8 August is Heroes’ Day in Zimbabwe. The annual holiday celebrates the men and women who fought on the winning side in Zimbabwe’s brutal war of independence, and is synonymous with parades, pageantry and pro-government propaganda.
But this year, the heroes themselves didn’t show up.
Despite being among Robert Mugabe’s loudest cheerleaders over the past few decades, Zimbabwe’s surviving war veterans have made a decisive break with the nonagenarian president.
Their umbrella group, the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association (ZNLWVA), issued a statement last month condemning ‘the systematic entrenchment of dictatorial tendencies, personified by the president and his cohorts, which have slowly devoured the values of the liberation struggle.’ The group said it would no longer support President Mugabe’s political campaigns. As a statement of intent, senior leadership and huge numbers of members boycotted Heroes’ Day. ‘It is no longer a day for us to celebrate because there is nothing to celebrate anymore,’ said Douglas Mahiya, ZNLWVA spokesperson.
As a result of their actions, eight high-profile war vets have been expelled from the ruling Zanu-PF party, and at least two – including Mahiya – are facing criminal charges for their statements against Mugabe.
As Zimbabwe enters an unprecedented period of political turmoil – instigated by the success of Pastor Evan Mawarire’s #ThisFlag campaign – the significance of the war vets’ position cannot be overstated.
Over the years, Zimbabwe’s war vets – organised through the ZNLWVA – have been more than just enthusiastic supporters of the regime. All too often, they have also been its enforcers, implicated in many major outbreaks of violence, including the 2008 post-election violence, and the violence that accompanied the controversial land reform process in the early 2000s. They have been the regime’s thugs of choice, and willing accomplices to its abuses.
So what has changed?
According to the ZNLWVA statement, the precipitously declining economy played a major role. ‘[Mugabe's] leadership has presided over unbridled corruption and downright mismanagement of the economy, leading to national economic ruin for which the effects are now felt throughout the land,’ the organisation said.
This is, at best, a disingenuous explanation. Zimbabwe’s economy has tanked before – extended hyperinflation got so bad that the government was forced to abolish the Zimbabwean dollar in 2009 – without prompting any kind of response from the war vets. At the time, however, they were beneficiaries of the government’s largesse, most notably as recipients of redistributed land.
A more convincing explanation stems from the ongoing power struggle within Zanu-PF itself. The war vets’ leadership is thought to be aligned with vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa’s faction. Mnangagwa is in competition with the so-called Generation 40 faction, nominally led by the president’s wife, Grace Mugabe.
It is no coincidence that Mnangagwa has completely escaped the war vets’ censure. Quite the opposite: ZNLWVA Secretary-General Victor Matemadanda has been vociferous in Mnangagwa’s defence.
‘What country in the world has a president who allows his army chief and VP to be humiliated in public by junior officials or mere activists? Instead of admonishing such behaviour, he actually stands at a podium to demand that the VP should come clean,’ he said, referencing criticism from junior Zanu-PF officials.
Regardless of their motivations, ZNLWVA’s defection is nonetheless of momentous import. Intra-party disputes are usually settled behind closed doors, no matter how vicious. That the war vets have taken their concerns public is the biggest sign yet that Mugabe’s 36-year rule might be coming to an end. To tweak an idiom, the war vets are fleeing Mugabe’s sinking ship.
Not all of them, however. Such a controversial decision was never likely to be unanimous, and several war vets have distanced themselves from the senior leadership, including ZNLWVA’s Matabeleland North chapter.
This has prompted a vicious debate over who is, and isn’t, a war vet. As political analyst Gary van Staden observed: ‘It is clear that the generic term “war vets” contains at least two and possibly more factions with their own agendas and motivations, and it is equally clear that these factions pull in different directions. Consequently, drawing conclusions over these events is risky because we have no way of telling real war vets apart from opportunists and Zanu-PF deployments.’
Van Staden is right – defining a war vet is a tricky business. The war ended in 1979, and Zimbabwe’s liberation movement was hardly a model of record-keeping. Anyone can claim the title ‘comrade’, and who can confirm or deny it? Even Mugabe’s status as a war veteran is in question.
But these questions around legitimacy have long dogged the war veterans’ movement, without seeming to dilute their political power. Nor do these questions dilute the impact of the ZNLWVA top brass’s unprecedented break with President Mugabe, which shows how the president has alienated key power brokers even within his own party.
That’s why Mugabe’s political opponents are understandably delighted by the news. Even Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change, on the receiving end of war vets’ vitriol for so long, has embraced their defection, recognising that it represents yet another brick in the increasingly formidable wall of resistance.
Once the guarantors of Mugabe’s regime, the war vets’ rebellion is an unmistakeable sign that it is now weaker than ever before.
Simon Allison, ISS consultant