Haunted by Self-Denying Coups

Anti-Sisi protesters. London, November 2015.

My mother grew up in Zimbabwe’s second city, Bulawayo when it was still colonial Rhodesia and I have spent the last decade reporting from the Middle East.

So while watching Robert Mugabe’s long rambling refusal to resign, I thought of Hosni Mubarak’s final address to Egyptians amidst a burgeoning revolution. Staring at my laptop at my kitchen table in Ramallah, I flipped between the images of the presidential TV address from Harare and reading news reports of the Egyptian brokered Palestinian reconciliation process to a soundtrack of Mugabe’s voice.

When Mugabe resigned and people took to the streets to celebrate, I tried, with some difficulty, to imagine the streets of Cairo on February 11, 2011.

Yet when I saw the military-backed, former Mugabe strongman, Emmerson Mnangagwa, present himself as a self-sacrificing father of the nation after landing in Harare, I could only see a new Abdel Fattah al Sisi. I lived and reported in Egypt as Sisi rose to power, witnessing the killing and repression to bring back an authoritarian military state. In Sisi and Mnangagwa I see men, with their people’s blood on their hands, presenting themselves as new national saviours. Now I fear Zimbabwe will go through an Egyptian style transition while skipping the popular revolution that briefly offered an alternative future.

I have never been to Zim, as my mother calls it. Rather, it is through the Middle East that I have connected what I have been taught about the world and its struggles and what I have seen.

My parents met in South Africa in the late 1970’s, where my mother taught in what the Apartheid regime called a “coloured” school. My father, an academic and activist from Canada, was part of an international delegation travelling Southern Africa to meet with the underground anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the ANC in exile and various postcolonial socialist governments of the region.

Because I grew up in Toronto, my image of Zim was passed on by two anti-apartheid activists who had great hopes for the liberation struggles of Southern Africa and experienced bitter discontent with a revolution betrayed in my mother’s home country.

I recently asked my father why my he and my mother haven’t been back to Zim since the early 1980s, prior to Mugabe’s bloody crackdown, which was overseen by Mnangagwa, on the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and its ethnically Ndebele base of support. Tens of thousands of civilians from the Ndebele minority were killed between 1983 and 1987 in what became known as the Gukurahundi Massacres.

“Early on there were signs of problems with Mugabe,” I remember my father saying on more than one occasion growing up. He had met with government ministers in Harare in 1981 to discuss ways Canadian activists could provide support to the fledgeling post-colonial republic and remembers it as a “much more optimistic time.” However, the purge of ZAPU, a rival Marxist liberation struggle led by Joshua Nkomo, embittered him toward Mugabe. Nkomo and ZAPU were the liberation force that fought white minority rule in Bulawayo, in an uneasy coalition with Mugabe, and it was amid the Ndebele-led struggle that my mother grew up. 

“Your mother feels pretty strongly about not going back until Mugabe’s gone,” he said over the phone in early November from Toronto.

I was curious as to why my parents were willing to visit me in Erdogan’s authoritarian Turkey or in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories—the latter, a place in which they go to see family, despite their strong opposition to the occupation—but not go to Zim.

“Mugabe was just such a disappointment, we had such high hopes,” he continues in his usual understated tone, which masks the sense of loss in the statement. After spending years reporting on failed revolutions in the Middle East and on Israel’s grinding 50-year occupation —it’s a feeling I understood.

The closest I came to seeing the world my parents fought for in both Southern Africa and Canada was during a trip to Cape Town a few years ago. I was attending the Jewish wedding of close friends, a South African anti-occupation activist and left-wing American journalist I’d lived with in Ramallah.

I visited the working class, ghettoised school where my mother taught in the late 1970s, during the Apartheid-era reign of P.W. Botha, the first contemporary Southern African leader to be given the nickname “the Crocodile” for his notorious ruthlessness. Mnangagwa is the second, and although, ironically, his nickname originated in the liberation war, it has been adjusted to fit his strongman grip on power.

The problems of poverty and marginalization in the community around the school have continued since the end of Apartheid. It is here that the costs of the ANC concessions on nationalization and wealth redistribution during transition and the IMF’s privatisation demands are seen.

