Big Saturday Read: my top picks of 2017
Challenge of choosing
I have often been asked to pick my favourite Big Saturday Reads. It’s no easy task because I never set out to write a mediocre BSR. When I select a topic, it is because I believe it’s worth addressing. It’s hard for a parent to choose between their own kids.
However, we have some big plans for the BSR in 2018, as we try to take it to the next level. The theft of material has been a huge disappointment, because we put so much effort into delivering this product at no cost to users. We only ask others to respect it. For others to make a profit from it is hugely disheartening and demoralising. Perhaps we should explore ways to recoup our investment so that when the product is used elsewhere, it is less painful. Many followers of the BSR have in the past written with offers to assist in any way. We will engage further in the New Year.
One of the big projects is to do a compilation of the top BSRs. We will be engaging publishers in the New Year. Naturally, our preference is to make it more accessible to the Zimbabwean market so ideas and assistance in this regard will be most welcome.
The original design of the BSR was to publish a long read every Saturday, hence the title, Big Saturday Read. I would select a topic, do some research and write a long article which readers would enjoy during the more relaxed hours of the weekend. This design works well most of the time. However, on occasions, circumstances occur which make it impractical to wait for Saturday. One can imagine if we had waited for Saturdays during the heady days of November when Zimbabwe went through its most dramatic political developments in recent history. The BSR would have been overtaken by events! This is why there were 18 BSRs in November 2017. The website recorded over 150,000 visits that month, the scale of which becomes more apparent in view of average visits in normal months of between 20,000 and 40,000. No wonder some suggested it be renamed the Big Daily Read! But we think the BSR brand has established itself in the market so it will stay like that.
In between writing the BSR and my university duties during November, I was either on Skype or moving from one studio to another in London at all hours of the day, giving radio and television interviews on the situation back home. Needless to say, November was a very busy but highly productive month. The adrenalin levels reminded me of my days on the political frontline a few years ago. We were able to tell our own story, our own version of the Zimbabwean story, through the BSR and other global platforms that we were offered. It meant spending many hours away from home and I am thankful for the support from my family. My youngest son dutifully recorded all the television appearances although I have so far resisted the temptation to watch them! I thank you for your support, advice and encouragement.
Since we intend to do a compilation of BSRs for publication, I have been going through this year’s BSRs and I have succumbed to the invitation to select what appear to me to be the best of the BSRs of 2017. There have been more than 100 BSRs. It’s hard. For example, I love all the BSRs from November – collectively, they told the unfolding story of what was happening in Zimbabwe, explaining the legal, constitutional and political aspects of it in a manner which, according to feedback helped Zimbabweans and many others to understand the processes. Nevertheless, I have classified my favourite BSRs under general themes: Biographical, Succession, Pan African and Issue-based BSRs.
These are BSRs which have focused on specific individuals. I enjoy researching and writing these BSRs because they allow me the opportunity to reveal sides to famous people that may not always be familiar to most people. Finding those hidden nuggets of information, little anecdotes that reveal the personality of a person and other quaky details is quite fun. A lot of people do not realise that beyond the façade of fame, all those famous individuals are ordinary people with ordinary interests, worries, fears like ordinary people. Indeed, many of the deified political heroes also have darker sides which are not always obvious to most people. If people understood this, they would probably be less in awe of famous people.
This BSR was a short biographical critique of the life and contribution of former President Robert Mugabe’s first wife, Sally. She was Ghanaian, and they met in Ghana when a young Robert Mugabe was teaching there in the late 1950s. It was after their return to the then Southern Rhodesia that Mugabe became a full-time politician and was an integral part of the liberation struggle. I had always been intrigued by Sally and her role in her husband’s political life. Many people think she was a better wife to Mugabe than Grace and that he would have fared better had she not died prematurely in 1992. This is a popular narrative, but I always feared it lacked historical nuance. The BSR is by no means exhaustive but I hope it gives future researchers a platform from which to launch further research. I really loved writing this BSR.
I wrote this BSR upon the retirement of the late Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku in February 2017. He died a few months later, and so the BSR almost seemed like an obituary before his death. It was meant to chronicle and critique his role and contribution as the country’s top judge for more than a decade and a half. I called him “a judge of the revolution” because of the central role he played in the historic but controversial land reform process in the 2000s which saw a fundamental racial transformation in the land ownership patterns in the country. He was also a central player in the major political developments that accompanied that process. This BSR traces his role from the time he was a young lawyer in private practice and an MP in the Rhodesian Parliament in the 197Os to his time as Zimbabwe’s leading judge.
