BSR: Did we really need new names?


Too cold for the all-weather friend

The ZANU PF regime likes to refer to China as an all-weather friend. It’s a relationship that goes back decades, from the of the liberation struggle when China backed ZANLA, the armed wing of ZANU PF. Fast track to the current era when relations with the West have been frosty, the Zimbabwean regime has found comfort in the arms of the Chinese dragon.

However, this week, the relationship suffered a very public and unedifying fallout. China was not happy with the representation of its development aid to Zimbabwe in the national budget statement presented on 14 November 2019 by the Minister of Finance and Economic Development, Professor Mthuli Ncube.

China protested that the figures presented by the Minister were a gross misrepresentation of its actual support. Ncube had stated that China gave US$3.6 million this year. However, China believes the actual figure is US$136 million. The gap of US$133 million represents a wide divergence between the two governments. So what happened?

Some Zimbabweans were quick to accuse their government of fiddling with Chinese funds. This was more on account of a lack of trust in their government than any actual knowledge that money had been misappropriated. The Auditor-General has previously highlighted a case in which donations from China were never recorded on the government’s Master Asset Register. She had highlighted a concern that there was no way to trace how the donated goods had been distributed. With a track record of fiddling with donations, sceptical Zimbabweans were convinced that ZANU PF’s political elites had pilfered the bulk of the Chinese development aid.

However, the government argued that the problem lay in the different methods of accounting used by the two parties. It is this difference, the government said, which accounted for its low figure in contrast to China’s significantly high figure. To put it bluntly, the government was saying China’s method of accounting over-inflated its development support while China thought its support had been grossly undervalued. It could be that there is merit in the government’s argument; that China’s estimation of its development aid is over-inflated by the different method it uses to measure support to other countries. Whatever actual case might be, the matter exposes a number of things.

First, there is a lack of transparency in the handling of public finances. We have written many times in this column that loans were taken and guarantees given by the government must be published in the Government Gazette as required by the Constitution. The Minister of Finance has repeatedly neglected this constitutional duty. It would make clear how much commercial loans and guarantees Zimbabwe got from China. Such commercial deals may not ordinarily count as development aid since they are commercial deals which are repaid on a commercial basis.

This is precisely why watchdogs like ZIMCODD, which campaigns on public debt issues persistently urge the government to do a comprehensive debt audit. If the Chinese claims are anything to go by, one day, future generations will wake up to an enormous bill given all the opaque transactions that the government is contracting without accounting to Parliament.

Second, the incident shows why there is a growing mistrust of information that is generated by the government. This is a major ally questioning government statistics. How does the public trust the rest of the figures contained in the national budget? It doesn’t help that the government suspended the publication of annual inflation statistics. The gap has been filled by independent experts who put the inflation rate at more than 400%.

Third, China’s public outburst was highly uncharacteristic in its relationship with Zimbabwe where it has often played the role of the tolerant uncle who prefers to express any displeasure in private. China could have raised its concerns privately with the Zimbabwean government. The matter would have ended there. Perhaps they did but they became frustrated by the quality of the response or the lack of it. Maybe the public statement was a necessary defensive strategy by officials at the Chinese Embassy, to cry out loud so that their bosses back in Beijing would know that no one at the Embassy approved of any misrepresentation of their development support. In China, corruption is a matter of life and death. Convicted offenders face the death penalty.

There could also be a sign that the Chinese are at the end of their tether;  frustrated by the behaviour of their untrustworthy Zimbabwean counterparts when it comes to handling finances. Only a few weeks ago, the Zimbabwe Independent newspaper reported that China had frozen funds for infrastructure projects in Zimbabwe after authorities had finagled  US$10 million from an escrow account. Senior government officials insisted that it was just a minor misunderstanding but the Chinese response showed frustration. Once lost, trust is hard to regain.

Whatever the reason, the Chinese public reaction to the representation of its development support in the national budget suggests some discomfort in the relationship with the regime. They got frustrated in the last years of Mugabe’s rule when he effectively nationalised Chinese companies operating in the Chiadzwa diamond fields. For so long regarded by Mugabe as strong allies of his rule, they stood aside when he faced a coup from his military two years ago. They could no longer trust him to protect their interests.

It is not clear whether Mnangagwa ever had the full support of China. He made quick visits to China at key moments in his career – first when he was appointed Vice President in 2015 and when he took power in 2017. But the Chinese never warmed up to him and rejected his request for a US$2 billion financial bailout he needed soon after the coup. It seems the Chinese were never impressed and were skeptical of his sincerity and acumen.

