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Big Saturday Read: Hopeful start, but what went wrong?

No Coca Cola. No fuel. No medical drugs. And, of course, no money.

That, for many Zimbabweans, summed up a bleak Christmas. Not even the comforting lines trotted out by the healthy-eating posse to absorb the shortage of soft drinks could raise flagging spirits. Someone had rained on the annual parade in many homes and villages across the country. Or to use popular parlance, Christmas yakadirwa jecha.

It’s a far cry from the euphoria of last Christmas, when hope came in gallons after the demise of Robert Mugabe’s regime, after ruling for 37 years. It was supposed to be a major turning point. But alas, it was no more than a mirage.

Now, most Zimbabweans blame his successor and former right-hand man, Emmerson Mnangagwa for their seemingly never-ending woes. Then, Mnangagwa, the generals and the foot-soldiers were hailed as heroes. But it didn’t take long before the truck-loads of sand arrived. So what went wrong so fast for Mnangagwa? How did a year that began on a more than hopeful note end in such a sour taste?

It has become customary over the years for Zimbabwean leaders to blame everyone but themselves for the country’s troubles. But they are the principal authors of this assassination of hope. At the end of the day, the buck must stop somewhere and it has to be at the doorstep of those in charge. Power comes with responsibility and the path to a solution starts with acknowledgement of this obligation.

There was, of course, a crisis of expectations, a circumstance of the leadership’s own making. Mnangagwa arrived with great promises which generated great expectations. He cultivated and portrayed a different, almost opposite demeanour to what citizens thought of him. A lot of this was thanks to a well-oiled public relations machine, which worked at full-throttle, occupying prized spaces in the world’s media. But these words were not matched with conduct that should have given them life.

The story was not that of Mnangagwa and what he was doing. It was mainly that he was not Mugabe. It was mostly form but little, if any, substance. He had an ultimatum for corrupt individuals whom he accused of having illegally shifted funds outside the country. When the deadline came, it was extended and when it arrived a list of names was published. But nothing further was heard of that list or what happened to so-called "externalisers" of currency.

Another time, an announcement was made that all ministers and senior public officers would make asset declarations. Nothing serious was heard beyond the announcement. It’s not known whether everyone affected complied with the asset declaration policy or what happened, if anything, to the non-compliant.

There was a flurry of arrests almost all of which affected senior political figures who had fallen out of favour. Those still within the establishment were safe. This selective application of the law has old roots which predate the new regime, leaving some citizens resigned to the fact that nothing has changed.

Those arrested were soon released or the tiny minority who were convicted were released on bail pending appeal. So rampant is this practice that most Zimbabweans no longer take notice when an arrest happens. They know how it will end. They have adopted a name for this phenomenon. They call it “catch and release”, a metaphor derived from the fishing world. It is a sign of the low opinion they hold on the efficacy of the government’s much-vaunted anti-corruption drive.

Underneath the “Zimbabwe is Open for Business” mantra is a core which is withering away thanks to unrestrained spending habits, imprudent policies, corruption, patronage and political inertia – the sheer refusal to change. Old habits die hard - a complex bureaucracy which has built an intricate network of roots within the system has struggled to cope with new expectations.

State media for example, has simply changed the characters in the traditional script – where Mugabe was the centre of attention, it is now Mnangagwa. Where Tsvangirai was the target of demonization, Nelson Chamisa has taken his place. The entire establishment, including MPs from all sides, is still in love with big, imported motor cars. Traditional chiefs got theirs, never mind that some people still use wheel-barrows and ox-drawn carts to ferry patients to the hospital and 90% of medical drugs in public hospitals come from donors.

When hospital staff complain of poor working conditions and go on strike, they are fired and called all sorts of names. The irony that these senior politicians who make these decisions shun local hospitals and instead fly to South Africa completely escapes them. How do they have the incentive to improve public institutions when they themselves don't even use them? It was a complaint under Mugabe, a frequent health tourist to Singapore. It is a complaint now, more than a year after he departed.

Cabinet ministers and service chiefs still perform the old rituals of obedience to the leader, trotting out to the airport to greet or bid farewell Mnangagwa to whenever he travels. These continuities seem trivial but their symbolism does not go without notice. They represent the old architecture of power and control.

The trouble is when the new regime grabbed power last year, it was not prepared for the task of leadership. There was no blueprint worked out over the years and kept in reserve for a day like November 24 2017, when Mnangagwa was catapulted to power by the military.

Still, he was welcomed to Davos as the new kid on the block. He had, after all replaced Mugabe, a man who had seemed destined to die in power. Anything but Mugabe would be better, or so the world thought. At Davos, he had occasion to mix and mingle with the world’s elite. Zimbabwe is open for business, he told the world. The symbolism of diluting the indigenisation law did not go unnoticed, but the world waited patiently for more reforms that demonstrated a new dispensation beyond the frequent rhetoric.

There was too much baggage from the past, which could not be wished away. It kept coming back, again and again. Let bygones be bygones, he pleaded to an unconvinced audience, both at home and abroad. History could not be buried just like that. His post-coup Cabinet was a huge disappointment. Citizens thought it was more of old wine in new wineskins. He retained the old and tired warhorses in the hope of keeping them sweet for an election campaign that he thought would be a cruise.

As it turned out, the election was anything but a cruise. He narrowly and controversially slipped through the threshold to get his first proper term in office, performing far worse than his own party which got a two thirds majority in parliament. There was an important: people may still have loyalty to ZANU PF as an institution, but they are less enamoured with its new leader.

But the real game-changer was August 1, when Mnangagwa deployed soldiers into the streets of Harare to quell a protest and ended up killing six civilians and injuring dozens. It was an ugly stain on an election which, until then, had been presented as peaceful. It changed the election narrative and the perspective of those outside Zimbabwe who might have been prepared to take a chance on Mnangagwa’s regime.