The rows of cramped single floor dwellings separated from pothole streets by small clumps of sunburned grass or a few concrete squares for a front yard give off a distinctly Compton on the Cape feel. Teachers at the school discussed how families in the neighbourhood continue to struggle with low wages, high unemployment and drug-related problems.

However, when I met Joyce, a secretary from my mother’s teaching days and now a head administrator, it became clear how much had changed. 

My mother described a tense and repressed teaching atmosphere when she was at the school in 1978. The first crocodile of Southern Africa had just come to power and she remembered a school where anti-apartheid activism had been forced underground. Her memories of the school are shaped by the violence and poverty white minority rule inflicted on the community she taught. At work, she felt apartheid daily in an atmosphere of mistrust. The teachers whom the regime designated “coloured” and oppressed by it as a result rarely socialized with the white teachers – many of who saw their job as a steppingstone to a job in white schools – and kept them at a distance.

Joyce and teachers who had been at the school since the early 1980s—after my mother moved to Canada—told me about a transformed atmosphere amidst the ANC’s and United Democratic Front’s campaign to make the country ungovernable. They described how teachers joined their striking students in the streets and provided cover for them in the face of regime crackdowns.

In those days, students would organize strikes in the school and take to the streets in front of it, setting up barricades to confront regime security forces in riot gear with rocks they brought to school in their backpacks. While joining their union in nationwide labour actions to grind down the regime, teachers at the school also covered for, hid or protected student strike organizers when regime police stormed classrooms in a bid to arrest them.

The school is much better funded today than it was when my mother taught there and has been fully renovated. Yet perhaps the greatest sign of that world my parents fought for were the pictures of Nelson Mandela walking out of prison—and images of struggle in the streets, mines and schools—immortalised on the walls by students of what is now called the “born free” generation.

I grew up with stories of Mandela and the ANC leadership’s imprisonment on Robben Island, imagining the harsh Island prison off the African coast as a daunting tower of London where The Cruel inflicted unspeakable suffering on The Just. When I visited the notorious prison, where the tours are led by former political prisoners, I got a glimpse at the reality behind the cartoonish horror I imagined as a child.

Zepo, a former guerrilla in the ANC’s armed wing who was arrested in 1979, was our guide. He was caught reentering South Africa from Lesotho after being followed by intelligence agents from the Apartheid regime’s Bureau of State Security (B.O.S.S.) and as he described the torture and violence he’d endured, I thought of people who told me of their time in Egyptian, Israeli and Turkish jails. His stories of beatings, humiliation and degradation designed to break his political will were familiar. He hid the long-lasting scars inflicted under torture – to extract information and instil fear in equal measure – behind a pleasant yet blank gaze that I recognized from conversations with former political prisoners.

His depiction of simple acts of collective resistance by prisoners who organized themselves on the inside by the political organizations they were jailed for fighting for brought me back to what I’ve been told in quiet voices across coffee tables in Cairo, Ramallah and Diyarbakir. What has always struck me in these painful yet inspiring tales of jailed revolutionaries, is their ability to imagine and fight for the society they want to create while isolated and discarded in the bowels of the regimes that rule them.

However, the difference between Zepo and many of those I have spoken to in the Middle East is that he has survived to savour the reality of victory.

I told Zepo that my father had travelled through Lesotho in 1978, while on his solidarity delegation trip. I also mentioned that he found out years later that B.O.S.S. agents had infiltrated some of his meetings in South Africa.

“Oooh, your father could have ended up in Pretoria prison,” he said quickly, referencing the place where white anti-apartheid activists were incarcerated.

Zepo gave me a connection to the world my parents fought in—and the costs of that fight. However, for him, the interaction was part of the job he says he wouldn’t do if he could find other stable work. He is someone who paid a heavy price for freedom yet still has to walk the halls of the building that imprisoned him, making a living in a world of continued struggle, where transition has brought its own discontents.

Despite these rare glimpses into my parents’ past, I have best understood their stories and lessons when looking at them through the lens of the Middle East, where I became the person that I am.

“You don’t have any idea what it feels like to go to bed sick to your stomach because of what you see every day,” said my mother, as I was being difficult during a disagreement I had with her during my university days. She was referring to her experience growing up alienated by a racist regime while living in a home where the phone was tapped by the same regime because her father was a journalist.

