Big Saturday Read: Mnangagwa at Davos – a review
Earlier this week, the BSR considered Mnangagwa’s trip to Davos, where he was to attend his first Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum. While he was in Davos, Zimbabwe’s new president he had his debut live interview on a truly international platform. This was unfamiliar territory, before an unfamiliar crowd comprising some of the world’s rich and powerful who gather in the Swiss resort town every January for their annual get-together. He only had 30 minutes to make a pitch for Zimbabwe. But it was as much about Zimbabwe as it was about him. There is something intriguing about the man who effectively deposed Mugabe. The interview was never going to be a walk in the park and it wasn’t. There were a few tough moments, but for the most part, the general sentiment if that he gave a good account of himself.
When he accepted the late invitation to Davos, he would have anticipated some tough inquisition from an international media which is still trying to adjust to reporting on a Zimbabwe without Mugabe but is not quite sure of the man who replaced him. Both his long history with and proximity to Mugabe means Mnangagwa is still treated with caution and scepticism. Part of the burden of succeeding Mugabe is that the man who was a right-hand man for a long time must shoulder the responsibility of answering for the misdeeds of his old boss’ regime. He cannot feign ignorance as another former Mugabe ally, Joice Mujuru has tried to do after they fell out. People find it hard to take a politician seriously when he or she pleads ignorance after more than 30 years in government. But at the same time, he is wary of accepting full responsibility. Mnangagwa knows he cannot enter a plea of ignorance and expect to be taken seriously by people he wants to lead or work with.
To his credit, except for a couple of sticky moments, he managed to maintain a cool and calm demeanour for most of the interview. Those two sticky moments came courtesy of a barrage of tough questions from Mishal Husain, the BBC journalist who was given the task of interviewing him. The issues were predictable and he should have been thoroughly prepared for them by his team: the Gukurahundi atrocities in the 1980s and the land reform programme which led to the mass expropriation of agricultural land from white commercial farmers.
On Gukurahundi, the post-interview focus on the issue of whether or not he should have issued an apology as demanded by Husain has detracted from the positives that can be drawn from the interview. Husain’s incessant demand for an apology clearly had Mnangagwa rattled to a point where a flash of temper threatened to break the façade of calmness he had maintained throughout the interview. “I don’t know what your problem is”, he aimed a shot at Husain when she badgered him on the apology. A sip of cold water helped calm the nerves as the temperatures had clearly risen during that terse exchange.
While he has been criticised by some for dodging the apology questions, it seems to me that he was in a no-win situation. He would probably have been criticised for making an apology in the cold mountains of Switzerland. How can a man fly thousands of miles away to Davos to offer an apology to people he left back home in Zimbabwe? That would have been a perfectly legitimate question and criticism. Indeed, he might even have been accused of grandstanding and using the plight of victims and survivors to make himself look good in front of the Davos man. He would probably have been accused of trying to make capital out of his alleged misdeeds and the plight of Gukurahundi victims. To my mind, it would have been utterly disrespectful to the victims and survivors for him to offer an apology to the Davos crowd. If he is going to apologise, there are appropriate platforms at home where he can do so. It would have been imprudent and insincere to offer an apology far away from home.
It was, however, imprudent to challenge the figure of 20,000 victims of Gukurahundi during the interview. He allowed himself to be drawn into a debate over detail and in fact, he was fortunate to get away with it because, in another setting, the interviewer might have taken a harder course and asked him to give the correct figure. That would have been an awkward moment. But disputing the number has already placed him on a collision course with critics who see it as a sign of denialism. Since he had already stated that he had set up a mechanism to deal with the issue, he could simply have explained that the magnitude of what happened will be revealed by the findings of the commission. On the other hand, if Husain had known the full dynamics, she might have asked Mnangagwa if his new administration was prepared to release the classified reports of commissions which investigated the disturbances in the 1980s. These reports contain the official narrative of what happened but at the moment the dominant narrative is the one offered by the CCJP/LEGAL Resources Foundation investigations in the 1980s. If the government does not believe the CCJP/LRF narrative and figures, it will have to release its own counter-narrative.
