In Zimbabwe, change is in the air. Mugabe’s enemies, and even his friends, are beginning to plan for a future without him in charge. But what does this future look like? And who will shape it? In a long-form feature, SIMON ALLISON reports from Harare.
Imagine a Zimbabwe without Robert Mugabe.
Go on, try it. Who’s in charge? How did they get there? Is it different? Is it better?
John Lennon was wrong: it’s not easy, even if you try.
No one knows what a Zimbabwe without Robert Mugabe looks like, because there has never been a Zimbabwe without him. The country’s wagon has been hitched so firmly and for so long to their overbearing dictator that to imagine a post-Mugabe future is to leap into the unknown.
The dream is of a Promised Land free from his vices: the corruption and the cronyism, the narcissism and the violence, the wilful misrule that has crippled what is probably Africa’s most enterprising and best-educated nation.
But this is not the Promised Land, if such a thing exists; it is Zimbabwe, and that post-Mugabe future is nearly here. The answers that Zimbabwe needs – and needs quickly – must be grounded in pragmatism and the knowledge that a 36-year dictatorship cannot disappear overnight.
Underlying the urgency is simple biology. Mugabe must die, and there’s no time like the present. He is sick, he is tired, he is visibly unfit to perform basic functions of state. In cabinet meetings, he is lucid in short periods, and fast asleep in others. He cannot walk unaided. He shits his pants.
And even if he somehow clings onto life, the 2018 election clock is ticking. Can he really lead another election campaign in this condition? This, surely, must be the end of his political career, and that’s what all of Zimbabwe’s power brokers are planning for.
In the Gospel According to Bob, we’ve reached the End Times. What comes next will be written by someone else. But who?
The small town of Norton, about half an hour and several roadblocks away from the Harare city centre, might provide a clue. This is solid Zanu-PF territory, and a recent by-election was expected to send the ruling party candidate to Parliament without too much fuss. Nonetheless, Zanu-PF was not taking any chances. Local youths were promised land in exchange for beating and harassing opposition supporters, while senior officials were wheeled out at rallies to inspire the faithful.
It wasn’t enough. In an electoral upset every bit as shocking as Donald Trump’s victory in the US, independent candidate Temba Mliswa defeated Zanu’s Ronald Chindedza by 7,000 votes. For the ruling party, this was more than a bloody nose; it was a humiliation, the embarrassment even more acute because Robert Mugabe’s home village is in the next district.
Zanu-PF was beaten on its own turf, on its own terms. Voters are wising up to tired old tactics: the intimidation didn’t work, the land bribes didn’t work, the celebrity appearances didn’t work. Intense scrutiny from civil society (possible for small votes, much more difficult on a national scale) meant the numbers could not be rigged.
This is, in microcosm, a model for how Zanu-PF can be beaten in an election.
Except that the successful challenger, Mliswa, is not quite the breath of fresh air that Mugabe’s opponents are hoping for. He is an old Zanu hand, with a nasty reputation for thuggery. In fact, in a bid to discredit him ahead of the by-election, prominent businessman and ruling party supporter Phillip Chiyangwa said Mliswa’s “hands are full of blood”, and that Mliswa was responsible for “raping and killing” opposition supporters.
This criticism is remarkable for its sheer brazenness: in castigating Mliswa for violently intimidating the opposition, Chiyangwa is also freely admitting that the ruling party doesviolently intimidate its opponents.
The plot gets even thicker. Mliswa is a protégé of none other than Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, leader of the Lacoste faction within Zanu-PF (so named because Mnangagwa’s nom de guerre is ‘The Crocodile’, which is also the logo of the Lacoste fashion brand). And even though Mliswa was kicked out of the party – it was claimed he was involved in attempts to oust Mugabe – he remains close with Mnangagwa.
Mliswa’s rival in Norton, Chindedza, is connected with the G40 wing of the party, which is led by Mugabe’s wife, Grace, and local government minister Saviour Kasukuwere. So even as Mnangagwa was publicly campaigning on Chindedza’s behalf, he was secretly pulling strings to ensure Mliswa’s victory. In other words, this wasn’t necessarily a defeat for Zanu-PF, but it was a major setback for G40 – and an impressive show of strength from Mnangagwa.
Not that he deserves all the credit. Although the largest opposition party, Morgan Tsvangirai’s wing of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T), did not field a candidate, they did throw their weight behind Mliswa. “The MDC should actually get credit. We campaigned for Mliswa and our youths were on the ground with him urging people to vote,” said a party spokesperson.
And here we have our first glimpse of the kind of messy compromises required to navigate Zimbabwe’s post-Mugabe future: in Norton, a former ruling party apparatchik defeats the ruling party’s official candidate, helped by an uneasy alliance between the official opposition and the man who has for years led Zanu’s attempts to brutally crush that same opposition. For now, their interests converge, but for how much longer?
