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President Mnangagwa is reverting to Mugabe-era authoritarianism


Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa arrives for the presentation of the 2020 National Budget at Parliament Building in Harare, Zimbabwe, November 14, 2019. picture alliance/REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

Tensions have been growing steadily in Zimbabwe since 2019 as a confluence of crises (health, financial, and political) rock Mnangagwa’s administration. Hundreds of soldiers and police officers were deployed to major cities in late July 2020 ahead of a planned march called by the president of opposition Transform Zimbabwe party Jacob Ngarivhume, to draw attention to the country’s worsening economic situation. The security forces shut down shops and arrested activists while President Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF spokesman Patrick Chinamasa held press conferences to warn that all those who dared take to the streets would be dealt with harshly. This event was just an extra layer of unrest in an already tough season of strikes and protests organized by various trade unions.

Nokutula Mhene, Roland Ngam, and Rebone Tau work as programme managers at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung’s Southern Africa Regional Office in Johannesburg, which first published this article.

Is has not really come as any surprise to those who have come up against the ZANU-PF in the past that Mnangagwa is reverting to Mugabe-era tactics to maintain control over the country. After the liberation struggle, followed by decades of working closely with the state’s coercive apparatus to govern Zimbabwe, violence has become a deeply ingrained part of the ZANU-PF’s managerial DNA. The “open for business” mantra is gone and nobody even talks about the socialist utopia that was promised during the liberation era anymore.

The hope that blossomed following Mugabe’s removal from power has given way to despondency, disappointment, and even confusion as those who cheered President Mnangagwa into office come to grips with the fact that they were played by him and the military. Perhaps the biggest questions right now are: how did we get to this point, and perhaps more importantly, when the coronavirus pandemic is dealt with, will the ZANU-PF’s authoritarian streak give way to an atmosphere that enables the creation of an efficient, functioning bureaucracy that can help the country achieve its potential?

An Economic Maelstrom

Unrest has been growing steadily in Zimbabwe since 2018 as Mnangagwa’s promised reforms fail to materialize. Unemployment currently stands at a staggering 90 percent, although Zimstat is adamant that only 6 percent of the population is unemployed (Zimstat counts subsistence farmers as employed people).

The latest iteration of the Zimbabwean dollar has collapsed and people are desperate to pull their money out of financial institutions. The bottom fell off the currency when the government decided to remove the 25 Zimbabwean dollars = 1 US dollars peg rate. Runaway inflation currently stands at 737 percent, according to Bloomberg. COVID-19 lockdowns and curfews have prevented the majority of the population from going out to earn an income, with the obvious consequence of increased hunger and vulnerability in the communities. Water shortages, falling incomes, and an exodus of healthcare workers have left the poor vulnerable and exposed to COVID-19. UNICEF and other UN agencies are predicting that economic instability and erratic rainfall could push as many as eight million people into food insecurity.

As Zimbabwe’s economic woes pile up, a growing number of trade unions are downing tools to demand better wages. Civil servants including teachers, doctors, and nurses have been on on-off strikes since 2019. Junior doctors downed tools in September 2019 to demand a substantial increase on their pay. They were joined by the Senior Hospital Doctors Association (SHDA) in November. Average government doctor’s salary currently stands at just over 100 US dollars, less than half what a security guard earns across the border in Botswana or South Africa. Doctors only agreed to return to work after businessman Strive Masiyiwa agreed to subsidize their salaries with 300 US dollars per doctor over a few months. Over 150 other doctors who went on strike in July 2020 have been fired.

To quell the growing unrest, the Mnagagwa administration has unleashed brutal crackdowns against those who dare criticize the government or the president. An atmosphere of fear and intimidation has blanketed the entire nation. The coronavirus pandemic has also been used as the perfect cover to beat the opposition into submission.

The justice department has also approved several new factions of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change to sow chaos in the opposition. Three MDC parliamentarian and activists—Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri, and Netsai Marova—were abducted in June 2020, tortured, and then dropped off 60 kilometres from Harare for speaking out against the state and ZANU-PF’s corruption and patronage networks.

Tensions were ratcheted up significantly when investigative journalist Chin’ono published an article on an alleged 60-million-dollar procurement scandal which fingered Health Minister Obadiah Moyo and Mnangagwa’s son for stealing coronavirus response funds. The minister was fired, but that did not cause public anger to subside. Hot on the heels of this publication, Nelson Chamisa ally and Transform Zimbabwe leader Jacob Ngarivhume urged the public to take to the streets on 31 July 2020 to protest against government corruption. The two men were quickly picked up by security forces and remain behind bars ever since. Chin’ono recorded his arrest on Facebook.

