COLUMN: DR ALEX T. MAGAISA
Dr Alex T. Magaisa
The competition involves reassuring the traditional supporters but more importantly, to gain advantage on the others by convincing those that are otherwise not persuaded at any given time.
Therefore, when the opposition, broadly defined, attracts a key member of the ruling establishment it is, surely, a cause for celebration, rather than castigation. It symbolises a measure of success in the opposition’s efforts, in the same way, perhaps, that the priest at the church would welcome a converted pagan into the ranks of his flock.
Whatever the divisions in the opposition, which is regrettable, the conversion of Dumiso Dabengwa to join the leadership of the opposition may also be considered in this context.
If there is one individual who symbolises the trajectory of Zimbabwean politics over the course of its recent history, it is Dabengwa. His announcement two weeks ago that he would back Simba Makoni’s bid for the presidency is indicative of the topsy turvy character of a young nation that is still battling to find itself.
Here is a man who was once a ‘comrade’ in the eyes of the national pre-independence liberation movement. He was then characterised as an ‘enemy of the state’ in the immediate aftermath, during which he spent many months in unlawful detention without trial at a time when the majority of Zimbabweans were enjoying the bliss of independence – a period that most Zimbabweans still refer to as the ‘good old days’, oblivious of the scars that some of their countrymen and women bear from that sad chapter of history.
He then metamorphosed into a ‘comrade’ once more after the 1987 Unity Accord between Zanu PF and PF-ZAPU. Thereafter, Dabengwa was faithful servant of the government, ironically spending a length of time as the Home Affairs Minister, an office previously occupied by predecessors who had led his persecution in the early 1980s.
Later on, with the unpopularity of Zanu PF and the emergence of the powerful MDC, Dabengwa found himself at the margins once, again unable to secure the presidential rescue that saved colleagues like Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had similarly lost his seat to the vibrant MDC before securing a seat by presidential nomination and serving as Speaker of Parliament.
And now Dabengwa is at risk of once again being referred to as ‘enemy of the revolution’, by those who religiously believe, against evidence of disintegration, that Zanu PF is pursuing some form of revolution.
Some might argue that Dabengwa’s fluctuating career is indicative of a man who does not quite know what he wants. But the more sympathetic might argue on behalf of a tortured soul whose conscience and desire to do the right thing has often been betrayed by events beyond his immediate control.
Selective memory may, perhaps, choose to denigrate him as a faithful and complicit member of a party that has brought the nation down to its knees. It may also elect to focus on his role as a senior cabinet minister who held the key Home Affairs portfolio, under whose watch the law enforcement authorities demonstrated an unkind face to the public. No doubt, he will struggle to get rid of the apparel of a key Zanu PF man deriving from those years of service to the government.
But it would be unfortunate if such selective memory were to cloud the significance of the re-emergence of a man who by all accounts seems calm, considered and decent.
For those that consider suffering under Mugabe as a ticket for leadership, they may wish to stretch their memories further and consider that the suffering endured by those who have gallantly stood in opposition in the last eight years was preceded by the unfortunate events of which in legal terms, will always be personified by the experiences of Dabengwa and his late colleague Lookout Masuku.
A better account of their trials and tribulations leading up to the tragic death of Masuku can be found in Judith Todd’s recently released book, Through the Darkness: A Life in Zimbabwe Zebra Press (2007). This article only seeks to highlight a few points to place Dabengwa’s circumstances in the context of the current struggle.
Dabengwa and Masuku were the two high profile victims of the clampdown against the alleged security threats in the 1980s. It is within this context that the notorious 5 Brigade launched the callous attacks against innocent civilians for which Gukurahundi is now the common euphemism. During that time, the Mugabe government retained the emergency laws which, ironically, had been used by the Ian Smith regime against the nationalists during the liberation struggle.
One of the instruments available under these laws was the use of ‘preventive detention’ – basically, detention of an individual without trial for purposes of preventing conduct that would allegedly breach public order and safety.
Later, between February 7, 1983 and April 27, 1983, Dabengwa was put on trial for high treason and acquitted by the High Court. But that did not stop his further arrest and detention on basically similar grounds under the same emergency laws on May 24, 1983, hardly a month after the acquittal.
The numerous cases that the wives of Dabengwa and Masuku brought to court on behalf of their husbands are major precedents to which students of Zimbabwean constitutional law often refer in their studies. Indeed, it is through these cases that those of my generation too young and uninformed to have fully appreciated the nature of events at the time, have come to understand some unsavory aspects of our post-independence history.
In one of those cases, they successfully challenged the refusal by the government to allow access them to their lawyers. It has to be mentioned that even then, perhaps as punishment for being audacious, their wives were subsequently prohibited from visiting them whilst in detention.
Later, they would stay in detention for months on end, without receiving trial or review, each time launching legal action led brilliantly by, among others, lawyers like Adrian De Bourbon SC and Bryant Elliott.
It is during that time that Dabengwa witnessed the sad demise of his fellow comrade, Lookout Masuku. The misery visited upon the people of Matabeleland and the Midlands eventually forced Joshua Nkomo to compromise and submit to Mugabe’s Zanu PF.
When they signed that Unity Accord on December 22, 1987, it was meant to be the beginning of a fresh chapter and men like Dabengwa were suddenly elevated into the ranks of government – the same government that had persecuted him, the same regime against which he had been accused of attempting top overthrow.
Idealists would question the motives of joining such a regime given what he had gone through. They might castigate him for ‘sleeping with the enemy’ and joining government simply for selfish gain. Only he can answer that.
But surely, even from a detached position, it is clear that Dabengwa and his colleagues did what was practical and pragmatic under the circumstances. Indeed there was a period of relative stability thereafter, shaken only by the increasing economic deterioration.
We do not know what they did behind closed doors. We do not know whether Dabengwa and/or others tried to challenge the system from within. He now says he did, but they would not listen. Indeed, since 2000, Dabengwa has literally been frozen out, leading even those outside Zanu PF to now dismiss him as a ‘spent force’. Some even go so far as to question his ‘heavyweight’ status.
If we do have a full understanding of the history of this nation, I am not sure we would dismiss Dabengwa as a spent force. I am not sure we would simply denigrate him as others choose to do. Even Mugabe has, so far, chosen his language very carefully, compared to his scathing attacks against Makoni and Morgan Tsvangirai.
There can be no doubt that his long reign in government will forever taint Dabengwa’s reputation, but his re-entry into the ranks of the opposition should surely be a cause for celebration rather than subjecting it to summary dismissal.
This, surely, is a man traveling a path that he knows only too well – one that he traveled tortuously before the present generation of opposition leaders. Of course, few will forget his reign in government but that is the price that he has to pay for his tenure, well meaning though he might have been.
If winning support by conversion is the challenge facing the opposition, then Dabengwa is an important gain. Who knows, it may be an ominous sign of what is to come, not necessarily prior to March 29 but even more importantly, after it. If there was one remaining symbol of that Unity Accord, it was Dabengwa – the one who was persecuted and then embraced – forgiving but not forgetting.
When speaking of men and women who despite their Zanu PF past may be worth considering whether they have something to contribute to the future of Zimbabwe, Dabengwa might well lay a legitimate, albeit contested, claim.
is based at Kent Law School, UK and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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