‘Morbid symptoms’, threat of extended transition in Zim

WHEN President Emmerson Mnangagwa took office in November 2017, he was largely seen as a transitional leader. This was not exactly a bad thing, it neither diminished his standing nor capacity.

His dual roles were to fix the economy and usher in a new political order that would see a break from the past, and in particular wash itself clean from the military that “assisted” the transition of that November.

He was supposed to carry Zimbabwe from the former President Robert Mugabe-era to somewhere beyond, and something new. Nobody exactly knew what would make up this new regime, but everyone was hopeful.

There were some hints of what this future could be. Mnangagwa could be the Deng Xiaoping of Zimbabwe, and this is a role that appeared to fit well, especially after his interview with Chinese broadcaster in 2015, where he sold himself as a single-minded reformist who knew what had to be done, and how.

He could be a Paul Kagame, a rising African doer of transition, exercising reforms with a strong hand, but with some practical results for business and international capital.

Or, he could be all of the above, plus his own man as an enforcer who honed skills under Mugabe for a period of nearly half a century.

The immediate task was to stabilise the country and usher in a new political culture just in time for the election in 2018.

Let us park for a while the fact that there were expectations in some quarters to usher in a consociationalism dispensation which would suspend elections for the period of transition. Mnangagwa could still have played a larger, magnanimous role in this scenario.

After the election in 2018, Mnangagwa was supposed to deepen the reform agenda, exert his character and chart the course for a more pronounced style of rule.

Unfortunately, two years after Mnangagwa took over, the transition in Zimbabwe looks unsure, and set to be long and extended, if not nightmarish at times.

The year 2019 closes like a line taken from the notebook of Antonio Gramsci wherein the old is dying but the new cannot be born, with manifestations of a myriad “morbid symptoms” in the interregnum. The political environment has just soured in Zimbabwe, with increasing polarity and dissent. The economy has spiralled down, with inflation galloping out of control, prices going mad while shortages of fuel and electricity have sapped the energy out of prospects for a turnaround.

There has been a crippling doctors strike, now beyond a world-record 100 days, which is emblematic of the breakdown of social services. Both the ruling party and the President appear not to have answers, which the just-ended annual conference failed to provide, either.

On the foreign policy front, Zimbabwe appears headed nowhere with the failure to make any meaningful traction in winning over foes or making friends happy.

The so-called re-engagement drive has not borne fruit, with the US having become more hostile and confrontational while, on the other hand, Zimbabwe’s bid to join the Commonwealth has had a tepid response.

China – the all-weather friend – stands by in reserved commitment, and sometimes frustrated annoyance, aware of the disappointing weaknesses of Zimbabwe.

Sadc provided the odd fillip by declaring solidarity against Western sanctions, but this failed on the continental level where the drive was not given legs.

Difficulties ahead

Things may become much more difficult in 2020. The preoccupation will be the economy and the rising political relations in the country.

The past year has shown us the failure of the economic experiment espoused by Mthuli Ncube, Mnangagwa’s Finance minister. The structural adjustment programmes prescribed by the Bretton Woods institutions have seen the usual conditions bear out: heavy taxation, social spending cuts, scrapping of subsidies, job cuts, borrowing caps, among others.

The measures have had the expected difficulties, which the administration in Harare often acknowledges, and justifies as necessary. On the other hand, the perfunctory social safety measures, especially the rollout of cheaper public transport, have been a drop in the ocean. Government has announced that it will phase out austerity to pave way for “prosperity”, but that appears to be unlikely because the modest gains such as cuts on spending and reduction of debt, have been severely undercut by inflation and other dislocative pressures.

Things have not been equal. It is difficult to fathom how the Finance minister, and by extension, the President, will turn the situation in this game and rules.

That is to say, in 2020 and beyond, Ncube will have to show cause why his policies and services can be retained, and how he can be useful if the President seeks to retain the support of the pauperised populace.

Threats, shadows and sideshows

With the difficulties such as those faced in 2018, it is quite easy for the leadership to find scapegoats. And quite honestly too, there are some difficulties that Zimbabwe currently faces because of the sanctions imposed on it by the West.

The sanctions, as well as continuing hostile attitudes especially by the US, will continue to gnaw at the economy and prospects for its recovery or any meaningful development.

Sanctions are an albatross around the neck of Zimbabwe — and no one except the US itself will do sh*t about it — forgive my language.

Perhaps this emboldened Tendai Biti a fortnight ago to write a not-so-cryptic tweet, a laconic parody of Oliver Mtukudzi’s song in which a hero is challenged to solve the family’s problems.

The President and the ruling party are feeling the heat.

A few weeks back, the party’s politburo stated that it would punish anyone “hobnobbing” with G40, a reference to members of the vanquished faction that supported the late former President Mugabe and a clique of younger politicians, including his wife Grace. It is believed that the faction is now coalescing around Saviour Kasukuwere.

I was dismissed from the State-linked Herald newspaper for meeting this “undesirable character in South Africa, last October.