Linda Masirira is wracked with self-doubt. She can’t see the future either, but she is nervous about what it might hold.
Masarira is an activist, and has suffered for it. She’s been fired four times from four different jobs for speaking out about poor working conditions, and was this year was arrested for attempting to occupy Africa Unity Square, a Harare landmark, to “demand an end to Zimbabwe’s cycle of national failure and suffering”. She spent 84 days in jail, much of it in solitary confinement in a men’s maximum security facility, before being released on bail.
Since her release, she’s been living a half-life, flitting from safe house to safe house in an attempt to stay ahead of the government thugs she worries are out to get her. She misses her five kids, and she carries an emergency bag always, just in case she ends up back in prison. In it is toothpaste, a toothbrush, a change of clothes and a copy of the Zimbabwean constitution, so she can at least point to her rights, even as they are being violated.
Masarira is part of a new breed of political activists in Zimbabwe. They are disenchanted with official political structures, both government and opposition, and are determined to do things differently, by creating social movements that will galvanise ordinary Zimbabweans to fight for their rights. Most prominent among their number is Pastor Evan Mawarire, who shot to fame earlier this year when his #ThisFlag movement went viral.
Capitalising on Pastor Mawarire’s sudden fame, social movements were able to draw a crowd of thousands to the Harare Magistrate’s Court to support him when he was arrested, which played a crucial role in forcing the judge to uphold the letter of the law. This kind of mass protest is unprecedented in Zimbabwe’s recent history, and suggested that people power might succeed in toppling Mugabe where political processes have failed.
Since then, however, the movement has struggled to maintain its momentum. Partly, this is by design, with leaders focusing on gathering support in the rural areas which have always been Zanu-PF’s heartland. Partly, however, the movement has struggled to remain unified in the face of widespread intimidation, and Pastor Mawarire’s departure deprived it of a charismatic figurehead.
Fearing for his life, Mawarire fled to the United States shortly after his release from prison. His decision, although understandable, wasn’t popular among his peers who have stayed to face the music. “Pastor Evan is not brave enough,” she observes, sadly. “You can’t run away from the struggle.”
But she’s not even sure the struggle is working. “This country is like throwing wheat up in the air. You just don’t know where the wind is going to take it. Maybe we’ll end up like Libya or Egypt. We push for change and end up in a worse situation.”
One problem is resources: she, along with other social movement leaders like Promise Mkwananzi from Tajamuka and Sten Zvorwadza from the National Vendors Union, simply doesn’t have any money. Mkwananzi claims that Tajamuka, probably Zimbabwe’s most successful youth organisation, has operated on a budged of just $2,500 this year (Zanu-PF, in contrast, organises fund-raising dinners that cost up to $100,000 a table). “We face a resource issue in getting to the people. Only about 10%-15% of Zimbabweans are online. For the others, we have to go to the rural areas, to the ghettoes. But this costs.”
Aside from the money, there are also trust issues. As their threat to the regime grows, so do attempts to coerce and intimidate activists. “Everyone is suspecting everyone,” said Masarira. It’s not a recipe for the unity which she knows Zimbabwe needs.
Divide-and-rule is, of course, the basis for the longevity of Mugabe’s rule. Witness the eternal faction-fighting within Zanu-PF, with no faction ever strong enough to seize outright control. Witness the multiple fractures of the MDC, which has too often left the opposition fractured and inchoate, and unable to take on the regime effectively.
“We have to find ways of working together. If we try to eliminate each other’s campaigns, we disenfranchise ourselves and lose the hold we have on government,” says Masarira. She’s right. How Zimbabwe’s opposition unites will determine its immediate future. A failure to come together will hand the country on a platter to whoever proves strongest among Mugabe’s henchman. A united opposition, however – one that includes both social movements and political parties – may just be strong enough to set their own agenda.
But accepting this intellectually is one thing, implementing it quite another – even for Masarira, who can’t resist a few barbed comments about the very people she is supposed to be bringing together. Such as: “The MDC-T is the biggest opposition, but they feel like we are taking away their limelight. Morgan Tsvangirai altered the party constitution to keep himself in power. You can’t sing change when you don’t walk the talk. MDC-T is a replica of Zanu,” she contends. She may or may not be right, but that’s not the point: with the opposition at each other’s throats, what hope is there for unity?
Tsvangirai himself is not above point-scoring. In an interview at his house, he welcomes the energy and enthusiasm that movements like #ThisFlag and Tajamuka have brought to the resistance, but he is very clear that positive change can only come through formal, established political structures. “I don’t feel any one social movement can cause change, unless you want a revolution,” he says, laughing.
