On January 5, 2018, President Emmerson Mnangagwa made a surprise call on an old rival. MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai, for years the iconic face of the opposition movement, who was in desperately poor health. Two years before, he had been diagnosed with cancer of the colon. He had been in and out of hospital for treatment.
Images of Mnangagwa and his deputy, Constantino Chiwenga meeting Tsvangirai at his home were pitiful. The battle-hardened former miner was frail and vulnerable, a shadow of his old self. Just over a month after that visit, Tsvangirai lost his battle at a hospital in South Africa.
Mnangagwa’s visit had a mixed reception among Zimbabweans. Some thought it was a warm and compassionate gesture − one man showing empathy towards another despite the walls of political rivalry. It was said Mnangagwa also undertook to arrange Tsvangirai’s long-delayed pension following his tenure as Prime Minister between 2009 and 2013. He also promised to pay his medical costs. Tsvangirai did not live long enough to enjoy his pension. It came too late.
Others though, were sceptical. They weren’t amused that the visit was turned into a public spectacle, with cameras capturing key moments for the whole world to see. Critics thought Mnangagwa was milking the opportunity for his own benefit. Others went further and thought Mnangagwa was aware that Tsvangirai was on his last legs. He was no longer a political threat and Mnangagwa could, therefore, afford to look magnanimous. He had nothing to lose and everything to gain from Tsvangirai’s predicament, they argued.
The judgment upon Mnangagwa by his critics may be unfair, but that his act of apparent kindness would generate so much controversy symbolises the deep division of opinion that exists among Zimbabweans when it comes to his presidency.
And the lack of trust that surrounds him as a person. Is he really genuine or is he merely playing a pretentious game to win the hearts and minds before his true self emerges after the elections? Has the old dog learnt new tricks or it’s just the same old trick where appearances matter more than reality?
Mnangagwa has struggled to shake off a notorious reputation earned during his time as Mugabe’s trusted lieutenant for more than four decades. Of the many charges in the court of public opinion, Gukurahundi remains the most heinous. Looking back, he might regret some of his statements made at the time. “Blessed are they who will follow the path of the government laws for their days on earth will be increased. But woe unto those who will choose the path of collaboration with dissidents for we will certainly shorten their days on earth,” Mnangagwa is quoted as having said on April 4, 1983.
He also described the alleged dissidents as “cockroaches” who would be wiped out by “DDT”, a metaphor for the notorious 5th Brigade, the North Korean-trained crack unit, which stands accused of killing thousands of innocent civilians during its operations. Asked about these atrocities, Mnangagwa’s response has been to urge people to leave the past behind.
There are those who have bought into his new mantra. They are prepared to look beyond the past and believe he is a changed man who ought to be given a chance. Not surprisingly, most of those who are prepared to forget are neither victims nor survivors of these past wrongs. Some of his close associates swear he means well and that he has learnt from past mistakes. He lived for so long under the shadow of former President Robert Mugabe that he was never able to show what he can do, and now is his chance, they say in mitigation. Their view is that he is ready to take Zimbabwe in a new direction. This view does have traction among some Zimbabweans.
On the other hand, there are many who are unconvinced that he is a changed man. They don’t see anything in his 37-year record under Mugabe that suggests that he is a progressive man. After all, they argue, he played an active role in keeping Mugabe in power, especially in 2008 when Mugabe lost to Tsvangirai. Many don’t believe there was need for a run-off, but that the delay in announcing results was carefully managed to massage the results to give Mugabe another go. They blame Mnangagwa and allies in the military of overseeing this operation which kept Mugabe in power for another decade.
No wonder then, that seven months into a militarily-acquired presidency, Mnangagwa still deeply divides opinion. He has won some new fans, but he has also lost some old Zanu PF supporters who left with Mugabe and the vanquished G40 faction. Unsurprisingly, these former allies have become his staunchest opponents. Meanwhile, the opposition MDC-T which looked weaker and unsure of itself during the last days of its iconic founding leader has been rejuvenated under the leadership of Nelson Chamisa. True, there have been leadership squabbles in the opposition, but a campaign blitz since February has re-established the party as a formidable force which cannot be ignored.
Notwithstanding the failure to solve the most pressing economic challenges, neutral observers would disagree that Mnangagwa’s short presidency has been a total disaster. To be fair, there have been some positives. Political space has opened up since the military intervention with the opposition parties holding political rallies and demonstrations freely without undue hindrance as was the case in the past. The broad recognition of political freedoms has enabled political activity while freeing up individuals to express themselves.
The efforts towards re-engagement with the international community have also been positive. Zimbabwe may soon rejoin the Commonwealth if the forthcoming elections meet the minimum standards. The thawing of relations with Western nations represents a change from the Mugabe era when there was deep antagonism which left the country isolated and imperilled.
The call for international observers and foreign media has also been positive, another change from the past. On the business front, the call for foreign investment and the amendment of the indigenisation policy and law has shown a new approach which is encouraging.
These changes have caused some previous sceptics to become enamoured of Mnangagwa. They see these as signs of a pragmatic and progressive leader who is ready to change course from the past. Now that he is in charge, they say, he will be able to influence the course of events in a manner that he was never able to do under the shadow of Mugabe. Others are just resigned to the fact that with the military seemingly behind him, he is not going anywhere soon. They have surrendered and think the best way to hedge their bets is to go with the most powerful.
Nevertheless, despite the rhetoric, the new administration has failed to address the most basic issues affecting citizens. Cash shortages which haunt the public on a daily basis have worsened and currency trading on the streets has become big business, with the politically-connected elites benefiting immensely. The administration hopes that the election will unlock funds that might help to address the economic challenges.
Unfortunately, it is not doing enough to ensure a free, fair and credible election which would guarantee legitimacy. Instead, there has been inertia when it comes to electoral reforms. Institutions that are supposed to guarantee a free, fair and undisputed election, such as the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) continue to be hampered by inefficiencies, lack of fairness and apparent bias in their operations. A key player in the international community, the US remains unconvinced and this is causing discomfort in the corridors of power where there’s desperation for international acceptance. They must ensure Zec and other institutions perform their roles with more fairness and impartiality than they have demonstrated so far.
What would a Mnangagwa presidency look like? What does the future hold with him in charge? Would it be open, transparent and fair government in which power is limited by the Constitution and the rule of law? Does he prefer centralised power over a devolved system in which power is shared with local communities? Would it be an authoritarian system or one that is based on the key tenets of liberal democracy?
These are important questions which might be answered by taking a look at some of his actions and policies in the past.