Where to from here, Zimbabwe?

By David Monyae Time of article published Nov 25, 2017

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Johannesburg - The dust seems to be settling in Zimbabwe, with the transfer of power from one Zanu-PF veteran to another bloodlessly, for the most part, complete. 

Elite pacts, or high-level negotiated settlements as they are otherwise clinically called, are a recurrent theme in southern African history, especially in the settler colonies of South Africa, Kenya and Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. 

We are once again seeing a resuscitation in Zimbabwe – with the military clique, and desperate opposition, eager to reap the spoils of the carcass of now former President Robert Mugabe. 

This of course all comes at the expense of the masses of Zimbabwe. 

This has not worked in the past, and it cannot work now; and will only serve to avert the real issue for Zimbabwe – the economy.

The key failure in the international community has been in understanding this elite pact. Will it work this time? What will be different this time?  We need to shift focus, with an understanding that the rush to elections, while symbolically appealing, will not get to the core of the deep-seated issues that need hard pragmatism. 

The nature of the problem is indeed transcendent of Mugabe the individual. Rather, it is a deep economic crisis that stems from internal and external forces.

There have been bad policies by the liberation movement-turned-government (price controls, hyper-inflation causing quantitative easing and currency mismanagement which at one point saw the printing of Z$100 trillion notes as well as a lack of investor incentivising to mention just a few) to the extent that, in 2008, the Zimbabwean inflation rate was estimated at a rate of 76.8 billion% per month. And while more than one-third of the population is between the ages of 15 and 35 years, a staggering 86% of young people of working age are unemployed.

At the same time, however, the international community contributed to the crisis through, particularly, shock therapy measures by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. That concoction is what brought us here. This is not to say Mugabe’s repression played no role; indeed it did. But that repression was something which Zanu-PF government inherited from the British colonial rule and latter day Ian Smiths Rhodesia and was never transformed; there were only cosmetic changes which failed to address the popular deficit in that country. 

Zanu cadres were given custodianship of such a state, and as primed, carried out massive corruption and self-beneficiation. In other words, they failed to carry out the people’s demand for total liberation and emancipatory change in everyday life; the very promise which had made Zanu-PF so popular to begin with. Progressive steps taken in the early days were reversed in effect by subsequent regressive ones, enacted by an increasingly self-insulating political party. 

The saddest part of all this, of course, is that the opposition is in tatters. The opposition were caught off guard when the events of November 14 took place. By every measure they are not in control of the fast-paced changes in Harare. 

Their responses were predictable and indeed self-preserving kind. They have shown an immense eagerness for an elite pact with the generals in a “government of national unity” arrangement. Whether by design or by sheer coincidence, their response – and indeed that of the people who took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands after the announcement of Mugabe’s resignation – has played right into the hands of the military, and they are entirely caught up in the Zanu-PF cobweb; a fact which can only serve to strengthen Zanu-PF. 

To begin with, it immensely legitimises them and Emmerson Mnangagwa and a flawed transition of government. Second, this will buy them a much-needed period in which to re-brand Zanu-PF for a post-Mugabe period. And, although Mugabe will be out of government, Mugabeism will continue in his absence. 

The old guard is the same crop of people who protected him and his looting, from which they benefited immensely. And, of course, there is the big question of whether the opposition has any chances of winning in a context where Mugabe is no longer president. They have based their message on negative campaigning; but now that Mugabe is gone, the Zanu-PF may see a surge in popularity against the backdrop of an opposition party with no political and economic message outside of “Mugabe must go”. Now that he is indeed gone, the people may look in vain for a reason to vote for the The Movement for Democratic Change Zimbabwe, and it may look in vain for a reason to give the people to vote for them.

Indeed, even if Mnangagwa, who is now preparing for election for a full term next year, were to agree to a government of national unity, that would only play to his benefit as it would allow him to parachute the opposition on his own terms.

There is already a consensus in the country, the region and the world that it is better to deal with the devil you know. Working in his favour is the experience factor (it is still possible that part of the reason why the Zanu-PF-oriented military staged the coup was because they thought Grace Mugabe would most likely be widely rejected at the polls because of her lack of experience), and he is understood in the west and the east, as well as the region. He had already held a meeting with President Zuma before even being inaugurated, which can only be interpreted as a de facto blessing of his ascendency. 

Pretoria, Washington, and London are therefore respecting the transition, but will continue to hope, until he proves them wrong, that he will move the country away from the path of repression (in which he was a direct participant) and become a converted democrat; though rare, the likes of this were witnessed in Ghana under Lieutenant-Colonel Jerry Rawlings and in Nigeria under incumbent President (and Major-General) Muhammadu Buhari.

The elephant in the room, of course, is whether Mnangagwa can go any distance in fixing the Zimbabwean economy, an economic situation whose decrepit nature has become a caricature in itself.

Does he have the right policies? Is he supported in the region and the world (critical external players with whom he will have to interact and co-operate to reverse the economic reality in Zimbabwe). As said earlier, the root causes are internal and external – the only cogent answer can therefore be that it is not only up to him and the policies he puts into place.

A pragmatism is needed to prevent a reversal to the failed policies of the past. To begin with, an elite pact is not what Zimbabwe needs. There needs to be a people-centred approach to the problem. The Mnangagwa government must find ways to first put a stop to the exodus of the people of Zimbabwe and the brain drain. It must equally think seriously and quickly in terms of the experiences of other post-crisis nations and bringing back their diaspora, and that means understanding why they left in the first place. At the same time, it must also tap into the skills and education those people have surely returned with and at the same time act like a 21st century government; people do not need to physically return for them to meaningfully contribute to their mother country. Indeed with remittances currently standing at twice the level of developmental assistance, taking advantage of the “diaspora economy” may immensely benefit the country.

What of the international community? Let us be frankly aware that these shifts in Zimbabwe are taking place in which there is great withdrawal by states; with the Trump White House bent on an “America First” policy, Whitehall attempting to reverse its membership in the EU, which is as protectionistic as ever. 

For South Africa, the primary issue is the official usage of the rand in Zimbabwe in a co-ordinated manner that is structured. The international investor community must be given incentives to come back to Zimbabwe. Property rights should be guaranteed, as should be fair trade that is not alienating investors. 

A look at the agricultural sector, which is Zimbabwe’s strongest, raises eyes towards Britain and the land question. Britain, as a former coloniser, must cleanse its original sin and respect the commitments it made in the Lancaster House negotiations instead of buck-passing to South Africa. 

The EU and US must move beyond their neo-colonial and somewhat racist policy of sanctions which would seem to imply that they are more concerned with white farmers than with the black people of Zimbabwe. The lifting of the sanctions will give space to the new government to start afresh. 

There should be incentives for them to achieve milestones in reversing the draconian policies of the previous government. To that end, the heavily indebted poor countries initiative, which was brought about for purposes of debt forgiveness for poor countries, should find application in Zimbabwe, failing which what could be a renewed start could soon become consumed with paying off the atrocious debt of the Mugabe era. 

Will any of these potential policies find application? There is a need to see Mnangagwa hit the ground running. To be watched closely will be the states he will visit. South Africa is probably high on his list, as are Beijing and London.

*Monyae is a political analyst and co-director at the University of Johannesburg Confucius Institute.

The Independent on Saturday

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