For Tsvangirai, a revolution is not what Zimbabwe needs. Instead, the country requires a slow, steady transition from de facto single party rule to a genuine democratic state. That transition cannot happen overnight. Even if Mugabe were to retire into the sunset tomorrow, Zimbabwe would not suddenly be ready for a free and fair election because all the old man’s power structures remain in place. “You first need to create an environment where free and fair elections are possible,” he says.
This is, necessarily, a slow process, and one that might require awkward compromises. Compromise number one: giving Mugabe a dignified exit and a stable retirement, if he doesn’t die first. Compromise number two: working closely with rival political parties, such as other MDC factions and – most significantly – Joice Mujuru’s Zimbabwe People First.
Mujuru was, until just two short years ago, a pillar of the Mugabe regime. But she misplayed her hand, and got booted out of the party. Since then, she has reinvented herself as a full-throated critic of the president she once defended so vigorously, and is a crucial piece of the opposition puzzle because she appeals to disaffected Zanu-PF voters in a way that Morgan Tsvangirai never can.
Tsvangirai recognises the need to work together, although he doesn’t like it. “For me, they have to prove their sincerity. They have to prove their sincerity to the people. I don’t have to prove it, because I’m not Zanu-PF. The burden is really on them to convince Zimbabweans they really mean well to be on the side of the people, and they mean well towards the people who have been in the trenches for so long.”
Nonetheless, despite his scepticism and to his immense credit, Tsvangirai is in advanced talks with Mujuru to form some kind of electoral alliance to take on the Zanu-PF machine. “Fragmented opposition voices will not inspire confidence in the people,” says Tsvangirai. “We are working at it. We are meeting and discussing. I think it’s more of a deepening trust process than anything else. You know politicians have sometimes selfish motives, but one has to accept that the greatest motive that should drive us is the national good.”
Tsvangirai is more than just pretty words on this issue. For the last couple of years, the MDC-T has been one of the driving forces behind the creation of the National Electoral Reform Agenda (NERA), a single-issue umbrella group of opposition parties. This is clever politics: even though opposition parties disagree on plenty, they are all in favour of electoral reform. This gives them the chance to meet and get to know each other, to build the personal relationships that are so crucial to coalition-building. On electoral reform, at least, they can take on the government together, and have done so: several demonstrations have been organised under the NERA banner, while a united front has given opposition parties serious leverage with the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission.
If they can keep it up, and bring the youth and social movements onside, then Zanu-PF will, for once, be outgunned – and unable to stage-manage the succession.
If Donald Trump’s election victory has taught us anything, it is that fortune telling is a fool’s game. Zimbabwe is no exception: we simply don’t know what shape the country will take on without Mugabe around to mould it relentlessly in his image. All we do know is that Zimbabwe’s post-Mugabe future is close, so close that both his friends and his enemies are desperately planning for what comes next, and jostling to be in position to take advantage. And while we cannot predict what that future looks like, we can try to document the forces trying to determine it.
There are many battles ahead, to be won or lost or overcome together. Mugabe versus his health. Lacoste versus G40. Zanu-PF versus the official opposition. Tsvangirai versus Mujuru. The social movements versus themselves and the political party establishment. And, ultimately, the Zimbabwean people versus a system that has screwed them for decades.
There are plenty of other factors to consider, too. What will the military do? Is the defection of the war vets significant? What does it mean that the churches are getting political? Who will the international community support, and will their meddling help or hinder democratic progress?
In the meantime, Zimbabweans do what Zimbabweans do best: get on with things. As cash dries up, so businessmen turn to mobile money, or revive the barter trade that got so many people through the last financial crisis. As the water runs out, thanks to drought and terrible infrastructure, so tankers start zipping across affected cities and boreholes are drilled into the water table.
Analysts like to describe Zimbabwe as a failed state, but this is not an accurate description. People also like to say that Zimbabwe can’t get any worse, but this is also not true – just ask the people of South Sudan or Somalia.
Zimbabwe is a failed government, yes, but its people have ensured that some semblance of a state remains intact. This is a society that has learnt to live without its government; that has prospered, in places, despite it.
The civil servants who go to work despite not being paid for months; the unschooled entrepreneurs who seamlessly navigate capricious foreign exchange regimes to keep imports flowing; the neighbourhood groups that pick rubbish off the streets, the long-suffering activists who have fought in a thousand ways to keep democracy alive. Together, they have ensured that whoever does take over from Mugabe has something to work with.
Zimbabwe’s future is uncertain. It will be messy. But Zimbabweans, having persevered for so long, have earned the right to dream of that Promised Land; and have worked hard enough to tilt the odds in their favour. Daily Maverick