Following Chin’ono’s arrest, Justice Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi said that all those who were working to topple the regime, including the US and the UK, would be dealt with harshly. His exact words to the media were that: “Anyone who goes into the streets against that advice is equivalent to a terrorist … so that we can deal with them accordingly… All information has been put in the public domain to say that this pandemic is serious… anyone who then disregards those regulations and exposes people to danger in that manner, I don’t see any reason why we cannot find a law that we can use in terms of terrorism activity to deal with those individuals.”

On the eve of the planned 31 July protests, ZANU-PF Spokesman Patrick Chinamasa called US Ambassador Brian Nichols a “thug”. The ambassador’s crime: calling on the Zimbabwean government to uphold free speech, respect freedom of association laws, and freedom of the press.

Even as the Zimbabwean government was abducting, torturing, and jailing activists to prevent the 31 July 2020 protests from taking place, President Mnangagwa was signing a 3.5-billion-dollar deal to compensate white farmers who had lost their land during the fast-track land reform process. This was clearly intended to convince the international community to lift sanctions imposed against the Zimbabwean government during the Mugabe years. If anything, the ongoing crackdown against local press and opposition figures is ammunition for even more sanctions against Zimbabwe, not less, and Chinamasa’s uncouth insults and belligerent rhetoric against “the West” will certainly not win the country any friends either. The Zimbabwean Communist Party has blasted Mnangagwa’s 3.5 billion deal and questioned why only white farmers are being considered for compensation when thousands of black victims of operations Gukurahundi and Murambatsvina are yet to hear from the government.

How Did We Get Here?

Mnangagwa is following a similar path adopted by his mentor and predecessor, Robert Mugabe. In the 1980s and 1990s, Mugabe presided over a bloody campaign to transform Zimbabwe into a one-party state. He was prepared to do anything necessary to outmanoeuvre opposition figures like the Zimbabwe African People’s Union’s Joshua Nkomo and the Movement for Democratic Change’s Morgan Tsvangirai to ensure that ZANU-PF remained in power. Images of MDC president Morgan Tsvandirai being beaten to a pulp in the back of a police van in 2008 came to epitomize Mugabe’s determination to curtail the growing popularity of the MDC.

Despite Robert Mugabe’s removal in November 2017, the ruling ZANU-PF’s DNA remains authoritarian and repressive. The party and hence the state’s authoritarian and violent nature has become its main mode of survival and reproduction. Robert Mugabe is gone but “Mugabeism” remains in place. Authoritarianism and repression of dissent have increased following the 2018 elections. In fact, even as the results of the contested 2018 presidential elections were being announced, the BBC aired live images of Zimbabwean police beating up opposition activists. The beatings only stopped when the Zimbabwean government realized that the images were being beamed around the world in real time. In the period following the postponement of the proclamation of results, police officers and soldiers had been deployed in the major cities. Over ten people were killed as they contested the results of the elections.

President Emerson Mnangagwa was swept into office in 2017 during the military coup-cum-popular movement that ended the 93-year old Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule. Zimbabwe was gripped by intoxicating euphoria when news broke that Mnangagwa had emerged from hiding and returned home. The celebrations were a cathartic moment for a long-suffering nation that had patiently borne years of misrule by one of its founding fathers, and protesters vowed that Zimbabwe was finally ready for economic lift-off.

After riding a wave of unprecedented goodwill to get to the top, Mnangagwa did all the right things in his first 100 days in office. He immediately set to work, showing everyone that the economy was his number one priority. He met with white farmers who had lost their farms during the fast-track land resettlement programme and promised them compensation. He appointed several members of the white community to his cabinet, including Olympic medallist Kirsty Coventry who was given the Sports, Arts and Recreation portfolio. He went to Davos and proclaimed that Zimbabwe was open for business. The country needed investments and would welcome all investors with open arms. If necessary, the 50 percent indigenous quotas would be waived in exchange for the right kind of investments. Mnangagwa also proclaimed that the nation would adopt a more tolerant approach to civil society organizations and opposition parties.

It was no secret that the palace coup had been orchestrated and managed in the shadows by a faction of the ZANU-PF and military top brass eager to outmanoeuvre the ambitious Grace Mugabe, who had already started making power plays to replace her husband. A Grace Mugabe presidency would probably not have changed the regime by much, but the ZANU-PF top brass were determined not to let anyone jump the queue to get to their seat. Mnangagwa’s journey to the presidency was thus managed by ZANU-PF factions, but the vast majority of Zimbabweans were willing to try something different after four decades of Mugabe.

