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Big Saturday Read: Playing possum and Lady Fortuna's wheel

The Sarajevo Incident

The story of humankind has countless examples of unexpected events that nevertheless have had a profound effect upon the course of history. Just when everything seems to be following a particular course and everyone has a specific end in sight, something can happen out of nowhere, which causes a seismic shift in the trajectory of history.

As students of history know too well, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1914, set in motion events that led to the First World War. Ferdinand was visiting Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital when he and his wife were shot and killed by Gavrilo Princip, a young Serbian who belonged to the Black Hand, a group that advocated for Serbian independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Balkan region was known as the “Powder Keg of Europe” in light of the intensity of nationalistic sentiments held by the people of that part of Europe that was under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the Empire declared war upon Serbia. Serbia called upon its ally, Russia and Austria sought help from its own ally, Germany. When Germany invaded Belgium, Great Britain which had signed a treaty with Belgium also declared war upon Germany. One thing led to the other until the whole of Europe and their colonies became engulfed in catastrophic war. It was the Triple Alliance against the Triple Entente. The Great War had devastating effects on Europe and its impact upon the world and the course of history is indelible. It was the Sarajevo Incident, as the assassination is often called, that was the spark that lit the powder keg.

Machiavelli’s Lady Fortuna

And so it is that sometimes, the most unlikely events can be the most fundamental shapers of history. Here, the issue of luck becomes pertinent. Is there such a thing as luck in politics? If so, how influential is it on the course of events? In his oft-quoted work, The Prince, Machiavelli dwells on the relevance of luck in shaping the course of events. He does so through the symbolism of Lady Fortuna (Lady Luck).

During the Renaissance, luck was generally represented in art and literature as a female figure called Fortuna. She could be seen in these artistic representations as a lady holding a turning wheel. The turning wheel represented the fickleness of luck which was constantly changing. Thus, one day you could be at the top of the wheel, enjoying good fortune but you could be at the bottom soon after, just like a turning wheel. Using a metaphor that would not pass the test of political correctness and would indeed disgust many in this day but was perfectly normal during that time, Machiavelli advises that he who wants to control fortune must treat her with boldness and roughness. “I certainly think that it is better to be impetuous than cautious, because fortune is a woman, and if you want to control her, it is necessary to treat her roughly”, wrote Machiavelli. No doubt, it sounds gross to the modern ear, but not only would it be imprudent and unreasonable to judge a 15th Century thinker by the standards of the 21st century but more importantly the critical point should not be lost in the metaphor. What Machiavelli meant was that, even though some things are owed to fortune, it is still possible to control events but one has to be bold and brave. Fortune favours the brave; an adage that is common in modern parlance is a close relation.

In essence, Machiavelli’s advice was that even though luck had a role in the course of human affairs, because there were circumstances and events which were beyond the prince’s direct control, this only accounted for half of human actions. The other half, according to Machiavelli was well within human control. “Nevertheless, so as not to eliminate human freedom, I am disposed to hold that fortune is the arbiter of half our actions, but that it lets us control roughly the other half,” wrote Machiavelli. In other words, it is not everything that is controlled by destiny. One doesn’t have to sit by idly, resigned to the fact that fate controls their destiny. One could do something to influence the course of events.

To make his point, Machiavelli, uses the metaphor of a river in flood. Representing the force of nature, a flooded river could destroy everything in its path causing great harm to the kingdom. But in his view, it doesn’t always have to end so catastrophically. It could be averted by human actions. The river could be tamed and controlled. For example, the prince could build a dam and take other precautions to prevent the flood. Thus while he attributes certain events to luck, Machiavelli emphasises that a person has fifty percent chance to influence the course of events.

The reference to the Sarajevo Incident and to Machiavelli’s Lady Fortuna is relevant in the context of the on-going race to succeed Zimbabwe’s long-serving President, Robert Mugabe. For a start, nothing is decided until the day the successor sits on the throne. Although tensions had been brewing in Europe for some time, no one could have imagined that the assassination of the heir to the Austrian Empire would be the spark that would spark the Great War. Likewise, something could easily happen during the succession race that could tip the scales and transform the course of events. In this regard, we can pick an example from recent history.

