Even in the worst of times, of which Zimbabwe has had its fair share of late, it’s hard not to feel hopeful during jacaranda season. As the warming sun of the southern spring draws the brilliant flaming colours into the leaves, just walking along tree-lined boulevards amid ineffable beauty can leave you feeling that a better world is still possible.
So despite all the suspicions that Zimbabwe’s ‘second independence’ won’t change a thing, spare a moment for the joy of the people. Last night, Harare looked like the country had just won the World Cup, a prospect that until last week most Zimbabweans would have probably considered only slightly more remote than their president’s peaceful departure. In a country with shortages of everything, somehow the city’s residents found enough fuel to put all its cars on the road, flashing lights, blowing horns, and bringing the city to a standstill as people danced in the streets alongside policemen and soldiers.
I know, we’re all swallowing deeply to break the bad news: these things usually end badly. And it’s true, we’ve had plenty cause for cynicism at revolutions in recent years. The Arab Spring saw generals replace generals and chaos erupt. Then, the Occupy movement it helped inspire back in the West, which arose to protest the bank bailouts and to call for a new dawn, was crushed by the police as bankers cashed their bonus cheques.
And we all know the generals and politicians behind the Zimbawean coup were not selfless crusaders. Take the hero of the moment, Emmerson Mnangagwa, known as the Crocodile. Under a heavy cloud of suspicion for having both blood on his hands and his hands in the till, he would hardly seem the type on which to hang any hopes of change.
Yet for all that, there are still reasons for cautious optimism that Zimbabwe’s uprising may do more than just swap one tyrant for another. First, things have got so bad, that just a little change will make a big difference. Get goods back into the shops, provide a currency that is stable, make foreign exchange available: measures like these are in the range of possibility, and would improve people’s lives noticeably.
Second, this was an extraordinary coup by any standard, one which gives Zimbabwe unusually favourable odds. Ponder the scenario. For years, Zimbabweans had been steeling themselves for the worst, anticipating a bloodbath, even civil war, once Robert Mugabe died – and his dying was the only way they could imagine their president ever leaving office. But instead, in the space of a few days, we’ve had an all-but-bloodless coup, the preservation of a constitution, and a formal transition. It could have easily gone off the rails and turned ugly, especially once Mugabe decided not to resign at the last moment on Sunday evening. Yet even then, everyone else stuck to the script, the generals going so far as to salute the President even as they prepared to impeach him since he was, even if only for a few more hours, still their President.
Third, assuming that Emmerson Mnangagwa does take the reins of power, the change at the top may amount to more than what football managers call a like-for-like substitution. Some Zimbabweans note that whatever his faults, as a political organiser and government minister, Mnangagwa got things done. History will reveal the extent to which this coup was his doing, and how much he merely got swept up in events. But it seems to have his fingerprints all over it, which says something, because this coup revealed exceptionally good planning and near-flawless execution. If he can run a country the way he runs a forceful transition of power, he could yet make a positive difference.
Fourth, and perhaps decisively, it is just possible that over the last few days, the country’s balance of power shifted in a meaningful way. For all Robert Mugabe’s despotism, Zimbabwe managed to preserve a surprisingly resilient civil society and opposition movement. In fact, the coup probably would have failed had it not been that the people arose to back the generals. The ruling party would have needed opposition support in parliament to impeach Mugabe. Moreover, Mugabe would have quite likely felt emboldened to hang on if he could have persuaded himself he could go over the generals’ heads. Once the streets of the country’s cities filled with protesters demanding he go, however, his position became untenable. All in all, this movement united the barracks to the street. Any future President will know the critical importance of retaining the street, because once Mugabe lost it, his fate was sealed.
In jaracanda season, Zimbabweans can feel about the future the way people in cold climates do in their spring: after a long hard winter, life is returning once more. So regardless of how realistic or not their expectations might be, let them have this celebration. Lord knows they’ve earned it.