This weeks class was fortunate to be visited by Blair Rutherford who shared a comprehensive history of Zimbabwe. Blair helped explain the political, social, and economic conditions of the state in the last century which is crucial to understand the contemporary state of Zimbabwe. One of the topics my group discussed was how president Mugabe could stay in power for over 30 years; especially despite scandalous and violent behavior from himself and other elite. This was followed by the larger class discussion of whether Mugabe’s regime can be described as fascist or authoritarian and what are the defining characteristics.
In The ‘Fascist Cycle’ in Zimbabwe; 200-2005, Timothy Scarnecchia attempts to draw similarities between regimes in Zimbabwe (2000-2005) and Italy (1920-1925). He uses the framework of the ‘fascist cycle’ an ideology written by historian of European fascism, Robert Paxton. What Paxton calls ‘the fascist cycle’ is characterized by state leaders who try to evade process and rule of law, use fear mongering, and mobilize nationalists for support. The parallels which Scarnecchia discusses between Zimbabwe and Italy include the state use of violence (including military) to maintain control, the abuse of legislative and judicial power to protect the ruling party, and the requirement of party membership as a basis for involvement in social and economic life.
What stands out to me is the emphasis of violence. Scarnecchia argued that fascist ideologies legitimate the state use of violence by claiming that violence is the right of a nation to defend itself against foreign and domestic enemies. In the case of Mugabe’s regime, violence and coercion was used to maintain power against competition and non-supporters. Scarnecchia uses the example of the 2005 Murambatsvina where thousands of urban Zimbabwe citizens were relocated from their homes into designated compact lands of poor condition. The operation was targeted at the poor, and those involved in the informal sector. Informal traders were called unpatriotic ‘economic sabateurs’ who were working with western imperialists and were responsible for the current economic crisis.
Often discussed as a part of fascist ideologies, violence is a cycle of its own. Yet all over the world people all over the world continue to use violence for protection, influence and control. Violence and intimidation is an effective way to gain control of a population, however it will not gain legitimate support of citizen. Use of violence can be said to show the weakness of a person or party who cannot gain support or legitimacy through ideas and solidarity. The reoccurring theme of violence leads me to question whether fascist or authoritarian ideologies can or have existed without violence.
This weeks class was made especially interesting thanks to the guest lecture by Dr. Blair Rutherford. I agreed with my classmates assessment that his lecture was particularly useful in understanding the topic of authoritarianism in Zimbabwe. My classmates generally reflected that this was a new area of focus for many of us, as many history classes tend to focus on predominately Western narratives.
The additional context provided by Dr. Rutherford really aided with the class discussion because it gave us some important historical context and explanation of our readings. I found that my group focused on the post-colonial aspects of the political situation in Zimbabwe because we saw this as affecting the current government setup. This was reflected in the larger discussion with a debate about whether or not Zimbabwe could be called fascist. Both my group, and the class at large, seemed to think that as fascism is generally described as being against democracy and communism, it would be hard to call a state without a pre-existing democratic base fascist. I think the general consensus was that it seemed to be an authoritarian state with elements of fascism in it.
Some of the concluding remarks were also interesting, especially the observation that corrupt, or authoritarian, or fascist governments use the state to make their actions legal. This is interesting given the context of the lecture, that must of the violence in Zimbabwe was essentially state sanctioned in order to eliminate or quiet people who disagreed. The intertwining of race and politics was also interesting, as this reflects the history of colonialism that is present in Zimbabwe. Overall, this class focused on a wide variety of issues that led to a productive discussion and helped further an understanding of the current issues in Zimbabwe.
A notable saying comes to mind for this week. Perhaps you can’t see the entire forest from the trees.
This weeks readings looked directly into the authoritarian ZANU-PF party that has ruled Zimbabwe since 1980. To provide context, Timothy Scarnecchia’s piece, The ‘Fascist Cycle’ in Zimbabwe, 2000-2005 shows how the regime can resemble Italian fascism through the usage of paramilitaries, abuses of power and party membership as a necessity for success.