Death of the General

No one could have imagined that a highly decorated soldier in the form of Retired General Solomon Mujuru, a survivor of more life-threatening situations, would meet his end in a house fire during an August night in 2011. It was an unexpected death that shocked the entire nation. But, as it turned out, this tragic event had a profound effect on the race to succeed Mugabe, as it tipped the balance of power against his wife, Joice Mujuru who, just 3 years later, lost the Vice Presidency and the chance to replace Mugabe. In the General, Joice Mujuru had a formidable pillar upon which her political fortunes and strength rested. Widely acknowledged as a Kingmaker within ZANU PF, the General had played an important role in his wife’s ascendancy to the Vice Presidency, ahead of rival Emmerson Mnangagwa back in 2004. However, ten years later and 3 years after the death of the General, Mnangagwa was the Vice President and Joice Mujuru had been ignominiously ejected from ZANU PF.

But was the General’s demise Fortuna’s doing or the hand of humankind? Was the death a result of circumstances that were beyond human control – that no one planned - or was it a result of human machinations? The death of the General has never been satisfactorily explained, although an inquest concluded in 2012 that there was no foul play involved. This decision notwithstanding, his family remained doubtful that the fire was merely an accident. In recent years, in her new life as an opposition politician, Joice Mujuru has voiced concerns over her husband’s death suggesting that he was assassinated by political rivals. However, even if Lady Fortuna had a hand in the demise of the General and the subsequent weakening of Joice Mujuru’s base, it required more than luck to remove her from office. That mission was accomplished following a carefully planned and executed course of events with Grace Mugabe at the front of the assault. Perhaps then it might be said, true to Machiavelli’s formula that it was a result of both Lady Fortuna and human actions although if the assassination theory is correct, it was all a result of human action.

Let us now look at two of the most recent events in the succession drama.

Playing possum?

In the story of evolution, animals have developed different mechanisms for responding to threats. Some are known to launch ferocious counter-attacks, while others simply flee at the first sign of danger. Others though have learnt to use deception. Thus, when faced with danger, an animal will appear lifeless. It will play dead. Some might even emit the smell of death. The name that scientists give to this phenomenon is thanatosis. “Playing possum” is a figurative expression for the same phenomenon. It derives from the manner by which a creature called the opossum reacts to danger. Apparently, it can remain in that motionless, catatonic state for hours, while emitting an odour suggesting that it is already dead. Predators are not usually attracted to dead prey. They prefer to kill. Playing dead therefore dissuades predators from attacking because there is nothing to kill. Growing up in the village, we encountered a number of such little creatures – the moment they sensed a threat they pretended to be immobile or even dead. It is not just a defensive mechanism in times of danger, as some species use it to trap unsuspecting prey or for amorous purposes, to catch members of the opposite sex in order to facilitate reproduction. It is with this metaphor in mind that one of the recent events could be analysed.

Two weeks ago, Vice President Mnangagwa was rushed to hospital with a case of vomiting and diarrhoea. He was subsequently taken to a private hospital in South Africa for specialist treatment. It then emerged that he had allegedly been poisoned. The government had previously indicated that he had suffered a case of food poisoning after eating bad food. However, Mnangagwa’s supporters have refuted this, pointing out that the doctors had found traces of palladium which had done damage to part of his liver. Mnangagwa was attending Mugabe’s rally in Gwanda when he was taken ill. There he had consumed food and water, along with others. The overriding belief among Mnangagwa’s supporters is that his sudden illness was not a circumstance of nature but that it was the work of political rivals whose primary aim was to eliminate him. Mnangagwa’s faction, Lacoste has been locked in a fierce battle with G40, a faction that has Mugabe’s wife, Grace as its lynchpin.

Mnangagwa’s people do not think his woes have anything to do with bad luck. They believe the case bears the hallmarks of human action, not the hand of Lady Fortuna. Naturally, Mnangagwa’s rivals are not convinced. They believe that it was a case of bad food. But, although it has not been said directly, it might also be that they suspect their rival was playing possum. Could it be a defensive mechanism on the part of Lacoste? To be sure, in recent weeks, Lacoste had been receiving severe battering from their rivals. It was clear that as Mugabe’s Youth Interface rallies progressed, Grace Mugabe would raise the tempo. The pattern was taking familiar note, similar to what had happened to Joice Mujuru in 2014. Mujuru had offered no response. She did not counter-attack. She did not flee. She just stood in her corner while receiving a severe battering from Grace Mugabe and her allies. By the time the December Congress arrived, she had already been knocked out.

