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Big Saturday Read: Preventing Continuities of Oppression

A predominant feature of Zimbabwe since independence in 1980 is the permanent strand of continuity of the colonial state’s authoritarian and repressive style of governance. While leadership changed hands from the white minority regime to the new nationalist government, the structures of oppression remained largely intact.

Furthermore, despite the removal of Robert Mugabe and the change of government following the November 2017 coup, the structures of oppression have also remained largely unchanged under the new regime led by Emmerson Mnangagwa. Mnangagwa’s efforts to re-brand the nation as the “Second Republic” have been little more than mere rhetoric.

The continuities between the Smith and Mugabe regimes on the one hand and between the Mugabe and the Mnangagwa regimes have existed despite claims of liberation and change promised by respective leaders. It is important to examine why, on both epochal moments, continuities have stood in the way of change why the structures of oppression have persisted.

This examination is not a mere historical exercise but an opportunity for reflection by the current opposition as it finds its way in the struggle against ZANU PF rule. The opposition must understand why the would-be liberators have instead turned into oppressors of their own people. This matters because unless the opposition learns and appreciates these lessons, it could fall into the same traps as its predecessors who have promised much but delivered little.

It is important, therefore, for the opposition to avoid the danger of morphing into those that it opposes. This is particularly pertinent as the MDC embarks on a key journey towards the National Congress which is scheduled for May this year.

The Problem is Widespread

To be sure, this examination is not limited to Zimbabwe. Indeed, it applies to similarly situated countries on the continent and elsewhere. Events in other African countries and beyond provide useful illustrations of issues examined in this article. Many of our counterparts on the continent have already been on a roller-coaster ride since independence – the highs of independence followed by the lows of authoritarian rule, and thereafter the highs of the wave of multi-party democracy followed by the lows of yet more authoritarian rule which came under the guise of a second liberation.

Oft-times in these countries, the election of a new leadership has been followed by huge disappointment as those who promised better leadership simply reproduced the old structures of oppression. They went on to do precisely the same things that they had criticised and condemned during their time in opposition.

Our northern neighbour, Zambia, provides such profound lessons. The fall of the Kaunda regime in the early 1990s was followed by a false dawn as the replacement regime went on to reproduce similar structures of oppression despite the Chiluba regime having been received with wild jubilation. By the time he left office, Frederick Chiluba had largely been discredited. He was forced to abandon plans to amend the law in order to run for a third term.

In Uganda, when Yoweri Museveni took power in 1986, he had previously railed against lengthy stays in power, even stating his revulsion against the problem of Africa where he said leaders wanted to overstay in power. But he abandoned his word and has been in power ever since, bludgeoning the opposition in the process.

Zambia went on to have four more leaders after Chiluba and the current leader, Edgar Lungu, has managed to carve out a reputation for repression against the opposition. His conduct since he took office has been the antithesis of what he preached before he assumed power following the demise of President Michael Sata.

The pattern is familiar in many parts of the continent with former opposition leaders adopting the behaviour of the regimes they once opposed. Sometimes they have become more repressive than the old regimes they replaced.

In this regard, Zimbabwe is no exception.

Zimbabwe's Continuities of Oppression

When former leader President Robert Mugabe and his counterparts were fighting the Smith regime during the colonial period, they were detained for up to ten years, merely because they had different political views and demanded independence. They were labelled as terrorists who were trying to overturn a legitimate government. They spent years in unlawful detention and some were banished to inhospitable places like Gonakudzingwa where they co-habited with wild animals.

One would have expected the oppressed men to do better once they came to power.

However, when they came to power in 1980, they maintained the same laws which the Smith regime had used against them. These laws included the notorious Law and Order (Maintenance) Act (LAMA), the Emergency Powers Act and associated regulations, and the notorious Indemnity and Insurance Act which protected members of the security forces and ministers for acts committed in ‘good faith’ to protect the security of the State.

These laws provided a licence for impunity. The new rulers retained this machinery of oppression. After the courts declared that LAMA was unconstitutional, the Mugabe regime eventually relented and brought in a new law, the notorious Public Order and Security Act (POSA). But it is in the same league of draconian legislation as LAMA. It was a case of continuity over change.

Today, under the Mnangagwa regime, the charge of choice against political opponents is “subverting a constitutionally elected government”, which is in the Criminal Law (Codification) Act. Many people, including social movement leader Pastor Evan Mawarire, have been charged with that offence. At the time of writing, the latest victims of the charge are MDC MPs Joanna Mamombe and Charlton Hwende and civil society leader Rashid Mahiya.

