HomeAnalysisZimbabwe after the coup: Prospects for real change

Zimbabwe after the coup: Prospects for real change

McDonald Lewanika

IN November 2017, the winds of change were blowing in Zimbabwe. The political terrain underwent seismic shifts following “Operation Restore Order”, the veto- and palace-coup that led to the resignation of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s political patriarch of 37 years. Mugabe’s former vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had been fired from the government on 6 November, was the military’s preferred candidate to replace Mugabe. Mnangagwa became Zimbabwe’s new president on November 24.

But did these winds blow with enough force to clear the decks, or only enough to rearrange the furniture? Beyond a changing of the guard, could the coup open space for more meaningful political changes in governance? If so, how could this change be supported? Was there a role for the international community, for Zimbabweans and Zimbabwean institutions? And if this “new dispensation” was not the fundamental change Zimbabweans sought, where else could they turn?

In February 2018, the death of Morgan Tsvangirai brought about more shifts. As president of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Zimbabwe’s largest opposition party, and Mugabe’s nemesis for 20 years, Tsvangirai was the country’s leading protagonist for political change. With his death, the leadership baton was passed to the next generation in the form of the 40-year-old firebrand lawyer and career politician Nelson Chamisa.

However, even before these two significant developments, serious factional fights had been brewing within the governing party over Mugabe’s succession. These fights were part of the reason for Mnangagwa’s sacking and had left in their wake hundreds of expulsions from Zanu-PF which, in turn, swelled the ranks of the opposition as some of those expelled either joined or formed opposition parties. The main opposition parties, fractured and eroded for years due to splits, were increasingly turning towards coalition politics as the panacea to defeat Mugabe and Zanu-PF. Outside of political parties, civil protests had also been on the rise in 2016, led by informal traders, civil servants, and campaigns like #ThisFlag and #Tajamuka.

As with most transitions, the November 27 coup created a new crisis, in which — as Gramsci would put it — “the old is dying and the new could not be born”, creating “a great variety of morbid symptoms”. In this respect, Zimbabwe’s future is a dance with uncertainty. While this article tries to explain some of the “morbid symptoms”, it promises no full illumination of all the questions posed above. It offers a perspective on Zimbabwe’s prospects for real political change in the aftermath of the November 2017 coup, differentiating between a change in leadership and a change in governance.

A tale of two commissars

In December 2017, Victor Matemadanda, the first political commissar of the post-Mugabe Zanu-PF, outlined a “culture change”. Matemadanda was convinced that those who disliked Zanu-PF had reason to and stated the party’s intention to “sit down with them to understand their concerns”. This was a notable shift from the past when Zanu-PF had labelled opponents as “sell-outs”, “puppets of the West” and “imperialist lapdogs”. President Mnangagwa also exhorted Zanu-PF members to be “servants of the people, moved by matters that affect the people”. Zanu-PF seemed to be transforming after the coup — although some suspected that this was too good to be true.

The inclusive approach, deeply steeped in rhetoric, did not last long in action. At the Zanu-PF Special Congress on 15 December 2017, five days after articulating this “culture change”, Matemadanda was replaced as political commissar by Major-General Engelbert Rugeje of the Zimbabwe National Army. Rugeje’s entry signalled a shift towards the entrenchment of militarism in Zanu-PF, and a return of attention to the Zanu-PF faithful rather than reaching out to external and hitherto adversarial publics. Zanu-PF’s capacity to foster fundamental political change was dealt a heavy blow when Rugeje was given province over the party’s political engine room and election strategy for 2018. This was the telltale sign that Zanu-PF was returning to factory settings, focused on the capture and retention of power rather than transformation of the architecture of governance and people’s lives.

Zimbabwe has a long history of military involvement in civilian political contests. It was the military that aided Zanu-PF’s efforts to centralise power during the 1980s Gukurahundi massacres and helped to manage the 2008 run-off election campaign. After 2008, Zanu-PF’s commissariat department was led and run by retired Air Vice-Marshal Henry Muchena, former Central Intelligence Organisation deputy-director Sydney Nyanhongo, and other former security officers.

Although some of these soldiers and spies were expelled in 2015, following allegations that they were aligned with former vice-president Joice Mujuru, Rugeje brought them back, making the Zanu-PF commissariat a war room, figuratively and literally, ahead of the 2018 elections.