Mnangagwa and his allies must have sensed that they were facing a threatening situation that required a quick response. Like Mujuru before him, Mnangagwa has resisted the urge to counter-attack, preferring to maintain a veneer of respectfulness, which the less charitable interpret as timidity. Only his allies, the War Veterans, have decided to fight fire with fire. He has not yet fled, although The Zimbabwe Independent newspaper reported two weeks ago that he had allegedly tendered his resignation, which Mugabe rejected. Could he therefore have decided to play possum, in order to deceive the opponent and buy more time?

The boy who cried wolf

It is important to note that the alleged poisoning is the latest incident in a series of previous ones in the past couple of years in which Mnangagwa has allegedly been a victim of intrusion by unknown intruders. In one incident in October 2014, he was involved in an accident in which he escaped unhurt. However, The Herald newspaper was more dramatic about it, describing him as having “escaped death by a whisker”. There was also a series of incidents in which his government and party offices were broken into by intruders. On one occasion a toxic substance was allegedly planted in his office, causing harm to one of his assistants who had to be hospitalised.

What is odd however is that on each occasion, the intruders evaded security given that government offices are guarded by members of the security services. One would have expected security to have been upgraded after the first incident. Interestingly also, the investigations seem to have gone cold soon after their announcement. Although the state papers announced the incidents in dramatic fashion, there have been no prominent follow-ups to tell what happened next. Could it be that the investigating authorities are incompetent? Or could it be that these were yet more cases of playing possum?

The trouble with these incidents that go cold after so much drama is that when the real thing actually happens, people will struggle to take it seriously. In folklore, the boy who cried wolf too many times while watching village sheep at night did not get attention when he really needed it. On previous occasions he had raised false alarm but when he really faced the threat of a wolf and cried for help, nobody woke up to help because they all thought he was a habitual liar. This may well have been a case of poisoning but the fact that there have been previous incidents of lesser threats which have gone cold means some people will treat it with great circumspection.

Irretrievable breakdown?

However, the recent case of alleged poisoning appears to have worsened relations between the two competing factions in the succession race. The Commander of the Defence Forces, General Constantino Chiwenga certainly played a prominent role in assisting his ally. His hands-on approach and assumption of responsibility reaffirmed the proximity of their relationship. Already Mnangagwa’s supporters are pointing fingers at the G40 faction. While Mnangagwa was in hospital in South Africa a group of his supporters gathered in Harare to pray for his recovery. Politically, this was a show of solidarity and support for the beleaguered presidential aspirant. It was pertinent that among the crowd were persons who have been expelled from ZANU PF, casualties of the succession race.

The walkout by some mourners at the funeral of Shuvai Mahofa while Vice President Mphoko was giving the main address was an important show of protest. There had already been warnings before the funeral that there would be such protests if Mphoko was going to preside over the burial ceremony in Mugabe’s absence. Mugabe did arrive back in Zimbabwe before the funeral ceremony but he left Mphoko to take charge of the event. These incidents and the exchange of accusations and counter-accusations between the two factions demonstrate the deepening rupture which is unlikely to heal. It is fair to say the relationship is at a point where it has broken down irretrievably and the only reason they are still together is that they both still feign allegiance to Mugabe.


Upon arrival from South Africa, Mnangagwa was greeted presidential style by his supporters who lined up to greet him beside the private jet that transported him. It was reminiscent of the customary line-up and welcome routine that Mugabe’s Ministers dutifully perform every time he arrives from one of his numerous foreign trips, whatever the time of day or weather conditions. As Mnangagwa shook hands with each member of his welcoming party, one could not escape the impression that it was some form of rehearsal for what the future holds. The symbolism of the routine would certainly not have gone unnoticed by G40 or Mugabe himself.