The irony is that this charge was routinely used against political opponents during the Mugabe regime, and it has continued under the Mnangagwa era, despite pretentions that it is a New Dispensation. None of the prominent political actors charged with this offence has ever been convicted. Its use for arrest and detention of political opponents is clearly instrumental for purposes of political harassment.

The Smith regime relied heavily on the security forces as instruments of repression. As already stated, the Indemnity and Insurance Act, enacted in 1975 was designed to protect members of the security forces from legal action based on the atrocities they committed, which gave them an incentive to act with impunity. The Mugabe regime learnt well from the Smith regime, but only to apply the same instruments of repression against political opponents.

After independence, political opponents were routinely charged with the offence of treason, which carried the threat of the death penalty. Dumiso Dabengwa, Lookout Masuku, Morgan Tsvangirai, Ndabaningi Sithole, Tendai Biti – they are just a few in a long list of political opponents who have all been charged with treason and associated offences. It was as if the Smith regime, which has used the same strategies, never expired.

The Indemnity and Insurance law remained on the statute books and it was even used, ironically, by a former nationalist and senior government minister, who was on trial for murdering a white farmer in 1980. Amnesty for perpetrators of human rights violations also gave licence for impunity. As noted by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in a 1986 report on the Gukurahundi atrocities:

“Zimbabwe embarked upon its existence as an independent state by sending a clear message to its security forces that they would benefit from the same impunity enjoyed by their Rhodesian predecessors. Officers responsible for human rights violations had been amnestied without any investigation or accounting for their actions. Many were kept on in similar positions of authority.”

In the 1980s, under the auspices of putting down a dissident rebellion, Mugabe regime unleashed the Fifth Brigade, a crack military unit trained by the North Koreans, upon the people of Matebeleland and the Midlands, leading to an estimated 20,000 deaths of civilians. As in the colonial era, the post-independence regime abused its military might against civilians. The apparatus of violence was just as brutal as it was before independence.

In 2008, when Mugabe lost the first election to Morgan Tsvangirai, the military intervened, leading a crackdown in rural areas which left more than 200 people dead and thousands more wounded, displaced and homeless.

When Mnangagwa arrived on the scene in November 2017, he promised a New Dispensation. But this was just an illusion. The man had arrived in the shadow of the military. It was the military that had ushered him into office when it led the operation that unseated the long-serving Mugabe. Unsurprisingly, since the November coup, the military has intervened twice to protect its regime, with brutal consequences.

In August 2018, six civilians were shot dead and 35 were injured. A commission of inquiry set up by Mnangagwa found that the deaths and injuries were caused by the security forces. None of the perpetrators has been brought to book. In January 2019, the military was used again to clamp down on protests. This time at least 17 people were killed. The same excessive force that had been condemned by Mnangagwa’s commission was applied against unarmed civilians. Later, at a political rally, Mnangagwa showed no remorse. Instead, he boasted and threatened that he would again use the military should there be any similar protests in future.

What we observe, therefore, is that whether it’s Smith, Mugabe or Mnangagwa, the strategies and approach towards political opponents have not changed in any material respect. All three have treated political opponents as enemies of the state. Their opposition is regarded as treasonous. They have all detained political opponents on spurious charges. In short, under all three, the machinery of oppression is evident and brazen. There is a reproduction of the oppressor-oppressed relationship, with devastating consequences.

Why the Continuities?

But it is not enough to describe and present these continuities over the years. Instead, it is important to examine why they have happened. This matters because the current and future opposition must not succumb to the same pitfalls, if they ever get into power. We have already observed how in other countries, former opposition parties have become more repressive than the regimes they dislodged under the promise of a new dawn.

In this regard, there is inspiration and guidance to be drawn from the work of Paulo Freire, one of the most important educational and liberation philosophers of the last century. His work was an inspiration to liberation movements fighting the colonial regimes, but it remains a complex and eloquent well of liberation theology which must inspire those fighting oppressive regimes long after the false dawn of independence. This BSR draws heavily from one of his most important works, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”.