This BSR, like that on Chief Justice Chidyausiku is a critical assessment of the judicial career and contribution of the man who replaced him, the current Chief Justice, Luke Malaba. I make no secret of the fact that of all the candidates who were vying to succeed Chidyausiku, I was more sympathetic towards Malaba, whom I thought was the most deserving. That is not to say I agreed with all his legal interpretations. Indeed, while this critique shows his powerful contributions, it also covers the low points of his judicial career. He now has the distinction of being the only Chief Justice who has ever been (and will ever be) appointed after a rigorous public interview process in accordance with the original procedure of the 2013 constitution. Having had a role in the constitution-making process and having been partly responsible for formulating the procedure for selecting judges which we thought was transparent, impartial and promoted meritocracy, it was a pleasure to see the new Chief Justice appointed in that manner. Regrettably, this procedure has since been changed after the constitution was amended earlier this year. Thankfully, the amendment did not forestall Malaba’s appointment. I am a lawyer first before I am an analyst of politics, so I do find greater enjoyment in reviewing legal judgments and jurisprudential issues.
I always wanted to do a BSR that would examine how Robert Mugabe had managed to rule and dominate Zimbabwean politics for so long. Having read Machiavelli’s The Prince and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War as well as other books on power and strategy, I wanted to find out how, if at all, Mugabe applied their strategies. This BSR examines Mugabe’s long reign using the strategic lens of Machiavelli, Sun Tzu and Robert Greene, among others. It looks at the different prescriptions of the philosophers and strategists and tries to examine how Mugabe used these strategies to stay in power. I wrote it on the occasion of his 93rd birthday, which is just as well because I had no idea that he would have lost power by the end of the year! Perhaps in 2018, I will find occasion to look back to these philosophers and strategists to ask where eventually Mugabe went wrong and how he ended up losing power so feebly after keeping it for so long.
Succession was the biggest theme of the year, which finally culminated in the dramatic events of November. Needless to say, there are many succession-related BSRs. As I have already said, the November BSRs are to be read as a collection, because they together tell the story of what happened during that hectic period. The BSR gained thousands more followers from around the world on account of the November BSRs. Nevertheless, I must pick the following as some of my favourites of the year:
The title of this BSR comes from an Igbo proverb made famous by the great Chinua Achebe in his classic, Things Fall Apart, one of my all-time favourite books. Achebe is one of my literary heroes and his work has been a major influence on my writing style. Achebe gave me the confidence to apply African proverbs, metaphors and idioms in my writing. “Among the Igbo the art of conversation is regarded very highly,” Achebe wrote in Things Fall Apart “and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten”. It is true also among my people in Zimbabwe. So using this proverb as a title of this article came quite naturally to me. It made sense because Grace Mugabe had just done what she had never done before, which was to publicly call upon her husband to name a successor. This was just a few weeks after her key ally, Professor Jonathan Moyo had dropped the name of Dr Sydney Sekeramayi into the succession race, as a possible alternative to their main rival Emmerson Mnangagwa. The complete proverb is that when you see a toad jumping in broad daylight, it is because something is after its life. It seemed to me that Grace Mugabe had panicked and called on her husband to name a successor because there was an imminent threat which they had probably become aware of. The events that came later in November suggest that the toad was right to jump in broad daylight. Perhaps the toad had already sensed that something was after its life.
I wrote this article at the beginning of June, after Professor Jonathan Moyo gave his public lecture at SAPES, a Harare-based institute. The lecture dealt with, among other things, the succession issue and it was the first time that Dr Sydney Sekeramayi’s name was publicly dropped into the succession race. The interpretation was that he was being offered by the G40 faction as a rival to Mnangagwa. Since there were two factions vying to succeed Mugabe, it looked like the G40 faction wanted to offer Sekeramayi as someone with war credentials. However, the choice of Sekeramayi was ironic since some of the key arguments against Mnangagwa such as the role in the Gukurahundi atrocities could equally be placed at the doorstep of Sekeramayi. Like Mnangagwa he had been with Mugabe’s government since 1980 and he had also taken charge of security-related portfolios during the relevant period. As men who had performed some less enviable tasks for Mugabe I referred to both Mnangagwa and Sekeremayi as “water-carriers”. Any battle between them would be a battle of the water-carriers. It is perhaps unsurprising that Sekeramayi seems to have been dumped after Mnangagwa took over the reins of the state.