On Zimbabwe’s part, even though Finance Minister Ncube seems convinced that his figures are accurate, there is still a lot of pussyfooting in fear of offending the Chinese. His press statement following a crisis meeting at which the two parties attempted to reconcile their different figures was as clear as mud. It simply confirmed that the parties remained at odds over the method of accounting which produced the two different figures. Ncube was trying to be polite but he was basically rejecting the Chinese claims.

It remains to be seen how this incident will impact the relationship and in particular, China’s financial commitments to the country. The regime cannot afford to lose friends at a time when its efforts at international re-engagement are floundering.

Changing tone from the south?

As if the public misunderstanding with China was not enough, the Mnangagwa regime also suffered a blow this week when South Africa made an unusually frank and forthright foreign policy statement on the crisis in Zimbabwe in years. There have been critical voices but none as strong and strategically placed as that of the Minister for International Relations Dr Naledi Pandor.

Speaking at a symposium on Zimbabwe held and sponsored by the Department for International Relations and Co-operation (DIRCO), Dr Pandor eloquently stated that Zimbabwe’s economic problems were inextricably connected to its political problems.

“It seems clear that even as we support the call for an end to economic sanctions, the political dynamics that we observe are inextricably linked to the economic solutions and thus the politics, the economic as well as the social need to be confronted simultaneously. We are not going to achieve the economic resolution without resolving the political …” Dr Pandor told the symposium.

This was a powerful statement, significant because it echoes the view that has been stated repeatedly by the opposition party, civil society and independent commentators on the Zimbabwean crisis. It is strikingly different from the narrow view which suggests that Zimbabwe’s economic challenges can be severed from the politics and resolved independently. This approach, which treats the economy as a part which can be extracted and fixed in isolation as if it were a specimen in a laboratory is too limited. The economy operates in a political context and it is impossible to resolve the challenges without attending to the politics.

The fact that Zimbabwe’s wealthy neighbour and its biggest trading partner is making such public statements suggests that they too can no longer buy the narratives sold by the regime. They cannot continue to ignore the elephant in the room: the political crisis which is a big driver of the economic crisis.

Dr Pandor also made a more revealing point of South Africa’s frustration with its counterpart administration in Zimbabwe. “While as the South African Government we work closely with the Government of Zimbabwe, it would be difficult for us to be seen to be working only with the Government of Zimbabwe given the large nature of the problem.” By this statement, the South African government is telling its counterpart in Zimbabwe that it does not have confidence that it can solve the problem on its own. Rather, there has to be an inclusive process in which the opposition is involved.

In short, the stark message is that if the Zimbabwean government wants South Africa to assist, South Africa would only be prepared to do so if the opposition is involved. Dr Pandor had already bemoaned the wide chasm that exists between the ruling party and the opposition and the need to find a way to break the seemingly intractable hostilities and impasse. This is a call for dialogue between the parties and also a clear statement that South Africa has no regard for the on-going hocus pocus at the Political Actors Dialogue (POLAD).

For his part, Chamisa echoed the SA line in his Hope of the Nation Address. The trouble is ZANU PF is pretending to be uninterested. Mnangagwa’s spokesperson George Charamba was hostile in response to Chamisa’s statement, accusing the opposition leader of wanting a GNU. He insisted that Mnangagwa would not discuss anything with anyone outside the POLAD process. The fact that a major ally has no regard for POLAD seems to escape them.

With Mnangagwa insisting on POLAD and Chamisa unwilling to be involved in POLAD, the impasse continues. If they really want to break the deadlock, powerful and influential neighbours will have to be more active in their nudging of both parties. Much will depend on how Zimbabwe can continue doddering under the weight of economic and social hardships.

The Mnangagwa regime’s image suffered further irreparable damage this week when members of the riot police went on an unprovoked rampage against opposition supporters. MDC Alliance supporters had gathered at their party’s headquarters in Harare for their leader’s address. The police had already rejected an application for a gathering at Africa Unity Square where Nelson Chamisa was due to present his Hope of the Nation Address.

The police refusal of the MDC’s application was another sign of the selective application of the law and closure of political space against the opposition. Just a few weeks before, ZANU PF held its anti-sanctions much without police interference. The anti-sanctions demonstration was a major flop but it was for lack of support, not police refusal.

The police attack on MDC supporters on Wednesday was vicious and callous. It was indiscriminate, affecting passers-by who were going about their business in Harare. This is not an isolated incident. It’s part of a pattern showing a paranoid state that is scared of its own people. It was a reminder that force and violence are ZANU PF’s stock-in-trade. However, it’s only a matter of time before a traumatised population responds in kind.

