OPINION | The ‘Second Republic’: The Expediency of False Narratives

By Tatenda Mashanda

Zimbabwe’s political history is riddled with false narratives and memories; one is the claim that the “Second Republic” began with Mnangagwa’s presidency. This misleading rhetoric hides the reality of power and governance in our country.

It also warps the lessons and insights that future generations can draw from our past. A new republic means a fundamental change in the form and principles of government, not just a change in leadership. Zimbabwe has not experienced such a change. Narratives shape history but must be grounded in facts and evidence, not myths and legends. We must correct this falsehood and reveal the truth about our nationhood. The idea of the Second Republic is a false memory that risks deceiving future generations who may seek answers from the past. It suggests that Mnangagwa’s presidency caused a drastic change in the political system, which is untrue. The changes that have occurred since then show the shifting power dynamics and resistance within the existing republic, not the birth or death of a new one. We have a responsibility to ourselves and posterity to clear the record and contest the false narrative of the Second Republic.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa has assumed the role of Zimbabwe’s leader on three occasions, reaffirming his dedication by taking the oath of office. In his inaugural address after the end of Robert Mugabe’s presidency, he declared that the country was entering a new era, signifying its next development phase. He reiterated this assertion by mentioning the phrase “Second Republic” four times during his 2018 inauguration: “We convene here yet again, as we did last year, with many similar guests; this is, however, a different Zimbabwe and the dawn of the Second Republic of Zimbabwe.”

The National Development Blueprint (NDS1) in November 2020 restated this rhetoric, as demonstrated by the President’s use of the phrase twice in the foreword and the blueprint’s mention of it four times. On Independence Day in 2022, the President emphasised his commitment to reform and progress by using “Second Republic” eight times. However, the “Second Republic’s” presence was barely noticeable in his recent second-term inaugural address. The pervasive use of this phrase in our public discourse brings to the fore the need to examine this phrase critically.

To grasp the significance of the rhetoric ‘the second republic,’ it’s essential to establish a clear understanding of what defines a republic, how we categorize it, and to contextualize these definitions within Zimbabwe’s political evolution.

What is a Republic?

A republic, deriving its name from the Latin “res publica,” meaning “public affair,” is a form of government where authority is rooted in the people’s collective will, not in hereditary succession. It’s characterized by an elected or appointed executive with a fixed term governed by a constitution delineating the government’s structure and limits. This system is typically divided into three distinct branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. It is designed to function with checks and balances, as noted by Jacques Rancière, to prevent power abuse and ensure state institutions reflect societal and ethical values. Republics vary in their level of democracy, which is influenced by how representatives are elected and the extent of public influence on decision-making. Key elements include popular sovereignty, constitutionalism, rule of law, separation of powers, accountability, and human rights. The form a republic takes, and its evolution can vary widely based on historical development and interpretation of these principles.

Political scientists suggest that a republic’s emergence, evolution, or demise can be influenced by factors like coups, civil wars, popular uprisings, and constitutional amendments. Not every change in leadership signals a new republic; such a label implies a significant overhaul in governance principles. For example, Zimbabwe’s political history has undergone several transformations since its 1980 independence. The establishment of Zimbabwe as a republic marked a significant shift, including adopting a new constitution and state symbols.

Counting Republics

Determining the number of republics within a country like Zimbabwe involves different criteria, focusing on autonomy, representation, and constitutional governments. The essence of a republic lies in its adherence to popular sovereignty, constitutionalism, rule of law, and checks and balances. The evolution of a republic is marked by significant transformations in political structures and ideologies, often reflected through constitutional amendments, societal shifts, or significant governance changes. Zimbabwe has had four republics so far. The First Republic (1980-1987) had Canaan Banana as president and Robert Mugabe as prime minister. The Second Republic (1988-2008) began with Mugabe becoming president and ended with the disputed 2008 election. The Third Republic (2009-2013) resulted from the Global Political Agreement that created a power-sharing government. The Fourth Republic (2014-present) started after the GNU with Emmerson Mnangagwa taking over from Mugabe after a military coup in 2017; it is simply a continuation of this republic.

Another perspective emphasizes the shift from a parliamentary to a presidential system as a significant political change. This view divides Zimbabwe’s political history into two republics. The First Republic (1980-1987) followed a parliamentary system, while the Second Republic (1988- present) adopted a presidential system. Mugabe was the executive president from 1988 to 2017, succeeded by Mnangagwa. This perspective considers the transition from a parliamentary to a presidential system as a pivotal shift in Zimbabwe’s political landscape. In all these perspectives, the assertion that Mnangagwa’s presidency inaugurated the second republic in Zimbabwe’s political history remains highly contested and questionable.