Zimbabweans were very patient with Mnangagwa and the ZANU-PF throughout 2018. However, economic woes, persistent currency troubles and political violence mean that people no longer trust the ZANU-PF-led government to bring any meaningful change to Zimbabwe.

A Solution from Abroad?

It is difficult to envisage a solution to Zimbabwe’s numerous challenges form outside. It will ultimately fall on Zimbabweans to create the country they want for a number of reasons.

Firstly, most southern African countries are headed by liberation movements that collaborated a lot with one another during the struggle for independence (ANC in South Africa, SWAPO in Namibia, and FRELIMO in Mozambique, among others). It is for this reason that there was a lot of deference to Mugabe when he was hanging on to power by any means necessary. Mugabe had few vocal critics and he was quick to dish out tongue lashings whenever they criticized him for his human rights record. South Africa Minister Lindiwe Zulu was dismissively referred to as “little girl” and Botswana’s Seretse Ian Khama was similarly dismissed as a puppet of the West.

Secondly, despite the challenges outlined above, there currently seems to be a lack of attention from regional actors on Zimbabwe. Besides calling for the lifting of sanctions against Zimbabwe earlier this year, South Africa has not commented on its neighbour’s domestic matters, including the police crackdowns. This is noteworthy because South Africa is also the current Chairperson of the African Union (AU) and a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. On 23 July, the Committee to Protect Journalists urged President Cyril Ramaphosa, as AU Chairperson, to secure Chin’ono’s release, but it is unclear whether or not any diplomatic efforts have been made in this regard. South Africa’s foreign policy is based on human rights and the South African government, which played a crucial role in Zimbabwe under a mandate from SADC in the past, seems to have turned a blind eye on Zimbabwe.

SADC is also silent on what is happening Zimbabwe. Tanzania is the current rotating Chairperson of SADC and Zimbabwe is the Chairperson of the Troika. Now, the AU’s principle of subsidiarity dictates that these two countries have to take the lead in solving Zimbabwe’s political impasse. However, Magafuli also has major headaches of his own (poor handling of the COVID-19 response and CHADEMA candidate Tundu Lissu’s high approval ratings at election season heats up) and is not so interested in talking about Zimbabwe at the present moment—and Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF structures will certainly not hold international meetings to sanction themselves.

Thirdly, most Western countries have since lost interest in helping Zimbabwe. Western heads of mission in Harare regularly issue statements on the local human rights situation, but they mostly go unheeded. Zimbabwe’s main financier, China, has also run out of patience with the country’s leaders and suspended 1.3 billion US dollars’ worth of projects there. In the absence of sustained regional and international pressure on the Zimbabwean government, more economic hardship and police violence are likely to persist.


The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated Zimbabwe’s socio-economic and political challenges and it emerges that without immediate remedial action, the situation could get even worse. The ruling ZANU-PF’s number-one priority is reproducing itself. Proceeds from a few functioning areas (currency speculation, game tourism, diamond sales) are used as prebends to maintain a small elite that is all too happy to collect its share in exchange for silence. Meanwhile, the martyrdom of the general population continues, exacerbated recently by a multi-year drought and the coronavirus pandemic. Clearly, a number of things need to happen.

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki led a SADC-backed power-sharing mediation following the 2008 elections, although it was clear to everyone that Tsvangirai had won the elections. Although the opposition MDC formally joined the government, the 2008 Global Political Agreement (GPA) that resulted from Mbeki’s mediation effort was never implemented fully and SADC never followed up on it meaningfully. As the Zimbabwean economy continues to slide downwards and as Mnangagwa continues to call for international sanctions to be lifted, there is clear opportunity for SADC and the AU to call on Zimbabwe to fully implement the clauses of the 2008 GPA that were never rolled out, notably Article 12.1 (training of police officers to respect freedom of association laws), Article 13 (upholding the impartiality of state institutions), Article 14 (upholding the impartiality of traditional leaders), Article 18 (upholding the security of persons and prevention of violence), and Article 19 (recognizing freedom of expression). Without full implementation of its commitments, it is hard to see how SADC and the AU can step in to help Zimbabwe mobilize the international community to support its economic recovery plans as announced by Article 22.7 of the GPA 12 years ago.

Pressure should be brought to bear on regional organizations—including SADC and the AU—to lobby the Zimbabwean government to release political prisoners and stop harassing those who oppose the regime. The international community, especially regional power South Africa, need to do more to highlight the martyrdom of the Zimbabwean people in recent times. Very often, the ruling ZANU-PF is more concerned by what is published in international media than what the already constricted local media does. For this reason, more partnerships are needed between progressive forces concerned about Zimbabwe’s plight and those who continue to champion the cause of freedom and democracy within Zimbabwe’s borders.