After 35 years at the helm, Robert Mugabe shows no interest in giving up the big seat. Even at 91, Mugabe’s will remains steadfast – perhaps more so than his body. He has expressed his intention to stand for re-election in 2018 when he will be 94 if he’s still around. The ruling party, Zanu-PF, has just endorsed his candidacy. Despite how strong President Mugabe claims to be, the party apparatus has endured spasms over the question of succession.
The first candidate, Joice Mujuru, was knocked out of the race last year. She was purged for supposedly plotting against the leader. Over 10 years in the vice presidency, Mujuru cultivated a strong base of support within the party and in the grass-roots. Of course, accusations of electoral fraud and corruption were never far behind. But Mujuru’s agenda was welcomed as ‘reformist’ and ‘modernising’ because it was essentially neoliberal.
After Mujuru was sidelined, she was succeeded by Emmerson Mnangagwa, nicknamed “the Crocodile”, who embodies the ties between the party, the army and the para-state in Zimbabwe. He has credentials as a participant in the armed struggle, which went as far as bombing a train. In office, Mnangagwa has presided over the empowerment initiative to claim corporate assets and redistribute them to the party’s allies.
As first vice president, Mnangagwa has seen the cabinet seeded with his allies. Mnangagwa is now pushing for better relations with the IMF. Once Zimbabwe maintained impeccable relations with the IMF and the World Bank. A combination of factors spoiled the relationship: particularly, the decline of the Zimbabwean economy, the failure to make the loan repayments and the farm invasions. Ever since, Zimbabwe has found it difficult to raise credit and Mnangagwa now looks to the post-Mugabe era as his chance.
All of this may seem to make Mnangagwa’s claim to the presidency certain, but this is far from the case. There has been constant rumours since the summer of 2014 that the Mugabe family want to hold on no matter what. It seems highly likely Grace Mugabe, who now heads the Women’s League, wants to seize the reins. She’s been holding rallies all across Zimbabwe. If Grace Mugabe can muster support from at least two provinces she can run for the party leadership. Then it will be up to party members.
What Grace Mugabe lacks is any significant experience in the party. She does not have the political capital nor the security ties, which Mnangagwa and Mujuru have spent years building. Nor can Grace Mugabe claim involvement in the freedom struggle. She wears the name of a leader of the national liberation movement, but nothing more. Although Grace Mugabe is known for her rhetoric, often described as “Amazing Grace”, she’s also known for her expensive shopping trips, which put her popularity into question.
Unlike Mnangagwa, Grace Mugabe doesn’t have the same stake in improving relations with the West. Her main allies include the second vice president Phelekezela Mphoko, local government minister Saviour Kasukuwere and empowerment minister Patrick Zhuwao. She may be fighting an uphill struggle, but it’s also the case Mnangagwa is remembered for his role in the Gukurahundi massacres in the 1980s.
During this time, Emmerson Mnangagwa was security minister. The target of the Gukurahundi campaign were supposed Ndebele dissidents living in Matabeleland. Effectively, Robert Mugabe sent the Fifth Brigade into the heartland of Zapu, led by Joshua Nkomo, the main challenge to his power in the country. Zapu’s tribal base was the Ndebele, while the Shona majority sided with Zanu. By conservative estimates, the killings left around 4,000 people in mass-graves. Others put the figure at 20,000 dead.
However, the tribal bloodletting was symptomatic of a deeper political clash. As a traditional leftist, Joshua Nkomo set out to build his movement on the urban working-class. By contrast, Mugabe took a Maoist position – opting to build his support among small landholders and farm workers. After the Soviet-Sino split, Mugabe sought the backing of China; while Nkomo garnered ties with the Soviet Union. Mnangagwa would later push for a unity deal to bring Joshua Nkomo back into government and merge the two parties.
This would be the blueprint for how Mugabe deals with his opponents. First, Mugabe terrorised Zapu’s social base and then he absorbed the leadership. In roughly the same way, Mugabe would later co-opt Morgan Tsvangirai and destroy the Movement for Democratic Change. After the mayhem of the 2008 elections, Mugabe brought Tsvangirai into his government. The effect was clear: the 2013 elections were rigged with little fuss. The years of economic mismanagement did not hamper Mugabe’s attempts to reassert his position.
Despite its notorious past problems, the Zimbabwean economy did improve from 2010 to 2013, as the dollar was introduced, the average rate of GDP was 10 per cent. The country faced slowing growth rates since 2014, but still not a full-scale recession. The 2015 growth forecast has just been reduced from 3.2 per cent to 1.5 per cent. Not only does the economy face internal problems – high unemployment, corruption and, ironically, deflation – Chinese demand for Zimbabwe’s immense resources has begun to tumble.
In the midst of faltering growth, Robert Mugabe has moved to relax the empowerment legislation in order to attract investment. At the same time, the Mugabe government is stepping up public-private partnerships and labour reform. Currently, Zimbabwe has $10 billion in debt and it needs to reschedule payments. Reportedly, creditors like the IMF and China want to see reform. The new plan is likely a bargaining chip. But it looks unlikely to satisfy the discontented.
As economic prospects have worsened, Joice Mujuru has resurfaced and now brandishes a manifesto for economic reform. She has pledged to reform the empowerment initiative to attract investment from abroad and promote infrastructure projects. She will likely be running for the presidency in 2018. The new party will be People First, not to be confused with Mugabe’s Patriotic Front. Mujuru the former insider can draw on her connections as she reinvents herself as the new opposition.
The Mujuru family did very well out of Zimbabwe’s land resettlement programme. The late Solomon Mujuru was a leading commander in the Bush War. He later became an influential figure in the War Veterans Association, which began to challenge Mugabe’s authority in the 1990s. The war veterans demanded the redistribution of farms owned by the white minority, and when it appeared Mugabe might not deliver they began seizing the farms. During the chaos, the Mujuru family laid claim to thousands of acres of land.
Effectively, this process was a way for Zanu-PF to extend its power. The Mugabe government expanded and consolidated its own base of support, while it eliminated rival sources of power. It’s no coincidence that the white farmers backed the MDC, but they lost the battle. So there may be little space right now for an opposition party to take hold of the country. Even with the death of President Mugabe, Zanu-PF will live on.