Alternatively, some members of the security services may eventually decide not to use force. It has happened in other countries that there comes a breaking point when some of the uniformed forces see no point in beating up people who are fighting for the same things that they too want for their communities. History is replete with examples of where over-reliance on violence came back to haunt dictators.

Politics of renaming streets

Acclaimed author NoViolet Bulawayo wrote a beautiful novel a few years ago called We Need New Names. What happened this week in her home country is not what she had in mind. Mnangagwa Cabinet published a long list of new names for streets in various cities across Zimbabwe, including the capital Harare. The names range from the current president Mnangagwa to communist strongmen of the Cold War era, Leonid Brezhnev, Fidel Castro and Chairman Mao.

Many Zimbabweans were aghast at the timing of this exercise, which plays to the metaphor of fiddling while Rome burns. The country is in a deep economic and social crisis. The healthcare sector is literally at a standstill. The roads themselves are a state of disrepair. They are unlit and potholed. Hyperinflation is looming. The crux of the matter is that the country has huge problems requiring immediate and unparalleled attention. And yet the government finds time to deliberate over road name changes. It shows an out of touch leadership that is focusing on frivolous matters that have no impact whatsoever upon their difficult circumstances.

People worry that it also reveals a narcissistic trait in the leader and nauseating fawning behaviour of people around him. He has been in power for just two years and has achieved nothing of note. In fact, Zimbabweans bemoan his leadership, with the precarious state of the economy as clear evidence of failure. Yet he has named 10 roads across cities after himself. Here is a man, who is obsessed with his own image; who despite making no significant contribution in his presidency wants to secure immortality through naming streets in his honour.

The street name grab follows a set pattern. Following in his predecessor’s footsteps, he is now the Chancellor of all state universities. Almost every one of those universities has granted him an honorary doctorate. He could have easily changed these ceremonies and rituals which are designed to enhance the cult of personality. But it seems to have been one of his ambitions to outdo Mugabe in everything that he did. He has the power to say no to the fawning that is going on around him; to set a new course of behaviour that expunges obsequiousness and sycophancy. But a leader has to be confident and self-assured to reject such servile conduct.

It’s important to understand that Mnangagwa is not doing this alone. He has enablers who fawn at him; parasitic characters who compete to stroke his ego. They are the ones who move these pointless and self-serving motions, in their bid to please him. It shows a man and a coterie of acolytes who are trying too hard to assert legitimacy, which is sorely lacking. They hope that by inscribing his name everywhere in all the major cities, it cements his presence and authority over the people; a reminder to every one of who is boss. They hope it fills the yawning gap of acceptance in the hearts and minds of the people; since even if they don’t recognise him, they must still see, pronounce and write his name whenever they come across it, in every city.

These vanity projects are not unfamiliar among the tribe of dictators. It’s all about control and establishing a cult of personality. The tragedy is not that dictators do not learn from history. It is that they are so caught up in the enterprise of self-admiration that they are ignorant of history, which leads them to do exactly what previous dictators have done usually to their ruin and detriment. When observers look at it, they see a pattern of similar self-obsessed and ruinous conduct among dictators.

To be sure, Mnangagwa is not the first ruler to show this trait of self-obsession and grandiose personality so early in his presidency. A few years after grabbing power through a coup d’état, the former soldier, Joseph Désiré Mobutu launched the so-called “authenticité” program, a campaign to “Africanise” Congolese society. As part of the program, the country’s name was promptly changed from the Congo to Zaïre. In addition, the names of cities were changed to so-called “original African names”.

Mobutu’s authenticity program included an exhortation to his countrymen to change their names from Western names to adopt African ones. Also, titles like Mr and Mrs were to be dropped as would Western-style dressing. To drive his point home he changed his name to Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu waza Banga, which apparently translated to “the all-conquering warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, will go from conquest to conquest leaving fire in his wake.” He went around with a trade-mark leopard-print hat.

Interestingly, as Congo scholars have observed Mobutu’s authenticity program was done at a period when the country’s economy was facing serious challenges. It is an uncanny coincidence that Mnangagwa’s efforts to change street names en masse is being done when Zimbabwe’s economy is in the doldrums. Mobutu was a looter of note and lived a lavish lifestyle that was completely at odds with the poverty of the people over which he ruled for decades.

Another dictator took the more bizarre step of changing the national calendar, giving new names to months of the year. Saparmurat Niyazov was the dictator of Turkmenistan when in 2002 he issued the uncanny decree. Like all dictators, his justification was along the lines of returning to traditional names. Under the decree, the month of April became “Gurbansoltan” apparently named after Niyazov’s mother. He renamed January after himself. According to The Guardian, he called it “Turkmenbashi” which translates to father of the Turkmen, itself a sign of his over-inflated ego. Ordinary Turkmen did not take to these new names and they continued to use the old names. However, for officials and state media, the new names were mandatory.