My mother was right and I only started to understand her point when I first moved to Ramallah after graduation. I understood it even better eight years later when I emerged from Gaza at the end of 2014 war to blow off steam in Tel Aviv. I had spent more than a month living with people under constant Israeli assault, telling their stories of devastation, endurance and resistance while being indiscriminately bombarded by the world’s fourth most powerful military. Her frustration struck me as I arrived at the bar and quickly learned that nothing on offer could replicate the dethatched serenity that rest of the patrons revelled in, while their bombs continued to fall an hour away.

When visiting West Bank Palestinian refugee camps in the wake of Israeli military raids, I often think of stories my mother told me of the brutality inflicted against black communities by people she knew in the Rhodesian security forces.

Young Israelis who refused to be occupying soldiers, accepting jail over Israeli military conscription, make me think of my uncle, who fled Ian Smith’s white minority regime rather than fight in its army. Seeing these few Israelis confront the occupation in the streets of Tel Aviv and the West Bank reminds me of my uncle’s stories of clandestinely working on an anti-apartheid magazine published by Jewish students at the University of Cape Town, which was banned under the first crocodile’s administration.    

My parents struggle has, at times, focused the lens through which I see my adopted home, but the bitter lessons of recent revolution betrayed in the Middle East also shape how I see the future of my mother’s birthplace.

There are large differences between Egypt’s transition—from the 2011 popular uprising to bloody 2013 coup—and the bloodless coup that was popularly received in Zimbabwe. However, there are also strong parallels in their path of transition and the militarized legacy of post-colonial rule.

Zimbabwe, like Egypt, is a state shaped by having overcome colonialism’s brutal legacy by military means while making the new national army a defining force of the country’s direction and the government’s priorities. The army and the politically powerful War Veterans organization controlled by the ruling party in Zimbabwe have been institutions of political power and patronage. Land redistribution has happened under the policy that land should first go to those who fought in the liberation war.

In reality, Mugabe’s cronies led disorganized land seizers of massive white farms, rewarding themselves with the plantations while many citizens remained landless. Rooted in Mugabe’s own proclamation that “our votes must go together with our guns,” and only implemented after pressure from Zimbabwe’s landless, it was that same idea that put him on the other side of the army and forced him from power as he tried to hand the state to his family.

In Egypt, a post-colonial republic founded through a popular junior officers coup, the military emerged under Gamal Abdul Nasser as a central institution of decolonization and political administration. Today that military is a vast conglomerate alongside a conscript fighting force, producing everything from flat screen televisions to bottled water. When it overthrew the country’s first democratically elected president and replaced him with its own general in the bloodletting of 2013, it was serving its own corporate interests alongside political aspirations.

In many ways, Mugabe is a politician that could fill both Nasser’s and Mubarak’s shoes at different points in his political life. In his younger days, he, like Nasser, was a popular charismatic leader who led decolonization with an authoritarian approach to change. After more than 30 years of authoritarian rule, his later years are, like Mubarak’s, defined by vast inequality, unemployment and repression. Like Mubarak, he became a kleptocratic ruler who squabbled with the allies who brutally kept him in power as he shaped the state in the image of his family and cronies.

Yet perhaps the most worrying and telling parallel between the emerging regime in Harare and post-coup Egypt is how they came to pass and the kind of people that are now at their helm. After a lifetime enforcing the old corrupt regimes from the shadows, a rapid succession of escalating political crises propelled both men into the centre of public life and power.

Until Mnangagwa recently fell out with Mugabe and toppled him, he organized the political terror and violence that kept Mugabe in power. During the 2011 revolution, Sisi did what he could, as the army’s director of military intelligence, to crush the popular uprising. And when both men took a path to state power—a path they’d bulldozed down the streets of their capitals with the country’s tanks—they did what can only be done when backed by absolute force: denied the reality they’d just displayed to the world.

As I watch the second crocodile head towards an election to bestow legitimacy, backed by a cabinet of old party loyalists and military figures, while Sisi runs virtually unopposed to reaffirm control over the state he took by force, I again see the betrayals of my parent’s world being recreated in mine. And I wonder if my parents will return to Zim, a place where, like the region I live in, there should be no illusions about self-denying coups.

For more about Jesse Rosenfeld and his work, check out the 2016 documentary Freelancer on the Front Lines.

Photograph courtesy of Alisdare Hickson. Published under a Creative Commons license.