The Mugabe succession and its challenges

While President Robert Mugabe was on annual leave in China, Zimbabwe’s acting president changed twice. In a one-party state that has seen the same leader for 30 years, this temporary see-sawing is an annual pattern that is part of the country’s increasingly complex leadership terrain.

Unbeknownst to many, Zimbabwe has had two presidents since gaining independence on 18 April 1980. Canaan Banana was the country’s first black president and served as head of state for seven years between 1980 and 1987. His memory has been relegated to the dustbin of history partially because the real authority was exercised by Robert Mugabe as prime minister. Equally important were speculations about Banana’s alleged homosexuality. Zimbabwe is not known for its acceptance of the LGBT community, with President Mugabe having stated that gays and lesbians are “worse than pigs and dogs” in 1995.

In 1998, Banana faced 11 charges of sodomy and sexual assault amidst a growing national debate about whether or not homosexuality should continue to be a criminal offence. Banana subsequently fled the country out of fear that Mugabe was plotting to have him killed. However, at Nelson Mandela’s behest, he returned to Zimbabwe where he served eight months in prison.

Notably, Banana was from the minority Ndebele ethnic group. It was during Banana’s presidency, with Mugabe as prime minister, that the Gukurahundi massacres occurred against Ndebele people regarded as dissidents. Roughly 20,000 people lost their lives between 1982 and 1987 in Zimbabwe’s unacknowledged civil war—fought between Zimbabwe’s two main post-independence parties and former liberation movements, ZANU and ZAPU.

Banana played a role in brokering the 1987 Zimbabwe National Unity Accord which resulted in the formation of a government of national unity (GNU). The 1987 Unity Accord merged the two parties, resulting in the formation of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

Zimbabwe’s post-independence politics have been characterised by GNUs that have failed because they did not address Zimbabweans’ real socioeconomic grievances, particularly those of the Ndebele minority. The 1979 Lancaster House Constitution inherited by Zimbabwe safeguarded 20 parliamentary seats for whites and curtailed land redistribution. Banana’s presidency was merely titular and created the veneer of inclusivity by having a Ndebele man serve as the country’s first president.

Subsequent speculation about Banana’s sexuality and misdemeanours, accurate or not, highlights the multifaceted nature of identity formation in post-independence contexts. The nation-building project in Zimbabwe has fostered divisions along class, ethnic, and gendered lines, including sexuality.

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By Tinashe Jakwa