THE open feuding within Zimbabwe’s ruling party, Zanu PF, intensified last month, as rivals battled over the succession to 90-year-old President Robert Mugabe.
This culminated in the dismissal by Mugabe of Vice-President Joice Mujuru and her allies in the cabinet, a move that handed Justice minister Emmerson Mnangagwa the advantage in the succession race. Mnangagwa benefited from the support of the president’s wife, Grace Mugabe. With Mujuru apparently neutralised, the question is whether that alliance will hold, or whether it will be undermined by rival ambitions.
The purge of December 2014 still leaves a whole host of issues unresolved in Zimbabwe. Mnangagwa has now manoeuvred himself into a highly advantageous position, but it is still unclear if he has Mugabe’s unambiguous blessing as successor. There has been considerable acrimony between the two in the past, to which both personal and intra-Shona ethnic tensions have contributed.
Nevertheless, Mnangagwa has proved his loyalty on numerous occasions by outdoing Mugabe himself in his capacity for violent repression. He was deeply implicated in both the atrocities in Matabeleland and the Midlands region in 1983-1987, in which 20 000 people were killed by the army’s North Korean-trained 5th Brigade, and in the campaign of state terror unleashed in April-June 2008, which reversed Mugabe and Zanu PF’s election defeat at the hands of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
As chairman of the Joint Operations Command, effectively the junta running the country, Mnangagwa has been “the most powerful figure in the country after the president”, and the vice- presidency now formalises that. However, succeeding Mugabe in the top post is still far from a formality.
A counter-attack from the Mujuru camp cannot be ruled out, and this risks opening up deep cleavages within the existing power elites.
Mujuru has strong roots in Zanu PF and within the security forces.
Her former husband, Solomon Mujuru, who died in 2011 in what was widely perceived as the latest in a long line of political assassinations in Zimbabwe, was the head of the army and, before that, of the Zanu forces in the protracted war for independence against the Rhodesian white settle colonial regime.
She is popular throughout the party’s provincial structures and has impeccable liberation credentials in her own right as a guerrilla fighter in the 1970s.
There is also a great deal at stake here materially, as positions in the state apparatus are vital for securing access to state resources and for maintaining patronage networks. This desire for rampant private accumulation, and not disputes over political ideology, is now the principal driver for all factions in Zanu-PF and may make some parties reluctant to exit without a fight.
Nor is it entirely clear what the scale of Grace’s political ambitions may be. Now that she and Mnangagwa have combined forces to neutralise Mujuru, tensions will certainly arise between them if each openly seeks the leadership.
Grace is a political novice who only has the Mugabe name, but little else, by way of leadership credentials. She was effectively parachuted in as head of the party’s Women’s League in August 2014 rather than attaining the position through long years of service in the organisation, as is the custom. This was a strictly top-down arrangement in which the incumbent chair, Oppah Muchinguri, was pressured to step aside to create a political niche for Grace.
However, a political base cannot be created in such an artificial manner, and Grace — who appears devoid of serious political substance — will struggle to convince key powerbrokers in the army, police, Central Intelligence Organisation and party that the mantle of leadership should be passed to her, particularly given the absence on her resume of any direct role in the liberation struggle. This places her at a serious disadvantage compared to seasoned liberation war veterans such as Mnangagwa and Mujuru.
Unless Mugabe has become detached from political reality, he is likely to understand that there are limits to how far Grace can be elevated without triggering a backlash.
Unlike Mugabe’s first wife, Grace is not a popular or respected figure in the country. Indeed she is widely derided, and recent contrivances, such as the awarding of a bogus doctorate, may have inadvertently served to lower her standing still further.
Thus it is possible to draw a different conclusion from recent events: that Mugabe wants to position Grace not as the supreme leader, but as an important powerbroker supporting a Mnangagwa leadership, with the latter guaranteeing to protect her and the interests of the Mugabe family beyond Mugabe’s death.
Whether Grace herself accepts this interpretation of the “contract” and whether she trusts Mnangagwa to deliver, or whether she would merely view such a deal as a stepping stone to the leadership position, remain uncertain at this stage.
This vicious political struggle is of course being played out against a backdrop of accelerating economic decline. The modest recovery staged between 2009 and 2013 from the depths of the Zanu-PF-induced calamity of 2000-2008 has stalled since the latest flawed election in 2013.
Zimbabwe may not yet be categorised as an outright failed state akin to Somalia, but it remains a highly dysfunctional one, a victim of decades of misrule by a predatory elite that has plundered the state and drained the term “liberation” of any semblance of meaning.
To hope that Zanu-PF can become a vehicle for change under figures so deeply compromised as Mnangagwa, Grace Mugabe or Mujuru is folly, and only the party’s collapse can rescue Zimbabwe from its current condition as a virtual mafia state.
Moreover, Zanu-PF is caught between a rock and a hard place: there is a contradiction between the changes demanded by the bulk of the international community as the price of economic assistance and investment, and what Zanu-PF is required to do to perpetuate its rule.
The demands of the international community — free elections, clean government, an independent judiciary, the rule of law, a vibrant civil society and clear demarcation lines between party and state — would, if implemented, strike at the very foundations of Zanu-PF rule. As a result, internal party priorities, and the turbulent power struggles they entail, will for now prevail, whatever the consequences for the country.
James Hamill has been a lecturer in the Department of Politics & International Relations, University of Leicester, UK, since 1991. He has a long-standing research interest in South African politics, particularly in the country’s post-apartheid development.