False Liberation

While independence was also presented as liberation, it is arguable that this was, in many cases, a false representation of history. The leadership of Zimbabwe may have changed hands in 1980, but it did not necessarily result in liberation. In explaining the process of liberation, Freire first described oppression as a “dehumanising experience”, both for the oppressed, who are dehumanised and the oppressor who dehumanises. He, therefore, described liberation as a humanising process, both for the oppressed and the oppressor. The “great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed,” wrote Freire, is “to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well”.

Freire likens liberation to the process of childbirth, which produces a new person “viable only as the oppressor-oppressed contradiction is superseded by the humanisation of all people”. The state of “humanisation of all people” essentially means that there is no oppressor or oppressed. It is at this point that one can say there is true liberation. Conversely, it means where the structures perpetuate the oppressor-oppressed relationship, there can be no true liberation.

Using this framework, it is arguable that the point of independence in 1980 did not necessarily produce a true state of liberation. The principle of reconciliation and measures like the general amnesty, protection of civil service jobs and pensions, retention of senior public officers from the Rhodesian regime may have echoed the idea of humanising the former oppressor through fair treatment as opposed to vindictiveness. However, the new leaders not only retained the architecture of oppression but they also quickly created new enemies and reproduced the oppressor-oppressed structures.

It is in this context that we observe the atrocities committed during Gukurahundi. It is also in this context that we see the post-independence regime responding to and treating political opponents in ZAPU, UANC, ZANU NDONGA, ZUM and the MDC. In all cases, the response was violent and brutal. For Freire, oppression and violence go hand in hand, for violence is a result of oppression. “With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun,” writes Freire. “Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed. How could they be the initiators [of violence] if they themselves are the result of violence?”

However, interestingly, despite being initiators of violence through their oppressive politics, oppressive regimes are quick to blame the oppressed for violence. This is because they are oblivious to their oppressive politics as the genesis of violence. “For the oppressors, however,” writes Freire, “it is always the oppressed … who are disaffected, who are “violent”, “barbaric”, “wicked” or “ferocious” when they react to the violence of their oppressors”.

The Smith regime never understood that its oppression was a form of violence and branded opponents as “terrorists” and all kinds of names. The Mugabe regime never understood that it was committing violence through its oppressive politics. Likewise, the Mnangagwa regime is quick to blame people for committing violence without appreciating that its oppressive politics is itself a form of violence.

But why does this happen? How can these continuities be explained, where the supposed liberator turns oppressor? The expectation is that the formerly oppressed would have learnt enough to avoid inflicting the same treatment upon others. Yet it seems the moment they step into power, they mimic the former oppressor, doing everything that they used to rail against and sometimes even doing it worse. Here again, we turn to Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

According to Freire, “… at a certain point in their existential experience, the oppressed feel an irresistible attraction towards the oppressor and their way of life. Sharing this way of life becomes an overpowering aspiration. In their alienation, the oppressed want at any cost to resemble their oppressors, to imitate them, to follow them …” Here, Freire helps us to understand how people living under oppression end up behaving like their oppressors. They see the power wielded by the oppressors and while they despise its abuse, they are also attracted by the way of life associated with such power.

This is because they have internalised the teachings and structures of the oppressive system, largely because, as we will soon discover of a system of colonial education which Freire calls “banking”. “The very structure of their thought has been conditioned by the contradictions of the concrete, existential situation by which they were shaped,” says Freire. This situation is defined by the contradictory relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed. As Freire puts it sharply, the oppressed’s “ideal is to be men; but for them, to be men is to be oppressors. This is their model of humanity”.

When the object is to identify with the oppressor, it is far from a state of liberation. This is because, as we have seen, for Freire, being an oppressor is also dehumanising.

Looking back into our history, the behaviour shown since independence suggests that the generation of nationalists who led the struggle for independence was driven by a desire to replace the former oppressors. They were, to use the words of Freire, “irresistibly attracted” to the life and power of the oppressor. When Zimbabwe gained independence, the new government retained all the structures of oppression and in some cases, perfected them.

The maintenance of the structures of oppression suggests that while independence arrived, it did not come with liberation. The most eloquent expression of this situation came from Joshua Nkomo, at a time when as leader of ZAPU he was being persecuted by the Mugabe government, “The hardest lesson of my life has come to me late. It is that a nation can win freedom without its people becoming free,” he wrote in his 1983 autobiography. Nkomo recognised that the idea of liberation has been negated by continuing the structures of oppression.