Whether this — the alleged threat of G40 — is real or not is a question for another day. It is critical, though, to point out that raising the issue now is diversionary. It is a sideshow. A shadow. The G40 is hardly something that ordinary people are losing sleep over. The manifold challenges are well storied.

Go to any bar, street corner or social media and people will be talking about the cost of living, inflation and the energy crisis. The ruling party and the President will need to fix the economy and its unhelpful international relations.

A script gone wrong?

It is clear that something really horrible happened on the way to heaven, for an administration that had so much goodwill in 2017.

Foreign minister Sibusiso Moyo, the face of the 2017 military-assisted transition, just a fortnight ago admitted to foreign missions that the reforms and transformation Zimbabwe had envisioned had not gone according to plan.
This loss of virginity has been evidenced with the violent spatter of blood on the streets on two major occasions, on August 1, 2018 and mid-January 2019.

Violent confrontations are likely to occur as citizens protest the worsening conditions that are likely to obtain if there is no solution in sight.

There is the possibility of genuine, spontaneous uprisings and social upheaval resulting not from political grievances, but from pain of economic policies that are simply not working.

There is a precedence, too: wherever and whenever austerity measures have been instituted, social misery has followed and with it upheaval. Upheavals may go on and produce opposition movements and a formidable threat to the ruling party. Zimbabwe has already been down that road before.

Twenty years ago the opposition Movement for Democratic Change was born of similar conditions.

It may not be too fortuitous for yet another outfit to grow from this generation.

Confronting the national question

But creation or emergence of a new political party or movement, if it happens at all, is unlikely to be the biggest political development in 2020.

Rather, the answer to what may happen comes from how the Mnangagwa administration will handle the national question.

Indeed, the definition of national question is problematic and one can hazard a framework of what constitutes the national question — and Zimbabwe’s national question in 2020.
There are two major lenses to look at this. First, there is a political question of the opposition that has refused to endorse the leadership of Mnangagwa and calls him illegitimate. Never mind that the same opposition failed to prove electoral fraud in 2018. However, by their very nature political positions are more irrational that scientific.
So, the popular opposition and its supporters, home and abroad can still wave the legitimacy card. The continuous waving of this card — which is from an empirical perspective a huge lie — makes it an existential issue that cannot and will not be wished away.
The second lens to look at the national question is economic. This is more universal. There is overwhelming recognition that the country is suffering economically and that this administration has failed to address economic problems the country is facing.
The situation can actually get worse.
Overarching, there is an understanding that there is a link between the politics and the economics.
Many people like to point back to the era of the inclusive government, from 2009 to 2013, to show this correlation.
There! We have something like the national question.
It is now up to the movers and shakers to resolve this national question and this will be a huge call in 2020.
Four major scenarios emerge.
First, the President will allow for a berth of new talks with the main opposition, which will result in a possible power-sharing agreement. There are already movements to this effect. This will enable the President to remove the heat from himself and breath life, and fresh air, into the country.
Second, Mnangagwa will try and clamp down on rising dissent, cracking down on opposition while punishing his enemies within the ruling party on the basis of belonging to G40. He will use the fight against corruption to target political opponents. This will give him a sense of power and invincibility, but the tyranny will be enough to embolden his opponents while attracting negative attention from the world.
Thirdly, the ruling party, alarmed by the decline in its authority and leadership failure, will ramp up pressure on its leader to shape up or ship out. Zanu-PF now has this manual from two years back and it requires only a trigger. The more errant and authoritarian the President becomes according to the second scenario, the more likely a plot to oust him will emerge from the party and with the inevitable involvement of the army.
The fourth and last scenario is one in which the President works on a major re-configuration of his government and in particular Cabinet; fires half of his Cabinet and seeks a new administrative trajectory driven from his office as a centralised, State-led renaissance, mimicking Rwanda or the Asian Tigers. In this scenario, the President will have an eye on his own exit from the scene on a high score of having managed to modernise the country and manage its transition successfully. Those sympathetic to him, would probably want this best case scenario that may see the real craft-competent Mnangagwa stand up, do something and leave the scene just at the right time.
Extended transition?
Scenarios one and four appear to be the more desirable than two and three. However, the ruling party is more in character with the latter two.
In which case, the world must brace for more bad news from this corner of the Earth.
The hypothetical premise of this piece is the presupposition that the transition in Zimbabwe is likely to take longer than expected.
The latter scenarios make a perfect case for that.
Mnangagwa is already seeking political life beyond 2023. This means that if he doesn’t succeed in resolving the national question, things will be difficult in Zimbabwe.
It then sets the stage for another complexity in the transition that was supposed to take place in the immediate aftermath of Mugabe’s removal.
When matters come to a head, it means that the Head of State may be forced to step aside either before or just after 2023 to allow someone to complete the transition, which task comprises of finalising the task of sorting out the economy and usher in a new political dispensation.

 Tichaona Zindoga is an independent writer and communications consultant. He previously worked for The Herald as deputy and acting editor. Email: tichaona.zindoga@gmail.com

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