The Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, which contains many pearls of wisdom, expounds on a profound truth about the human condition and earthly existence in general. It is worthy of serious reflection by everyone, but especially those holding positions of power and authority lest they be deluded and somehow develop presumptions about their own invincibility.
In chapter three, Ecclesiastes provides this powerful reminder: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens”. It then elaborates by providing several examples, among them: “a time to be born and a time to die; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to be silent and a time to speak”.
The maxim, of course, is that no one or nothing on this earth lasts forever, save, of course, the eternal God. What a sobering thought! What a humbling reality! If persons would go through life conscious of the transience of their seasons, they certainly would not take themselves too seriously because of the knowledge that in the universal scheme of things, they really matter very little. History, unfortunately, is replete with examples of leaders who made this fundamental mistake.
Instead of recognizing their limitations and seizing the opportunity to exit with grace and dignity when their season is up, they choose to hang on, often for purely selfish reasons, only in some instances to be forced out unceremoniously because of their failure to recognize that they had lost their relevance to the very people whose interests they were supposed to be serving.
Are we witnessing such a situation in Zimbabwe? At the age of 92, when most leaders are happily retired having passed on the baton long ago to a successor with more youthful vigour, long-time President Robert Mugabe last Saturday accepted the nomination of his ZANU-PF party to stand as its candidate in the 2018 elections when he will be 94 years old if he is still alive.
Mr Mugabe, a former freedom fighter who successfully waged a liberation war against white minority rule that was akin to South African apartheid, has been in power since 1980. Extremely popular initially, Mr Mugabe’s grip on power and his prestige have weakened in recent years against the backdrop of a deteriorating economy which has created hardships for the population. He blames a Western conspiracy.
In clinging to office, Mr Mugabe stands in sharp contrast with another freedom fighter, the revered Nelson Mandela, who after serving one term as South Africa’s first black president following the end of apartheid, opted not to seek re-election. Mr Mandela, then in his 80s, made way for his more youthful vice president Thabo Mbeki because he wanted to spend his remaining years quietly with his family. Clearly, Mr Mandela knew when his season was up.
Besides the economy, Mr Mugabe is facing other challenges. He appears a bit shaky and is rumoured not to be in the best of health. In a widely publicized incident last year, he lost his balance and tumbled down a flight of stairs after delivering a speech. Earlier this year, there were also unprecedented violent protests over the deteriorating economic conditions and Mr Mugabe’s seemingly ineffective leadership.
However, the Zimbabwean leader, who over the years has sidelined quite a few potential heirs-apparent, seems determined to continue, even though the evidence suggests the country’s interests would be better served by a new leader who brings a new approach and more relevant vision. Could it be that because Mr Mugabe successfully fought a liberation war, that he believes he has rights of ownership to the country? If that is the case, such would be most unfortunate.
What was particularly interesting though about the weekend party conference were the apparent attempts to deify Mr Mugabe. The ZANU-PF youth wing, for example, proposed that he be made president-for-life. Then there was the singing of a song entitled ‘Mugabe should rule until eternity’ by supporters. And the declaration by Cabinet minister Supa Mandiwanzira who, making a pun about his own first name, said “I am not super, Mr President. It is you who is super.”
Notwithstanding these expressions of support, there are some within ZANU-PF who believe it is time for Mr Mugabe to go. Indeed, Mr Mugabe acknowledged the internal discord when, in an address to the conference, he appealed: “Let us stop fighting each other.”
What is likely to be in store for Zimbabwe under the continued rule of Robert Mugabe? Most likely, more of the same. Mr Mugabe, however, does not have the final say. One way or another, his season inevitably must come to an end and, given his advancing age, it is more likely to be sooner than later.