Nkomo also wrote, “We cannot blame colonialism or imperialism for the tragedy. We who fought against these things now practice them. Why? Why? Why? …” Nkomo was questioning the contradiction whereby those who had fought for liberation were now using the instruments of the oppressor against the people.

Looking at the post-Mugabe era, the words of Nkomo remain pertinent. If he were an opposition leader today, his words spoken 40 years ago would still be relevant today. Nkomo and his allies were persecuted under the guise of law enforcement. Thousands were killed under the auspices of fighting dissidents.

Today, opposition leaders are still facing the same predicament and those in charge came with the promise of a new kind of politics. They simply stepped into Mugabe’s shoes and continued from where the old regime left. Political opponents and human rights defenders are being harassed on spurious, politically-motivated charges which will go nowhere. Civilians are being killed because the military and police are applying excessive force.

So why is this relevant to the opposition?

Since the opposition considers itself to be fighting oppression, its goal is to achieve a form of liberation from the oppressor. It’s a different kind of oppression in that it is not colonial but the architecture of oppression nonetheless remains in place. However, if the opposition is to avoid the pitfalls that have caused failure of the Mugabe and Mnangagwa regimes and indeed, failure of other opposition parties that have become ruling parties elsewhere, it has to draw lessons from them.

As Freire cautions, “… almost always, during the initial stage of the struggle, the oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors, or “sub-oppressors”. We have already seen why this happens, with Freire explaining that at some point in their experience, the oppressed “adopt an attitude of “adhesion” to their oppressor”. This attraction to the oppressor and his way of doing things is a product of internalisation, as the oppressed absorb the teachings of the oppressor.

Some have observed disconcerting remarks by some members of the opposition who in their zeal to support their candidates at the forthcoming MDC Congress, have gone overboard casting others as enemies of the struggle or sell-outs. This closure of democratic space and the tendencies demonstrated are typically what one would find in ZANU PF. This has led some critics to argue that there is no difference between the opposition and the ruling party. This does not bode well for an opposition that is seeking to liberate people from ZANU PF’s oppressive rule. It gives the impression that were the opposition to win power, these elements who are behaving like ZANU PF types would simply continue with the oppressive politics of old.

Part of this may be explained by what Freire’s describes and critiques as the “banking” system of education, a dominant method of education in colonial and oppressive societies, which is also predominant in the relationship between political leaders and the people. The "banking" system is where the teacher, who is presented as all-knowing, deposits his knowledge into the mind of the student, who is presented as all ignorant. “Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which students patiently receive, memorise and repeat”. All the student has to do is to receive, file and store deposits. Freire is critical of this system which thwarts inquiry, engagement and creativity.

This is relevant because education shapes society and how it deals with and responds to issues. “In the banking system of education knowledge is bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing”. It projects absolute ignorance on the part of the recipients of knowledge. They must be told what to do and they must receive. By projecting ignorance on the recipients, those delivering knowledge justify their own existence (and therefore power).

It is not surprising that politics is dominated by a system which is similar to this “banking” system of education. The political leaders know everything and the people do not know. The people are incapable of making personal choices. Rather, they must be told what to do. If they do not listen, they are rebellious and thrown out. What the political leaders do not appreciate is that by so doing, they are perpetuating oppression and therefore dehumanising their own supporters. As Freire’s says, the banking system of education serves the interests of oppression as it “transforms students into receiving objects”.

The political rally, which is the predominant and many cases, the only medium of communication between political leaders and the people is almost exclusively one way in that political leaders speak and the people listen. Their participation is limited to cheering, singing and ululating. It is very difficult, if not impossible for other forms of engagement, which would truly give opportunities to people to speak to their leaders in a meaningful way.

Freire encourages a problem-posing system of education in which the teacher-student contradiction is reconciled so that both are teachers and students at the same time. There has to be dialogue. He warns against the practice of “pitting their slogans against those of the oppressors”. It is important to understand the world view of the people. “It’s not our role,” he says, “to speak to the people about our own view of the world, nor attempt to impose that view on them, but rather dialogue with the people about their view and ours”.

This wisdom is captured in song by Zimbabwean legend, Oliver Mtukudzi. Vapei mukana wekuronga nekurongonora, vane njere dzavainadzo” he sang in Bumbiro remutemo, a song about the constitution. It translates to “Give the people an opportunity to be heard, they also have wisdom”. Tuku was simply delivering an important message to political actors that in making the country’s supreme law, they needed to talk to and listen to the views of the people, rather than make impositions as had been the case in the past.

