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Big Saturday Read: To stay or not to stay – a crocodile’s dilemma

“I don’t quarrel with him. Nor do I raise my hand to slap him. Never. I leave that to the mother. There must be one hand which is tough and another which is soft. But he has not made me happy …”

This was Robert Mugabe speaking to Dali Tambo in a television documentary for SABC, South Africa’s public broadcaster, just a few months before the 2013 elections. The Mugabe family sat at a dinner table with Tambo, son of the anti-apartheid icon, Oliver Tambo discussing intimate family matters. The subject of Mugabe’s statement was his youngest son, Chatunga. His wife, Grace nodded in agreement as her husband described his approach to his son. Their daughter, Bona also confirmed that she was the tougher hand of the family.

Although Mugabe was referring to their son, Chatunga, the statement might as well have been meant for a man who has been by his side for five decades. That man, Emmerson Mnangagwa, sat pensively in his chair at the latest rally in Bindura, as Mugabe and his wife applied the familiar tough/soft hand approach to him. “There must be one hand which is tough and another which is soft,” Mugabe had said in relation to Chatunga. And that is precisely what they did with Mnangagwa. Grace was by far the tough hand while Mugabe provided the soft hand. Both were iron fists, but Mugabe’s came in a velvet glove.

There is a temptation is to read Mugabe’s softness in Bindura as signalling a divergence with his wife and that somehow, he is ready to embrace and accommodate Mnangagwa. But that would be a gross misreading of the Mugabes approach. Mugabe and his wife have a common project in mind. One is simply playing the bad cop, while the other is playing the good cop. Faced with both, a suspect might fall for the apparent benevolence of the good cop, without realising the two have a common object. The same tough/soft approach that the Mugabes use it in their family set up is what they are applying in politics. In relation to Chatunga, Mugabe was clear that although he is soft and the mother is hard, he is not happy with him at all. Likewise, in Bindura Mugabe might have appeared softer in relation to Mnangagwa, but that did not mean he is happy with him. In regards to Mnangagwa, there is no contradiction between Mugabe and his wife. There might be some residual sympathy on Mugabe’s part, on account of a long relationship with his subordinate, but it is clear both him and his wife are not happy with and have lost trust in Mnangagwa.


In his speech, Mugabe carefully tried to draw parallels between Mnangagwa and Sekeramayi, the two men who have been hoisted by the different factions as potential successors. Ever since Professor Jonathan Moyo’s SAPES lecture on 1 June 2017, Sekeramayi’s name is being dropped regularly in the succession race. It is clear that he is now a contender.

In Bindura, Mugabe reminded both men that they were his invitees to Mozambique in the late 1970s. In Mnangagwa’s case, Mugabe explained how he invited him from Zambia where he was based, following Tongogara’s request to find a better qualified person to take over from Cletus Chigowe as head of ZANU’s security and intelligence division. Mugabe said he remembered Mnangagwa, having spent time together in jail before he was released and deported to Zambia where his parents lived. It was then that Mnangagwa came to re-join the struggle from Mozambique. “I will come but since we have had a family tragedy as my father died recently, I need a month to wind up affairs before I can come,” Mnangagwa had told Mugabe upon receiving the invitation. In the same breadth, Mugabe explained how he also invited Sekeramayi to come and join the struggle in Mozambique following his medical training in Sweden.

Mugabe’s point is simple: both Mnangagwa and Sekeramayi came to Mozambique on his account. Both were training in their different fields before he called them. In other words, he is their godfather and they are both beholden to him. Further, neither is more entitled than the other to succeed him. In his eyes, they are equal. In some ways, it is a subtle put down of the claims of seniority that have been advanced by Mnangagwa’s allies. Mugabe is hoisting Sekeramayi’s name in the succession race.

Tribal lord

The issue of ethnicity has cropped up regularly in the context of ZANU PF succession battles. It is not new. Often underplayed, ethnic politics is an important undercurrent on the Zimbabwean political landscape. A brief consideration of liberation war politics shows that ethnicity was a big issue. Masipula Sithole covered these struggles in his important work on the liberation war, Struggles within the Struggle. In the current succession race, there have been accusations and counter-accusations based on ethnicity, especially between the Karanga and Zezuru sub-groups. There is a view that there has been too much dominance by the Zezuru and that it is now the turn of the Karanga to take over the presidency. But this has also produced counter-reaction from the Zezuru.