The title of this article was inspired by the cult television drama Game of Thrones. I must confess that I had not watched Game of Thrones until this year. When I finally tried it, it was so intrigued by the riveting drama that I binge-watched it from series one to the end. I found some resonance between what the political games in that drama and what was happening in Zimbabwean politics as factions fought to succeed Mugabe. As a lifelong student of literature, I often like to use art, film and literary works in my work. In the Game of Thrones, Lord Varys, who almost always has a quotable quote when he speaks, gave us the line that power resides where men believe it resides; that it is a shadow on the wall and “oft-times a very small man can cast a very large shadow”. I wondered whether the protagonists in the race to succeed Mugabe were small men (and women) who were merely casting very large shadows on the wall. This article questioned the power of both Mnangagwa and Grace Mugabe and whether they truly had the support of those they were relying upon. The article also warned that just as in the Game of Thrones, the fight had become so bitter that there could no longer be any middle ground. It warned Grace Mugabe of the fate that had befallen Jiang Qing, the widow of Chairman Mao after the death of the latter. Perhaps this BSR underestimated the power that Mnangagwa drew from the military although it has to be said he did well to conceal it until it was absolutely necessary. Still it marks an important moment in the succession race when there were many doubts as to who between the factions would prevail.
Like I said, I do enjoy using different literary techniques in my writing. Proverbs, metaphors, analogies and imagery all feature in my work, but only if they help to deliver the point. I like to use metaphors that my readers can easily relate to. This article was inspired by the memory of a plant that I observed when we were young boys back in the village. It’s called mufandichimuka (the resurrection plant). In winter, when it got very cold, the leaves completely dried up and appeared dead. But within a few moments of exposure to water, the leaves immediately turned green and the plant looked alive and healthy again. It is because of this “miraculous” quality that the plant earned its name – mufandichimuka literally means to die and rise again (to resurrect). There were also small bugs that used the same trick of playing dead whenever they sensed danger. It was a clever strategy of survival when there is imminent danger. I used this image drawing on a more familiar idiom, “playing possum”, which refers to the possum, a creature which behaves in precisely similar ways to the plant and bugs I grew up seeing in my boyhood years. It seemed like an appropriate image to analyse events around the alleged poisoning of the then Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa. He had been taken ill at a political rally in Gwanda at a time when he was under attack from the Mugabes. There was much drama and intrigue as to the cause of his illness, with suggestions that he had been poisoned. Had he been poisoned or was he playing possum, itself a clever strategy in the face of imminent danger?
I also drew upon Machiavelli to ask whether Lady Fortuna (fortune) would play a role in the succession drama. The point was that sometimes, things happen that can trigger off a set of events over which there is not much control. For this, I used the Sarajevo Incident, which sparked the First World War. The BSR pointed out that there could yet be a Sarajevo Incident equivalent in the succession race, which could change the course of history when no one expected it to happen. As it happened, our Sarajevo Incident came in November when in a fit of anger, Mugabe uncharacteristically pulled the trigger and fired his deputy Mnangagwa, an event that sparked a reaction from the military whose intervention eventually set off a chain of events that led to his resignation. That one incident completely changed the course of events at a time when the G40 faction were well on course to win the succession race.
I love this BSR because it was my intellectual contribution to the events of 18 November. I could not be in Zimbabwe and therefor couldn’t be part of the historic march. The least I could do was to provide some intellectual justification for it, which is what this BSR sought to do. I explained why it was perfectly constitutional for citizens to withdraw the authority to govern from a leader, because that authority vests in them. As owners of authority to govern, they have the right to withdraw it at any time. I also explained the legal channels that could be followed to remove Mugabe, including impeachment which parliament used in the days that followed. I had always insisted from the beginning that whatever Zimbabweans did to remove Mugabe, it was important to follow and uphold the constitution.
According to the website statistics, this was one of the most read BSRs this year. It deals with the incident in which Grace was involved in a diplomatic row after she assaulted her sons’ female companion in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was the most disgraceful incident in Grace’s public life and it certainly caused a lot of embarrassment for her and lost her whatever respect and goodwill she still retained.
This BSR analyses the events after the sacking of Emmerson Mnangagwa in early November, an incident that set off the chain of events that led to Mugabe’s removal. At the time, it appeared like Mnangagwa’s political career was over. But the BSR warned that he could launch a strong comeback from outside, which is precisely what happened soon afterwards.
This is one of the most widely read BSRs, which came on the day of Mugabe’s resignation. It was written to mark this historic moment. It records my thoughts and feelings, and perhaps those of many other Zimbabweans, at this particular moment in history.
I wanted to write this article a lot earlier, soon after Mugabe lost power, but there was too much emotion at the time. I thought it needed more time and left it to the end of the year. It records my thoughts on the circumstances that led to Mugabe’s downfall, including his miscalculations. It also explains his wife’s role in his demise and how her actions precipitated the chain of events that led to his downfall. It is important however, not to exonerate Mugabe for his downfall and lump it all on Grace. This BSR explains that Mugabe fell on his own sword and that his downfall could have been avoided had he heeded the signs and appreciated that he had lost command and love of his people.
