Euphoric tears are what many Zimbabweans remember shedding a year ago, on November 21, 2017. It was the most momentous day in the country’s post-independence history, the day Zimbabwe shed something else: Robert Mugabe, then 93, who was forced out of office by the military after 37 years as President.
guest column: Max Bearak
People who had once cowered when they saw their own army instead walked alongside the tanks and took selfies. People who had once feared arrest for insulting the autocratic Mugabe openly bid him good riddance.
One year later, Zimbabwe’s optimism has dimmed. Depending on who you ask, things are as bad, or perhaps slightly less bad than before. The current government says reform takes time and asks for patience.
For now, the dreams are stifled. An already ruined economy has been further ravaged by new inflation.
Rapprochement with the West, which shunned Zimbabwe for decades and held back investment and job growth, has been hesitant at best. And the results of the first post-Mugabe elections are still contested four months later by the main opposition party.
Temba Mlandeli, an engineer in Harare, exuded optimism in an interview with The Washington Post before the election. Now, he’s struggling to stay positive.
“To be quite honest, it’s not exactly what I expected. As they say, sometimes you have to go through bad times to get to good times; go uphill before you descend,” he said.
“I’m not sure where we’re going, really. Generally, life has gotten tougher.”
The events of the past 364 days read like a series of continuities from the Mugabe era, with the occasional departure from the norm.
Mugabe was deposed in what his successor calls a “military-assisted transition”.
It came as the culmination of a succession battle between Mugabe’s wife Grace and his former right-hand-man and spy chief, Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Mugabe fired Mnangagwa, who fled the country. Sensing a power play by the deeply unpopular Grace, the army emerged onto the streets. Under pressure, Mugabe resigned on November 21.
Mnangagwa returned and was sworn in as President three days later. The army’s top general became his deputy.
At his inauguration, Mnangagwa promised to build a Zimbabwe that would not look like Mugabe’s.
It would have freedom of expression, a strong currency, billions of dollars in foreign investment, re-engagement with the West and elections in July, complete with international observers.
Zimbabweans voted for change, they got a new crisis instead.
Ironically for a member of Mugabe’s party, who served by his side for decades, Mnangagwa campaigned on a platform of change.
The elections would cement his legitimacy, he said, but if he lost them, he would bow to the will of the people.
Between his inauguration and the election on July 30, Zimbabwe seemed, from the outside, to be in suspended animation.
Minor blips made headlines — Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition party’s ailing doyen, succumbed to cancer, Mnangagwa survived an assassination attempt — though they never threatened to throw the vote off schedule.
But in the rural areas where Mugabe and Mnangagwa’s Zanu PF party had established a deep system of patronage over nearly four decades, a scene similar to the past’s less-than-fair elections was playing out.
The lives of opposition candidates and their followers were threatened. Zanu PF candidates openly paid people to attend their rallies with state-owned goods like fertiliser and corn flour. State-owned media gave exceedingly disproportionate time to Zanu PF political ads.
On election day, the mood was still mostly buoyant — and voting went off without a hitch.
But as the vote-counting process dragged on, the opposition became louder about electoral manipulation, unfairness, and even alleged rigging.
And then on August 1, the mirage of a new Zimbabwe faded altogether. After an opposition protest in the centre of the capital devolved into rioting, the army came out onto the streets for the first time since that fateful day last November. This time, there were no smiles. They shot live rounds indiscriminately into the gathered crowds, ultimately killing six and wounding dozens. It was a scene of carnage and heartbreak.
“If we are just going to have citizens facing live ammunition in the streets of Harare, it makes us wonder where we are at,” Jestina Mukoko, director of the non-profit Zimbabwe Peace Project, said.
Mnangagwa would claim an almost-impossibly narrow victory two days later, which the opposition still rejects despite a top court’s seal of approval.
An inquiry into the killings was opened, but top army generals have used it to claim that it was not their men who did the shooting, but an elaborate ruse by the opposition to tarnish their image.
Zimbabwe is now as politically divided as it has ever been. Opposition supporters see any praise of Mnangagwa as an attempt to whitewash his power-grab and subsequent abuses.
Mnangagwa’s supporters see the opposition as sore losers, unwilling to submit to the democratic process they claim to represent. They point to the fact that the opposition can hold protests and rallies at all as a sign of progress.
Mukoko said that while freedom of expression and assembly were greater now than under Mugabe, it hasn’t translated into Zimbabweans feeling free.
“We’ve seen people brought before the courts under Mugabe-era insult laws — insulting the office or the person of the president. There have been many arrests for exercising rights that are constitutionally guaranteed,” she said. “We are in a very precarious situation as a country.”
After the court struck down a challenge of the elections results by opposition leader Nelson Chamisa, he refused to back down, saying: “President Mnangagwa is disputed as leader. I have a legitimate claim that I am supposed to be leading the people of Zimbabwe.”
Meanwhile, Mnangagwa’s promised surge in investment has proved paltry, and the economy continued to be source of misery.
The political instability stemming from the contested election and its aftermath have led many international investors to conclude that Zimbabwe is still too risky for investment.
A decade ago, during Zimbabwe’s worst economic crisis, inflation spiralled out of control, leading the government to print hundred-trillion-dollar notes before eventually scrapping the Zimbabwean dollar altogether, opting instead for bond notes pegged to the US dollar.
But that bond-currency has been undermined by the government’s continued printing of it to pay the salaries to its employees.
In October, it took a nose dive and just like in 2008, untold numbers of people lost all their savings.
“Ordinary Zimbabweans are paying for the excesses of a venal predatory elite not being held to account,” Piers Pigou, of the International Crisis Group, said.
Mlandeli, the engineer, says he wishes the government would swallow its pride, scrap the bond notes and start trading in the US dollar and South African rand.
In another echo of 2008, 54 people died this September in a cholera outbreak that struck Harare over the same week Mnangagwa gave his inaugural address to parliament.
In 2008, more than 4 000 people died. The inflation crisis has hit hospitals particularly hard, leaving them unable to afford imported medicines.
“Our patients are relapsing, deteriorating, operations being canceled,” the Zimbabwe Medical Association said in a statement last week.
The main opposition party — the Movement for Democratic Change — has focused mainly on organising protests and continuing its refusal to work with Mnangagwa out of fear that it would legitimize his election victory.
In practical terms, that means the opposition has little say in building the new Zimbabwe that its supporters yearn for.
“I don’t want to exaggerate and say there will be violence, but patience is wearing thin,” Pigou said.
For many in Zimbabwe, patience is all they have.
Article first appeared in the Washington Post
Max Bearak became the Post’s Africa bureau chief in 2018. Previously, he reported from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Somalia and Washington DC for the Post, following stints in Delhi and Mumbai, reporting for the New York Times and others.