In this context, Mnangagwa’s bid to succeed Mugabe has been cast as a Karanga entitlement – hence the identification of Masvingo and the Midlands as the two problem provinces. This packaging of Mnangagwa’s bid as an ethnic bid is probably his biggest handicap. While Mugabe has spoken of his disapproval of tribalism, his critics charge that he too has used tribalism to maintain his power and to thwart his subordinate’s ambitions. For the second time in a month, he raised the issue of how his old deputy Simon Muzenda was hounded out of the Midlands province in the 1990s allegedly by Mnangagwa and his allies. Mugabe also made reference to how Cephas Msipa accused Mnangagwa of causing problems in the Midlands. Mugabe seems to be suggesting that Mnangagwa is unsuitable because his politics is centred on ethnicity – that he is not a national leader but is only representing the interests of an ethnic group. It’s a label that Mnangagwa must fight off because currently his adversaries are keen to discredit him as no more than a tribal chief.

Burden of allies

When Grace Mugabe spoke, typically she did not mince her words. She criticised what she regarded as overhyping of Mnangagwa’s illness. She was unhappy at the accusations that have been made against her and her husband in relation to Mnangagwa’s illness. She did not call out Mnangagwa to stand before her as she had done with George Charamba and Kazembe Kazembe at recent ralies, but effectively the telling off was of a similar nature. She expressed her displeasure at the fact that Mnangagwa continues to associate with and accommodate people who have openly criticised the Mugabes. You can’t be friends with our enemies and still purport to be our friends, she was saying. She urged Mnangagwa’s wife not to welcome into their home those who denigrate the Mugabes. This was typical Grace – a frontal assault with no restraint at all. It was evidently an uncomfortable half hour for Mnangagwa and his wife as they sat pensively listening to the barrage of attacks from Grace.

When Mugabe spoke, he also picked upon the same theme reminding Mnangagwa to rein in his errant allies. “Ava vakomana varikupengereka hameno kuti chavari kupengerekera chii. If they are Mnangagwa’s supporters who don’t know our constitution they must be educated” He also chided war veterans who have openly supported Mnangagwa’s bid. In doing so, Mugabe instructed Mnangagwa to take the advice to his allies and advised him not to entertain them. “What does it mean when you the leaders associate with them, inviting them to your homes, farms, etc? It doesn’t give a good impression. It’s only right that we shouldn’t entertain them. They are wrong and they have been punished by the party and we should not be associated with them. If they want to return they know the procedures. They can ask to return but we will not beg them to come back. I hope vaMnangagwa will take that advice”

Essentially Mugabe was placing an obligation on Mnangagwa, saying these are your people, deal with them. “Leave them to languish if they want to languish in the dark,” he added. Mugabe also made reference to the infamous mug incident in which Mnangagwa was given a mug inscribed with the words “I’m the boss” by one of his allies, Energy Mutodi. “Zvino ndoochamuri kufira ichocho. Kana chiri chikapu chirasei … zvino iye munhu angafira icho chikapu chete!” said Mugabe to rapturous laughter.

Mugabe’s message to Mnangagwa is that he must bear responsibility for his allies’ conduct and that by associating with them, he was also complicit in their actions. He is being reminded that he is getting ahead of himself and that the unrestrained acts of his allies are his biggest undoing. Interestingly, those doing the bidding for Mnangagwa have not stopped. Even after Bindura, the war veterans have held on to their line of criticism. This criticism has been extended to Sydney Sekeramayi who has emerged as G40’s preferred candidate. So far there has been no visible reaction from Mnangagwa who must be battling with himself – one part preferring to walk away and another preferring continuity.

The Tsolotsho fallout

Mugabe also took time to explain the fallout between Moyo and Mnangagwa, the two having formed a strategic alliance in 2004, which collapsed together with the infamous Tsholotsho Declaration. The Tsholotsho Declaration has become a euphemism for the scheme that was designed to promote Mnangagwa’s bid for the Vice Presidency and ultimately for the Presidency. However, the Tsholotsho Declaration failed but the result was a political bloodbath, with Moyo as one of the principal victims. Ironically, the intended beneficiary, Mnangagwa survived the purge that followed. He feigned ignorance and argued that he was not involved. He did not defend his allies. These allies felt abandoned. Some, like Patrick Chinamasa, are said to have literally begged for forgiveness from Mugabe. Others like Moyo defied the party directive not to contest elections as independents. But more importantly, the episode caused bad blood between Moyo and Mnangagwa. According to Mugabe, Moyo vowed in one of the party’s Politburo meetings never to support Mnangagwa. On this Moyo has been faithful to his word. The ghost of Tsholotsho has relentlessly haunted Mnangagwa.

Mugabe’s narration of events around the Tsholotsho Declaration is a reminder to Mnangagwa that he is aware of his long-standing ambitions and the clandestine means by which they have been pursued in the past. He is reminding him that while he might try to be clever and disassociate himself from his allies, Mugabe knows that he, Mnangagwa, is part of the plot. Mugabe reminds Mnangagwa that he had cunningly stayed away from the secret meetings and from Tsholotsho so as to disassociate himself if the scheme was exposed. The Tsholotsho Declaration is also used to remind Mnangagwa’s allies that he is not to be trusted and that he will abandon them to save his skin. This indeed has been the pattern. One by one, Mnangagwa’s allies have been identified and punished by the party, but he has done nothing to defend them. This is what happened after the Tsholotsho Declaraction and it is happening now.

In some ways, it is probably this trait of Mnangagwa that makes Mugabe uncomfortable when it comes to his own situation. Like most African leaders who have been accused of committing atrocities, Mugabe fears prosecution after he leaves office. He worries that without the protection of office, his enemies will harass. He wants protection if not for himself, then certainly for his family. But can Mnangagwa be trusted with this role? The way he has treated his allies, both over the Tsholotsho Declaration and in the present succession race must give Mugabe much to think about. He comes across as a man who would do anything to serve his own interests even if it means sacrificing allies. It’s an impression that he must correct.


If Mugabe was too soft on Mnangagwa, it was probably because “the mother” had already dealt a tough hand. In the drama, Mugabe was the playful grandfather, trying to play fair by dishing out equitable blame but knowing too well that the damage had already been done. And so Mugabe playfully chided Moyo and Kasukuwere, describing in detail how Moyo had fallen out with Mnangagwa and accusing Kasukuwere of being the founder of G40. Whereas his wife had feigned ignorance about G40, Mugabe knew he could not ignore its existence any longer but instead of having it attributed to his wife, he saddled it upon Kasukuwere. But even in that attempt to strike a balance, Mugabe still betrayed his real preferences when he literally exonerated Kasukuwere of any wrongdoing. This confirmed what his wife had already said when she declared that Kauskuwere was going nowhere. When Kasukuwere was investigated after a string of disapprovals and demonstrations in the majority of the provinces, it was reported that the final decision would be made by Mugabe and his Vice Presidents. Clearly, Mugabe has chosen to back Kasukuwere at a time when his political life looked in jeopardy.

But as ever, it’s Mugabe who wins – against Mnangagwa, because the plan to remove Kasukuwere failed and against Kasukuwere because he will forever be beholden to Mugabe, the godfather who has saved him where no one has survived before. In politics, you are a prisoner of your saviour. In this case, Mugabe has strengthened his grip on Saviour. The old gladiator has his commissar exactly where he wants him to be.

Some will say Mugabe’s rebuke of G40 and contradiction of his wife’s denial of its existence is important. But that is to underestimate Mugabe’s deceptive strategies. Back in 2014, Didymus Mutasa thought he had got one over Moyo when Mugabe described the latter as the “Devil incarnate”. An over-excited Mutasa threatened to “Gamatox” the so-called “weevils” in the party. At that time, it seemed Moyo’s career was seriously imperilled. However, not long after, it was Mutasa and his allies who had been thrown under the bus. Today, Moyo – the so-called “Devil incarnate” remains firmly beside Mugabe, while Mutasa is out in the cold. The fact that Mugabe told off Kasukuwere over G40 should not be taken too seriously. The old warrior is just playing his tricks, giving an impression that he is treating both Lacoste and G40 even-handedly when in reality he is partial to the latter. It must irk Mnangagwa and his allies that Mugabe favours Moyo notwithsianding that he has previously been openly critical of him, whereas they have never dared to openly challenge or criticise him. Indeed, the relationship between Mugabe and Moyo is of a complex and curious nature, one which certainly merits its own full analysis.

The institutionalised man

Some say a man can only take humiliation up to a certain threshold. Beyond that, to preserve self-worth and dignity, one must walk. These people think at some point Mnangagwa will have to walk away. Indeed, there is a suggestion that he has offered to resign in recent weeks. Others doubt that he has the spine to walk away. Even if he might have lost his loyalty, feeling betrayed, they argue that he is not brave enough to face the world outside the comfort of ZANU PF and government.

The Shawshank Redemption is a beautiful film which appeals to a great number of people. One of its great themes is how people become institutionalised. In one scene, Brooks Haten, an elderly inmate who had been in jail for more than 50 years is seen holding a knife to a fellow inmate’s throat, threatening to kill him. The strange thing is that Brooks does this after receiving news that he has been given parole. Any inmate would be thankful to know that he is due for release. But Brooks is not a happy man. Instead, he is traumatised by the news. He is desperate to remain in jail. He decides that the only way he could stay in jail is to commit another crime. Fellow inmates eventually stop him from committing murder. But they cannot understand Brookes’ behaviour.

One of his friends, Red, offers an explanation. For Red, Brooks is displaying the effects of institutionalisation. He had stayed in prison for so long that he had become institutionalised. “50 years!” says Red “This is all he knows. In here, he is an important man. He’s an educated man. Outside he’s nothing. Just a used-up con with arthritis in both hands. Probably couldn’t get a library card if he tried …” In other words, Brooks knew no other life except prison life where, as the prison librarian, he was somebody. He had a role. Outside, in the open world, he would struggle. Freedom for him was a scary prospect.

Indeed, when he eventually got out of jail, Brookes found life outside very difficult. Things had changed and he couldn’t cope. “The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry,” he wrote in his letter to friends he left inside. “I don’t like it here, I’m tired of being afraid all the time. I have decided not to stay …” he wrote. This letter would in fact be his suicide note as he hung himself in the halfway house where he was staying.

Although their circumstances are different, people like Mnangagwa bear similarities with Brooks in The Shawshank Redemption. Mnangagwa has spent two thirds of his life in ZANU PF. Half their lives they have been Cabinet ministers. Most of his adult life, he has been an important man. Mnangagwa joined ZAPU and later ZANU in the early sixties. He spent time in jail on account of his military exploits and thereafter was active in Mozambique during the liberation struggle – walking side by side with the most powerful leader, enjoying borrowed power. At independence he became a Minister in charge of state security and intelligence and except between 2000 and 2005 when he was Speaker of Parliament, he has been a permanent member of Mugabe’s Cabinet. He is a lawyer by training and has a number of business investments but predominantly, the life he knows is as a senior member of government. The last couple of years have been uncharacteristically difficult for him but overall, with a fearsome reputation ahead of him, he has enjoyed immense amounts of power during the past 37 years.

He’s now in his mid-seventies and has spent all his life in the comfort of government and ZANU PF. People like him cannot envisage life outside. Like Brookes, they will do anything, including taking humiliation to remain inside. His life and that of his entire clan is in ZANU PF and government. He is so heavily invested in the party and government that leaving is considered too high a price to pay. He has done his calculations and figured the costs of leaving are higher than the benefits of being outside. Outside ZANU PF your life is doomed. It shrivels like a leaf plucked from a tree,” he once said at a public rally, warning those who were expelled from ZANU PF. That’s his mentality when it comes to decision-making on his future in ZANU PF. The experience of old cadres like Didymus Mutasa, who has his hard times after his expulsion from ZANU PF is a current reminder of the fate that awaits those who are leave the gravy train. He has truly shrivelled like a leaf plucked from the tree.

Besides, Mnangagwa has been consistent in looking after himself first before anyone else. At all times, whatever happens to his allies, he prioritises his own interests. It is the reason he fell out with Moyo, as confirmed by Mugabe and it is also why he has not done anything to back up his allies who have demoted, suspended or expelled from the party. It might be argued that Mnangagwa’s silence is strategic, in that his opponents have been trying hard to draw him out into a brawl. They targeted his allies but he refused to be drawn out. Eventually, they have had to come out more openly. But if that is a strategy, there is nothing new to it. Joice Mujuru was similarly silent in the fact of attacks. Even as her allies, Mutasa and Rugare Gumbo among other were vocal she remained quiet. Mnangagwa must surely know that there comes a point when silence is no longer an option.

In Bindura, the Mugabes threw a challenge, one that had been presented last year by Sarah Mahoka and Mandiitawepi Chimene when they verbally attacked Mnangagwa in what were collectively a precursor to what is happening now. They asked him to actively disown his allies. After Chimene’s attack, Mnangagwa was forced to issue a statement. He threw a few lines to criticise those who were attacking Mugabe, his boss. But in reality he did not actively disown his allies. He continued to associate with Mugabe’s critics – the “I’m the boss” mug incident marking a high point which riled the Mugabes. It remains to be seen whether Mnangagwa will take heed of the Mugabes’ call. In making the call, the Mugabes have also set a test for themselves. Should Mnangagwa continue to associate with the so-called rebels, he would have shown defiance to which Mugabe would have to respond or appear weak in the face of his subordinate’s defiance.

Choosing a successor – Conflict in the household?

In one recent BSR, I asked why the toad had jumped in broad daylight (hyperlink). This was after Grace Mugabe had openly called upon her husband to name his successor. It was an unusual call from a wife who all along had insisted that, if need be, her husband would rule from a wheelchair. In analysing why she had broken with tradition, I suggested that it was probably because of frustration seeing that her husband was actually not considering retirement whereas for Grace and her allies, it was far better for a preferred successor to be named than to wait for Mugabe’s demise. Waiting for Mugabe’s death is not an option for Grace and her allies because they would have lost their sourecof power and leverage. At that point, their rivals would have the upper hand.

Mugabe on the other hand has repeatedly argued that he will not name a successor, arguing that the party’s constitution does not allow him to do so. But Mugabe’s response is also directed at Mnangagwa’s allies since they are also proposing Mnangagwa as the natural successor. His message in Bindura was that those who are suggesting this “varikupengereka” – they are getting ahead of themselves because they do not understand the party constitution. Although he has refused to name a successor, this does not mean he does not have a preferred candidate in mind. Indeed, in Bindura he said, “I might have a candidate in mind but he or she must compete with others at Congress” arguing he did not want people to accuse him of having left the presidency to his wife.

Notwithstanding the breakdown of the rule of law, Mugabe likes to be seen to be doing things according to rules – appearances matter to him - even if those rules are bent to favour his preferred outcome. His version of rule of law is actually rule by law, where law is simply an instrument to provide a veneer of legitimacy. In this case, he might insist on following party rules and having an open contest but it is evident that the campaign against Mnangagwa has already started with the aim of discrediting him. He is unlikely to sack Mnangagwa anytime soon. He will keep him until Congress but by then he would have been thoroughly isolated and discredited as a potential successor.

The difference between Mugabe and his wife is that while the latter and her allies would like to have a preferred successor in place, Mugabe still believes he has more left in him and can manage until the next Congress. It is a huge gamble given that his demise would give advantage to their rivals unless Mugabe uses the intervening period to reorganise the establishment including strategic retirement and elevation of some of the generals.

Leave a way to life

If his wife has been too hard on Mnangagwa and Mugabe has shown a softer hand, it is because he is a good student of Sun Tzu one of whose rules of war is that when you surround an enemy, do not press it too hard but leave a way to life. In other words, an enemy with his back to the wall will fight to the death. If you press a dog against the wall, it won’t have an escape route and will fight to the end. Alternatively, it will look for the path of least resistance and it will come after you because there is nowhere else to go. You will end up incurring more casualties. Mugabe knows that his wife has less restraint. She goes on an all-out attack, without inhibitions. His approach towards Mnangagwa has been to leave an outlet free. In other words, he has shown him a way to life.

Mugabe’s example of Moyo’s expulsion and readmission to the party may also be read as both a reminder to Mnangagwa and a reassurance that all is not lost if he behaves. On Moyo, Mugabe said, “We advised him not to stand as an independent (in 2005). He did and won. But after some time, you can’t be out of the party when you have been in the party for so long and believe that you can stand as an independent. Akazouya achiti ah, kunze uku it’s too cold!” In the same vein, addressing Mnangagwa directly, he advised that his allies could always follow procedures if they still want to return to the party. He described the challenges between Moyo and Mnangagwa as personal differences which can be resolved.

Like the old patriarch he is, after chronicling Mnangagwa’s alleged offences, he reminds him not to take retribution against Moyo. “Don’t create hatred between yourself. Don’t go and fight, saying is this what you were you saying about me to the President? I won’t act simply because I was told something or reject you just because of what I was told. We will work together as long as one follows the path of the party, working together.” Mnangagwa knows those words were intended for his consumption. As one of Mugabe’s water-carriers, he has been unfailingly loyal to his master, a factor that dissuades him from imagining even the slightest act of rebellion. His adversaries have sought to draw a wedge between the two men, painting Mnangagwa as haughty and ambitious. He appears to have absorbed the criticism and abuse with quiet dignity, his approach surprising many who expected a fierce response given the fearsome reputation that goes with his name.

Mnangagwa’s calculation is that his boss will not fire him just yet and that he will not commit political suicide by throwing in the towel. He will hold out, at least until Congress. In the meantime, he will serve his boss as he has done in the past. He might even surpass previous efforts, as he tries to prove his loyalty and dependability, hoping there is still a chance. He will hold out just in case a vacancy arises by reason of death of incapacitation. That remains his best chance unless he is completely isolated. But even at the grand old age of 93, Mugabe might outlive them all.

Even if a rival beats him to the post, Mnangagwa is unlikely to leave. He will still serve under that new leader as long as his interests are protected. It wouldn’t be the first time that he would have failed to get what he wants. In 1999, when the position of National Chairman became vacant after the elevation of Joseph Msika to the Vice Presidency, Mnangagwa thought there was an opportunity. But that position went to John Nkomo. In 2004, he thought there was a chance when another vacancy arose in the Vice Presidency following the death of Simon Muzenda. On that occasion, he lost out to Joice Mujuru. On both occasions, Mnangagwa might have sulked and thrown his toys out of the pram, frustrated by the apparent snub. But as his allies took punishment, he took it on the chin and moved on. That pattern suggests a man who is more compliant than rebellious.


“Forget the misunderstandings between yourselves so that we plough together in unity, so that we pull together, sow the seed and harvest together. It will help the nation,” said Mugabe, urging his subordinates to forego their differences. But what he meant really was that it would help him. He benefits more from having the adversaries working together for his interests. His wife and her allies might want him to name a successor now, but the old gladiator believes he still has one more round left in him. He wants to run next year and perhaps after that, he will back his preferred candidate at Congress. The preponderance of evidence suggests that this person won’t be Mnangagwa.

Meanwhile, Mugabe’s soft hand should not be confused for the hand of mercy. Those who grew up in the villages know that when grandmother assigned the little boys and girls to catch the chicken, it meant a rare delicious meal that evening. But catching a free range chicken is hard work. You have to run, jump, dive and sometimes fall in the process. The chickens are fast and hard to catch. And when the hen was finally caught, after all that running, the chicken must be calmed down. You hold it quietly, sometimes sway it from side to side like a little baby. After a while it becomes calm. Done properly, the bird literally closes its eyes and goes off into a state of stillness. It is at peace, blissfully unaware of the fate awaiting it. The name that villagers ascribe to this phenomenon is chikukuvatavata. Literally translated it means "please go to sleep, little bird". It's a dignified way for the bird's final moments. If Grace is the one who's running after the bird, her husband is merely performing chikukuvatavata. The end has already been agreed.


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