RIAN MALAN muses on 'Two Weeks in November' by Douglas Rogers

Rian Malan | Mar 24, 2019
Roger's novel is set in the demi-monde of Zimbabwe's politics at the end of Robert Mugabe's reign. Malan considers the portents for South Africa.

Two Weeks in November features several characters whose identity is concealed behind pseudonyms, a factor that would normally seem suspect to me. On the other hand, Douglas Rogers’ book is set in a demi-monde where good people really do get tortured, poisoned or run off the road at night by SUVs with tinted windows and blinding spotlights. That’s not exactly what happened to “Tom Ellis” in the spring of 2015, but he did spot a Toyota carrying two black males on his tail, and according to Rogers, he did think something scary was about to happen.

Tom is a 55-year-old ex-Rhodesian who has lived for decades in Johannesburg, where he dabbles in business and Zimbabwean exile politics, befriending people from all factions and trying to get them to work together. Rogers depicts him as “an African pimpernel,” a man who knows almost everyone and has a miraculous ability to fix things, including financial and legal support for opponents of Robert Mugabe’s regime. 

Activities of this sort have previously attracted the attention of Mugabe’s Central Intelligence Organization or CIO, and that’s who Tom fears is following him as he drives across Randburg towards his favourite bar. He could have run for it, but Tom isn’t that kind of guy, so he hops out of his car at a traffic light, taps on the Toyota’s window and starts tuning its occupants in Shona.  “I know you’re following me,” he says. “Let’s have a drink.” The black men shrug and say okay. Inside the bar, Kasper says he’s a plumber, while Magic claims to be an accountant. They’re not spies, just ordinary guys, but they’re happy to drink if the murungu is paying.

 Thus begins an unlikely friendship between the burly, gap-toothed Kasper and the greying Tom Ells. Douglas Rogers is good at this unlikely friendship stuff. His first book, The Last Resort, was a bitterly funny account of his dad’s efforts to hold onto his pleasure resort in Zim’s Eastern Highlands and survive Mugabe. One of its strongest themes was the powerful ties of loyalty and even love that developed between ordinary black Zimbabweans and the handful of whites who had the balls to tough it out alongside them. Something similar happens between Tom and Kasper, who start meeting regularly, weeping into their beers about Zimbabwe’s pain and growing quite fond of each other, even though Tom is the son of a Rhodesian policeman and Kasper a working class bloke whose family still lives in a one-roomed shack in Harare.  (Kasper’s real name is known to the IRR, by the way. Tom’s likewise. But let’s be good sports and respect their need for some cover.)

In any event, this bromance peaks at the seventh or eighth drinking session, when Kasper finally comes clean. “You were right”, he says to Tom. “I am an officer of the CIO.” Tom asks, “So why were you following me?” And Kasper says, “I was sent to kill you.”

As we know, every bar features a fantasist who claims to claims to be CIA agent or ex-Recce, so Tom doesn’t completely buy this confession. Kasper says, fine, I will prove myself by unmasking a spy in your midst.

A few weeks later, Tom attends a secret meeting between between MDC-aligned exiles and Christopher Mutsvangwa, once an exalted ZANU-PF diplomat and Politburo member, now at odds with Mugabe and looking for new allies.  Among the attendees is DeeZee, a young exile who does logistics for the MDC in Jo’burg. This guy snaps the gathering on his cell phone camera and then goes to the gents take a leak. Half an hour later, Tom’s phone pings, and he finds himself staring at the photograph just taken by DeeZee. DeeZee is a spy.  He WhatsApped the incriminating snap to his handlers in Harare, and they flashed it to Kasper, their man in Johannesburg, who forwarded it to Tom with a caption reading, “I told u.”

As you’ve probably gathered by now, Two Weeks is a pretty exciting read. But it’s also a serious book about the plot that toppled Robert Gabriel Mugabe. To understand the outcome, we must begin by looking at the forces engaged in Zimbabwe’s succession battle. Characters like Christopher Mutsvangwa are allied to Zanu-PF’s LaCoste faction, which supports Emmerson Mnangagwa, former army general and deputy president of Zim.  DeeZee is working for G40, the faction headed by Grace Mugabe, wife of the increasingly senile Robert. Both Emmerson and Grace aspire to step into old Robert’s shoes when he passes on, which is likely to be soon, given that he is 93. The third faction is the Zimbabwe Exiles Forum (ZEF), an umbrella organisation that commands the ears of millions of young adults who’ve fled Zimbabwe over the last twenty years. 

Why would Gabriel Shumba, chairman of the ZEF, allow himself to be manoeuvred into secret meetings with Christopher Mutsvangwa? Shumba is a Johannnesburg based human rights lawyer who was imprisoned and tortured by ZANU-PF . Mutsvangwa is, and was then, the current chairman of ZANU’s military veterans association. These men are supposed to be deadly enemies, but Tom Ellis and others have convinced them that they need each other. Mutsvangwa knows that his man Emmerson is tainted by his close association with Mugabe and by the allegedly central role he played in the Matabeleland massacres of the early l980s. If he’s to win the succession battle, Emmerson needs to be cleansed and reborn as a good guy, and Gabriel can help with that because he’s in with the media, the NGOs and sympathetic governments worldwide. 

