Funeral diplomacy in Zimbabwe

By Nixon Nembaware

Funeral diplomacy refers to the conference held by world leaders or politicians and opinion leaders in general when they assemble together to pay their homage to a deceased international/National figure. Funerals of the great and the good, demanding attendance at short notice by busy and powerful leaders who rarely meet, have long been occasions for quiet diplomacy. 

A memorial service for Morgan Tsvangirai was held in Harare
A memorial service for Morgan Tsvangirai was held in Harare

It’s like leaders bury hatchets for the day and unite in paying respects to that important figure and as such they may have a chance to promote their political agenda. Funeral diplomacy ranges wider than meetings on the sidelines of a funeral to include handshakes and photo-poses.

Some call them working funerals but it’s as simple as what happens at your local village funeral, where you will have to meet the guy whose goats plundered your field because both of you cannot be absent at that funeral. You will try by all means to avoid being in close proximity to him but the rest of the villagers will notice how you treat each other.

 I lost my uncle in November of 2017 a few days before Mugabe was removed in a coup. The whole evening everyone was talking about what was happening, The Zanu PF and MDC sympathisers all had an open dialogue as they were preparing my uncle’s grave. After his burial all family members were called for an ad hoc meeting where we planned the next family gathering.

All these are examples of funeral diplomacy at local level. At an international level, a photo of Merkel whispering something into Putin’s ear at the world cup 2014 in Brazil was just so powerful. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in Rio de Janeiro to see Germany play Argentina in the final, and Putin was attending because Russia was scheduled to host the next World Cup in 2018.

But they had in talks remotely over the Ukraine crisis, with Merkel urging Putin to use his influence over separatists in eastern Ukraine to help bring about an end to fighting. The world cup for Merkel and Putin was obviously not about the ordinary football .

At the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005, Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, representing Queen Elizabeth, received a  “surprise” handshake from Mugabe, kudos to Mugabe’s aides who knew that without that surprise handshake they would not even schedule a meeting because of the soured Zimbabwean relations.  At the 1978 funeral of Kenyan independence leader Jomo Kenyatta, Uganda’s Idi Amin was physically prevented from shaking hands with the prince.

The handshakes are symbolic political expressions. And Friends and foes alike are wary of such diplomatic gestures at such functions.Funerals in essence present “ad hoc summits” for leaders where states through their representatives convey diplomatic signals through presence or absence at the event. The level of representation is also key and position in the “funeral protocol” is also very vital.

The absence of Mugabe at the Tsvangirai Funeral is very conspicuous, he should have just visited their Highlands home and done the traditional process of kubata maoko. He has presented himself as a heartless, cruel and selfish politician who is not a true statesman but was worried about, his power, position and preservation. But wait a minute, maybe the Junta is denying him access! Mnangagwa played it safe by sending emissaries. America sent a sitting president and three other

The numbers of people and high profile persons also matter, so does the sitting arrangement which can facilitate a casual but impactful discussion. The sending of condolence message is also important. Take for example the message for the new Kid on the south African scene Cyril Ramaphosa and its symbolic meaning, in view of Mbeki who once said “there is no crisis in Zimbabwe” after a rigged election.

One classic orbituary that will remain vivid in the annals of Zimbabwean history was Mugabe’s message after the death of Tsvangirai’s wife susan in a car crash.

Many ordinary Zimbabweans remained in doubt that it was just a plain accident and Mugabe’s condolence message seemed to be responding to the unsaid questions and doubts “We are sincerely saddened by the death of Susan and we hope that Morgan will remain strong,” he said. “I plead with you to accept it, it’s the hand of God.” Mugabe said.

In-house the MDC seemed to be fighting for the control of the burial processes, night vigil, state processes, and party processes. Some seemed to be having an upper hand at the home and relatives of Tsvangirai whilst the others seemed to be in control of the harvest house processes.

Is Raila Odinga coming to Zimbabwe? If yes what is the symbolic meaning of his presence? What is the symbolic meaning of Mnangagwa sending lesser officers to attend in view of an upcoming election? What is the symbolic message of the mass rallies of people attending the Tsvangirai processes in view of an upcoming election?

Trust me many Zanu PF members would love to attend but are also fearful of sending wrong messages to their principals. So in essence weddings, parties, graduations, church services and in this case funerals are opportune moments of diplomacy, they may appear simple and easy at the surface but in actual fact they are well choreographed ‘political summits’ where symbolic gestures are expressed, policy hints thrown and interests projected.