The Roman god, Saturn, ate his children, but was overthrown by one who got away. For politicians, the moral of the story is that you have to keep eating them, and hunt down all who might escape.
That is a lesson learnt well in Zimbabwe, which is now emerging – perhaps – from an extraordinary episode in its tumultuous political history.
Over the past four months, culminating in the ruling ZANU-PF party congress, the factions in the party rallied behind one of two candidates for the vice-presidency (of both party and country). These were the incumbent vice-president, Joice Mujuru, and Emerson Mnangagwa.
But proceedings fell into unprecedented disarray with the deployment of the first lady, Grace Mugabe, as a kind of attack dog against Mujuru. She was savage, and the vitriol she directed against a genuine heroine of the country’s liberation struggle was unremitting.
Under her teenage war name Teurai Ropa (Spill Blood), Joice Mujuru shot down a Rhodesian military helicopter, led several other heroic actions, and fell in love with Mugabe’s military strategist, who was then using the war name Rex Nhongo. The two married and, in post-independence civilian life, became Joice and Solomon Mujuru.
They had very separate political aspirations and became very wealthy, but retained independent critical thoughts about President Mugabe. Solomon Mujuru is rumoured to have advised Mugabe to retire as long as seven years ago; he died in a mysterious fire in 2011.
Emerson Mnangagwa, meanwhile, was a teenage saboteur in the early days of the liberation struggle. Captured and sentenced to hang, he was reprieved on account of not yet being 21. The torture he suffered at that time left him permanently deaf in his left ear.
It has also led him, as minister of justice, to take a public stand against the death penalty: he recently declined to sign the execution orders of 97 convicts on death row. Even so, he is regarded as a hardliner in the Mugabe mould, as compared to the supposedly reformist Mujuru.
The hitherto apolitical Grace Mugabe’s decision to enter the fray against Mujuru was spectacular. Her talent for denunciation and fiery speeches blossomed every day. Mujuru’s efforts to sustain a dignified silence became increasingly difficult. Even so, she and her supporters calculated they had sufficient electoral support within the party to win the vice-presidency at the December congress.
One by one, her most senior supporters were dismissed from their positions. Some 50 have now been effectively disgraced – almost all on the basis of hearsay and as a result of a pogrom. Suddenly, the congress went from being an elective institution to a mere venue for President Mugabe to unilaterally choose his vice-presidents.
At that moment, Mujuru knew she was defeated. She did not attend the congress. Mnangagwa, who became both party and national vice president, prostrated himself at Mugabe’s feet, in public, to thank him for his elevation.
But of those Mujuru supporters who were disgraced, a huge number were also war veterans and heroes. If it had come to election, it is rumoured that even Mnangagwa’s camp estimated she would have won by a margin of between 30% and 70%.
Will all these people simply retreat into the shadows, cause no problems for the party, and lick their wounds in quiet acceptance? Things can move with extreme patience in Zimbabwean politics. And the president will be 91 in February. Clearly tired, he made many gaffes during the congress, being corrected in public by his wife and others.
There are four imponderables for the future in Zimbabwe. What will Mujuru do? Can Mnangagwa consolidate his position as favourite to succeed Mugabe? What’s next for Grace Mugabe, with her new relish for politics? And what will the generals in the background do?
And what about the once-again-faltering economy? While the political elite have engaged in their political combats, investment has shrunk. Public debt has increased; diaspora remittances have declined. Traditional lenders and providers of liquidity have reached their limits, or will set new conditions. It’s still not clear how public servants and the soldiers will be paid in the second half of 2015.
For, as the great elephants, the titans and gods of the Zimbabwe jungle have struggled, the ecology has been flattened. The landscape is now littered with the bones of the children of the gods, detritus from a power play that will do this near-ruined country no good at all.