Even when ZEC announced his narrow and contested victory, the glory was drowned in the blood of slain and wounded civilians. It became an anti-climax. Traditional allies sent the customary congratulations but the ones that Mnangagwa had really sought to woo in the first place, the Western countries, withheld their approval. His rival also refused to give the much-coveted loser’s consent, which eroded claims to legitimacy. It must have hurt because acceptance is what Mnangagwa really wanted. That, of all things, would have represented a break with the past, because his predecessor had also found it elusive.

Without acceptance, the country has retained its pariah status. There was a chance after the coup to re-write the narrative, so that Zimbabwe could become the new hope of the continent, as it had been three decades before when it emerged from colonial rule. However, the elections failed to achieve that purpose. Instead, they represented a familiar narrative – uneven electoral ground in which the ruling party had an unfair advantage and worse, the use of excessive force which led to deaths of civilians. The appointment of a commission of inquiry was supposed to correct August 1, but the quality of its output has been a huge let-down.

A good election would have been the boost that the sick economy needed. It would have brought general acceptance and it is generally the case that where nations go, investors in those countries follow. They do so because they have confidence that their own governments can protect them, if need be. Only the brave will sink major investments in places where their government do not approve.

A good election would also have opened new gateways to debt resolution. Zimbabwe has huge arrears to Western creditors, all of which stand in the way of new credit. Efforts to find an agreement have stalled in the past. The goodwill that came with change of leadership last year has waned to near-exhaustion. Without a debt resolution package, it will be hard to revive the economy.

Of course, Mnangagwa inherited an economy which was deep in the doldrums. But unlike a revolutionary leader who takes over from an old dictator, Mnangagwa was no stranger to the corridors of power. If Mugabe was the architect of Zimbabwe’s disaster, Mnangagwa was far more than a handyman. He was there at the centre of the system that literally impoverished fellow citizens.

There was a chance to go east and harvest the benefits of friendship with China, the one country the Zimbabwean establishment likes to refer to as an “all-weather friend”. But the Chinese have also taken a cautious line. The delinquency that caused Zimbabwe to be blacklisted by Western creditors is also felt by the Chinese. The rule is as old as credit itself – if you want credit, you must prove that you can be trusted and you do so by repaying debts. It doesn’t matter whether you are friends. So no, there has been no rescue package from the east either.

With both East and West playing coy, the government has gone for the soft targets – the citizens. The controversial 2% money transfer tax is one example of an inordinate increase in taxes as the government tries to mop up revenue. Import duty in foreign currency is another. All this while wages have remained stagnant and the government insists on the fiction that its pseudo-currencies are equal to the UD Dollar.

In many ways, the government must consider itself fortunate to have a patient and in many ways, malleable people. The government knows its people have an incredible capacity to bend to circumstances and it exploits it to the maximum, with the threat of brute force in case of any sign of dissent.

Over in France, the leader was forced to relent over a fuel tax after serous pressure from citizens. Then again, when Zimbabweans tried to protest last August, the regime responded in typically heavy-handed fashion. By the end of the day, 6 people had been shot and killed by soldiers, souls and limbs broken. If Zimbabweans seem extraordinarily patient, it is in part a response to the brutality of a regime they know only too well.

Mnangagwa brought in Mthuli Ncube, whose name heads a stellar resume, as his new Finance Minister. The appointment of a technocrat was praised. But in disaster terms, the professor of economics was coming to perform a salvage operation. The ship had literally run aground. The people expected more and his austerity measures have met with serious resistance, even within Mnangagwa’s own party. Facing pressure from a restless and impatient public, he famously lost his cool on public radio when the presenter pressed him on the issue of import duties.

It was always the case that without political power, Ncube would face serious challenges within ZANU PF’s entrenched system. Unsurprisingly, party mandarins did not hesitate to throw him under the bus over the controversial 2% tax as soon as they sensed that it was unpopular. Ncube’s job security rests on the support which he presently enjoys from his boss, who backed the tax when the grumbling started coming from the ZANU PF headquarters.

Yet, this strength is also his weakness. Without a political foundation of his own, he is beholden to Mnangagwa, who, being the politician may be swayed to take a populist approach. That is why it was odd to read the papers saying the government would now offer free education – all this without details – but how does it sit with Ncube’s austerity measures? The lack of detail suggests it was more of political rhetoric to calm the citizens in the face of school fees hikes in recent weeks. It’s unlikely to go far. But these apparent contradictions do not inspire confidence.

In short, the answer to what went wrong is that the political gamble failed. Mnangagwa was so sure that he could schmooze his way into the hearts and minds of not only the citizens but also the international community through the election. He tried his best to portray his self-proclaimed “soft as wool” image, but in the end, the sheepskin could not hold for long. August 1 was a key turning point in the narrative that he was writing.

In some ways, the electoral authority was both his strength and weakness – strength because it had a key role in bending the election in his favour but weak because its behaviour also undermined the credibility of the election and therefore stood in the way of acceptance. But he might have gotten away with it, as some still thought the situation might be rescued. It was the madness of August 1 that threw out whatever chances remained. In the end, it was a vacuous victory, no better than his old boss’s previous triumphs, which left Zimbabwe in a cul-de-sac.

What then, is to be done? The answer, ironically, lies in the problem. As we have argued many times in previous BSRs, the Zimbabwean ship remains aground because of bad politics. Unless and until the key parties to the political conflict resolve their differences, and chart the path for reform, 2019 will be another bleak year, perhaps bleaker than anything we have seen in recent memory.

The solution is in the hands of the key political actors. But the impediment is also in their minds. It is called pride.


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