husband arrives back from the meeting he attended in Brazil after we left the Amazon. It is a relief to see him, as the airport has been under control of the army and we had heard flights in and out of Zimbabwe might be cancelled. We see Robert Mugabe on television for the first time since the army took over, officiating at a university graduation ceremony. He is drawn, tired and defeated. Suddenly he no longer appears to be invincible and arrogant. He is a frail old man.
Saturday, 18 November, 2017.
There is a call for Zimbabweans to turn out onto the streets of cities and towns all over Zimbabwe for peaceful demonstrations to encourage Mugabe to step down. My friends, Roger and Cheryll Stringer and I, drive down to Fourth Street, opposite Harare Sports Club and near Robert Mugabe’s “State House”. The atmosphere is electric. Never in 37 years has Zimbabwe been more united. We are standing up to the bully… to the tyrant. A group of Zimbabweans carry a hand-painted banner: “We didn't ask to be born Zimbabwean - we just got lucky".
I estimate I am in a crowd of around twenty thousand people. Black, white, young, old… we cheer and laugh and celebrate the dream of the end of the rule of the bully – Robert Gabriel Mugabe. When the military vehicles turn into Fourth Street we cheer. People rush at the vehicles, climbing over them and taking selfies with the soldiers. They try to look stern and imposing, but flash brief, fleeting smiles. Today they are not Mugabe’s bully boys. They are Zimbabweans. They are standing with us, not obeying their commander’s order to intimidate and harass his citizens.
Suddenly they order us to move away from the road and sit down. We instantly obey. The cheers evaporate, and silence descends. But only for an instant. An armoured personnel carrier turns into the road, and we erupt in joy. As it pulls in front of us we stand up and cheer. We have no idea who is standing in the vehicle but they smile sternly and wave. They are giving us the hope of freedom denied to us for 37 years. An hour later Roger, Cheryll and I leave, excited and delighted to have been part of what we believe will become a special day in Zimbabwe’s history.
Sunday, 19 November, 2018.
Robert and Grace Mugabe are sacked from ZANU PF. He is still referred to as President of Zimbabwe. He is scheduled to address the country in a broadcast on ZBC. The excitement in the country is palatable. Everyone wants to watch the bully resign. We contact our family and friends, discussing how we’re going to commemorate the end of his reign. Ivan and I open a bottle of Jura whisky we’ve been saving for a special occasion. We have decided to drink the entire bottle when we hear his resignation. The news broadcast is delayed, but we open the bottle and pour our drinks in readiness for the day we thought we’d never see.
Mugabe appears on television, flanked by his army general Constantino Chiwenga and other military dignitaries. Again we remark on his fragility. For the first time since our first Independence Day - 18 April, 1980 - we listen to his entire speech. When he spoke 37 years ago his tone was of reconciliation, respect and friendship; the speech of a true leader. Tonight’s speech was an absolute disappointment. Defiant, curt and arrogant to the end, Robert Mugabe refuses to resign his position. Instead he claims he will preside over ZANU PF’s forthcoming annual party conference. Expressionless, General Chiwenga carefully places the papers he held on the desk in front of him on the floor. It is difficult to see how he is feeling in the face of his president’s defiance, but frustration immediately springs to mind. We share his feelings, and our frustration leads to just two whiskies each. We close the bottle. Tomorrow is another day…
Monday, 20 November, 2017.
ZANU PF offers Robert Mugabe the chance to resign by noon, retaining some self-respect and dignity. This is important for an African leader; even a brutal tyrant and oppressor like Mugabe is revered by his people and fellow African nations. The noon deadline passes with no resignation. Mugabe is said to be a stubborn old man, and he appears to want to draw this out as long as possible. His refusal to resign means he will be impeached on the basis that he “allowed his wife to usurp constitutional powers”. ZANU PF agrees unanimously to work with the MDC to remove Robert Mugabe over a two day period. General Chiwenga announces that Emmerson Mnangagwa will soon return from exile to hold talks with Mugabe.
Tuesday, 21 November, 2017.
Mugabe has called his central committee to attend a meeting this morning. He was ignored by seventeen of 22 members, with five advising they were attending another meeting. Mnangagwa tells Mugabe he will not return from South Africa until his personal safety is guaranteed, and urges Mugabe to resign. Meanwhile, a nine member committee is convened to recommend Mugabe’s impeachment on four allegations:
Failure to uphold, defend and obey the Constitution of Zimbabwe;
Willful violation of the Constitution of Zimbabwe;
Inability to perform the functions of his office because of physical or mental incapacity.
It is my brother’s birthday, and we are going to celebrate at Tin Roof, a local pub/restaurant. Ivan and I are about to leave the house when my phone pings. It’s six pm. A WhatsApp message from my brother tells us Robert Mugabe has resigned as President of Zimbabwe. As we rush to look at the television we hear car horns hooting and people cheering. The news is confirmed on CNN, BBC, Sky News and South Africa’s ENews.
The bully has gone. The fifteen minute drive to Tin Roof takes thirty minutes. Everyone is celebrating. People hanging out of car windows, waving the Zimbabwe flag, dancing on the street, strangers shouting as we pass each other on the roads… Zimbabwe explodes with happiness. My poor, brutalised home country and her people are celebrating the removal of the architect of her destruction.
The sight of the vendors celebrating at the traffic intersection on Whitwell and Borrowdale Roads brings tears to our eyes. Vendors and beggars, often pre-school children, have been forced into a life on the street intersections. This road is frequently used by Robert and Grace Mugabe, and I wonder how often they have driven past the vendors in their custom-made, bulletproof, air-conditioned Mercedes Benz limousine. Flanked by at least thirty other vehicles (an ambulance, troop carriers, motorcycle outriders, police cars and security vehicles) they never paid a single bit of attention to these victims of Mugabe’s brutal rule. We celebrate with Bryan’s family and friends and most of Harare until 11 pm. The party at Tin Roof continues until all the alcohol runs out at 6 am the following morning. Zimbabwe's hangover lasted several days.
Saturday, 30 March, 2018.
It's been four months since Zimbabwe managed to free herself from the bully. Robert Mugabe is now an old man, powerless and living in a massive blue-roofed mansion built for him by the Chinese. He is bitter. There is talk he will contest the elections we shall hold in a matter of months. He commemorated his 94th birthday in February. That means he will be almost 100 years old when his next five year term ends.
Today... Zimbabwe is trying to heal. We are trying to move forward, and it will take many years to rebuild what was destroyed under Mugabe's rule. We will get there; I believe we are on the right path under President Mnangagwa.
I am just so proud that I was one of millions of Zimbabweans who decided to stand up to a man we once believed to be invincible.
COUNTRY: Team Africa
ITEM TYPE: Essay
WORD / LINE COUNT: 2,343 words
PROMPT FOLLOWED: "When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he is often surprised to find it comes off in his hand, and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson