Mugabe is really bad

University of KonstanzCluster of Excellence "Cultural Foundations of Integration"

At its core, it was a power struggle within the dominant ZANU-PF party. Within this party there is an 'old guard' that led the liberation struggle against the white minority regime until 1980 and tries to defend its position to this day. In my opinion, this group, which is close to the killed Vice-President and now President Emmerson Mnangagwa, saw their benefices endangered by another wing of the party, the so-called Generation 40, G40, which supported Mugabe and his wife Grace, and were forced to act accordingly.

Was it possible for the old guard to secure their position of power with this “coup”?

Emmerson Mnangagwa represents this old guard just like Mugabe himself. They must have seen their skins swim away when Mugabe was preparing to elect Grace Mugabe as successor to the president. For the time being, the old cadres were able to secure their position of power.

Is Emmerson Mnangagwa Another Big Man in Africa?

From the current perspective, yes, although we first have to observe where things are going. The people of Zimbabwe have high hopes for him and have welcomed him euphorically as the new president. The international donor community also seems cautiously willing to make a fresh start with him.

However, nothing has changed in the system behind it. It is still a system of dependencies, of patronage, within the country. The ruling party with all of its propaganda machinery is still firmly in the saddle. There can be no talk of a unity government of ZANU-PF together with the opposition as between 2008 and 2012, which has now been brought back into play. The elections next year will show whether the political system opens up and whether an opposition party has a fair chance of winning an election.

How democratic were the last elections in Zimbabwe?

As a former liberation fighter, Mugabe enjoyed great popular support in the 1980s and 1990s. Since he lost a referendum in 2000, which was supposed to give him greater power, the economy has gone downhill and politics in the country have become significantly harsher. When the Movement for Democratic Change MDC was formed around the same time, it became more difficult for Mugabe to win elections. In 2008 he lost the first round of the presidential election against his challenger Morgan Tsvangirai from the MDC.

Emmerson Mnangagwa, now president, is blamed by many for causing such a wave of violence to hit the MDC that the MDC candidate Tsvangirai was forced to withdraw from the runoff election. This helped Mugabe to victory. After strong international pressure, there was ultimately a “unity government”. Mugabe, however, managed to make the MDC such a weak position in that and to make Prime Minister Tsvangirai and MDC ministers look so pale that Mugabe may actually have won the election that followed. It is quite possible that with this choice, manipulation on a large scale was no longer necessary. Since then, Mugabe - and with him the ZANU-PF - has been sitting much more firmly in the saddle again. Mugabe's power was now only shaken within the ZANU-PF.

Then why are Zimbabweans celebrating Mugabe's deposition?

The country had fallen into lethargy. This Mugabe veil lay over everything and Grace Mugabe and with her the continuation of the same politics was in the room. One has to imagine that Mugabe determined the fate of the country for 37 years and that younger Zimbabweans knew no other head of government than him. The hope that something else was coming now, although it was rather unclear what, drove people out into the streets with joy.

What problems must be solved for Mugabe's successor on a political level?

If he is serious about democracy, he must hold free, democratic elections next year. And he must promote reconciliation among the population. Within Zimbabwe there are different lines of conflict such as those between the black majority and the white minority, between ZANU-PF supporters and MDC supporters, between those who benefit from the patronage system and those who are dependent on it. As for the reconciliation with the white farmers, who were expropriated especially from the year 2000, Mnangagwa has promised them some kind of compensation. Mind you, he has not announced the return of their farms.

A step in the right direction?

Yes, but one must not forget that Mugabe is revered and celebrated as a hero in many African countries precisely because he enforced this policy of expropriation against white farmers. He is also valued by many within Zimbabwe for this. The fact that the white farmers had taken the cream of the crop of agricultural land during the course of colonization and later under the white minority government under Ian Smith was simply unjust.

But under Mugabe there was a gentlemen’s agreement with the white farmers up until the 1990s, which essentially said: We'll leave each other alone. The farmers should continue to generate good yields and land redistribution was suspended for this. This agreement only broke with the failed referendum in 2000, when Mugabe played the expropriation of the white farmers as the last trump card to maintain his own power and put into practice the publicly presented but never implemented promise of land redistribution. With this he wanted to secure the support of the black population, but in the end he drove the country even more economically into ruin.