Nevertheless, there were positives which seem to have been lost in the criticism over the lack of an apology. First, Mnangagwa conceded that he would be willing to appear before the commission if he was asked to do so. “If they ask me to come for any reason, I will,” he said when asked about his role. This is the first time a senior leader, let alone a president, has offered to give testimony on Gukurahundi if called upon to do so. That Mnangagwa is willing to submit to the commission’s processes if called is something that should have attracted headlines. If it was sincere, it presents a big opportunity for those seeking truth and justice.
In addition, Mnangagwa acknowledged the gravity of Gukurahundi as a matter which cannot be ignored or wished away. “We are not saying the past must be thrown away …” he admitted. “I feel that there is that bad patch in our history and we would like to correct it. We would want to say wherever a wrong was committed we must say the government of the day must apologise. Wherever a community has suffered any injury, it is possible to have that injury repaired, we do it”. These are important statements which contain significant concessions. The statements acknowledge that Gukurahundi was indeed a dark point in Zimbabwe’s history. Mugabe has previously called it a “moment of madness”. Here, Mnangagwa called it a “bad patch in our history”. But Mnangagwa goes further and acknowledges that the wrongs of that “bad patch” must be corrected. He also adds that any harm suffered by communities must be repaired. Mnangagwa may not have been more forthcoming on the apology, but there is more than enough in these statements to hold him to his word in future. The concessions are positives that should be taken from the interview and followed up by those concerned with the resolution of this sensitive issue. More significantly, this interview marked a change in the narrative, from one based on the notion of letting bygones be bygones to that of recognising that the wrongs of the past cannot be buried away but must be repaired. This apparent shift in the narrative has not been given the recognition it deserves.
Predictably, Mnangagwa told his audience that he had already made efforts to deal with the issue by setting up an institutional mechanism under the leadership of one of his Vice Presidents. He also explained that he had just signed a law to deal with that brief in addition to there being an independent commission on peace, healing and reconciliation. The government would be guided by the commission’s recommendations, he said. Unfortunately, the interviewer had limited information on the dynamics surrounding the commission. Rather than insist on extracting an apology which was never going to come, she could have pressed Mnangagwa on the issue of whether the commission’s tenure would be extended given that it has taken 5 years to establish the law whereas the commission’s lifespan is only 10 years counted from 2013 when the new constitution was adopted. This effectively means it only has 5 years to do work that it should have done in 10 years. Clearly, its tenure must be extended if it must accomplish the work it has to do.
The land question presented another tricky moment but in the end, Mnangagwa handled it well. The challenge with questions around land from Western media is that they invariably fall into the racial stereotypes where their interest seems to dwell solely on the plight of former white commercial farmers. They frame the issue in a patronising way, where former white farmers are presented as saviours. This approach is devoid of historical nuances and social struggles around land on the African continent. The core issues around land for many Zimbabweans revolve around the rule of law, equitable distribution and productivity. The average Zimbabwean is not racist and is not interested in a racialised narrative of land because of the historically toxic combination between race and land from the colonial times. When Western media frames the Zimbabwe narrative in racial terms, it alienates the average Zimbabwean and puts them on the defensive. Like many others before her, the interviewer insisted on wanting to know whether the former white farmers would get their farms back. She had no other questions regarding land which demonstrated an understanding of the nuances around land. This one-dimensional approach towards land is something that Western media must learn to outgrow because it is too simplistic.
This simplistic approach forced Mnangagwa to resort to the nationalist narrative over land, defending the land reform programme as having been necessary in order to correct historical imbalances. Everyone was welcome regardless of race, he said, but farm sizes had to be reduced to ensure fair sharing and maximum usage. The interviewer could have focused on the issue of land-based corruption where the problem of multiple farm ownership, prevalent in the old system has reappeared under the new system. The only difference is that it’s no longer race-based but is along lines of political affiliation..Since it was an economic forum, she could have interrogated him on how his government intends to reassure the new farmers: will he give them title to land or will they forever be beholden to the ruling party? Instead, the interviewer focused on the single issue of former white farmers presumably because it is the issue that most interests the Western audience.
