Monomotapa: History Repeated

When the nonagenarian Robert Mugabe was finally pushed from the Zimbabwean Presidential throne by his military after nearly four decades in power, the world and the six million Zimbabweans living in exile breathed a sigh of relief. And the new President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, made the right promises.

Corruption would be addressed. Farms stolen from the owners would be given back. The economy would be revived, and a new national currency would replace the US Dollar. A new and unfolding democracy would bring jobs. Elections were called, and voters gave Mnangagwa a cautious mandate, although many doubted the integrity of the results.

Little has remained of the promises. Public reaction against drastic fuel price increases, taxes on all electronic transactions, and little visible improvement in the economy brought the people on to the streets. Mnangagwa cut short a luxurious tour of foreign capitals to investigate reports of military and police brutality, and promised to deal harshly with transgressors. But cooking oil cost US$ 25 when you could get it, cholera was reported in the capital, and doctors and teachers went on strike because they had not been paid.

What happened? What had become of the fabled Monomotapa empire, legend of Portuguese explorers? Of the Mwene we Mutapa, Prince of the people who ruled from Symbãoe, from a palace plated with gold?

This empire actually existed, and grew to greatness on the principle that membership of the Great Council was open to leaders who voluntarily submitted to the rule of Matope. Portuguese adventurers were kept at bay by strong, well-trained armies. Including, according to reports reaching Europe, regiments of nude maidens. Malaria and other diseases deterred invaders. Able management of copper and gold exports, and later ivory kept Arab and Portuguese traders happy.

This proto-European Union of the Shona people fell because of internal disagreements and fragmentation, and the eventual invasion by Mzilikazi, a renegade general of King Shaka of the Zulu’s, who carved out Matabeleland in the late 1800’s, enslaved the Shonas, and treated with the British. This proved to be a mistake, as the British sided with the subject Shona tribes to vanquish Lobengula, Mzilikazi’s son, and to create the colony of Rhodesia.

At independence Zimbabwe inherited strong institutions of government, a vibrant mining industry, an agricultural sector that was of the most productive in the region, the best education in the region. Maize and sugar production was amongst the best in Africa. But patronage politics, corruption and a gradual relapse to a modern version of the Monomotapa kingdom brought a slow collapse. Distrust of ethnic ‘others’ brought the gurukahundi, ‘cleansing of chaff from the fields before the rain,’ when the North Korean trained Fifth Brigade killed thousands of Matabele, and broke their political power. It also guided the dispossession of lands belonging to white farmers, and black farmers who did not belong to the ruling elite. Mines had to show a percentage of ‘indigenous’ shareholders. Investments failed to materialise.

Successors to the Mwene we Mutapa had to show their power by fighting to the top, there was no election or inheritance of the title. The free association amongst leaders that brought the empire into existence did not extend to the common people. President Mnangagwa is a product of the Mugabe era: he was Minister of State Security when the gurukahundi massacres happened, and many still distrust him. He has an impossible task. The political model, based on rule through perhaps 300 men who enjoy the favour of the President, and some 300 000 civil servants who enjoy the patronage of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union, is prone to factionalism and fragmentation.

Popular distrust of government harks back to the runaway inflation that ended in 2008 with a daily rate of 98%, and the largest note of a hundred trillion Zimbabwe dollars buying an espresso. As a result hard currency is preferred for any purchases, but payment of pensions, salaries, sales to Agricultural boards, are paid in heavily discounted ‘zollars’ or electronic money.

The Government needs money to feed the system: fuel prices were increased dramatically, a tax was imposed on all electronic transactions. The result was open revolt by the normally placid Zimbabweans. Beneficiaries of the patronage system are not receiving their salaries, state corporations are not being paid.

It is doubtful that evolutionary change can happen in Zimbabwe. Despite the fertility of agricultural resources and the mineral wealth economic management will remain in the hands of those in power. Institutions of Government will remain in service of the ruling party. Formal political opposition groups are effectively neutralised. At the AU summit officials circulated memoranda claiming that ‘western powers’ were trying to engender regime change in Zimbabwe.

But the people are near breaking point. An activist, Pastor Evan Mawarire, wrapping himself in the flag, called for change, and became leader of a spontaneous movement. He awaits a court hearing after the latest unrest. The recent mass protests, violently suppressed, were the first of this magnitude in Zimbabwe history. Perhaps President Mwanangagwa will heed the voice of the people?