As the world’s rich and powerful gather in the small Swiss resort town of Davos for the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum this week, one of the guests will be Emmerson Mnangagwa, the new President of Zimbabwe. The US President, Donald Trump will grab the headlines. But from Africa, as the man who recently deposed Robert Mugabe, who was the world’s oldest leader, Mnangagwa will command his fair share of attention.
His was a late invitation to Davos, in recognition of the vastly changed circumstances of Zimbabwe following Mugabe’s dramatic exit. He has his own slot on a busy Davos programme filled with political heavyweights, where he will have a one-on-one interview dubbed “An Insight, An Idea with Emmerson Mnangagwa”. It will come just moments before Europe’s most powerful leader, Angela Merkel presents her special address on the future of Europe.
For Mnangagwa, Davos presents an early opportunity to mix with the global elite and to showcase himself and his administration as he tries to forge new relationships following two decades of Zimbabwe’s international isolation. The Mugabe regime was hugely unpopular and notorious for human rights violations, subversion of democracy and the rule of law. After decimating the institution of private property during the controversial land reform programme, Mugabe would have stuck out like a sore thumb in the neo-liberal environs of Davos.
Nevertheless, Mnangagwa won’t be the first Zimbabwean political leader to grace Davos in recent years. Veteran opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai was a regular guest during his time as Prime Minister between 2009 and 2013. Being the man who bravely challenged Mugabe, a man whose policies the Davos elites found revolting, Tsvangirai often received star treatment in the alpine town. Now, however, it is the turn of Mnangagwa, the man who eventually deposed Mugabe last November, to enjoy the rarefied company of the global elite in the shadow of the snow-capped mountains of Davos.
His invitation, despite the controversial circumstances of his rise to power, is symbolic of the generous goodwill that Mnangagwa is enjoying in his early days in office. While the US remains slightly cautious, the majority of the West, with Britain taking a lead, seem to have largely embraced the Mnangagwa administration. This is a dramatic turnaround after years of hostility between Zimbabwe and the West, although, in truth since around 2013, most have been placing their bets on a reformed ZANU PF than on the opposition. That Mnangagwa was a long-time lieutenant of Mugabe during his lengthy and autocratic reign is certainly inconvenient. But it has not deterred a clear shift in attitude towards Zimbabwe among a majority of Western nations.
There is a view among them that Mnangagwa is a pragmatic pair of hands, a man with whom they can do business. There is, it seems, a carefully tailored process of rehabilitating Zimbabwe so that the Southern African country can once again find its place in the family of nations. The decisive moment in that process will come later this year when Zimbabwe holds a general election. It will be Mnangagwa’s greatest test as he seeks to establish legitimacy and steer his country forward.
Baggage from the past
Mnangagwa is acutely aware of baggage from the past which weighs upon his reputation. He was Mugabe’s security chief during the dark period of the Gukurahundi atrocities in the 1980s. While Mugabe, the architect-in-chief, still lives, it is this lieutenant who is attracting more brickbats and calls for accountability, even, ironically, from people who claim to support Mugabe. It is a deeply uncomfortable subject for Mnangagwa as signified by his persistent call to “let bygones be bygones” without getting into much detail. Survivors, victims, relatives of the affected and critics disagree vehemently with this approach. They want accountability.
In return, his supporters point out that he is setting up institutional mechanisms to deal with the past. He has assigned one of his Vice Presidents, Kembo Mohadi, a survivor of Gukurahundi, to oversee a department of peace, healing and reconciliation. He recently signed a law to deal with peace, healing and reconciliation and has appointed a special adviser on these issues. How he handles these sensitive issues which also implicate some of his key allies will be a key demonstration of leadership.
Since he took office, Mnangagwa and his team have been working hard to cleanse his image and change public perceptions. For years, he had earned a reputation as a hard man, a no-nonsense character and even ruthless henchman who enforced Mugabe’s orders with brutal efficiency. The mere mention of his name summoned fear. But that is not the man Zimbabweans have seen since he took office last November. Instead, they have seen a relaxed, approachable and even charming character with a sharp sense of humour. Just last week he graced a pre-Davos event looking very casual and laid-back as he answered questions. Still, his critics dismiss it as a mere show and say that everything so far has been choreographed. Indeed, many were critical of the questions he got from his interviewer and audience at the pre-Davos event, which they thought were far too soft.