For his part, since the interviewer was obsessed with the issue of white farmers, Mnangagwa could have highlighted that he had, in fact, protected a number of white farmers in the Midlands region during the farm invasions. More emphasis on the offer to compensate farmers who lost their properties which he has already promised and that one of his delegation was a member of the farmers’ union should have been highlighted. Indigenisation
Another issue which came up was the policy of indigenisation. While Mnangagwa used the platform to market the country, the indigenisation issue could have been dismissed more positively and boldly. It is probably the single most important issue that foreign investors worry about since it literally means losing a majority stake in their investment. The fact that his administration has reversed what in economic terms was a flagship policy of the Mugabe era is so important that upon being asked about it, he should simply have declared that the indigenisation policy is now history. He could have explained the exception regarding diamonds and platinum later, but after grabbing the moment to highlight that the impediment of the past was no longer there.
On the issue of elections, the president needs to get a second opinion because the explanation he gave as the basis for having an early election is legally incorrect. He is of the impression that elections can be proclaimed after February and that elections can be held well before July. In fact, according to the constitution, the 5-year term runs from the date the President was sworn into office. As former President Mugabe was sworn into office on 22 August 2013, the term of parliament runs until August. According to the constitution, a general election must be held within a month before the expiry of the term of parliament. This means the election must be held between July and August 2018.
If, however, President Mnangagwa wants an early election, this can be achieved but only if parliament dissolves before the normal expiry of its term in August. This is achievable if he gets the necessary special majority required to dissolve parliament. After the expulsions of G40 aligned MPs and current divisions, that special majority is hardly guaranteed. The president may well get the early election that he wants, but it must be done in accordance with the law as explained in this BSR. This means parliament must be dissolved before its normal term expires. Last week’s BSR explained why Mnangagwa prefers an election.
One thing that is clear though is that there will be an early election and opposition cannot complain that they were not forewarned. More than twice now, Mnangagwa has promised an early election. This isn't idle talk. Opposition strategists should therefore be planning for an early election. One way or another, Mnangagwa will achieve his aim of holding an early election and if the opposition do not start making preparations with that in mind, they will be caught napping.
Mnangagwa usefully repeated the promise to invite international observers which suggests he is not only confident but has nothing to fear or hide. However, these promises must be accompanied by real changes on the ground. He also undertook to transfer power should he lose elections although it is hard to imagine that he and his allies can ever entertain the idea of losing. On the international community, he reiterated his call for re-engagement and committed to re-join the Commonwealth, another reversal of a Mugabe-era policy. Mnangagwa handled the sensitive Trump question over the nasty comment the latter made about Africa and other black nations with what has now become characteristic humour, saying if he met him, he would invite the US president to come and invest in golf courses in Victoria Falls. That light-hearted moment after the tense encounter over Gukurahundi and the land issue showed that he had regained his composure by the time the interview drew to a close.
It’s shocking that a man who was in government for 37 years is considered a rookie when it comes to international media interviews. But that is largely because in those 37 years only one man, Mugabe, hogged the limelight and his deputies and ministers were always in the shadows. It is also because government ministers are used to a pliable state media which has no guts to ask hard questions.
He was calm and stable for most of the interview, looking his interviewer in the eye. Nevertheless, there were flashes of discomfort and temper when the interviewer pressed him hard on Gukurahundi and the land issue, a reminder perhaps of an easily irritable and impatient nature which lurks behind the calm demeanour. A pause and sip of cold water managed to conceal it quickly enough before it consumed him and the interview. He will need a lot more of those skills to manage the fiery temper because there will be many more moments of harder questions and robust enquiries from tougher inquisitors. By the standards of international media interviews, this was nothing more than a friendly match. He survived it but there will be tougher encounters to come.
What would the average investor have thought of Zimbabwe and its new president after the Davos interview? Certainly that this was not Mugabe. The belligerence of old is gone. They would have welcomed the positive talk by the new president, the softening on the notorious policy of indigenisation and the promises of a new democratic culture. But by and large, they would have remained as cautious as they were before it, deciding to wait for the election. After all, it’s only a few months away. It is the moment when Mnangagwa must actually prove himself both as a winner and as a man who is true to his word.