When is a coup not a coup? When the legitimacy of the leader you’re deposing is inextricably bound to your own. The military has taken control of Zimbabwe and has placed Robert Mugabe under house arrest. (South Africa’s Jacob Zuma confirmed that he had spoken to Mugabe over the phone yesterday, who was alive and well, but confined. The whereabouts of Mugabe’s wife, Grace, are unconfirmed but she is reported to be in Namibia.)
The sacking of Emmerson Mnangagwa – like Mugabe a veteran of the armed struggle against minority rule in the 1970s – from his post as vice-president precipitated the army’s takeover, as they feared that Grace Mugabe was moving to consolidate her grip on the presidential succession.
Grace has long been a scapegoat for the moral decline of Mugabe’s character and the conduct of his administration since the 2000s. (Mugabe’s first wife, Sally, died of cancer in 1992. He and Grace married in 1996.)
Fairly or unfairly, that narrative has significant buy-in and has also become part of the generational struggle within the ruling party, Zanu-PF. Mnangagwa – who is 20 years younger than 93-year-old Mugabe – and his generation are all veterans of the liberation struggle. Although Mnangagwa is not popular himself, the idea of a better time for Zimbabwe before the difficulties of the last decade is a politically potent one. (Matthew Parris captures well the ambiguities around Mugabe’s rule in the Times today.)
What next? Zuma has sounded a warning about the continuation of military rule and called for an “amicable” resolution to the dispute. The reality, as Jason Burke notes in the Guardian, is that without the tacit go-ahead from the South African government the coup wouldn’t have got this far. But support for removing Mugabe isn’t the same as indefinite support for a military government in Harare.
What happens next is up in the air. Elections, due next year, could be brought forward, or a unity government, headed by Mnangagwa, could take power until then. But although this is the end of Mugabe’s rule and the frustration of his hopes of turning the presidential succession into a dynasty, the rule of Zanu-PF could still have a way yet to run.