On 22 May 2020, I wrote an opinion piece in which I described the Southern African Development Community (SADC) as “an enervated club of gentlemen, living coddled and cosseted lives at the top of oppressed and cowed citizens.” Before calling SADC “a feckless and cowardly body”, I asked whether it is necessary to have regional bodies that do nothing more than make pronunciations that they have no appetite and time to actualize. What provoked the trenchant piece is SADC’s time-honoured tendency to close ranks and opt for state-level tranquillity at the expense of ordinary SADC citizens. At the time of that writing, the Zimbabwean government had seized members of the opposition, allegedly traumatized and tortured them before unceremoniously releasing them. What is currently happening in Zimbabwe shows that government-sponsored repression continues uninterrupted.
What has provoked the current wave of repression and crackdown on freedom of expression is the protest against corruption and economic mismanagement that Jacob Ngarivhume, leader of Transform Zimbabwe, called for. #ZimbabweanLivesMatter has been trending on Twitter in solidarity with the many people that have either been beaten by police or hauled off to police cells. President Emmerson Mnangagwa said his government would “overcome attempts at destabilisation of our society by a few rogue Zimbabweans acting in league with foreign detractors.” His address would be laughable if its defensiveness was not a justification for real terror on citizens who are merely protesting for good causes. The existence of endemic corruption in Zimbabwe was laid bare when the president relieved Obadiah Moyo of his position as Minister of Health. Moyo was accused of having inappropriately “issued $60m in tenders to supply Covid-19 test kits and medical equipment to obscure companies linked to the political elite.”
Corruption, financial mismanagement and political persecution are sadly the norm rather than the exception in Zimbabwe. All this goes to show the shallowness of the 2017 coup that saw Robert Mugabe forced out of power. What happened then did not translate into a substantial change in the quality of politics in that country; nor did it usher in an era of economic recovery. It was an intra-ZANU-PF coup that was not an indictment on Mugabe’s violent brand of politics. Indeed, it is reasonable to surmise that had Mugabe not become increasingly senile in his dotage, and had his wife been modest in her political behaviour, Mugabe would have died as president of Zimbabwe. Seen from this angle, what is happening in Zimbabwe should not come as a surprise because violence is almost an inherent currency with which ZANU-PF conducts its political businesses.
What is heartening about the current crackdown is the response that it has elicited among Africans within and outside Zimbabwe. We are witnessing an activist usage of social media, which I hope will send a message to SADC and the African Union (AU) that Africans are aware of what is going on in Zimbabwe, and are angry about it. These are the times when social media platforms are used for good causes. The increasing involvement of Africa’s youth, by way of commentary, on the political situation on the continent is an admirable development. The youth, and all Africans that value democracy, should not tire of exposing and condemning the malaise that has become almost natural to Africa. Activism will be an arduous undertaking because those that champion it should not expect any meaningful help from state actors.
Zimbabweans that are currently suffering their government’s excesses should not expect help from SADC. Lazarus Chakwera, the recently elected president of Malawi, has noted SADC’s unfortunate lager mentality and has called for a change in the way it conducts its business. We would hope, of course, that other SADC leaders support the body’s proclamations with action. Unfortunately, this might not be the case because what is happening in Zimbabwe is happening in other SADC countries, though to varying degrees. Mnangagwa inveighs against protesters and accuses them of working in conjunction with foreign detractors. Well, he should know that in the absence of African recourse, his oppressed citizens have reason to work with any actor that might be sympathetic to their justifiable demands. From the time of independence, Africa has always struggled with the question of managing its internal affairs without the sway of foreign actors, mainly erstwhile colonizers. However, the ideals of African solutions to African problems could only be realised if African governments are responsive to the demands of their citizens. While the manner with which people seek freedom might differ, the pursuit and hankering for freedom and democracy is a human pursuit that is not relative to citizenship. It is in this spirit that I argue that if SADC and the AU cannot come to the aid of Zimbabwe’s citizens, then the oppressed have reason to approach non-African actors who are committed to the establishment of good and accountable governance.
Emmanuel Matambo is a Senior Researcher at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies