ZIMBABWE is a country still very much in flux, and its politics are still influenced by the legacy of decades of the ruthless and cunning machinations of Robert Mugabe. It is also several decades since I have actually been there, and yet perhaps the perspective of decades can here be helpful.
We learned long ago to be suspicious of what the historian Herbert Butterfield called The Whig Interpretation of History: the idea that the past was a kind of rehearsal for the present, and the events of previous times were as a perennial struggle between the friends and enemies of progress. (The friends, naturally, were Protestants and Whigs, and the enemies, of course, Catholics and Tories.)
Intellectually, we may see the sense in Butterfield’s warning, but we still have a tendency to see history as a journey from a grim yesterday to a better tomorrow — at least, we in the post-Enlightenment West do, at any rate.
The last century’s improvements in technology seem to have gone hand in hand with a growth of prosperity, freedom, and personal fulfilment. We have seen colonies replaced by independent states, an end to the Cold War, the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the crumbling of apartheid in South Africa, peace in Northern Ireland, and much more. Things, we were told, could only get better.
But, as imperialism gave way to neo-colonialism and then globalisation, too many people felt left behind. The alienated, disenfranchised, and forgotten exacted their revenge through Brexit and Donald Trump.
In Africa, which I covered for decades as a reporter, progress has so often been two steps forward and one step back. Yet, overall, those years have brought significant (if uneven) economic growth, fewer wars, and less dictatorship and more democracy, even if the latter has been plagued by a peculiarly African cronyism.
The recent singular coup in Zimbabwe is a neat exemplar of that. A man in a military uniform takes over the television station, after gunfire around the homes of government ministers, and then announces that this is not a coup. President Mugabe goes on television to make a resignation speech, but neglects to resign. Parliament begins an impeachment process in which the President is to be replaced by his Vice-President. And, finally, Mr Mugabe resigns.
Yet this process is a kind of progress. In many of the 200 military coups in Africa since 1960, the ousted president was killed, and widespread violence was visited on the people. Those who wanted to replace Mr Mugabe knew that that was not an option if a new Zimbabwean government was to secure the international finance and co-operation that it would need to rebuild an economy devastated by decades of predatory and violent mismanagement.
Of course, it is quite possible that Mr Mugabe will be replaced by someone just as bad. Butterfield, writing 80 years ago, warned us against oversimplified narratives that seek moral clarity at the expense of historical accuracy.
But, if the past is to be any kind of guide to the present, we need to maintain some kind of narrative of optimism.