These are BSRs which focused on specific issues of public interest. I like researching and writing these BSRs because they are not necessarily influenced by events. They allow me the opportunity to address issues of public interest and in some ways to set the agenda for debate. These are usually things that may or may not have the people’s attention all the time but when they are addressed, they raise the public consciousness.
I have included this BSR because I think its message is timeless. I wrote it in the wake of the dramatic changes to government, after Mugabe had fallen and Mnangagwa was the new leader. I was concerned by the power that was being exerted and flaunted by the victorious faction’s supporters against critics of the new government. There was an almost overwhelming call among the Mnangagwa loyalists for critics to shut up on the ground that the new government must be given a chance. I have always been sceptical of the power of majorities and believe that it must be qualified by mechanisms to ensure that minorities are protected otherwise it could result in a tyranny of the majority. This BSR will always be relevant because the tyranny of the majority is an ever-present risk which must be contained. It is an article that will certainly feature in any compilation that I will do.
This BSR examines the problem of the police harassment and corruption on the streets of Zimbabwe. There was a time when police were respected for their role in society. However, in recent years, police became a real menace and were so unpopular that when the military took over and suspended police operations in November, people celebrated. This BSR was written months before the police lost their authority to the military. The BSR examines how the disaggregation of the state and accumulation of power to collect and retain revenue by police is among the chief factors that have given rise to misbehaviour and corrupt practices within the police service. Those who wish to reform the police service may find this BSR useful.
This is probably the most emotional BSR I have ever written. I struggled to contain my emotions as I dug into the archives and wrote this story of the darkest night that befell the Nyanga community and Zimbabwe as a whole back in 1991. The Nyanga Bus Disaster, which killed more than 90 people, the majority of them young students at Regina Coeli Mission will forever linger in the mind and in a very sad way. What saddens me the most is that the state failed to look after the survivors and the victims’ families. In fact, the funds donated by well-wishers were looted. Worse, the state learnt nothing from that disaster as year after year the country continues to experience similar disasters. The BSR argues that these accidents are avoidable and that the state, owners of public transport companies and insurance companies need to take responsibility. There is so much talk when a disaster happens, but afterwards, it’s all forgotten and no real action to prevent similar disasters is taken by those in positions of authority.
Those who follow my work know that I am forever in awe of the men and women who took up arms to fight for Zimbabwe’s liberation and that I jealously guard and defend our hard-won independence. Most of these war veterans were just boys and girls when they went to join the war. I am particularly humbled by the knowledge that some of them never made it back to see the country they fought for. However, I have also long believed that despite the financial compensation they have received since independence, there was never a clear and solid programme of rehabilitation so that many of them continue to suffer the trauma of war. This BSR sought to examine this phenomenon and how it might also explain the behaviour and conduct of our veterans since they returned from the war. The BSR got some high level attention and when I was in Zimbabwe in July I was able to meet the then Minister responsible for War Veterans, Retired Colonel Tshinga Dube at his offices. We discussed how this issue could be addressed. The retired colonel is no longer the minister but I hope there will be scope to take forward issues discussed on this matter.
I have written on this issue before, because it is very close to my heart. There are many other people in the feminist tradition who could articulate this issue better than me, but I thought I would share my thoughts on the problem of sexualisation of women in politics. I know from close observation of our politics how hard the zone is for women. Moral standards used against them are almost always harder and stricter than those applied to their male counterparts. It’s grossly unfair and reduces opportunities for their full participation in politics. I very deliberately chose an unpopular subject as the example of this problem. If people could see the problem of sexualisation of women in relation to Grace Mugabe, then perhaps we would have won over our emotions. This was not very successful because true to form, some people, especially male readers, chose to focus on Grace Mugabe and not the issue of sexualisation. This in some ways betrayed the power of their own prejudices. A wrong thing should be wrong even if it is done to the person we despise the most. Some people allowed their dislike (in many cases, hatred) of Grace Mugabe to get in the way of their view. In some cases, I suspect Grace Mugabe was a convenient reason to rail against the BSR. It was raising an issue that challenged their own prejudices. Would they have agreed with the theme if I had used another woman, perhaps from the opposition or civil society or business? I’m conscious of the reality that patriarchy still dominates our society and its attitude towards these issues. I liked the debate it aroused but more importantly I hope the issue continues to be discussed because we do have a serious problem of discrimination against women in politics and most of the time those of us who do it are oblivious of the effects of our behaviour and actions.
