Zimbabwe in Transition

Zimbabwe is in transition; President Robert Mugabe resigned after 37 years in power. Besides the more immediate political causes that led to this historic change, there were also underlying problems in Zimbabwe’s economy over the last decade. Even land reforms that were instituted in 2000 did not stem the urge for political change even as sections of the population made gains. Zimbabwe is on a path to a new, albeit uncertain, future.


Events of the last week when the Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) commander announced through state broadcast that the military stood ready to intervene in the party-political processes, which had been simmering for years, caught the whole world by surprise. Zimbabwe, a former British colony, won its independence in 1980. Like many other southern African countries, such as Angola, Mozambique and to a lesser degree South Africa, which obtained their independence through the liberation struggle, its civil–military relations have always been complex. Compounding the crisis within the ruling party in Zimbabwe has been a failure by Robert Mugabe to groom a successor in the 37 years that he has been in power. Since 2014, two vice presidents were sacked by Mugabe and the latest sacking of Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has strong links to the security services sector, triggered the recent intervention which claimed no lives. Also, important to note is that the intervention by the military had significant support from the ordinary people who poured out in tens of thousands into the streets of Harare and Bulawayo to express their solidarity with the actions taken by the ZDF. 

Jabulani Chikonwe/Simon Mazorodze Road, Harare - November 20, 2017
Simon Mazorodze Road, Harare | Photo Credit: Jabulani Chikonwe  

What Led to the Transition?

Apart from the secessionist and factional battles, the Zimbabwean economy has been performing badly since 2013. In its takeover, the military stated that “what the Zimbabwe Defence Forces is doing is to pacify a degenerating political, social and economic situation in our country which if not addressed may result in violent conflict.” For many outsiders, the rebellion against Mugabe by the military and the people came as a surprise given that the country embarked on a land reform programme from 2000, which benefited urbanites, the rural landless, and civil servants. However, during the same period, the economy was faced with a number of challenges, which relate to hyperinflation, closure of industries, and cash shortages. These challenges have directly and indirectly affected the farming population when it comes to access to inputs, failure to get payments in cash, and on time, after delivering agricultural outputs to state marketing boards. Given these challenges, it was surprising that Mugabe told the South African minister of defence who had been dispatched by President Jacob Zuma as part of mediation efforts between the ZDF and the political leadership that “I didn’t think the military could act in such a way after having given them land during the land reform.” 

African Unity Square, Harare
African Unity Square, Harare | Photo Credit: S Niyati

The Politics of Change 

The ruling Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU-PF) has since 2014 been divided along two factions, one, which is known as the G40, claims to represent the interests of the younger generations, and led by the now deposed first lady Grace Mugabe. Another faction is known as “Lacoste” and is headed by the incoming President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Often ignored by many analysts in the unfolding events in Zimbabwe has been the shifting ideological underpinnings in the two factions vying for political power at the party and state level. Both factions have been in existence since around 2004 and have not shied away from stating their nationalist and anti-imperialist outlook. Such a position has been understandable as it has mainly been intended to attract support in rural areas where “reclamation of land” was used as a slogan during the liberation struggle. Although the Fast Track Land Reform Programme (FTLRP), which was implemented in 2000 represented “radicalisation,” this did not amount to a socialist revolution. Zimbabwe has since the 1990s been isolated from the international community and financial institutions, a development that partly explains the divisions we are currently witnessing within the ruling party. 
When the economy was affected by the global financial crisis in 2008, Mnangagwa along with a committee of five members officialised the use of the United States (US) dollar and initiated the economic reforms. At this point of time, one can observe a change in the ideological position of the “Lacoste” group. Mnangagwa was considered the reformer who could rescue the economy from turbulent times. 


In 2014, Mnangagwa was appointed as the vice president. Ever since then, under the leadership of the former finance minister Patrick Chinamasa and Mnangagwa, the Lacoste group within the party has largely been viewed as pursuing a “reformist” agenda by advocating for normalisation of ties with multilateral agencies. Such manoeuvres were drowned by a vociferous group that enjoyed the support of the President. Quite interestingly, it is the Lacoste group that has won the succession battle and is likely to embrace the neo-liberal development paradigm. As one young university graduate stated, “the reason why many people of my age took to the streets to support the military intervention is because we yearn for a change of leadership at government level and more importantly for my country to be globally integrated.” The incoming President, Mnangagwa, has projected himself as a “pragmatist,” quite eager to make Zimbabwe an investment destination as demonstrated by his interview in 2015 with the CCTV, a Chinese television station. 

African Unity Square, Harare
African Unity Square, Harare | Photo Credit: S Niyati

What Can Zimbabwe Expect?

The recent political developments have triggered debates among scholars in Zimbabwe as to whether the military option was the best and what the likely consequences of such actions will be on the general body politic in the coming decades. Without doubt, there has been some celebrations on the streets in two major cities, but the question which lingers in many people’s minds is whether Zimbabwe will become like Lesotho, where military interventions have become endemic. Nigeria also went through such a phase in the 1980s and 1990s. What, however, makes Zimbabwe’s situation unique is that what was witnessed was not a direct military takeover, but the ZDF facilitated a process of power transfer. Other key questions that remain relate to the land reform and the “indigenisation” policy. Will such policies be strengthened or reversed under the new dispensation? Another key question that has been posed by local and international media is whether the incoming regime will embrace democracy and civil liberties given the historical injustices of loss of life in the Matabeleland and Midlands regions. Zimbabwe has gone through a lot and the resignation by President Mugabe on 22 November 2017 after bowing to pressure from his party and diplomatic engagements by President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, is a welcome development, which sets the country on the path to a new, albeit uncertain, future. 

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