Inside Story

In Zimbabwe, it’s not over till it’s over

As the army asserts control, the legacy of the struggle against colonialism still hangs over Zimbabwean politics

Michael Bartos 16 November 2017 2553 words

Gathering storm: Zimbabwean first lady Grace Mugabe and vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa at ZANU–PF headquarters in Harare in February last year. Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP Photo

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, armoured vehicles rolled into the Pocket Hill studios of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation in Harare. Shortly after, major-general Sibusiso Moyo appeared on screen to read a statement that president Robert Gabriel Mugabe and his family were safe, and that Zimbabweans should go about their normal business. He wished “to make it abundantly clear that this is not a military takeover of government. What the Zimbabwe Defence Forces is doing is to pacify a degenerating political, social and economic situation in our country which if not addressed may result in violent conflict.”

As day broke the next morning, though, Zimbabweans were inclined to see this non-coup a little differently. If it looks like a goat, walks like a goat and sounds like a goat, it is a goat.

So, what exactly is this goat? It is the latest stage in a messy battle over who will succeed the ninety-three-year-old Mugabe, who led the country to independence in 1980 but, like so many of the first generation of African liberation leaders, hasn’t found the means to gracefully hand over an increasingly fractious and kleptocratic political apparatus.

Precipitating the latest turn in Zimbabwe’s politics is the sacking a week ago of one of two vice-presidents, Emmerson Mnangagwa. To most informed observers, Mnangagwa had been steadily amassing power since the national elections in 2013, the first under the constitution devised during the period of the national unity government, which was installed in 2008. Unlike the 2008 election, when Mugabe almost certainly stole victory from the Morgan Tsvangirai–led opposition and was forced by international pressure to share power, the 2013 elections gave Mugabe’s ZANU–PF a clear victory. The opposition MDC was compromised by its participation in the unity government and Tsvangirai’s public standing was undermined by a vicious dirty-tricks campaign.

Vice-president Joice Mujuru emerged in the 2000s as Mugabe’s likely heir-apparent. She had been shoe-horned into the vice-presidency at Emmerson Mnangagwa’s expense under a new party rule that reserved one of the two deputy posts for a woman. Her feat of shooting down a helicopter as a young woman in the liberation war earned her the nom de guerre of Comrade Spillblood. But in 2014 she was unceremoniously dumped from the vice-presidency and Mnangagwa came back through the revolving door.

These manoeuvres seemed like nothing more than Mugabe’s long-practised tactic of divide and rule — his modus operandi ever since he rose to the post of ZANU president in 1977. Like most liberation movements at the time, Zimbabwe had a Soviet-supported arm, ZAPU, and a Maoist arm, ZANU. Ideology was less important than ethnicity: ZAPU was led by Joshua Nkomo and its heartland was the Ndebele areas of the south of the country. ZANU’s support was more among the Shona-speaking people, who made up 70 per cent of the population. The two parties cooperated in the liberation war but competed after independence in 1980. With election results largely following ethnic lines, ZAPU was left very much in the minority.

Nkomo and ZAPU participated in the early post-independence government, but from 1983 Mugabe’s ZANU–PF intensified its efforts to gain total control. In the shameful Gukurahundi operation, tens of thousands of Ndebele were accused of anti-government activity and as many as 20,000 of them were killed. The erstwhile colonial power, Britain, was determined that independence should succeed (and wipe out the legacy of the racially based government of Ian Smith), and turned a blind eye to the killings. To avoid more slaughter, Nkomo signed a unity accord with ZANU–PF in 1987; he was a much-diminished political figure until his death in 1999.

Lurking just beneath the surface of the Gukurahundi operation had been Mugabe’s faithful lieutenant, Emmerson Mnangagwa. Three decades later, following his accession to the vice-presidency, Mnangagwa began amassing power. His links to both the military and the state security agency, the Central Intelligence Office, were thought to be strong. But he also shaped a technocratic government struggling to find a way out of the development dilemmas facing the country.

Catastrophic hyperinflation intensified in the 2000s, culminating in 2008 with the Zimbabwe dollar literally no longer worth the paper it was printed on. Ordinary people’s life savings were wiped out, and deindustrialisation set in. The Zimbabwe dollar was abandoned in 2008, replaced by a multi-currency regime in which the US dollar was effectively the national currency. Inflation stabilised, though the depreciation of the South African rand against the US dollar in the early 2010s created its own problems, given the strong economic and labour-market links between the two countries.

