A Predictable Tragedy: Robert Mugabe and the Collapse of Zimbabwe

By Ndlovu-Gatsheni, Sabelo J. | African Studies Review, April 2012 | Go to article overview

A Predictable Tragedy: Robert Mugabe and the Collapse of Zimbabwe


Ndlovu-Gatsheni, Sabelo J., African Studies Review


Daniel Compagnon. A Predictable Tragedy: Robert Mugabe and the Collapse of Zimbabwe. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. 334 pp. List of Acronyms. Notes. Index. Acknowledgments. $39.95. Cloth.

Daniel Compagnon is no stranger to Zimbabwean studies, having previously co-authored Behind the Smokescreen with John Makumbe before the country fell into unprecedented crisis in 2000. His deep knowledge of the political developments and dynamics is fully reflected in this current book, which seeks to explain the route taken by Zimbabwe into crisis. Unlike authors unfamiliar with the evolution of nationalist politics along neopatrimonial and authoritarian lines which portended a future crisis, and who were thus easily blinded by the rhetoric of progress and cosmetic signs of Zimbabwe as a successful transitional state, Compagnon insists that the crisis was predictable to those who cared to look beyond myths of political stability and pretenses of economic rationality.

In eight solidly researched and ably argued chapters, Compagnon manages convincingly to pursue his important thesis of a predictable tragedy. Introducing his book, Compagnon unpacks a catalogue of myths forged by the Mugabe regime and outsiders to cover the nakedness of absolutism, authoritarianism, and economic irrationality. One such myth: Mugabe created a democratic multiracial nation-state. Once one goes beyond the myths, the important question to ask, according to Compagnon, is not what went wrong in Zimbabwe, but why it took so long to plunge into crisis. He boldly states: "Contrary to the view commonly held in the media and by some observers - that there was a sudden turn of events in 2000, supposedly reversing a previous trend towards democratization - the political system set in place at independence and throughout the 1980s was authoritarian in essence" (8).

A corpus of evidence amplifies Compagnon's thesis, beginning with the internal purging that took place inside ZANU while it was based in Mozambique; the use of the Fifth Brigade in the 1980s to engage in "ethnic cleansing" of the Ndebele-speaking people, code-named Gukurahundi (operation cleaning up the chaff), which left twenty thousand civilians dead; Operation Murambatsvina (operation clean-up) in 2005, which left more than seventy thousand people without shelter; and after March 29, 2008, Operation Mavhoterapapi (Operation how did you vote), which targeted all those who voted for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). These are among the most glaring cases of authoritarianism and violence. But Compagnon provides a chronologically and thematically detailed analysis of this phenomenon beginning with how ZANU-PF assumed control of the political arena (chapter 1); how Mugabe embraced violence as a cornerstone of his political survival (chapter 2); how civil society became an incubator for a credible opposition within a terrain dominated by political intolerance (chapter 3); how ZANU-PF and Mugabe muzzled freedom of expression and reduced the media to a batdefield (chapter 4); how the judiciary was subjugated by the executive (chapter 5); how Mugabe authorized a chaotic land reform that resulted in human tragedy (chapter 6); how ZANU-PF elites and their cronies assumed the class of "state bourgeoisie" through brazen plundering of die national economy (chapter 7); and ending with how the international community, SADC, and South Africa failed to save the people of Zimbabwe from ZANU-PF misrule and Mugabe's executive lawlessness and political debauchery. …

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