The historic military-backed march marked the end of Robert Mugabe’s 37 year-old rule. And Zimbabwe’s once-feared soldiers shepherded protesters to Harare’s State House, bringing people with different agendas together briefly for a common purpose.
HARARE — Emmerson Mnangagwa was inaugurated as the president of the Zimbabwe on Friday. He takes over from Robert Mugabe who had been in power, first as prime minister, and then as executive president, since the country gained independence from Britain, in 1980. The occasion was held in the National Sports Stadium, a grand public gesture, capturing the prevailing mood in the country.
Getting the support of the people
Last Friday, four days before Robert Gabriel Mugabe resigned as president of Zimbabwe, the liberation war veterans association called for a protest march to demand his ouster. All ten provinces of the ruling Zanu PF party were ferrying in supporters. The faction of Zanu PF led by former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa was pushing for control of the party and the state.
It was Saturday. I didn’t put on my running shoes to go to the protest march. Instead, I wore a pair of boots in anticipation of rain. The sky was overcast but the rain didn’t come. The roads were also clear of traffic police – as they had been since Tuesday night when the military took over the streets. For the first time in years, I’d been driving without the anxiety of being exhorted by the traffic police. Also for the first time, I was going to a protest march and had no fear of running from the teargas, truncheons or laced water cannons so readily deployed by the riot police.
At 10am, I walked through the neighbourhood of Avenues, towards the State House. The atmosphere had a historic charge. Random strangers were exuberant, hugging and taking selfies. The crowds drifting through the neighbourhood towards State House were multiracial, suburban and well dressed. The chants here were bland and unimaginative. “Mugabe must go, Mugabe must go...” broke out in small groups, and then a mass rendition of the national anthem sealed the solemnity and blandness.
The presidential guards, infamous for their harshness and pettiness, taken out on people going past the State House. The military had sanctioned this march, a role usually taken by the police force.
The crowds couldn’t hold back their gratitude to the soldiers for allowing them to vent their feelings. The conditioned unease around the State House and its guards gave way to outpourings of camaraderie. The soldiers were professional and congenial.
They posed for selfies and were tolerant when the crowds encroached on the restricted pavement. And yet the soldiers stopped the crowds from getting too close to the fence. They maintained the aura of state power.
The same official residence was inherited from the previous colonial regime. As it was after the liberation war in 1980, what was clear at the protest was that this was no revolution. There would be no demystifying of power. The military was sanctioning a change of guard, not a change of system.
Marching through the city streets
I caught a lift to the area where the protesters were gathered, referred to as either Freedom Square or Robert Mugabe Square, depending on one’s political leaning.
The city was a festive maze of people streaming back and forth between the State House and Robert Mugabe Square, waving placards and shouting variations of “Mugabe must go!” As a people, we have been adrift for the last 20 years. So I didn’t mind drifting around the city for a few more hours. A man in civilian clothes but an unmistakable rigid military posture was informing people to move towards the State House for speeches.
An acquaintance I was with whispered to me that he was a military intelligence operative. As the marchers streamed past the Zanu PF headquarters, a huge billboard with Mugabe’s face on it had fresh holes – something unthinkable a day before.
A youth started to scale the fence towards the billboard but was pulled back. Someone reported him to a soldier stationed by the fence. On my way back towards the city centre, past the same place, as the mood heightened, two youths scaled the fence and ripped off the entire section with Mugabe’s face. This time, there were cheers.
Marching with the 'Gunners'
Jah Prayzah’s hit song Kutonga Kwaro Gamba (The Hero’s Rule) reverberated throughout the city. Mnangagwa supporters appropriated it for their man, others referenced the military. Either way, it was the song of the march. Any “Gunners” in military gear were mobbed and hugged, hands shaken, selfies taken. “Gunners”, a term used by Arsenal Football Club fans, and adopted here in Zimbabwe, was the colloquial name for a soldier.
Outside Harare’s Quality International Hotel, a man leapt onto an army truck and started flinging money into the car. The soldiers inside laughed. I acted cool, but eventually I succumbed – I walked up to a soldier. His two colleagues had softer countenances, but his was stony. I walked up to him and offered my fist. He complied happily but he didn’t crack a smile. He bumped my fist but up close, I couldn’t look at his eyes. He had vacant eyes, his body made the necessary movements but the soul left long ago. The last time I stood that close to a soldier I was hit by a troop of them, deployed onto the streets by Mugabe to combat civilians.
That was 20 years ago, in 1997. Civilians were rioting against price increases, commodity shortages and economic mismanagement. We didn’t know that that was only the beginning of a 20-year cycle of horror. My experience was benign. A slap in the face – literally – compared to some in that march, and mostly in the southern regions of the country.
There were people in that crowd of marchers who had had contact with the same military, 30 years ago – in 1983 – whose contact had left them without family members, homes, and with physical and psychological trauma which was still fresh. The man whose poster was being held up during the march as the liberator from Mugabe’s misrule, Mnangagwa – who would go on a week later to be sworn in as interim president – was instrumental in the Gukurahundi massacre of 1983.
And this was where the intangible dreadfulness of Mugabe’s 37-year tenure showed. Beyond economic statistics, broken infrastructure and immigrant figures were living souls seeking catharsis. Beyond the war veterans and Zanu PF supporters, the many non-partisan people in this crowd knew full well that we were piggybacking on an internal succession power move.
We didn’t care – this was an opportunity to release pent-up emotions and direct them at their source, at the chief architect of our torment. In the midst of the wild dancing and chorusing of the songs of the march, and at the pubs later in the evening, there were constant references to how we were enjoying brief respite within a tempest. We might have ushered out one devil we knew for another one we also knew, and that was alright. For this one must go.
Mugabe was the head of a repressive state; the people marching knew that the military was part of the very security apparatus which enabled our repression. We also knew that they operated under instruction. One thing Zimbabweans had learnt over the last 20 years is that life can always get worse – and for the last 20 years, it has.
Mass action often involves groupings with different agendas uniting briefly for the bigger common purpose. This was the case during the liberation struggle – women against patriarchy, workers against exploitation, the youth against denied opportunity. This unity was missing in Zimbabwe, which inherited and still clung onto arbitrary colonial class structures.
A Grace Mugabe executive leadership was certain to extend the Zimbabwean nightmare and Zimbabweans marched with the agents of their repression to avert this outcome. Those soldiers would not smile at them after the march; they may well be instructed to be against them in future civil protests.
At the State House, those power-drunk presidential guards will go back to harassing innocent pedestrians. And in a probable Mnangagwa leadership, the security state is likely to endure. What many have marched for last Saturday, was a semblance of agency in their destiny – however transient, regardless of the conditions.