Lets unpack the nature of Zimbabwe’s extreme ideology and proclivity to political violence.
In Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s article, Rethinking Chimurenga and Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe: A Critique of Partisan National History, the idea of extreme ideology as an engine for violence against dissenting opinions is explored. Any black person who does not align with the anti-colonial cause is a target for violence. Anyone who is white is inherently dubious to the state (just look to the farm invasions when Mugabe first seized power).
Rudo Mudiwa’s article, Feeling Precarious explains the characteristics of the Zimbabwean youth, who can go from docile civilians to fearsome weapons of the state if the need arises.
Obviously a strong case could be made that Zimbabwe’s government has resembled and employed various fundamental tactics of fascist authority over the last 30 years. Today, we might use the term “populist” in following Finchelstein’s notion of populism as a modern variant of fascism in his book From Fascism to Populism in History.
So why has this occurred? Why has Zimbabwe’s extreme and radical political history unfolded in the way it has? Why is political violence the norm? Look to its colonial history, look back to Rhodesia.
The ZANU-PF should not be excused. However, we need context if we want to truly understand why fellows like Mugabe and ideologies like chimurenga could flourish.
All three readings for this week deal with what an authoritarian government looks like in Zimbabwe. The first reading, Feeling Precarious by Rudo Mudiwa is more visceral than the other two readings and describes a street-focus picture of what everyday state violence looks like. There is a particular care paid to the concept of almost intuition, of people who have experienced so much of this violence that they can avoid it based on subtle cues. In particular, the article describes taxi drivers and sex workers as having this intuition
The second article compares Zimbabwe and Italian fascism. They share certain key characteristics such as a seizure and redistribution of land to party supporters and a focus on cleansing the nation of enemies. A revision of history in order to paint the party as the main liberators and real warriors of the nation is also found in both cases. So, is Zimbabwe similar enough to Italy to classify it as a fascist state rather than just an authoritarian one?
The third reading, Rethinking Chimurenga and Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe: A Critique of Partisan National History discusses the specific context of the Zimbabwean dictatorship. It attempts to build a national hegemony in a way that conflicts with how linguistically, tribally and religiously diverse the country is. In doing so, it ties itself to past liberation from colonization and constructs a history of sharp dichotomies that group their enemies in with former colonists. The continued influence of these ideas hinders newer political theories that are starting to spring up in Zimbabwe.
Overall, these readings discuss both how the Zimbabwe dictatorship has factors in common with past fascist governments and how it is a unique state in itself. Which one do you think is more significant? How does this government complicate other discussions surrounding post-colonial Africa and the progression of the continent?
Throughout the course of our study, it is sometimes hard to understand what populism actually means. Nonetheless, the ability to disseminate some of the aspects and analyze the different cases is so important for being able to analyze all new news.
This week, our studies bring us to Zimbabwe, under the rule of Mugabe. Mugabe’s rule of Zimbabwe paralleled the regimes of fascist Italy as is mentioned in the Scarnecchia article. The two main reasons for this is the creation of the friend-enemy distinction and the addition of violent populist principles into existing institutional frameworks.
The first looks at the friend-enemy distinction. Mugabe was able to enable violent action by framing it with an anti-colonial narrative. While colonialism in Africa is a part of history that significantly damaged the development of the country, Mugabe’s specific narrative used it to cover his own violent actions on his people.
Like many other populist regimes, Mugabe was able to take nationalist historiography and make it prominent once more. Part of the success with his reign was the institutionalization of these historic principles. In Ndlovu-Gatsheni’s article, he states that the two principles of chimurenga and gukurahundi,
“situate the birth of the nation within a series of nationalist revolutions dating to the original resistance….and entails violent and physical elimination of enemies and opponents”.
This feeds into the fascist cycle, as mentioned by Scarnecchia:
- Abuse of legislative and judicial power
- Party membership
- Political survival over strategic economic planning
- Government inflation that favours the elite
What this continuously demonstrates is that violence begets violence, no matter in what populist context.