The end of Robert Mugabe’s rule in Zimbabwe has sparked hope among the people and the Zimbabwean diaspora. It is unfortunate, however, that the personality of Mugabe, rather than Zimbabwe’s dearth of institutions, has been declared as the principle barrier to the country’s progress. Zimbabweans don’t need simply to trade one despot for another. They need real property rights and a limited government.
Whether as president or prime minister, Mugabe had led Zimbabwe since 1980, and for a significant period of time during his rule, Zimbabwe was regarded as a democracy. It was only after the intensive land-grab program of the early 2000s that the world came to regard Mugabe as a dictator who needed to be pushed out. By that time, Mugabe had already long overstayed his welcome, but no institution stopped him.
Mugabe is undeniably a bad person. He did not liberate Rhodesia from anything, since Zimbabweans continued to live under a tyranny when the so-called liberators came to power. But to mistake the tree for the forest would serve only to set Zimbabwe up for more disappointment and tyranny. The real problem in the landlocked African country is a lack of institutions, chief among which are the rule of law, limited government, and property rights.
A constant mistake made in postcolonial societies is to grant the incoming revolutionary regime broad powers to correct wrongs of the colonial past. One of the exceptions to this rule was when the United States was decolonized in 1776. The liberators recognized that the Constitution was not a transient instrument meant to fix the present problems faced by society, and thus appreciated that it needed to constrain the potential tyranny of future regimes. They created a political dispensation that has more or less survived for over 200 years by consciously setting out to limit government. Government was not to be empowered, but rather the people.
At the center of every significant period of civil strife in history has been the question of government control. It is because government does much that different factions want a turn at the steering wheel. And it has been understandably difficult to convince the former underdog factions during transitions that the power used to subjugate them in the past should be abolished. They want their turn. The tyrannical dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba was not replaced in 1959 by a limited constitutional government, but by a communist regime. Meanwhile the Chilean coup d’etat that toppled Salvador Allende in 1973 and put an end to his disastrous economic policies, produced an oppressive, if misunderstood, military junta.
During all its stages of independence from Britain in 1910, 1931, and 1961 respectively, South Africa continued to choose a government with virtually unbridled power, by way of parliamentary sovereignty, in dealing with problems. Apartheid was the consequence of having no bill of rights and a legislature thought to be, in legal terms, omnipotent. In 1996, South Africa adopted a constitution that came close – but not close enough, as recent “Zuptagate” controversies illustrate – to limiting our government and empowering the people. At least we strengthened our institutions by committing South Africa explicitly to the rule of law and to property rights (sections 1(c) and 25 of the Constitution respectively).
If Zimbabwe is to truly shake off the shackles of tyranny and become a prosperous democracy, it would do well to disregard who the next president will be, and rather concern itself with what that president will be allowed to do. The appropriate answer should be, next to nothing.
Were Zimbabweans to revise their constitutional makeup, Harare would be wise to relegate the presidency to a largely ceremonial office (ideally rotated, as in the case of Switzerland), with executive power dispersed among the various provinces and independent government departments. Most important of all, a justiciable bill of rights handicapping government power and enabling a strong judiciary should be included.
The rule of law in Zimbabwe would mean that property rights are no longer debatable. If you acquired the property through original acquisition (homesteading the unowned property) or voluntary transfer (buying it from a previous owner), your title is absolute. It would mean that even the most senior military chief will be disobeyed (if he orders a coup) by the decentralized command structure which swears to uphold the rule of law rather than the diktat of the president or the interests of whichever faction is paying the most in money or favors. It would mean the people of Zimbabwe, rather than the government, would become the drivers of progress.
ZANU-PF, the party that brought Mugabe to power and has supported his oppressive tyranny, appears set to remain the governing force in Zimbabwe. The former Vice President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, also appears to be the party’s preferred successor. Mnangagwa, a long-time sidekick to Mugabe, is not much better than his predecessor, having participated in the killing of supposed opposition sympathizers in the early 1980s and having been a leading proponent of the violent expropriation of property in the early 2000s.
With him and ZANU-PF remaining at the helm, Zimbabweans should remain vigilant. Cautious optimism is warranted given that a 37-year dictatorship has come to an end, however, a free and prosperous future can only be guaranteed if Zimbabwe adopts strong institutions that hinder the emergence of despots.
Martin van Staden is Legal Researcher at the Free Market Foundation in South Africa, and is pursuing a Master of Laws degree at the University of Pretoria. The views expressed here are the author's own.