This is definitely one of my favourite BSRs of the year. I have always believed there is something Orwellian about the way Zimbabwe’s state media is run, but the way it handled the Grace Mugabe saga in South Africa was the most blatant illustration of it. To write this BSR, I went back to George Orwell’s 1984, a literary classic that describes the dystopian society in which an authoritarian regime wields excessive control over channels of information. In that society, the government tells people that 2 + 2 equals 5 and people would believe it, even though they know that the answer should be 4. I examine how the Zimbabwean government has used the same strategies to manipulate minds and the way people view the world. In this case, while the world media was talking about Grace Mugabe’s assault of Gabriella Engels at a hotel in South Africa, the entire state media pretended like nothing had happened at all. They never reported the story as it happened. Were it not for social media and private radio stations like Studio 7, people who otherwise rely on state media for news would not have known what had happened. This BSR captures and examines this Orwellian approach to information. One of the tests of the new post-Mugabe government is the extent to which it will transform this authoritarian way of handling information.
While I am sceptical of those who use Pan Africanism to sweep things under the carpet or otherwise excuse mediocrity among African leaders, I am also a passionate defender of African interests in a global political and economic order which is dominated by the more powerful and advanced nations. I abhor exclusion of the weak, whether in national or national politics. While I have been critical of ZANU PF’s exclusionary politics and bullying strategies on the domestic scene, I am also appalled by the exclusionary politics and bullying strategies of the powerful nations on the international scene. The situation in Libya for example, is a disgrace, but the Western countries that played a role in creating the mess have washed their hands and walked away, leaving the country in utter chaos. These BSRs are reflective of my position on these issues of global governance, in which Africa almost always plays second-fiddle.
I particularly enjoyed researching and writing this BSR. Apart from literature, I am also a lifelong student of history. Researching this took me back to my days as an A Level history student, where I read both African and European History. I wanted to demonstrate that while the methods may have changed, the agenda of exploitation has remained the same. There was a “Scramble for Africa” in the late 19th century and the BSR argues that while decolonisation had started from the mid-20th century, the “scramble” itself was still an on-going phenomenon. As the BSR’s title suggests, to the Europe-Africa nexus one must now add China, a new big influence in the region.
This BSR has to be read together with one that followed it the week afterwards: Transnational networks, Africa and independence Both BSR addresses the issue of Africa’s place within the broad framework of global governance. These articles were prompted by the downgrading of South Africa’s credit-rating which came shortly after President Jacob Zuma controversially reshuffled his Cabinet and dropped a popular Finance Minister. While there was a lot of criticism directed at President Zuma, I chose to look beyond at the reaction of global governance actors and what that meant for South Africa and others in the region. It was an opportunity to demonstrate the dynamics of global governance and that there were other actors, beyond the traditional nation state and formal treaty-based organisations that play an influential role in global governance. In this case, I wanted to demonstrate how credit-rating agencies are an important player in global governance and the technologies of global governance, such as indicators and networks which most people may not be aware of. I loved writing these BSRs because they allowed me to use what I research and teach in my day job at Kent Law School. In a module called Public Law 2, we introduce our young students to these technologies of global governance and this seemed to be a perfect example which I have since used as a case study. Those who find this useful might also enjoy a shorter piece in which I addressed the question whether South Africa has anything to learn from Zimbabwe: What can South Africa learn from Zimbabwe
Needless to say, I have loved writing every BSR this year. I could have summarised all of them today. Apart from doing legal and political analysis, I also enjoy literary writing. However, time is always a problem. On occasions, I like to write stories in order to make political or general points. So when I wrote the little anecdote about how Mamvura had driven the bus, it was to warn that it was not beyond the realm of possibility that this could happen unless Mamvura was stopped. A few years ago, I wrote a story entitled a vultures’ feast, which warned of the dangers of fighting over something when it was far better to negotiate and find an amicable solution. It was written during the negotiations for the inclusive government 9 years ago, but when I posted it as a BSR this year, it still had resonance to current political events in the opposition. Whenever I am in Zimbabwe, I spend my time observing and talking to ordinary people and I learn a lot from them. When I get back I write some prose, which I refer as “stories of home”. In May I wrote that “we need new roads”, a play on NoVioletBulawayo’s excellent novel, We Need New Names. I don’t know if what we got in November is a new road, but we will see in 2018, as we walk along the path.
Have I left out your favourite BSR of 2017? I would love to hear your choices. Otherwise thank you for your support and Happy New Year!
And in the immortal words of our former President, "Asante Sana! Iwe neni tine basa!" in 2018!