Naming places and roads after persons is, of course, a political exercise and changing them even more so. It not only affects the character of a city, but it also has implications for representations of history and society’s memory. Naming streets has a chapter in the sensitive politics of international relations. In 1984, Iran renamed Churchill Street to Bobby Sands Street, after an IRA dissident who had died in prison on hunger strike. The British changed the entrance to the Embassy which was located on the renamed street. In 1984, the US renamed a part of Washington DC’s 16th Street to Andrei Sakharov Plaza. That extraordinary step was to honour the Nobel-prize winning nuclear physicist who was a political prisoner in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union embassy was based on that part of the street. This was during the Cold War.

Is there any message in these names apart from asserting Mnangagwa’s vanity and the fawning attitude of his worshipers? The regime says it is partly to foster national unity. There is a large number of names that had been omitted during the Mugabe regime, mostly from the ZAPU/ZIPRA side. There is also recognition of key figures in history such as Queen Lozikeyi, who had been excluded from national narratives. While it can be interpreted as a positive attempt to correct national and in particular the liberation war history, cynics might view it as a cosmetic effort which does not address the real grievances in the Matebeleland region. He will need to do more lest this be regarded as another facade.

The recognition of Leonid Brezhnev and Chairman Mao is both an acknowledgement of Russia and China’s help in the liberation struggle and considering the current political dynamics, it is also a reflection of prevailing political friendships. Both the Russians and Chinese are the two big powers that the regime has tried to court in light of Western criticism. However, while China has provided development assistance, Russia does not feature among major financial supporters of the regime. The regime is saying to the West, these are our friends. But neither Brezhnev nor Mao can be regarded as role models for a modern-day leader. The Russians may indeed be amused that Brezhnev is getting such recognition far away from home in a southern African country.

Exclusionary politics of naming

Like most pieces of history, the naming of places and streets is a narrative of history that is told by the victors. To that extent, it is a story which always glorifies the hunter at the expense of the lion because it is invariably told by the hunter. That is why colonial names recognised and celebrated key figures in colonial history. The names that replaced them at independence told the ZANU PF version of history. The current renaming project is trying to correct that earlier narrative to the extent that it is including more names from the ZAPU/ZIPRA side of the war.

But it is still exclusionary as there are still notable exclusions from the same era. Zimbabwean visitors to Accra are often pleasantly surprised to see a street called Ndabaningi Sithole Road which runs from Osu and cuts between Labadi and the Cantonments. The founding leader of ZANU is still recognised far away in West Africa, but not in his own home. Some younger Zimbabweans may have grown up believing that Mugabe was the founding leader of ZANU given the way history was being re-written during his rule. The current regime continues with the same exclusionary narrative. They might accuse Sithole of all sorts as if they themselves have not done worse in their betrayal of the people who are living in unremitting poverty.

Leaders from the opposition who have held national office or made significant contributions to democratisation have also been excluded. Hence Morgan Tsvangirai, Gibson Sibanda and many others from the MDC remain excluded. Previous efforts to honour Tsvangirai have not been supported by the central government.

Thus the naming project, just like the conferment of hero status remains a decidedly partisan affair, one that confirms the deep chasm that divides the nation along political lines. It is hardly surprising that opposition supporters look at what should be a national exercise with utter disdain. By excluding their heroes, the naming project is not their story. It is a ZANU PF story which erases its own heroes from the national history.

Missed opportunity

In fact, this is yet another missed opportunity by the Mnangagwa regime to do something right. It is a tragic lack of leadership that the Mnangagwa regime fails to see the symbolism of the naming project and its potential open avenues of new perspectives. A more inclusive list might have had a better reception even if people had reservations over the timing and relevance. It might indeed have been seen as a hand of tolerance which could help thaw the tensions that exist between the political parties.

The deep chasm at the heart of Zimbabwean politics requires wisdom-inspired leadership that sees beyond the here and now; leadership that looks at the big picture. Wisdom is knowing that one seemingly small gesture in politics can be a huge step in building a nation. But such wisdom is sorely lacking in the country’s leadership. The importance of symbolism as a building block is lost on them. Instead, they use symbolism as a weapon. It is weaponised to exclude and mock. It is an instrument to assert power, to massage egos and to lay the blocks for constructing a cult of personality. History reminds us that it never ends well.