This is an analysis of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s maiden speech delivered at the swearing in ceremony held in Harare on 24 November 2017. It was what would be expected from a new leader seeking to set a positive tone for his presidency. It was designed to calm and reassure the nation after a turbulent fortnight in which the military was the de facto authority. It was also meant to reflect the hope that people have in the future, after many years of stagnation and suffering. Mnangagwa knew is audience was wider than Zimbabwe and so the speech was also directed at the global audience that was watching and listening. He had drop his party robes and present himself as a statesmen.
Deeds not speeches
Mnangagwa was obviously keen to set himself apart from his predecessor, former President Robert Mugabe, by presenting himself as a man of action rather than a man of words. Mugabe was a great orator. In the early years of independence, many people were in awe of Mugabe who spoke impeccably both in English and Shona. But over time, they discovered the emptiness of his words. He continued to hog the stage at international conference, winning the hearts of many Africans and others in the developing world with his anti-imperialist rhetoric. But back home he had lost the hearts of many. People were hungry and tired. His words meant nothing.
Mnangagwa is no orator and he knows it. He prides himself as a man of action, a tough hand to deliver on the ground. That is why he railed against a culture of laziness in government. In a subtle reference to the futility of empty speeches, he said, “I recognise that the urgent tasks that beckon will not be accomplished through speeches. I must hit the ground running.” In the last half of his presidency, Mugabe sounded angry, bitter and vindictive. Mnangagwa’s first speech was firm but did not have the belligerent tone that had come to characterise Mugabe’s deliveries.
Entente with the West
On the foreign policy front, Mnangagwa appears to have an open-minded approach compared to Mugabe. He was keen to extend the hand of re-engagement with the West, with whom Zimbabwe has had a toxic relationship for nearly 20 years. “I stand here today to say that our country is ready and willing for a steady re-engagement with all the nations of the world," he said before adding, “Isolation has never been splendid or viable”. Mnangagwa knows Zimbabwe had become too isolated under Mugabe. When the Commonwealth suspended Zimbabwe following the controversial 2002 presidential election, Mugabe responded by withdrawing Zimbabwe’s membership. In 2013, he threatened to leave SADC if the regional body continued to insist on electoral reforms. Mnangagwa knows isolationism will doom his presidency. However, he was also keen to insist on mutual respect in the relationships. Mnangagwa probably shares some of the concerns that were raised by his old boss, but he is taking a pragmatic approach.
Protector of property
The new president knows one of the causes of the rupture in relations between Zimbabwe and the West was the failure to protect property rights and investments. Nation states protect their interests and Zimbabwe had gained a reputation of breaching bi-lateral agreements. This is why Mnangagwa made a pledge to abide by bilateral investment protection promotion and protection agreements (BIPPAS). These are bi-lateral agreements between states by which they seek to protect the investments interests of their nationals. He knows that many were violated during the Mugabe era, which was a big cause of relationship breakdown. Indeed, more than once in the last few years, Zimbabwe lost big arbitration disputes in which it was sued by Dutch, German and Swiss farmers whose investments qualified for protection under BIPPAs. Mnangagwa knows investors will remain sceptical of Zimbabwe unless their investments are protected. This is why he was keen to emphasise that all foreign investments would be safe. This is language that confirms the image of Mnangagwa as a pragmatist when it comes to economic management and international relations.
Even as he spoke about sanctions, Mnangagwa was careful not to include Mugabe’s favourite adjective “illegal”, which he always used to describe the restrictive measures taken against him by Western countries. Instead, Mnangagwa referred to them as “punishments” and “economic and political sanctions against us.” He described the past conflicts with the West as “misunderstandings” stating that it was time to “make way for a new beginning”. This is a significant departure from the tough and bitter language used by Mugabe against the West in the last two decades of acrimony.
Mnangagwa’s speech had a different and more conciliatory tone. Here was a man calling for an entente with the West. How long this cordial tone will last will depend on how the West reciprocates. So far, however, it appears the controversial military action that brought him to power has been widely embraced, even by the West. Some of the Western countries had for some time shown an inclination to work with a reformed ZANU PF but the presence of Mugabe remained the major stumbling block. Now that he’s gone, there will be more open and cordial relations and high profile visits by Western leaders or by Mnangagwa to Western capitals can be expected in the near future. It will not only cement the notion that he is prepared to adopt a broader and more inclusive foreign policy but it will also give a picture of a man who is different from Mugabe to the local electorate. If Mnangagwa opens up on the democratic front and removes or amends some repressive laws such as the information and public order laws, this might just give the US an opportunity to repeal the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act (ZIDERA) which remains on its statute books.
His statement on the land question was one of the outstanding features of Mnangagwa’s maiden speech. One the one hand, in defending the controversial land acquisitions, it signalled a firm commitment to protect the gains of the Mugabe regime but on the other hand the promise to compensate disposed farmers demonstrated a pragmatic approach to a problem that has haunted Zimbabwe for some time. Reaffirming the Mugabe position on land, he said, “The principle of re-possessing our land cannot be challenged or reversed. The dispossession of our ancestral lands was the fundamental reason for waging the liberation struggle." However, Mnangagwa also stated, “My government is committed to compensating those farmers from whom land was taken in terms of our laws of lands."
