What really fell in Zimbabwe’s coup

The Army’s sidelining of President Robert Mugabe came after he picked his wife to rule after him, denying democratic ideals rooted in equality. History is littered with the overthrow of family dynasties and progress toward basic rights.

AP Photo
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, left, and his wife Grace follow proceedings during a youth rally in Marondera, Zimbabwe, in June.

When he was elected the first leader of a newly democratic Zimbabwe in 1980, Robert Mugabe sought reconciliation with the country’s former rulers, the white minority. It was a recognition of the need for rule by equality and merit over rule by race and heritage. Over 37 years in power, however, Mr. Mugabe steadily forgot those kind of guiding principles in modern governance.

Finally, according to reports, he appeared to be leaning toward designating his much-younger wife, Grace, as his successor, and even removed his vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former comrade from the 1970s independence struggle.

Simply put, Mugabe chose dynastic lineage over democratic ideals.

Only days later, the Army displaced him, citing his wife’s lack of legitimacy and the alleged criminals around her “causing social and economic suffering."

This is the lesson from Zimbabwe as events continue to unfold there. Much of history involves the struggle to create societies based on equal liberty rather than ephemeral rule by family, clan, tribe, patriarchs, clerics, or monarchs. Or, in the case of China, dictatorial rule by a Communist Party that believes only it can define the people’s “dream.”

Most of all, history has shown the fallacy of hereditary rule, or a belief that bloodlines determine one’s destiny or that genes and kinship can ensure a righteous ruler. To govern well today requires rulers who understand the bright line between the public interest and private desires.

In South Africa, Zimbabwe’s close neighbor, that lesson is still being learned. Despite the post-apartheid legacy of Nelson Mandela in honoring all citizens equally, the current president, Jacob Zuma, recently took a step backward. In May, he endorsed his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, to lead the ruling African National Congress and eventually replace him. His move makes South Africa a suspect mediator in helping Zimbabwe during its transition.

And despite their sidelining of Mugabe, the Army generals in Zimbabwe also lack credentials for resolving the country’s future. To be sure, militaries are mostly run on merit. They can efficiently run a large organization. But by necessity to be battle ready, they are not run on equality and inherent rights, such as the right of dissent and a due regard for minority views.

Much of the world is still ruled along notions of inequality along social or economic roles, similar to Aristotle’s view that “some are free men, and others slaves by nature.” Yet today’s democracies reflect the Christian era’s ideals of individual conscience, equality before God, mutual respect and responsibility, and a love that includes one’s enemies. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female,” stated the Apostle Paul.

For Zimbabweans, the succession question still remains despite the Army’s move against Mugabe. But at least his attempt at dynastic rule has ended, and perhaps with it, the idea in Zimbabwe that a society requires inequality between the ruled and their rulers.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this editorial mischaracterized Mr. Mugabe's actions about choosing a successor.]

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