Emmerson Mnangagwa, the sitting president who came to power by way of a bloodless coup in November last year, was a key figure in Zimbabwe's liberation struggle. Picture: Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters

Johannesburg - Seventy-five-year-old Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa has survived a lifetime of adversity but faces his biggest fight yet on July 30 when Zimbabweans will choose either him or Nelson Chamisa as their next president.

Mnangagwa, the sitting president who came to power by way of a bloodless coup in November last year, was a key figure in his country's liberation struggle. Chamisa, on the other hand, is only 40.

In the fight against white rule, Mnangagwa was part of the “Crocodile gang” - hence his nickname “the Crocodile” -  that bombed a train in Masvingo in acts of sabotage to force the Rhodesian government to give in to demands by the black nationalists.

They were sentenced to death, but Mnangagwa – then 18 - survived the guillotine on an age technicality.

During the war, those close to him said he was gifted at sensing danger and bombings would happen immediately after he left.

After escaping execution, he also survived, several assassination attempts, vehicle accidents, food poisoning, and even an exploded bomb thrown in his face.

Forty-nine people were injured in that blast and two of the victims died later from their injuries. Others lost limbs.

Mnangagwa said the “usual enemies” and “defeatists” behind previous attempts on his life had carried out the bombing.

“The bomb exploded a few inches from me, but I survived. It is not yet my time, those who have done it are likely to go before me,” Mnangagwa said in an interview soon after the blast when he was whisked away.

While still vice president under Robert Mugabe, Mnangagwa was airlifted from a youth interface rally in Gwanda after he started vomiting from eating food laced with what was belieived to be heavy metal arsenic toxin. He ended up admitted to a South African hospital, but survived the plot.

The poisoning led to a fall-out with Mugabe, who fired Mnangagwa after his loyalists booed Mugabe’s wife Grace at the same venue - White City Stadium in the last of the regime's “youth interface rallies”.

After being fired on November 6, 2017, Mnangagwa said he was tipped-off by friendly intelligence officials of another plot to kill him by hired snipers and he skipped the country through the porous Forbes border post in Mutare overnight through a landmine-infested route.

Border officials had denied him passage and cocked their guns when he made for the border, but let him be after a scuffle between one of guards and one of his sons.

Mnangagwa's offspring has been a source of mystery and controversy, with a British publication claiming the former Zanla combatant has a total of 18 children.

The only time he shared information about his family was in March when his official website stated that he had nine children with two wives, Jayne and Auxillia.

The list of his children's names was later deleted from the website amid claims that it was not conclusive.

At a rally before her downfall, former first lady Grace Mugabe sensationally claimed that Mnangagwa, who had become her prefered target of of ridicule, had more than 70 children. Jonathan Moyo, an ally of the former vice president who later turned into his fiercest critic, also claimed at some point that Mnangagwa had at least 41 children.

Mnangagwa is a long time Zanu-PF stalwart and is very close to the military high command and the intelligence services, in a country that is a de facto military dictatorship. The army serves as a guarantor of Zanu-PF rule, and is widely viewed as having the party to rig elections. And it was central to the state terror which was unleashed against the population to reverse Mugabe and Zanu-PF’s electoral defeat in 2008.

The military remains a key political actor. The only difference this time is that its intervention is designed to control events within Zanu-PF rather than to crush opposition to it.

And its highly politicised nature military is a major impediment to the re-establishment of a democratic order in Zimbabwe. It has nothing to gain, politically or financially, from democratic rule given the lucrative networks of patronage and plunder it has established over decades. Most recently it seized and siphoned off of the country’s diamond wealth for military officers and the party hierarchy.

Mnangagwa's commitment to democracy as a former Mugabe henchman who helped enable the misrule and tyranny of the last 37 years is equally in question. He was one of the principal architects of the Gukurahundi -– the genocidal attack on the Ndebele – in the early to mid-1980s which left at least 20, 000 people dead.

And he was seen as being instrumental in rigging elections and crushing all opposition to Zanu-PF rule, including the atrocities of 2008.

But his supporters claim Mnangagwa’s first 100 days in office - from his swearing in on November 24 to March 6 - were a huge success.

Reflecting on this period, the president himself said: “The bottom line is an economy which is back on its feet.

“Internationally, we have been working hard to build our international relations and bring in investment and so far we have secured US$3 billion of investment commitments from some of the biggest companies in the world and in terms of human development we have ensured free health care for vulnerable groups while increasing the health and education budgets dramatically.” .

Five months later, the question is whether the man who has cheated death many times will be able to escape elimination at the polls on Monday, July 30? 

African News Agency/ANA

* Barnabas Thondhlana is a veteran freelance journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe.