Bulawayo is affectionately known as the City of Kings. In more recent times, the moniker has become more expansive in tune with the changing times so that it is commonly referred to as the City of Kings and Queens. All this in recognition of its regal origins. But today, it was the scene of a political massacre. There, the man who would be king was left staring at a dark political abyss as the husband and wife tag team at the top of Zimbabwean politics turned the screws on him.
If Emmerson Mnangagwa had any lingering hopes of succeeding Mugabe, they suffered a mortal blow at the Presidential Youth Interface Rally held today in Bulawayo. We had already known from previous rallies that Mnangagwa was under severe pressure and that his relationship with his boss, Robert Mugabe, had deteriorated quite severely in recent times. However, despite all the evidence, there was still a strong sense of denialism in the Mnangagwa camp. Warned that Mnangagwa was going the same ignominious way his immediate predecessor Joice Mujuru departed in 2014, his allies argued that it would not happen to their man. Their boss was of different and stronger political stock, they argued. He was too big to be fired, they said.
But in Bulawayo this afternoon, Mnangagwa was all but fired. Mugabe may have stopped short of pronouncing final judgment but even to the most die-hard Mnangagwa supporter, surely the writing is on the wall. A visibly angry Mugabe told him he was free to leave and form his own party. The last time Mugabe dared a rival to form a political party was back at the tail-end of the nineties when he challenged Morgan Tsvangirai and fellow trade unionists to join politics if they wanted to play the political game. This was after a series of demonstrations led by the trade unions. Not long afterwards, the MDC was formed, with Tsvangirai leading it.
Now, Mugabe has played the same card again, this time daring his long-time ally and deputy to leave and form his own party. It remains to be seen whether Mnangagwa has the courage, drive and determination of Tsvangirai and his allies in the late nineties. Tsvangirai had a broad array of actors around him, from the trade unions, civil society, the church, students and donors who provided the machinery and critical mass to build a mass opposition movement. There is no evidence that Mnangagwa is similarly placed.
One of the most intriguing features of the succession race is the unbundling of the myth around Mnangagwa. Observers have watched in sheer astonishment as the legend that Mnangagwa built has unravelled so dramatically without as much as a whimper. For years, Mnangagwa thrived on the myth that he was a cunning, shrewd and non-nonsense character who was way ahead of his peers. Indeed, he was feared and untouchable. For a long time, he told people that he was in fact “as soft as wool”, in response to the charge that he was a cruel and ruthless politician who found no difficulty in eliminating rivals. Maybe he was right all along, when everybody doubted him and chose instead to cling to the myth of the cunning and ruthless figure. Seeing Mnangagwa clap and smile as Mugabe and his wife mocked and humiliated him so publicly was both sad and embarrassing. How does a grown man applaud his own demise and public humiliation like that?
It’s time for Mnangagwa to cut his losses. For so long he has been cast as one of the chief villains in ZANU PF. His alleged role in Gukurahundi will stick with him for life. Yet, despite this dark past, Mnangagwa seems to have harvested some morsels of empathy in recent months. Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of the succession race is how Mnangagwa seems to have been transformed from a pantomime villain to a figure of pity following months of relentless attacks from Grace Mugabe and her allies. Even in Bulawayo today, the loud cheers would have warmed his heart. This does not necessarily mean people like Mnangagwa. It could merely an expression of people’s revulsion towards his rival’s toxic brand of politics. People are not impressed by Grace Mugabe’s abrasive and arrogant approach. People are frustrated by Mugabe’s rule and they are so desperate for someone big from within ZANU PF who has the courage to challenge Mugabe. Although he has not declared it, Mnangagwa has already been cast as an opponent to the Mugabes’ whom people believe want to create a dynasty. If walks away and challenges Mugabe or adds weight to the opposition, Mnangagwa might just transform himself into an unlikely hero.
But Mnangagwa doesn’t seem to have the courage to walk away. He is probably waiting for Mugabe to pronounce direct judgment upon him. There is no culture of resigning in ZANU PF. Those on the gravy train do not like stepping off. They do not know how to survive outside the party. They are scared of life outside ZANU PF, a fact that Mnangagwa himself has preached before at political rallies. Besides, Mnangagwa and his people got over-confident and began to believe their own lie that they were entitled to succeed Mugabe. This sense of entitlement was vividly when a Mnangagwa ally, George Charamba chided Professor Jonathan Moyo and his G40 allies and referred to the presidency as “chine vene vacho chinhu ichi” (it’s our thing). This was a myth they peddled in order to dispirit rivals but unfortunately they began to believe it. This belief in entitlement and over-confidence has cost them dearly but it also means Mnangagwa and allies cannot fathom the idea of walking away from what they believe belongs to them. How does one walk away from his own thing?
But the truth is that as far as ZANU PF is concerned, this thing has now gone off the radar for Mnangagwa, unless there is a miracle. If he values his dignity, this is the time to walk away and salvage whatever is left of it. It would also give him the opportunity to control his own destiny. A prudent strategist would have seen this coming and would have used the intervening period to prepare for life after ZANU PF. His predecessor, Mujuru chose to stay on until she was fired. At this rate, Mnangagwa will be lucky to even attend the Extraordinary Congress in December, just 5 weeks away. Like Mujuru, the special congress could be the moment when the last rites of his ZANU PF career are administered – in his absence.
As for Grace Mugabe, it is clear that she wants the Vice President’s position at the Extraordinary Congress in December. “Now we want our position back”, Grace declared in Bulawayo in respect of the Vice Presidency slot which the women gave away in 2014 when the ZANU PF Constitution was amended to get rid of Joice Mujuru and open a path for Mnangagwa. Now, the tables have turned and Grace wants Mnangagwa out. She’s leading calls for the restoration of the clause, a direct assault upon Mnangagwa’s position. They might have chosen to accommodate Mnangagwa by calling for 3 Vice Presidents. But this call is for a direct replacement and by the look of things, the principal casualty of this change will be Mnangagwa. With Mphoko holding the ZAPU slot, and being on the Mugabe side of the succession race, he is safe.
If she does get the Vice Presidency, it will surely be a remarkable rise for the former typist. But that’s also because from the beginning, Grace Mugabe’s ambition has been grossly underestimated. Some readers will recall a story three years ago, when I recounted how some years back, a fellow called Mamvura drove a bus at Sadza Growth Point when everyone believed he was bluffing. Everybody said Mamvura was a mad man and nobody took him seriously whenever he threatened that one day he would drive one of the busses that were parked at the busy township. One day, when everybody was distracted, Mamvura took the wheel of one of the idling busses and drove it. There was a lot of screaming and shouting, as people called on Mamvura to stop. Thankfully, Mamvura had the sense to stop after a short drive. But he had done what everybody thought was an impossibility. Many people have never believed Grace wants to rule. But Grace could do a Mamvura on us all.
Tomorrow, Sunday, Grace and her husband have another opportunity to do further damage to Mnangagwa’s political dream. She will be at Rufaro Stadium in Harare where she will address thousands of members of the Vapositori church. There, she will have a captive audience. There are unlikely to be hired boo-boys who attracted the Mugabes’ wrath in Bulawayo today. Whatever remains of Mnangagwa after this weekend will be reserved for the Harare Presidential Youth Interface rally, probably the last major political event before the special congress in December. He will be a brave man to attend the Harare rally, let alone the special congress. But given the unnatural manner in which Mnangagwa has absorbed the ridicule and humiliation so far, he might even attend Sunday’s Vapositori gathering.
The Mugabes will want to make sure he is finished before the special congress. The booing of Grace Mugabe in Bulawayo may be blamed on hired boo-boys, but it also represents a real threat for Grace Mugabe's ambitions as long as Mnangagwa remains in the party. But even long-term, it is a reminder to Grace Mugabe that although she is having her way, she has stepped on the toes of too many people and they are not happy with her. Her life after Mugabe is gone will not be as easy as it is now. Here, one is reminded yet again of the cruel fate that befell Mao's haughty wife, Jiang Qing after the death of Mao. There are uncanny similarities between the way Jiang Qing carried on in the last days of her powerful husband's life and how Grace Mugabe has been carrying on in relation to succession rivals. Jiang Qing created too many enemies and Grace is accumulating them by the dozen. After Mao died, Jiang Qing spent the rest of her life in prison where she eventually committed suicide. The rest of her Gang of Four also had their comeuppance.
For now, though, only Mnangagwa and his allies don’t seem to see what the whole world is seeing. Or if they are, they are still praying for Lady Fortuna’s intervention because if they can’t act, luck is what they desperately need right now. Perhaps the story of Jiang Qing and how the fortunes of the formerly discarded cadres turned after the death of Mao is what still gives them hope. For now, it’s fair to say the long-time water-carrier is fast running out of water to carry. And when that happens, it means the water-carrier has also run out of purpose.