These two statements demonstrate Mnangagwa’s awareness of the need to balance the competing claims of those from whom land was taken and those who now occupy the land. He cannot ignore the claims of the dispossessed as Mugabe did without falling into the same economic and international relations trap but simultaneously he cannot threaten his party’s natural constituency in the resettlement areas.
Although he promised compensation, he was careful not to specify the nature of it. The Mugabe regime has always said it would compensate for improvements but not for the land. Mnangagwa’s statement is not clear whether he is referring to compensation for land and improvements or for improvements only. If he is referring to both land and improvements it would certainly be a radical departure from the policy under Mugabe. Mugabe would be dismayed but it would undoubtedly please the dispossessed farmers. The source of compensation is not stated and it remains to be seen whether the constitution will be amended. The current constitution places an obligation to pay compensation for land on the former colonial power. This is an important issue that requires careful navigation given that agriculture is the mainstay of Zimbabwe’s economy and can propel it to greater heights if well managed. Mnangagwa’s softer and more pragmatic approach on the land issue is understandable.
Still on property rights, there is one issue that did not feature in Mnangagwa’s speech which could endear him to the people if he addresses it. It is the issue of pensions. Many people’s pensions and savings were wiped out in the years of hyperinflation. After working for so many years, many pensioners were left impecunious. Yet the pension funds and companies have continued to survive and in some cases, flourish. This is a matter that has caused a lot of bitterness among pensioners and some have gone to their graves with broken hearts. If Mnangagwa is ready to compensate for property rights of farmers, he may also want to consider the issue of property rights of the many pensioners who were left in poverty.
Bygones be bygones ...
Mnangagwa also had a word regarding past violations. Although he did not mention them by name, he is surely aware of the accusations that have been raised against him particularly in relation to Gukurahundi and the 2008 election violence. His appeal is to ask people to “let bygones be bygones”. He said, “We should never remain hostages of our past. Let us humbly appeal to all of us that we let bygones be bygones readily embracing each other in defining a new destiny of our beloved Zimbabwe." But where do these bygones start and end? Some will ask if the land issue is also not something that falls in the “bygones” class and yet he has promised compensation. If Mnangagwa is prepared to give compensation to white farmers who lost their land, it may be seen as double-standards if black victims of human rights violations are overlooked. He will have a hard time shaking off the pleas of the victims and survivors of past violations. This is an issue that demands careful handling. Some will question the promise to let the past rest, coming at a time when there seems to be recriminations against perceived opponents after the bitter succession race.
His speech also had positive statements on the economy. He knows this is the big challenge that everyone is hoping to be resolved quickly. He has pledged to pay the nation’s debts but pleaded for assistance and understanding from creditors. He reiterated his commitment to Command Agriculture, which was hailed as a success last season. The “command” element in this policy would seem to clash with the neo-liberal predilection towards protection of property rights, foreign investments and free market forces that he espouses elsewhere, but this seems to confirm the pragmatist that observers say he is. He seems to be unconstrained by ideology but is more interested in what delivers results.
He also promised to stamp out corruption, a huge problem in Zimbabwe. “As we focus on recovering our economy, we must shed misbehaviours and acts of indiscipline which have characterised the past. Acts of corruption must stop. Where these occur, swift, swift, swift justice must be served.” Mugabe always spoke against corruption but did nothing to stop it. Instead, the corrupt were protected and rewarded. Many people had lost hope and chosen the path of corruption because that is what everyone seemed to be doing. Will Mnangagwa take a different and tougher approach? He will be judged by his actions. People will only believe when they see big and corrupt people on trial and getting punished for corruption. Mnangagwa may wish to draw lessons from his counterpart in China, who has taken a tough approach on corruption.
The sight of former Finance Minister in court this week suggests something is brewing on the anti-corruption front. But many are also hoping it is not a case of selective application of the law and that more will follow Chombo’s path. They would like to see all crooks in court to answer for their crimes, not just those who happen to be on the wrong side of the new President. If justice continues to be applied selectively, with the protection of allies who are equally corrupt, people will lose faith as it will be continuity rather than change from the Mugabe era.
Tribute to Mugabe
Finally, Mnangagwa paid tribute to his old boss and mentor. “To me personally, he remains a father, mentor, comrade-in-arms and my leader," he said. “We must say thank you to him and trust that history will grant him his proper place and accord him his deserved stature as one of the founding father sand leaders of our nation.” The relationship between him and Mugabe went sour in the final years but there is obviously some residue of respect if not affection after so many years of working together. Mnangagwa does not want to be seen as being vindictive. It is a good show of magnanimity in victory. It is possible that over time, the two men will find common ground once again but this may take time as Mugabe recovers from the shock of losing office. It is likely that he will protect Mugabe.
Overall, Mnangagwa’s speech was short, firm and fair. There are clear strains of pragmatism running through the speech. He promised less words and more action. His Cabinet line-up will be interesting to watch. If there are too many old faces, people will be disappointed. If it has new faces and shows signs of inclusivity, there will be greater hope in the future. However, as he stated himself, good speeches do not make nations. Mugabe gave a stirring speech to the nation on 4 March 1980 when he won the elections to become the first leader of a democratic Zimbabwe. They were sweet words that charmed a stunned nation. But we all know how it ended last week. Mnangagwa will be careful to fulfill his words and to meet the high expectations.