And why would Gabriel do such a thing? Because Emmerson and his emissaries are saying something the exiles want to hear: the time has come to oust Mugabe.  Once he’s gone, says Mutsvangwa, everything will be different. Zimbabwe will be “open for business” again. The economy will grow. Elections will be free, the rule of law restored. 

A few years earlier, Gabriel Shumba would probably have rejected this overture, but Zimbabwe’s democratic opposition is in disarray and the disastrous Mugabe regime is threatening to turn into a dynasty as Robert’s “mad” wife and her “consortium of hoodlums” conspire to seize power. From a realpolitik point of view, Emmerson looks like the lesser of two evils, and there is always the chance that he might turn out to be a real democrat. So Gabriel joins the plot, stressing that he is acting in a personal capacity, not on behalf of the ZEF. MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai is aware of the plot, at least partly because he knows and “trusts” Kasper. According to Rogers, the CIO agent once infiltrated Tsvangirai’s inner circle, posing as an unemployed ex-policeman with a karate Black Belt. He was hired as a bodyguard for a while.

After fermenting in secret for nearly two years, the conspiracy bursts into the open in early November 2017, when doddery old Robert strips Emmerson of his deputy presidency. Fearing for his life, Emmerson jumps the Mozambique border (carrying an $8,000 Louis Vuitton briefcase) and winds up in Beira, from where he is rescued by a private jet dispatched from Johannesburg by a Zimbabwean IT mogul.

With Emmerson out of the way, Grace appears to have won, but in truth the final battle is just beginning. Gabriel Shumba and Christopher Mutswangwa stage a joint press conference in Sandton. Christopher apologises for the agony ZANU-PF has inflicted on Zimbabwe, after which Gabriel announces that he and Mutsvangwa have agreed to put their differences aside and work together for the ouster of Robert Mugabe. They do not openly declare their intent to put Emmerson in power, but this is clearly the aim Zimbabwe’s military, at present still lurking in the background. The generals are reluctant to submit to the rule of any woman, let alone an extravagant airhead like Grace Mugabe. They have also consulted their friends in Beijing, who seem to have given the nod.

At this point, three smooth operators show up in Jo’burg, dressed in expensive suits and armed with several cellphones apiece.  Senior officers from the Zimbabwe military, they team up with the conspirators we’ve already met and establish a command centre at Boksburg’s Holiday Inn, where they are joined by vastly expanded cast of exile activists, lawyers, info-war experts, South African spooks and Acie Lumumba, a glamorous social media personality with 300,000 followers on Twitter. I won’t spoil the story by telling the rest of it here, so let’s just say it’s a ripping yarn that culminates in the ending envisaged by Tom and Kasper back in 2015: on 21 November 2017, Robert Mugabe is politely but firmly crow-barred out of office in a military coup cunningly disguised as voluntary resignation. 

Is this a happy ending? Sadly not. Within hours of Mugabe’s downfall, Kasper was lying on the floor of a Military Intelligence dungeon, beaten half to death by partisans of the defeated G40 faction. Emmerson Mnangagwa was installed as State President a few days later, but he seemed to have forgotten the promises his emissaries made to Gabriel, who was expecting him to create a Transitional National Authority in which the opposition was fairly represented. Tom Ellis led a delegation of potential investors to Harare, but promises of economic reform were slow to materialise.  Then came the general election of July 2018, in which ZANU-PF was returned to power by what appeared to be a landslide, thanks mostly to the unwavering loyalty of the rural poor. 

In the aftermath, President Mnangagwa appointed a few technocrats to his cabinet and continued to insist that Zimbabwe was “open for business” and primed for rapid growth. But confiscatory Marxist-Leninist policies remained in place, and by Roger’s count, only one white commercial farmer got his land back. Food remained scarce, there was no cash in the banks and no jobs materialised for the 90 percent of Zimbabwe adults who have no income. In January 2019, a massive petrol price hike sparked riots in Harare, and soldiers returned to the streets to shoot trouble-makers and agitators. Zimbabweans came to the dismal realisation that they were back where they started: “Same bus, different driver.”

Why did it come to this? Many heart-broken Zimbabweans believe that promises of reform were just bait set out by Emmerson and his military backers to con democrats into supporting their putsch against Robert and Grace Mugabe. Rogers would find this a bit harsh, arguing that Emmerson’s reforms may simply have been blocked by rich politicians and generals who saw no need to change anything. “How does a party forged in bloody revolution and in power for 37 years, with all the corruption and graft that comes with that, ever change its spots?”

Rogers continues to hope that Emmerson – like Cyril  Ramaphosa – might yet gain the upper hand and push through the sort of reforms necessary to bring Zimbabwe back to life again. If so, there is an important lesson here for South Africans: it’s easy to dig a deep hole for yourself but tough to climb out again, especially if powerful forces want you keep you buried in corruption and decay.

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