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12 November 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:10pm

A year after the Zimbabwe coup, has anything changed?

“It’s home, but nothing’s changed for me to go home.” 

By Joe Walsh

In mid-November 2017, after the removal of the aged despot Robert Mugabe, there were celebrations on the streets of Harare: citizens sang and danced with soldiers on top of tanks. 

The “soft coup”, as it was dubbed, was supposed to rid Zimbabwe of the corruption and fraudulent elections that had come to define the latter Mugabe years. A military spokesperson announced on state television that the the army was targeting criminals around Mugabe that were causing social and economic suffering.

But less than a year later, the army was out on the capital’s streets again, when Zimbabwe was thrown into political uncertainty. This time, the army was very much pitted against citizens. The military killed seven protestors disputing the controversial election victory of Emmerson Mnangagwa, a man once once nicknamed the Crocodile.

“Fears that the election would be illegitimate were realised, and it was worse, the extreme violence by the military on 1 August (with) the subsequent military-led crackdown on opposition activists including abductions, beatings, and arbitrary arrests,” said Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

A month later, the Constitutional Court confirmed Mnangagwa had won the presidential election, or rather concluded that the opposition that brought the case against the ruling Zanu-PF to the Court had presented insufficient evidence to overturn the election result.

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So does the future hold out any hope for Zimbabwe?

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Mnangagwa set up a Commission of Enquiry to investigate the post-election violence, but human rights activists fear it is set to be a whitewash. Indeed, Mnangagwa and Vice President, and retired general, Constantino Chiwenga have suggested it is not the army to blame for the violence, but the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is. As of yet, no soldiers have been arrested for the killings on 1 August.

It has left Zimbabweans unconvinced that this represented the dawn of the new democratic country that was promised in last year’s coup.

Yet, as Mavhinga from Human Rights Watch explains, it was never going to be like that.

“These military guys were unlikely to risk their lives by carrying out a coup brazenly only to lose it six months later in an election,” he says of last year’s deposal of Mugabe.

Mavhinga is far from alone in his assessment of how the election would be carried out.

“I had no hopes for this election, I am a realist and so I knew from the jump that Zanu PF would win,” one Zimbabwean law student tells me in a message (they wish to remain anonymous).

As the question turns from the election result itself, with the Constitutional Court’s decision cementing continued Zanu-PF rule for now, there is a new one about what it means for Zimbabwe’s future.

The youth, it is clear, will be most severely affected.

During the economic crisis of the 2000s, when inflation exceeded 66,000 per cent and the currency was eventually dropped for the US dollar, Zimbabwe’s GDP nearly halved. It remains the biggest peacetime economic contraction of its kind, and drove as much as 72 per cent of the country into poverty, and 20 per cent into extreme poverty. The country has not recovered, and although exact unemployment figures vary, with the highest being 90 per cent, there is consensus that it is the youth that have been hit hardest. As many as 90 per cent are outside of formal employment. Agriculture and related activities remains the single largest employer in the country, yet the average age of a farmer is 55.

“There is no hope in the younger generation, because there are no jobs, and the colonial education we inherited equips us to be employees… The older generation knows nothing about how the bigger population is living, they don’t experience the sanctions or anything, they have mansions bigger than what leaders have in the first world. They basically live in a different Zimbabwe,” the law student says.

This image of the elderly in charge while holding back the youth isn’t helped by the top of the ruling Zanu-PF changing hands from the then 93-year-old Mugabe to his previous right-hand man, the 74-year-old Emmerson Mnangagwa. Nor is it helped by the fact the first piece of legislation the new parliament is looking to push through is to raise the minimum age for a candidate to contest the presidency from 40 to 55. The leader of the opposition MDC, Nelson Chamisa, is 40.

Besides moving away from Mugabe’s authoritarianism and dictatorial style, Mnangagwa’s coup last year was meant to revive the country’s flailing economy. If Zimbabwe embraced democracy, so the reasoning went, the sanctions would be lifted and international investment galvanised.

“No reasonable investor would put their money in Zimbabwe. How would you take it out? There’s even laws that forbid externalisation of funds out of the country. Our bank cards can’t shop online anymore,” says the law student.

Yet not everyone is as pessimistic about the country’s future. Busisa Moyo, CEO of food manufacturer United Refineries Limited (URL) believes the election, which had an international observers and an appeal process heard at the high court, shows the country is making progress on the democratic front. He argues that this will ultimately lead to re-integration with the international community, just at a steadier and more sombre pace than the euphoric re-entry some were expecting.

Moyo is “largely optimistic” about Zimbabwe rebuilding its economy. “I am receiving calls and emails of investors wanting to invest our business and looking for opportunities and the frequency since inauguration and the cabinet announcement last week has been increasing,” he tells me. “The country is on the move.”

As for the continuation of US sanctions, Moyo argues that Zimbabwe’s participation in other international communities, such as the Commonwealth, China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the African Union (AU) will temper this effect. 

HRW’s Mavhinga agrees that there was some opening up in the run-up to the election that would never have occurred under Mugabe.

These included the opposition being able to launch their manifesto on the state broadcaster, and international observers from the EU and Commonwealth being invited to oversee the vote. By the standards of some Mugabe supporters, this in itself is radical. 

“An irreversible process has begun. He (Mnangagwa) cannot hold together institution of oppression as Mugabe could. There is a trajectory towards change,” Mavhinga says. Though he emphasised Mnangagwa seeks only a facade of change and “Zimbabwe’s transition will be long and drawn out”.

Zimbabwe applied to re-join the Commonwealth, just before the elections, after a 15-year absence, having pulled out in 2003 with Mugabe declaring it an evil organisation. As part of its bid to re-join, Commonwealth observers were invited to attend the election with their initial report stating they were inspired by the commitment to democracy and the well organised and largely peaceful elections, although the observers did express regret over the following day’s violence that led to deaths.

As well as re-integrating Zimbabwe with the international community, Mnangagwa is keen to see the country’s diaspora return during his presidency to further boost the flagging economy.

Since the mid-1990s as many as four million Zimbabweans have left the country, with the main reason being the failing economy and authoritarian rule by Zanu-PF.

So far the election result looks to have failed to address either of those concerns. For many expats the first anniversary of Mugabe’s fall from power will show what has remained the same and just how far there still is to go.

“It’s like the elections never happened. The current president has been part of the leadership since Mugabe, so nothing has changed in the elections, as it’s still that same operation that’s in control,” says Dwayne Kapula, an artist and Zimbabwean ex-pat who lives in South Africa, where the majority of the country’s diaspora are based.

“I left 20 years ago, when things started going bad, economically, and worse for creatives as that’s the first thing to go. As an artist there was freedom of expression in South Africa, so that’s why I left thinking it may just be for a bit and it’s been 20 years now,” he adds.

It is exactly people like this that Mnangagwa says he wants to see return to the country to rebuild the economy but following the elections, the violence and the court decision that looks unlikely.

“Maybe I’ll be looking at going back, but at the moment it’s still the same stuff… things are all the same. So it’s home, but nothing’s changed for me to go home,” concludes Kapula.