Peter McColl

Peter McColl

Zimbabwe: What’s To Be Done?

Reading Time: 6 minutes

The ousting of Zimbabwean President and former revolutionary Robert Mugabe has been celebrated by people on all sides of the political spectrum, including socialists. However, Bright Green editor Peter McColl warns against complacency…

The swearing in of Emmerson Mnangagwa as Zimbabwe’s new President gives us hope for the future, but it comes with the strong sense it may not lead to as much change as we might wish. The immediate cause of the change in government was a power struggle ahead of the elective conference of ZANU-PF, the governing party, in December. At this conference it was anticipated that the Robert Mugabe’s successor would be decided between his wife, Grace Mugabe, and Mnangagwa.

In a transparent move to secure the Presidency for Grace, Robert sacked Mnangagwa in mid-November. This was a remarkable move as the two men had been almost inseparable allies since the pre-independence days of the 1970s. What Mugabe had wanted, Mnangagwa had often done. This means his fingerprints are on all the key aspects of the Mugabe era. It wasn’t clear, even to the Mugabes themselves, that the line of loyalty for the military went to Mnangagwa, before being devoted to Robert. It’s extraordinary just how little support it turned out that Mugabe had when it came to the push. Mnangagwa could call on the armed forces to unseat the last ruling liberation leader in Africa. But it became clear quite quickly that there was little popular support for Mugabe.

Those outside Zimbabwe need to understand this very important bit of context. The political situation in Zimbabwe was getting close to the point where it could very easily boil over. There was widespread anxiety about the future, with a bloody civil war seeming a distinct possibility. Much of the celebration in Harare and Bulawayo was driven by relief at an almost entirely peaceful transition away from Robert Mugabe. Even if that transition is to his (former) right hand man.

Zimbabwe has had a series of deep economic crises, starting with the involvement of the IMF in a structural adjustment programme in the late 1980s. Many in the west will be familiar with the deep crisis of the mid-2000s, which was stabilised through the proceeds from an intervention in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the discovery of huge quantities of diamonds in Zimbabwe itself. While the immediate cause of this crisis was the ZANU-PF succession question we mustn’t underestimate the depth of the coming economic crisis. There have been a series of protests over the past 18 months including the Tajamuka-Sesjikile movement and #ThisFlag videos and demonstrations by Pastor Evan Mawarire, which were a response to the economic problems caused by the abolition of the Zimbabwe dollar and its replacement with the US Dollar as currency and the end of the diamond extraction in Marange.

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The governing party ZANU-PF had stayed in power for 37 years by all means possible. From the shock victory in the 1980 election to the absorption of the main opposition – PF-ZAPU – into the Patriotic Front in 1987, ZANU-PF became hegemonic. They marginalised challenges from struggle veterans like Edgar Tekere and technocrats like Simba Makoni. And in the late 1990s and through the 2000s, they intimidated and cheated the Movement for Democratic Change out of a series of elections. Eventually the MDC agreed to join a government of national unity in which the MDC couldn’t decide whether to act in their own partisan interests or the interests of the country. The MDC were chewed up and spat out.

But this ability to cling to power has left ZANU-PF a bloated hulk. Its members have little idea what to do to deal with the coming economic crisis. The party is directionless. One of the characteristics of the Mnangagwa-Mugabe power struggle was its lack of any ideological, or even policy character. It was based almost entirely on personalities and personal histories. The military in 2008 suggested that they could not serve under a President who hadn’t fought in the liberation struggle. This proclamation, made initially in response to Morgan Tsvangirai, has resurfaced as an argument against Grace Mugabe. But time dictates that struggle veterans cannot be President indefinitely. It’s time for a renewal of policy and personnel in ZANU-PF.


The opposition has a different problem. While the bloodless nature of the transition has come as an enormous relief for those outside ZANU-PF, it doesn’t come without its problems. The opposition is a mess, with two separate parties bearing the MDC name. One continues to be led by Tsvangirai (MDC-T); one is led by his former deputy, Welshman Ncube (MDC-N). Joice Mujuru, a former ZANU-PF Vice President, a struggle veteran and victim of the 2014 purge of potential Mugabe successors, has her own party – the National People’s Party – as does former MDC finance minister Tendai Biti  – the People’s Democratic Party. Talks amongst these parties in the summer of 2017 failed to find common ground or even a common platform.

What’s badly needed is a focus on the economy to support Zimbabwe’s strong mineral and agricultural potential. Zimbabwe’s infrastructure is a mess and desperately needs investment. With an educated population, many of whom are in South Africa, a focus on national development may attract back some of that diaspora. But to sustain that approach will need a transformation in ZANU-PF or for the opposition to get its act together. Focusing on education, health, sorting out the electricity and water supply and dealing with the chronic transport problems will help to put the economy back on track.

Since the hyperinflation crisis of the mid-2000s Zimbabwe has used the US dollar, but recently the Reserve Bank has issued ‘Bond Notes’ that are traded at a 1:1 value with the US dollar. Except they’re very unpopular – in September the reserve bank was informally offering 16 Bond Notes for $10 US. This suggests serious and accelerating economic difficulties. While the Chinese may now be more willing to bail the government out for the short term, there’s serious work needed to get the fundamentals of the economy sorted out.

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For the British media, the issue of land redistribution continues to be the focus of this argument. But there is good evidence that the land redistributed to peasants is now more productive than it was before. Of course, there are many farms owned by elites that could and should, be redistributed to those who desperately need land and food. There should be a land audit to identify underused land for redistribution.

The electorate are likely to be given the chance to vote next year. They are equally likely to give Mnangagwa a chance to sort the situation out. The opposition’s greatest opportunity would have been for a continued Mugabe dynasty. But the opposition was in no position to seize such an opportunity, being deeply divided and unable to coalesce around a single candidate for President. Perhaps a Mnangagwa Presidency is the best chance for the opposition to rebuild and reorganise. By the end of a Mnangagwa term the rebuilding work may create the momentum to take power.

There remains a serious question about whether internal reform is possible in ZANU-PF. Some of the tension within the party that led to the sacking of Mnangagwa and the ‘not-a-coup’ was inter-generational. This is in no small part due to the lack of ideological renewal in the party. There is little in the way of policy discussion, or innovation. Instead the people of Zimbabwe were met with the sight of ZANU-PF Youth Leader condemning the Generals’ actions as ‘treasonous’  in a very watchable speech where he offered to die for Mugabe. And then on the Thursday, he made a ‘heartfelt apology’, where he claimed he was too young to know what he was doing, and that he shouldn’t have read a statement that he hadn’t written. He’s not the sort of person needed for party renewal.

What’s most important is not, though that we focus on the personalities, but that we identify the strategies to change Zimbabwean politics and society. And that’s why the manner of Mugabe’s departure is so important. Had it been an internal ZANU-PF matter, or a military intervention alone, things would be very different. But the fact that people took to the streets, forcing Mugabe’s hand, shows that there is potential for change from below in Zimbabwe. While that change is (very) unlikely to manifest itself in the Mnangagwa administration, it’s an example that will be difficult to sideline or ignore in future.

The nature of the end of Mugabe’s regime offers the opportunity for more political debate in ZANU-PF and in the country more widely. The popular movement that mobilised as Mugabe hung on to power still has a role to play. And that role must be to break open the political debate, demanding a new focus on democracy in the economy and in politics. It’s time for politics in Zimbabwe to move beyond personalities and to become about how the country can capture the spirit of the streets on the day that Mugabe resigned.


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