It was the 20th century philosopher George Santayana who uttered the following famous words that continue to capture public imagination because they powerfully speak to an abiding truth:
“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” Santayana posited in the 1905 book Reason in Common Sense.
As observers watch the unfolding political developments in Zimbabwe where a determined push is on by the military and ruling party, with massive public support, to remove long-serving president Robert Mugabe from office after 37 years as leader of the Southern African nation, Santayana’s warning takes on an even stronger relevance.
History shows that smart political leaders always know instinctively when their time is up and seize the opportunity to make a dignified exit that helps to secure a favourable legacy. They know, based on the tragic fate which had befallen so many leaders before, that today’s hero can easily become tomorrow’s villain and that overstaying their welcome increasingly exposes them to the risk of a humiliating exit with a blemished legacy.
The writing had been on the wall for some time for 93-year-old Mugabe, amidst a collapsed economy that has brought increasing hardship for Zimbabweans. Yet somehow he foolishly ignored the lessons of history, though he is a man of great learning. With seven earned academic degrees, he is reportedly Africa’s most educated leader, and probably the world’s as well. But then, to quote the old Barbadian saying, ‘book learning ain’t common sense’.
The straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back was Mugabe’s recent firing of his deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, at the behest of his despised and ambitious wife, Grace, whom he appeared set to officially anoint as his heir-apparent. It was the second time in three years that Mugabe had fired a vice president under the influence of his much younger wife. He got away with the 2014 purge of Joice Mujuru but clearly miscalculated the reaction in the case of Mnangagwa who enjoys strong support among the military, even though he is considered just as ruthless or more than Mugabe.
Additionally, despite being revered by the masses as a legendary black liberation hero who fought white minority rule and gained independence for the country, public support had significantly waned for Mugabe. Besides the economic hardships, another factor was the extravagance of his wife, nicknamed “Gucci Grace” because of her appetite for splurging on high-end brand goods during overseas shopping trips.
The push against Mugabe began last week when the army staged what can be described as a soft coup. He was placed under house arrest and given an opportunity to negotiate his exit. Mugabe, however, has been defiant, forcing his ZANU-PF comrades who ensured his political longevity to strip him of the party leadership over the weekend. Having ignored a deadline to step down by today or face impeachment, Mugabe’s fate now is pretty much sealed.
Why would a 93-year-old man, who should be peacefully enjoying his twilight years and giving thanks for surpassing the allotted time that is a mere three score years and ten, seem so besotted by power, especially having served 37 years as head of government? Perhaps, the answer lies in understanding the nature of power itself. It is said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The problem with power is that it can give leaders a delusional sense of invincibility, infallibility, and indispensability. Mugabe contrasts sharply with the approach of another revered freedom fighter from southern Africa – the late great Nelson Mandela. After being elected as South Africa’s first apartheid president in 1994 at the age of 76 after serving 27 years in prison for leading the struggle against white minority rule, he opted to retire after one term, passing the mantle of leadership to younger blood. His decision was informed by a desire to spend the rest of his life in peace and quiet in the company of his family.
It was our late Prime Minister David Thompson who introduced the idea of a political leader having a limited shelf life or ‘sell by expiry date’ into local political discourse. Some were critical of the comment at the time but it demonstrated recognition of an abiding truth about the human condition and life in general. Namely, that everyone and everything is only for a time.
This truth strengthens the case for term limits on political leaders as a central element of modern democratic governance. With the approach of a general election, it is something we seriously ought to consider in the current debate on political reform.