Among the priorities for the country after 2013 was to improve industrial capacity, a task complicated by the indigenisation policy that had been ZANU–PF’s main plank at the elections. The policy was the culmination of Mugabe’s strategy to throw off the colonial legacy: in his analysis, it was not enough simply to take the formal reins of government; the commanding heights of the economy also had to be in black hands. (Mugabe was critical of Mandela’s rainbow revolution for failing to fundamentally shift economic power.)

The appropriation of white-owned farms in the 1990s and 2000s was part of this strategy. But the 2013 indigenisation policy was designed to extend across all areas of economic activity by requiring businesses to be 51 per cent indigenously owned. At the same time, though, Zimbabwe was endeavouring to attract more foreign direct investment, and so the implementation of indigenisation was never entirely clarified. At one stage, each week saw contradictory pronouncements from the then finance minister Patrick Chinamasa and the then indigenisation minister (and Mugabe nephew) Patrick Zhuwao. Among the unresolved questions was what would count as indigenous — clearly the policy was designed to put ownership in black hands, but neither the constitution nor national policy had enshrined a neo-colonial classification of people according to skin colour or ancestry.

Zimbabwe’s global standing was also at stake. Many in the West had supported Ian Smith’s minority regime as a bulwark against communism; the liberation movement had been avowedly socialist. One of the reasons Australia is still held in high regard in Zimbabwean political circles is that Malcolm Fraser, as prime minister, persuaded the Thatcher government that regardless of its ideological sympathies it simply could not countenance continuing minority rule and had to support an independent Zimbabwe in 1980. But as the 1980s turned into the 1990s, any hopes of a capitalist multiracial route to development had faded.

Mugabe’s foreign policy rhetoric became increasingly defiant. The United States and other countries, including Australia, imposed sanctions on trade and financial transactions, and many members of the political leadership were banned from travelling to Western countries.

And so Zimbabwe “turned East.” Mega-deals with China were announced with much fanfare. Beijing assumed the status of “all weather partner,” as the billboards proclaimed when president Xi Jinping made a fleeting visit to the country in December 2015. But the Chinese were not the easy touch that many had hoped. They were prepared to invest, but not inclined to see Chinese dollars lining ministers’ pockets.

Even more murkily in the background were diamonds. Rich diamond fields were discovered in the Marange area in 2006 and, after an initial chaotic diamond rush, military ownership was asserted. Production levels fell dramatically, and up to US$15 billion in wealth from the fields is estimated to have been illegally diverted to fund military operations, bankroll ZANU–PF electioneering and line various unnamed Zimbabwean and Chinese pockets.

Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa, meanwhile, was regularising relations with international financial institutions and repairing the damage caused by hyperinflation and sanctions. At the spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in 2015, a deal was negotiated that would have cleared Zimbabwe’s debts with the two agencies and secured a new loan.

Quid pro quo for this deal, known as the Lima Agreement, was a series of economic reforms designed to increase the capacity and transparency of government financial operations, and make national financial decision-making more accountable. Zimbabwe has always had a highly trained and dedicated civil service and a strong awareness of the importance of good governmental systems, and the government appeared strongly committed to these reforms.

More difficult were the changes needed in the public sector. The IMF and World Bank were not seeking a return to the largely discredited structural adjustment demands they had made globally in the 80s and 90s, but the government and the international institutions agreed that Zimbabwe’s public sector payroll was unsustainable. Every month, tens of millions of dollars more flowed out of government coffers than was coming in.

A government normally gets over this problem by printing more money — but with the US dollar as the national currency, this was not an option. In 2016, the money simply started running out. The stop-gap measure was creation of bond notes, exchangeable one for one with US dollars but printed locally. This was not a return to the Zim-dollar, according to the government, and inflationary pressures have so far been moderated. But US dollars inevitably command a premium over bond notes.

Chinamasa sought to negotiate these complicated waters. He regularised relations with the West, issued the bond notes, encouraged real Chinese investment, and gradually reduced the public service and made it more efficient. But at every turn, he had the rug pulled from under his feet by Mugabe. Chinamasa’s announcement that civil servants would have to forgo their annual bonus (the thirteenth-month cheque) was countermanded by Mugabe in his independence day speech a week later. The impending Lima Agreement was undermined by a bout of anti-Western rhetoric from the president.

As 2015 turned to 2016, Mugabe’s health took a turn for the worse. His excursions out of the country for medical treatment in Singapore became more frequent. His notoriously long speeches at public occasions shrank to a few formal minutes. At the September 2015 opening of parliament, he mistakenly read out a speech he had delivered a month earlier. He stumbled off his dais at an airport welcome ceremony. He was pictured apparently asleep at international conferences.