Language of capital
For the Davos crowd, which largely consists of the world’s 1% of the rich and famous, it is Mnangagwa the “economic man” rather than the “human rights man” who will be of greater interest and on this score, he is unlikely to disappoint. Mnangagwa himself has a vast business empire and some estimate that he is one of Zimbabwe’s wealthiest persons. He will fit in very well at Davos, both as a politician and businessman. He has been speaking a dialect of capitalism which will be easily understood and embraced in Davos, where there will be a concentration of the world’s richest capitalists. He has already promised to adopt a free-market capitalist approach to the economy. He has been at pains to explain that his flagship “Command Agriculture” programme, whose names carries uncomfortable tones of communism is just a name. He explains that it is funded by the private sector. On reflection, his advisers might hope they had re-branded this flagship programme because the word “command” will cause discomfort among capitalists who have bad memories of the Mugabe era.
He has also promised to protect private property rights and in particular, all Bilateral Investment Promotion and Protection Agreements, which were treated with contempt by Mugabe. He has undertaken to compensate former white farmers who lost their property under the previous regime. Indeed, in an act of symbolism, a white farmer was paraded returning to his farm last December. One of Mnangagwa’s delegation to Davos is a representative of the farmers, a sign of changing times and attitudes. Furthermore, he has promised to scrap the controversial indigenisation laws which required foreigners to give up 51% of their investments to locals. Finally, he has promised to sell off most of the state-owned companies and committed to repaying Zimbabwe's arrears to lenders. All this is consistent with the neo-liberal approach that is favoured by the Davos community. He also seems to have attracted the favour of big corporate actors in Zimbabwe, some of them playing an active role in his pre-Davos preparations.
Operation Restore Legitimacy
Nevertheless, despite the goodwill that he is enjoying, Mnangagwa is also aware of the questions over legitimacy that hang over his new administration. At the moment he is milking the neighbour’s cow, and he must keep a watchful eye, lest the neighbour comes to claim it back. He knows that for things to move, he must get a clean mandate from the electorate, hence the forthcoming elections will be critical. He has promised an early election, which looks like a sign of confidence. However, questions remain over whether the elections will be free and fair, which they never were under Mugabe in the last two decades hence the perennial legitimacy deficit.
Mnangagwa has promised that elections will be free and fair and, as if to shame his doubters, he has even undertaken to invite international election observers, including the United Nations. This is something Mugabe vehemently rejected and Mnangagwa's concession will be welcomed by the Davos crowd. He will throw in a few more concessions at Davos, which will enhance his carefully tailored image as a born-again democrat. His card at Davos will be that he is not Mugabe, knowing too well how his old boss was reviled by the elite crowd.
Critics still argue that there is need to translate the positive rhetoric he has been preaching into real action. Davos presents an opportunity for those with leverage to nudge Mnangagwa towards implementing more electoral reforms on the ground, including the repeal of repressive media and public order legislation. A clean election is good for Zimbabwe because it will help produce a legitimate outcome which will increase the chance of opening economic lifelines which the country desperately needs.
For many Zimbabweans, all they need is some respite from the perennial economic woes which have crippled a generation. The Davos trip has been hyped so much by state media that expectations are high that it will yield major dividends to help end Zimbabwe’s economic challenges. They are unaware that Davos is, by and large, an annual get-together of the world’s richest and powerful where, occasionally, they find time to talk about the plight of the rest. It is at best a big marketplace where the leadership will hope to change perceptions and mindsets. But there will be no mega-deals just yet. What remains of the left in Zimbabwe will not be amused by the hype over a trip to mix with neo-liberal elites.
Most Zimbabweans probably won’t worry too much about these ideological niceties. They are at a point where to use Deng Xiaoping’s words, “it matters not whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”. Indeed, some are wondering whether Mnangagwa can be Zimbabwe’s Deng, the Chinese leader who ushered China into years of economic boom and prosperity. Incidentally, he will be heading off to China in April, at the invitation of Zimbabwe’s “all-weather friend”. But first, Mnangagwa faces the challenge to charm the money-men of Davos. He has already beaten Mugabe. He must now beat the doubts of the men and women who despised Mugabe.