... because with the white farmers their know-how also went abroad, many of them to South Africa. How did the other African states deal with the coup?

The African Union AU has a clear and strict doctrine: Non-constitutional changes of government will not be recognized. Every state in which such a non-constitutional change of government takes place is automatically suspended by the AU - at least until elections are held again. This is also a decisive reason why the ZANU-PF military elite asserted from the start that it was not a coup and maintained this image until the very end.

Would you call it a classic military coup?

There were elements of a classic coup - and Mugabe was sure to be put under pressure. On the other hand, it can be argued that perhaps the military just had to create a threatening backdrop for Mugabe that forced him to grapple with the realities of his country. Perhaps he, who had lived largely isolated from the population for the last ten or fifteen years, suddenly realized what was actually going on in his country and what the population thought of him.

Realizing that he might not be the almost superhuman person he thought he was, he stepped back, aware of these realities. Seen in this light, the military maneuver would only have been a trigger, but perhaps not a coup. Accordingly, the AU has not yet suspended Zimbabwe, although there was initially great outcry within the AU.

What can Zimbabwe expect in the near future?

The likelihood that Mnangagwa will quietly end this legislative period, then be elected next year and that the ZANU-PF will continue to rule as the leading party, probably even alone, is very high. Change is unlikely because there is a dependency system in Zimbabwe that Mnangagwa is likely to be able to maintain.

Will there be no opposition?

In many dictatorships, including in Zimbabwe, we have the phenomenon that it is difficult for the opposition to make a good offer for the population, especially because they are often divided. By joining the Unity Government in 2008, the MDC's charisma and credibility suffered, because the hope that the party could make lasting changes within the government of that time was not fulfilled. And the strength of authoritarian regimes is often also the weakness of the opposition. I see that in Zimbabwe too, especially since the opposition does not appear united. The likelihood that the current political elite will continue to control the country no matter what the outcome of the election is quite high.

And does this system reproduce like that?

I'm not sure about this. In the 1970s, an intense bush war was waged against the white minority government. And with few exceptions, it is this generation of independence fighters who are currently in power in Zimbabwe. The exciting question is: when and how will the generation change take place?

What is likely to change in the medium term is the justification for maintaining ZANU-PF rule. The argument with which Mugabe ruled and with which the military officials also went to the public immediately after their intervention was: We must defend the revolution. We must defend the legacy of the Second Chimurengas, the armed struggle against white supremacy. [The first Chimurenga took place in the 1890s against colonization. - Red.]

If this justification falls away because the generation of the bush warriors is no longer alive, it will be exciting to see the justification with which the new generation takes over power. The next generation was born well after 1980, the year of independence. However, it is difficult to predict which arguments the new generation of politicians will use.

It is noticeable, however, that hardly anyone in Zimbabwe belittles Mugabe's historic achievement in the 1970s and 1980s. In this respect, it is likely that in the medium term the ZANU-PF sees itself as a defender of revolution and independence and will use this argument to enter the upcoming election campaign.

In that case, no change in policy is to be expected from the younger generation either?

Much will depend on whether Mnangagwa can score economically. Zimbabwe's economy is down - also because in recent years it has pursued a monetary policy that has consisted of simply printing the money it needs. If the new president can lure financiers into the country, if he can somehow show minimal economic success, I can also imagine that things will continue as before and that the younger generation will have to wait for a while. In any case, it remains questionable whether they will change anything.

Due to the clear focus on Mugabe and the power struggle within the old guard in recent years, no young successor has been able to position themselves beyond Grace Mugabe. It is therefore unclear who actually represents the younger generation. The head of the ZANU-PF Youth League's puffing around after the military intervention, when he first swore his allegiance to Mugabe, only to move away from him, has damaged him.

Zimbabwe is facing exciting political times and much is still unclear. A great advantage of the country is that despite decades of Mugabe rule, the level of education in the country is high and the infrastructure is still good. So these conditions are not fundamentally bad, but the deep roots of the patronage system in Zimbabwe make me skeptical.

Claudia Marion Voigtmann conducted the interview.