A neat transition seemed in the offing: Mugabe’s death followed by accession to power of the technocrat Mnangagwa, who would easily prevail in the scheduled 2018 elections against a weak and fractured opposition that had been unable to renew itself after the 2013 defeat. A new political party formed around former vice-president Joice Mujuru would also be easily vanquished.

Miraculously, though, Mugabe’s health seemed to revive, or at least not get any worse. He was still fronting political rallies and accepting every international travel invitation he received to a government inauguration, presidential funeral or international summit.

Within the government, infighting intensified. A group of younger ministers labelled the G40, clearly angling for power, alleged that Mnangagwa was plotting against Mugabe. They called Mnangagwa’s supporters the Lacoste faction — after the crocodile nickname that Mnangagwa was known by for his cunning and patience.

Linked with the G40, Mugabe’s wife Grace increasingly became either a pawn in these factional machinations, or perhaps an instigator. She is almost universally loathed in Zimbabwe — the somewhat sexist stereotype posits her as the secretary from the typing pool who ensnared the much older Robert Mugabe just as his much-loved wife Sally was dying. First Lady Sally Mugabe was everything Grace was not — dignified, modest, thrifty — and the fact that she was from Ghana did nothing to prevent her being held warmly in the hearts of Zimbabweans.

Grace and her children, for their part, were prone to gestures of extravagance and bad behaviour. She amassed great wealth, including a dairying operation built on land expropriated not from white farmers but from black subsistence farmers in Mazowe, north of Harare. A national propaganda campaign to promote Grace as “Amai” — mother — of the country seems to have failed. National rallies to showcase her were well attended, but people were attracted by the free food and gifts of mealie meal or even tractors on offer, rather than the shrill and vulgar political diatribes delivered by the first lady herself.

The dynamic entered its current phase when Mugabe reshuffled cabinet in October. Patrick Chinamasa lost Finance, Mnangagwa remained as vice-president but lost his justice portfolio and his supporters were demoted, but the G40 grouping was seen to have done well.

Then, on 4 November, the president held a rally in the southern city of Bulawayo. When Grace Mugabe took to the stage she was booed. The president’s response was to publicly contemplate the removal of Mnangagwa, who was sitting on stage behind him. By Tuesday, the die was cast; a politburo meeting stripped Mnangagwa of the vice-presidency and expelled him from ZANU–PF.

Mnangagwa fled to South Africa as schadenfreude erupted among the legion of Mnangagwa’s opponents within both the opposition and ZANU–PF. The consensus view was that he’d had his comeuppance. So much for his much-vaunted security connections, people said — they have vanished into thin air.

The riposte came on Monday this week. The commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, Constantino Chiwenga, gave a late afternoon press conference, flanked by ninety of the most senior commanders from all branches of the military forces. He warned that the army would not stand by as criminals around the president sought to destabilise the country. He asserted the revolutionary legacy of ZANU–PF and demanded it be defended. By implication, the political machinations of the new generation of political figures with no ties to the liberation struggle would not be tolerated.

It was an explicit and unprecedented intervention by the military into public affairs in Zimbabwe. But the required obedience from the political class was not forthcoming. The only official response was a statement by the ZANU–PF spokesperson that Chiwenga’s statement was treasonous. It seemed they were attempting to tough it out.

Then, the “goat” appeared on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning.

It’s a mug’s game trying to predict the twists and turns of Zimbabwean politics. But here goes.

As of today, 16 November, Mnangagwa’s whereabouts are not known for certain. He is reported to have returned to Zimbabwe, which seems likely. Despite earlier reports that Grace Mugabe had fled to Namibia, she is probably with the president in his residence in the suburbs of Harare.

If Mnangagwa returns and is reinstated as vice-president, it will be a humiliation for the president. Alternatively, the military might elevate Mnangagwa to the top job, but then their intervention will be seen as a coup and they will bear the opprobrium of deposing one of Africa’s most-loved liberation heroes. (Don’t forget that at Nelson Mandela’s memorial it was Mugabe who was introduced to cheering while Jacob Zuma was roundly booed.)

Perhaps most likely is that ZANU–PF itself will restore Mnangagwa, potentially using the distinction between party and state to argue that he never properly left government. Mugabe would then stay on as a puppet — maybe for days, maybe weeks, before reluctantly stepping down for “health reasons” — while Mnangagwa restores order. The 2018 elections will be delayed to allow for transition, and some hope of economic recovery.

Throughout, the Zimbabwean people will demonstrate their accustomed resilience and peaceableness. And with any luck they will be able to carve out a comfortable place in the world, beholden to neither old nor new colonial powers. •