One of the outcomes of the alleged poisoning incident is that Mnangagwa’s supporters are becoming more open and daring than they have been before. If it was a strategic move designed to mobilise sympathy and galvanise and embolden the Lacoste troops, then it seems to have worked well. The loud protests against Mphoko (allegedly backing G40) were reminiscent of the protests directed at Mugabe back in 1997 when War Veterans were protesting against alleged neglect by government. Likewise, after dominating social media space for a long period, there seems to be a strong push back against G40, especially Professor Moyo from a contingent of Lacoste troops. As argued before, although Moyo lost control of state media when he was relocated from the Information and Publicity Ministry to Higher Education in 2015, he has strategically occupied social media space and used it to a devastating effect to the point that he was able to set the agenda for traditional media. Lacoste appear to have caught up with this and they now have their own troops targeting Moyo in particular who used Twitter to warn “LACOSTE idiots” that they would be “BLOCKED or IGNORED” if they continued “falling on each other … with utter garbage”. It suggests that Moyo is getting frustrated and irritated by the barrage of attacks from the anonymous pro-Mnangagwa troops who have now joined the fight on social media.

The Grace Mugabe Incident

Much has already been said about the embarrassing incident in which Grace Mugabe allegedly assaulted Gabriella Engels, a young female companion of her two sons during a trip to South Africa. The embarrassing incident threatened to cause a diplomatic fallout between the two Southern African neighbours as citizens of both countries called on South African authorities to enforce the law against Zimbabwe’s First Lady. She only escaped prosecution when the South African government controversially granted her diplomatic immunity. This ended a tempestuous week for Grace Mugabe when she became the main topic of discussion in both countries and her story made news around the world. How though, if at all would it impact upon the succession race in Zimbabwe?

First, the incident reinforced doubts on Grace Mugabe’s suitability as a national leader. There had long been questions over her temperament. It was not the first time that her choleric temper has landed her in trouble in foreign lands. Nearly ten years ago, she allegedly assaulted a journalist and only escaped prosecution when she was granted diplomatic immunity by the Hong Kong authorities. Back in Zimbabwe, she has used the public stage to chide and harass senior government and party officials, often using language far below the station of First Lady. While she has benefited from diplomatic immunity, critics in Zimbabwe argue that it has created a moral hazard in that it has encouraged her to act with impunity. If ever she harboured ambitions to be President, the incident did further damage to her credentials.

Second, the incident has had diversionary and energy-sapping effect on the G40 campaign. The G40 ship was cruising and Lacoste was on the ropes when the incident happened. Mnangagwa had just been taken ill, suffering from alleged poisoning and Lacoste had shown no signs of responding to the relentless attacks from G40. The media storm generated by the incident which involved a key pillar of G40 was not helpful to their cause. For the entire week, the G40 members had to fend off criticism and generate propaganda to limit the damage caused by the incident. G40 did not need that diversion and the consequent energy spent on it was wasteful.

Lacoste’s fortune?

Going back to Machiavelli’s views on luck, it might be said that the Grace Mugabe incident was courtesy of the hand of Lady Fortuna – that the wheel of fortune had turned in Lacoste’s favour. That the key pillar of their rival would go all the way to South Africa and find herself on a sticky wicket is not something that Lacoste could have dreamt of or engineered. But there she was, Grace Mugabe, the lynchpin of G40, landing herself in a legal cesspool, along with the total embarrassment that it brought. It was the best thing that has happened to Lacoste in a while. Not only did it give them a break from G40’s relentless barrage that had been the order of the day for the last few weeks, but it also reduced G40’s estimation in the eyes of the public at a time when Lacoste was gaining some sympathy from Mnangagwa’s alleged poisoning incident. For Lacoste, if the poisoning incident was engineered by the human hand, the Grace Mugabe incident certainly owed more to the hand of Lady Fortuna. They did not engineer it but circumstances fell to their advantage.

Sword of Damocles

Yet, in some ways too, the incident has potential to jolt Grace Mugabe to hasten the rise of her preferred candidate. For Grace Mugabe, personal and family security in the post-Robert Mugabe era is of paramount importance. Her late entry onto the political dancefloor was motivated more by the need to guarantee protection for herself and her children after her husband’s departure. She realised she needed to be a key actor rather than to leave her fate to other hands. So she left the terraces and joined the dancefloor and once there, for better or worse, her presence has been felt by everyone.

Although she escaped prosecution courtesy of a controversial award of diplomatic immunity, the irony is that she has actually become more vulnerable than she was before the incident. She may have left South Africa with the protection of diplomatic immunity but there will always be a sword of Damocles hanging over her head. Already, the survivor of her alleged attack has taken legal action to challenge the award of diplomatic immunity. There is every chance that the courts will lift the diplomatic immunity, exposing her to the possibility of prosecution, whether public or private.

