- Last Updated on 24 May 2012
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This year in April, I had the occasion to sit on post-screening panels of the film, Robert Mugabe what happened? by Simon Bright. The screenings were at Royal Commonwealth Society, The University of Sussex and the Platinum movie house Oxford, as part of the Oxford Documentary Festival.
I have seen a couple of reviews that have been done on both the film and the post screening discussions. This contribution is not an answer to these previous reviews, but rather an attempt to add to the body of knowledge on it, and give my own thoughts on both the film and questions that have emerged from screening discussions.
My First port of call is to acknowledge that in spite of whatever imperfections the film might have, it is well made and focuses on a subject that is relevant for Zimbabwe. Given our political environment, public discussions on Mugabe - what is wrong with him and how this came to be, can be fairly dangerous subjects. It is even more dangerous to speculate about what may happen after he is gone. However given the fact that he has held the highest political office for the last generation, his own advancement in age, evident health challenges and the reality of mortality, these subjects are not only relevant but natural and should be engaged in various ways, which is part of what the film does.
The film reads like a concise history book, exposing the public to a nuanced history of the country, A commendable attempt at balance by the filmmakers, which assists in what is seldom, the context free single story on Zimbabwe and Mugabe himself based on events of the last 12 years.
Given the complexities of Zimbabwe's challenges, the question has been asked, is it fair to lump everything on Mugabe. In my humble opinion, there is no one who personifies Zimbabwe's slump, decay, degeneration and collapse into a state of continues crisis, more than Mugabe himself. As a person, who has been at the helm of the country's leadership for the last 32 years, clearly, all things good and bad have to be laid on his door step. With leadership comes not just the perks but also responsibility, and the responsibility for the crisis in Zimbabwe lies in a lot of places, but none, more than with Robert Mugabe himself. Over the last 32 years, his exploits in turning Zimbabweans into an educated people, and the sunshine phase of post liberation Zimbabwe, do very little to overshadow the fact that in that same sunshine period, there was a political attack that had a clear ethnic slant of genocidal proportions that took place. The years that we glorify as the good years, the first 15 years after independence, are the same years, where he had his "moment of madness € with the Gukurahundi. These are the same years that we had attempts to have a one party state in Zimbabwe, and where Mugabe's government brought us the scourge of neoliberalism through their engagement with the IMF and World Bank with catastrophic results for our economy and the nation at large. So is the question really Mugabe what happened? Did anything happen, or there were times when the people of Zimbabwe and the world wittingly or unwittingly turned a blind eye to consistent patterns of brutality, dictatorship, and a short tolerance level to opposition that Mugabe has consistently shown over time. The fact that the man, clearly had the gift of the garb, does nothing to erase from history the fact that even the first election in a free Zimbabwe was almost called off because of his resort to violence as was the case in many other elections to follow. There is little that his impeccable liberation war credentials can do to erase the fact that besides claiming to having brought democracy to Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe has been the fiercest fighter of peoples freedoms, and an unfortunate turn coat, who has together with his cohorts, betrayed the essence and objectives of the same liberation struggle that he led. In short, in spite of his middle name, Gabriel, Robert Mugabe is no angel. So yes, it is fair and proper to focus our attention on him, as not just the personification of the crisis in Zimbabwe, but also dictatorship personified.
The film presents to audiences a black and white picture of a person who has changed. Now while this is a commendable effort on the part of the filmmakers, it turns the film into a classic tale of a "good guys gone bad €. In light of this and the above, there is therefore credence to the theory that Paulo Freire and others have posited that in most cases those fighting for freedom are not necessarily well intentioned, that their fight really is to occupy the state and become the next oppressors. Nowhere is this more clearer than in Zimbabwe, where the liberation movement is still in power, and is credited with the biggest crisis that this country perhaps will ever see.
The film uses a wide cast of journalists, civic society actors, political actors, an academic and a childhood friend to assist the process of thinking through the question of what happened to Robert Mugabe. The critic has been that there is no one who is close to Mugabe who is part of the film. Now, given the circumstances, this is obviously a difficult task, because those who are close to him are relatively inaccessible, but more importantly, because those who are close to him think the guy has done no wrong. They believe that the government and Mugabe have no role in the malaise that has visited the country, blaming sanctions and everyone else, except themselves and their master. Now what point is there to discuss the question of what happened to Robert Mugabe with them, when they feel that there is nothing that happened to him, and that he continues to be revolutionary leader leading the continental anti-imperialist garrison. Besides, who can be a better spokesperson for Mugabe, besides himself, whose utterances and actions are given wide coverage in the film.
Related to the above, questions have been asked about those critiquing Mugabe. The theory that is posited is that the same question that the film asks of Robert Mugabe, can be asked of Professor Madhuku, Dr. Makumbe, Opposition leader Simba Makoni and ZCTU Faction President Lovemore Matombo. But is it even a question worth asking? Have their transgressions equalled in consequences and scale to what Robert Mugabe has done? Seriously, can Madhuku's alleged experiments with constitutional manipulation in the NCA be equated to Robert Mugabe's follies and the ruin that he has placed on a country that was once considered the " jewel of Africa €? Frankly, the assertion that these people are approaching the 'court with dirty hands' and should thus shut up, is a poor attempt at shutting down debate on the clearly larger questions around Robert Mugabe. The beauty of that argument is that it acknowledges that Robert Mugabe is Rogue or has gone Rogue, partly answering the question raised by the film. To seal it off, I believe that it is conventional wisdom that two wrongs do not make a right, and again, in spite of whatever transgressions that Madhuku or Matombo can be blamed for, they do not turn Gabriel Mugabe into an angel.
The film, "Robert Mugabe, what Happened €, in my opinion the film is valuable addition to the body of knowledge that exists not only on Robert Mugabe but also on Zimbabwe. It defies the notion that is peddled everyday by ZANU PF that suggests that history ended with the liberation struggle. This it does through a wonderful weaving of pre and post independence footage on the man, his struggles and character.
It touches a bit on the land question and to enthusiasts it does this sparingly. Clearly the Land question still remains an open book in our current political and economic discussions. No one disputes this narrative, progressive or realistic the reality of the land reform program, its necessity and inevitability. As an open chapter, what is left to deal with? There are several things, primary amongst them a land audit to ascertain where we stand on the matter as a country given the fact that we are an agro-based economy and to put paid to allegations that some chiefs have amassed more than their share of the land. Secondly, is perhaps the development and deployment of a depoliticised, objective and progressive thinking on the matter, which has been absent, and as a result has led to the continuous manipulation of the land issue as a political weapon based on falsehoods and calculated political manoeuvres.
As a born free, I find the film as a useful narrative on things that I didn't live through and some, which I was too young to understand. Having said that, this does not disqualify me as a commentator, but rather allows me not to fall into the trap of a time warp where analysis is trapped and restricted only to a current or a historical perspective.
The question that the film raises is relevant and couldn't have been asked at a better time. Robert Mugabe, will always be different to many, revered liberator to some, brutal dictator to others. His contribution to the liberation of the country from colonialism is huge, his sacrifices revered and appreciated. But in spite of all that, Robert Gabriel Mugabe, has certainly been no Angel Gabriel during his long tenure that is now nearing a generation.