The opposition has to guard against “adhesion” to the ruling party. It has to be cautious in the way it deals with the people. It must avoid “banking” approaches to political engagement, whereby the political actors who think they know prescribe to the rest of the people who are presumed to be ignorant. It must, above all, resist the temptation to mimic ZANU PF in the conduct of its affairs. The MDC Congress presents an important test for the party’s democratic credentials. If the opposition is to be the true alternative to ZANU PF, it must avoid the pitfalls in Friere’s classic and appreciate that it has both a “humanistic and historic task” which is to liberate itself and its oppressor as well.

As Prosper Godonoo wrote in a tribute to the late scholar, “Freire’s work has resonated with millions of Africans who have become disillusioned with failed regimes across the continent.” It has motivated them to become “willing risk-takers for the sake of social justice, building social movements and organisations that seek to challenge the various regimes.” The goal of these pro-democracy movements is to achieve what Freire called a “humanising environment” for the people.

And this is precisely why Freire’s philosophy of liberation matters for the opposition challenging the ZANU PF regime just as it did for the liberation movements which were challenging the colonial regime. The problem is that the “liberation movements” failed to avoid the trappings that Freire warned against and instead of creating a “humanising environment” after they won power, they became the new oppressors, reproducing structures of oppression.

Challenge for the Opposition

However, those opposing these post-independence oppressors also face the same historic challenge and must strive to avoid imitating the oppressor. We have already seen that across the continent, some of these former oppositions which have assumed power have failed miserably in this mission. Instead of creating a humanising environment, they became the new oppressors of the people, meaning the goal of true liberation has never been achieved in most countries.

This is why the MDC’s path towards its National Congress is a fundamental moment to prepare itself as a liberating force. It cannot afford to become an imitation of ZANU PF. This is why current leader, Nelson Chamisa’s strong words against some party members who have exhibited sickeningly sycophantic and undemocratic behaviour are most welcome.

In their zeal to please, some of them have taken patently retrogressive positions which embarrass the opposition. Declaring that anyone who dares to contest Chamisa at the Congress is an enemy of the party is typical of behaviour that is often associated with the ruling party. It is important when the supposed beneficiary of such outrageous behaviour openly condemns it. This approach must spread across the board, including clamping down on violence, which has affected the party in the past. A party that complains of a violent opponent cannot itself be seen to be tolerating violent and abusive behaviour.

One recommendation is that all those things that the MDC desires at the national level must be practised and demonstrated at the party level. If there is a need for a peace pledge at the national level, there is no reason why the party cannot have its own peace pledge as it embarks on the journey towards Congress. If a clean voters roll is necessary at the national level, the party must strive to have a clean voters roll at the party level. If a fair, impartial and transparent electoral commission is fundamental at the national level, it must be necessary too at the party level. In short, the party has to live up to its democratic desires and standards or it will lose its moral authority as an advocate for democracy.


We have seen how former opposition parties have betrayed their promise once they have assumed power. Freire’s work helps us to understand why there have been false dawns in many countries, first following independence from colonialism and later, following the fall of post-independence authoritarian regimes. It is partly because the former oppositions have quickly morphed into oppressors, having been drawn to the politics of authoritarian regimes and mimicked them. This has to change and the current oppositions have to start by demonstrating their credentials in their internal democratic processes.

There are those who try to argue that expediency requires that democratic principles be postponed to a later date that at some point in the future, when power is won there will be time to attend to such principles. This way of thinking is retrogressive. As Freire warns, revolutionary leaders need not take full power before they can employ the [liberating] method”. The democratic process is continuous. It cannot be postponed at the altar of expediency. Many have failed because the postponed date has never arrived.

The path to Zimbabwe’s independence is replete with skeletons of those who were summarily executed or detained for daring to question the leadership or for generating new ways of knowing. Students of history have come across the so-called Nhari Rebellion and the Vashandi Rebellion in ZANLA. Those captured were either executed or detained in miserable conditions. They were supposed to adhere to the “banking” system that Freire challenges. The leaders had the knowledge and the rest were mere depositories that were supposed to receive and store information.

Having relied heavily on the work of Freire, it is only fitting that I conclude with his profound words:

“In order for this struggle [against oppression] to have meaning, the oppressed must not in seeking to regain their humanity, become in turn oppressors of their oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both”.


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