Cape Town - Edgar Garwe sits repairing mobile phones behind the counter of his tumble-down stall, worrying about a scarcity of customers and how he’ll pay his two children’s school fees.
“We’re just waiting,” Garwe, 31, said in an interview in the town of Mvurwi, north of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, where he fixes three or four phones in a good week. “It’ll get better when he’s gone.”
“He” is Robert Mugabe, who’s led Zimbabwe since independence from the U.K. in 1980 and overseen an economic meltdown that’s left an estimated 95 percent of the workforce jobless and driven as many as 3 million people into exile. Even though the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, or Zanu-PF, insists Mugabe will be its presidential candidate in the next elections in 2018, there’s a growing belief that the 92-year-old’s rule is nearing its end.
Read also: Bond notes: Zimbabwe's answer to cash woes?
As the Mugabe era enters its twilight, Zimbabwe is facing rising poverty and protests. A power struggle in the ruling party to succeed him pits one faction backing his wife Grace and another coalescing around Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former spy chief. At the same time, unrest is spreading over food shortages and a cash crunch that has delayed payment of salaries and prompted the central bank to introduce dollar-pegged bond notes that Zimbabweans immediately dubbed “zombie currency.”
“Mugabe has been holding the various factions of Zanu together,” Aditi Lalbahadur, a researcher at the South African Institute for International Affairs, said by phone from Johannesburg. “I don’t think the question has been answered about who will take over. Until that is resolved, I doubt Mugabe is going to step down voluntarily. There is going to be some kind of shift, but nobody knows what that will be.”
While Mugabe and his aides say he is “fit as a fiddle,” he’s visibly frail and has traveled frequently to Singapore to undergo undisclosed medical treatment.
A former schoolteacher who was jailed for 11 years for fighting white minority rule, Mugabe was initially hailed for promoting racial reconciliation and improving health and education. Now he’s seen as a pariah by many Western nations, who accuse him of stealing elections, waging a violent crackdown against his opponents and ruining the economy by condoning the seizure of white-owned commercial farms for redistribution to black subsistence farmers.
Opposition to Mugabe’s rule has been fueled by widespread poverty, joblessness, the collapse of basic services and an abusive police force. The worst drought in two decades has added to the gloom, with about 4 million people, more than a quarter of Zimbabwe’s population, in need of emergency food rations.
Brezhnev Zvouya, a 32-year-old resident of the town of Banket which lies about 96 kilometers (60 miles) northwest of the capital, points at a Zanu-PF slogan “Empower, Employ, Indigenize” on his tattered T-shirt. “Big, big lie,” he said. “No new jobs, and people with jobs have no guarantee of being paid. Zanu is rotten.”
Sleeping in streets
Seven years after abandoning its own currency and using mainly the dollar to end hyperinflation that reached 500 billion percent, Zimbabwe is grappling with cash shortages that have stalled salary payments to civil servants, the military and employees of private companies. Lines of people waiting to make bank withdrawals snake around city blocks in Harare. Some sleep in the streets to ensure they’re served.
In a bid to address the cash crunch, the central bank started distributing $10 million worth of bond notes.
Read more: New Notes Stir Memory of Hyperinflation
With many businesses refusing to accept the notes, protests erupted in Harare on Wednesday, and the police sealed off the city center and used water cannons to disperse the crowds.
Read also: Mixed reaction to Zimbabwe's new bond notes
“The introduction of bond notes won’t make any difference because you’re only allowed $150 a week and many places won’t accept them as real money,” said Joel Matamba, a farmer from the tobacco-growing region of Mutepatepa in northern Zimbabwe, who pays his eight staff about $150 each a month. “It’ll take me eight weeks to pay each worker what I owe them for a month of work. There are no banks here; these people have to be paid in cash.”
The discontent is strengthening the appeal of opposition parties, which are considering uniting to contest the 2018 vote. Mugabe’s main adversaries are Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change and Zimbabwe People First, which is led by Joice Mujuru, who was vice president between 2004 and 2014 and was expelled from Zanu-PF two years ago after being sidelined in the succession race.
Mujuru, a veteran of Zimbabwe’s war for independence, has strong support in rural areas that have traditionally backed Mugabe, while Tsvangirai has overwhelming sympathy in urban centers.
“Mugabe’s decision to purge Mujuru and her allies was a critical blunder that brought to life the one party that could pose a real threat to the ruling party’s clutch on power,” Charles Laurie, head of country risk at Bath, England-based Verisk Mapelcroft, said in an e-mailed response to questions. “Her personal knowledge of the Zanu-PF playbook means that for the first time the ruling party will face a political opponent that intimately understands its strategies.”
While the end of the Mugabe era can’t come too soon for Garwe, he expects the president to die in office or leave on his own terms.
“Life can’t improve while the old man is in State House, so the country’s waiting for him to go,” Garwe said. “No one can chase him out, no one has that power. When he’s gone, we can start repairing the damage.”’