Second Republic Fallacy

The legacy of Robert Mugabe still looms large over the country’s politics. His successors have struggled to carve out their identity and influence, whether positive or negative. Mugabe was known for occasionally peddling “false historical narratives” to suit his agenda. But he was not the only one; Zimbabwe has produced many politicians who can “create history on the podium and, occasionally, dip into the non-existing historical bosoms of false memory.” Emmerson Mnangagwa, who served as Mugabe’s right-hand man for decades, has tried to distance himself from his mentor after taking over the presidency in 2017. The rhetorical presidencies of Mugabe and Mnangagwa are defined by contrasting phrases: “Zimbabwe will never be a colony again” versus “Zimbabwe is open for business.” These phrases resonate in the political arenas of Zimbabwe and beyond.

Despite their long association, Mnangagwa’s efforts to distance himself from Mugabe’s legacy are integral to the “Second Republic” narrative. This rhetoric aims to redefine Zimbabwe’s political identity as a new historical era but fails to show genuine systemic transformation. The repeated invocation of a “Second Republic” legitimizes Mnangagwa’s presidency and creates an image of renewal. Yet, it also distracts from the ongoing similarities in governance styles and policies with the Mugabe era. The contrast between Mugabe’s “Zimbabwe will never be a colony again” and Mnangagwa’s “Zimbabwe is open for business” indicates a shift in tone but not in substance. Rhetoric is a powerful tool in shaping national identity and public perception. Mnangagwa uses it to frame his presidency as a fresh start and a change for the better. However, this rhetoric does not match the reality of the continuities in governance style and policies from the Mugabe era.

This phrase appears in his policy documents and speeches and is simple but significant. It implies a historical break from Mugabe’s legacy and a new era. However, this phrase is a false narrative. Zimbabwe is not in a second republic, nor did Mnangagwa create one. The term “the second republic” has been a critical element of Mnangagwa’s rhetorical presidency, even as famous slogans like “#GiveEDaChance” and “Zimbabwe is open for business” have faded or failed. The latter was meant to signal a reformist agenda and attract investors to rebuild Zimbabwe, but it did not resonate with the general public as much as the former. The public may have overlooked or dismissed “The Second Republic” because it is not catchy, persuasive, or indicative of any policy direction. However, this narrative has been consistently embedded in historical and policy documents, giving it more durability and legitimacy than ephemeral slogans. As these documents are archived, this rhetoric may become a historical lens or a framework for interpretation for future generations.

Mnangagwa’s “Second Republic” claim implies a substantial systemic change in Zimbabwe’s governance. However, as historically understood, a republic’s evolution involves profound shifts in governance principles and structures – changes that are not evidently present in Zimbabwe’s current political context under Mnangagwa. The changes since Mnangagwa’s rise to power reflect shifts within the existing political framework rather than the establishment of a completely new system. Echoing Stephen Roach’s insights in “Accidental Conflict: America, China, and the Clash of False Narratives,” the repeated assertion of the “Second Republic” risks creating a distorted political reality. This risk is evident in Zimbabwe’s case, where the “Second Republic” narrative could mislead future generations about the true nature of the country’s political evolution. If unchallenged, the narrative risks becoming a historical ‘truth,’ shaping perceptions and decisions based on a misleading foundation, and embedding the “Second Republic” narrative in official documents and speeches creates a durable, albeit slippery, historical lens. Future interpretations of Zimbabwe’s political history may be skewed if this narrative is not critically examined and contextualized.

The narrative of the “Second Republic” under President Mnangagwa highlights the complex relationship between political rhetoric and historical understanding. While Mnangagwa’s leadership may represent a change in Zimbabwe’s political figurehead, the absence of fundamental systemic reforms challenges the authenticity of the “Second Republic” claim. The “Second Republic” narrative is an example of political rhetoric manipulating public perception and opinion. It tells a story of power, transition, structure, and society that does not reflect the factual reality. While President Mnangagwa may have changed Zimbabwe’s political leadership, he has not changed the fundamental system of governance. Therefore, a “Second Republic” claim is more of a continuity than a break from the past. It is vital for scholars, policymakers, and citizens to critically examine and challenge such narratives to ensure that historical understanding is based on facts rather than myths. Accurate historical discourse is essential in guiding future generations toward understanding their nation’s political history and evolution.

___

Tatenda is a Rhetorician and Zimbabwe political history enthusiast. He can be reached on his Twitter at @tatendamashanda. Read more from Tatenda here:

BOOKS | Augustine Chihuri has written “The History of Policing in Zimbabwe”, but it has no useful history of policing in Zimbabwe

ESSAY | Factions may not always be a bad thing: A contemporary history of internal party disagreement in Zimbabwe

___