The effect of all this is that the incident has reminded her, if ever she needed a reminder, that she must work hard to secure guarantees for herself and her family after her powerful husband is gone. The title of First Lady, under whose sanctuary she has escaped prosecution for her transgressions in the past, must be replaced by another form of protection and her best is to control the succession race to get a favourable outcome. The enemies she has generated will surely relish their chances against her. To avoid these risks, she knows she needs to guarantee herself protection in the post-Mugabe era. She can do this by placing herself in a position of power or ensuring that her husband is succeeded by a loyal and trusted ally. The incident in South Africa and the future risks it has generated will only embolden her to push her project with greater strength because she knows there is no middle ground.

In this regard, her G40 allies have been strategic in their approach to the South African incident. They surely know that what happened there was wrong and embarrassing. Privately, they too must have been embarrassed and wondered how their lynchpin could have been so reckless. But they had to defend their ally. They had to stand by her and demonstrate undying loyalty, even if it meant that exposed them and cost them their reputations in the court of public opinion. They knew when she looked back at the embarrassing episode, Grace Mugabe would remember those who stood by her and those who laughed with glee or did nothing on her behalf when she was at her lowest.

The incident would have reaffirmed more clearly who her allies and enemies were within the party and if she is going to use her influence to prevail upon her husband it would be to advance the interests of her allies. Strategically, Lacoste could have taken advantage of her low moment to demonstrate to her that they had the power to protect her should the need ever arise in future. Such an approach would have shown her that she and her family would be safe in Mnangagwa’s hands, despite views to the contrary. If however, as it appears, Lacoste stood by, did nothing and said she had got her comeuppance, then perhaps it was an opportunity missed in this game of succession.


Lady Fortuna or the hand of humankind? Machiavelli did not believe that Lady Fortuna has one hundred percent of man’s destiny. He allocated half to Lady Fortuna and the other half to man’s free will. In other words, while half of our lives are controlled by circumstances that are beyond our control, the other half could certainly be prevailed upon by the hand of man. Thus a flood could be contained if man made adequate preparations. For both Lacoste and G40, from time to time, events will happen owing to the hand of Lady Fortuna. But they will both know that they cannot sit by and wait for Lady Fortuna to decide their destiny. They will remember Machiavelli’s advice on how they must approach and control Lady Fortuna. After all fortune favours the brave, something that G40 seems to have understood well but is still to dawn upon Lacoste.

Of the two factions, G40 has so far been more daring, whereas Lacoste has hesitated, perhaps out of respect, perhaps too out of fear or quite simply inability. Machiavelli’s conclusion bears some interesting parallels to the current succession race between Lacoste, which has more of the older generation and G40 which has the much younger stock in its ranks. As to Lady Fortuna, Machiavelli says “it is clear that she is more inclined to yield to men who are impetuous than to those who are calculating. Since fortune is a woman, she is always well disposed towards young men because they are less cautious and more aggressive, and treat her more boldly”. Lacoste, which has been more calculating perhaps needs to take heed and be more adventurous than they have been.

But as they say, it’s never over until the fat lady sings. As I have illustrated, sometimes an event happens that completely changes the course of history, as did the Sarajevo Incident in 1914, which prompted a chain reaction that led to the First World War. This is why despite signs, it remains premature to pronounce judgment on who will succeed Mugabe. The surprise is that many who should know better have often rushed into wrong judgments on this matter. Recent history should have warned observers to avoid rushing in this regard. Until just 3 years ago, everyone seemed convinced that Joice Mujuru was sure to succeed Mugabe. Everyone else had been written off.

And when Mujuru was fired, people again fell into the same trap and made bold pronouncements that Emmerson Mnangagwa was sure to be the successor. Indeed, signs suggested that this would be the case. But this rose-tinted reality was soon to be blown away. Far from being a certainty, Mnangagwa’s rise to the presidency has become mired in great doubt. And even now, as G40 appears to be holding the advantage that is no reason to conclude that they will have it in the end. A Sarajevo incident could happen. In other words, there could be an incident, one that is totally unexpected, which could change the course of the succession race and with it, the course of history.


Twitter: @wamagaisa

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