It's always a little unbelievable when the possibility of the death of someone like Robert Mugabe is raised. So long has he been around, and so brutally has he dominated Zimbabwe's political life, that even though we might like to, it's hard to imagine the world without him.
Nor is this seeming indestructibility confined to the bad guys. Nelson Mandela is very frail, and even though a series of rumours have given us the opportunity to get used to the idea of his passing, it doesn't quite seem like it will ever be real. I fully expect to be drawing my pension and find our own dear Queen is still sitting on the throne, with perennial Prince Charles still looking peevish in the background.
Normal people never seem so permanent. Perhaps it's because they don't have the magic, indestructible dust of grand institutions and historical events rubbing off on them in the same way – or perhaps it's because they don't get such expensive healthcare.
As the Mugabe rumours continue to fly, it occurs to me that the totemic importance that such endings assume – their status as markers of new eras – is actually terribly dangerous, whether we like the ailing statesman in question or not.
Mugabe is a case in point. His death would be warmly greeted in many quarters. But those who imagine a new era of peace and prosperity under Morgan Tsvangirai should consider the fearsome rise of Emmerson Mnangagwa, the Zanu-PF defence minister said to be Mugabe's preferred successor. Mnangagwa, the man who masterminded the violence that opposition MDC supporters faced during the last election, is very far from the beacon of hope that the most appealing narrative of Mugabe's death would suggest should come next.
Something similar is true in South Africa; Mandela might remain the definitive reminder of how South Africa's changed, but it's silly to imagine that his death will have more than a symbolic significance to the future of the country. Even in this country, I suspect there are those who imagine that the next royal succession will trigger some kind of rebirth for the monarchy. It won't. Things will simply trundle on.
Any theory of history that relies on the idea of decisive moments is bound to be dangerous (see the invasion of Iraq, among other examples, a nightmare of unintended consequences and unending engagement). Mugabe's death might be an impending reality, or it might be an optimistic invention.
But even if it is real, those who expect it to be transformative will still be in the realms of fantasy.
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