This account of the Zanu-PF commissariat is only illustrative of the perverse military presence that cuts across all spheres of the Zimbabwean state, its subsidiaries, institutions and businesses, forming a complex web that is hard to untangle. Professors Michael Bratton and Eldred Masunungure have shown how this complex was designed to outlast Mugabe’s political career through penetrating the organs of the state, corrupting the economy, and securing a prominent role for the military in policymaking.

Surfacing Zimbabwe’s Deep State

“The deep state” is a political term that refers to networks of people, typically influential members of government agencies or the military, that are involved in the secret manipulation or control of elected governments. In pre-coup Zimbabwe, powerful military and business elites, who were unelected and unaccountable, ran the show from the shadows and were the real power behind the state’s throne. What the coup facilitated was the surfacing of this deep state.

Despite accusations that the G40 faction within Zanu-PF had captured the state, the reality was that, while the G40 held sway in the presidency, the country was hostage to this deep state. Political developments before the coup indicated that the deep state’s proxies and pawns were losing the game of politics, forcing it to step out of the shadows into the light.

This is exemplified by Constantino Chiwenga, the former commander of the Defence Forces. Even in a country with two vice-presidents (and sometimes a prime minister), General Chiwenga had fancied himself the second-most influential man in Zimbabwe, after Robert Mugabe, and is reported to have moved around in a car registered as “Zim 2”. Chiwenga’s post-coup elevation to first deputy-president, the presence of other generals in the cabinet and the Zanu-PF Politburo, and the takeover of the Politburo by soldiers and spies all signal the emergence of the deep state.

Making change happen

This is not to argue that Zanu-PF cannot change. In fact, change is the most significant conundrum that Zanu-PF faces today. Because the current political conjuncture demands change, the party has to deconstruct itself, and a necessary change of guard at the top is insufficient to constitute meaningful political reform. The new leadership knows this. This is why President Mnangagwa, having stolen some opposition policies, is speaking with a decidedly capitalist accent, embracing the West, and unashamedly pursuing capital with the decidedly neoliberal mantra that “Zimbabwe is open for business”. The regime has not hidden the motivation behind their brand of change (economic or political). The new policies aim to attract investment, not necessarily to democratise the polity and emancipate the people. The consolation is that the deep-state players now have to operate in the light. To meet the prerequisites of international finance, the Mnangagwa regime has committed to economic and political reforms, including free, fair and credible elections.

This presents a clear and present opportunity ahead of the 2018 elections. Rather than just doubting the regime’s commitment, Zimbabwean civil society, the international community and various economic, electoral and political stakeholders must hold them to their promises.

Leveraging international goodwill

The international community has demonstrated a tremendous amount of goodwill towards Mnangagwa. This can be a basis for promoting and supporting real political change, but goodwill alone is not sufficient to turn the Mnangagwa regime — whose members provided aid to Mugabe’s dictatorship and took power through a coup — into overnight democrats. There must also be pressure applied through a clear political incentive structure that is built on performance-based trade-offs for political and economic reforms, both on paper and in practice.

The Zimbabwean Constitution, promulgated in March 2013, is sufficiently democratic and progressive to provide an excellent place to start. Along with the requirements for free, fair and credible elections that follow SADC guidelines and are internationally observed and monitored, the implementation of the letter and spirit of the constitution can provide reasonable benchmarks for support and pressure from the international community.

Opposition parties

Since the 2000s, the opposition has signalled a clear agenda of democratisation in response to Zanu-PF’s authoritarian nationalism. Part of this change agenda was encapsulated in the simple slogan “Mugabe Must Go”. But now that Mugabe is gone and the Mnangagwa regime has begun to speak of change and pursue international reengagement, the opposition finds itself in need of rebirth to retain its pride of place as change agents.

Despite speculation that the MDC would die with Tsvangirai, Nelson Chamisa has slipped neatly into his elder’s shoes. He shares Tsvangirai’s charisma, and his relative youth and sound intellectual credentials have captured the MDC base, excited the youth (who constitute over 50% of registered voters), and forced the fence-sitting middle-class intelligentsia (who leaned towards Mnangagwa because they could not fathom being led by an “uneducated” Tsvangirai) to take a second look. A Chamisa presidency holds some potential for transformative political change in Zimbabwe. Unlike Mnangagwa, who has had to retain people known to have been Mugabe’s henchman, Chamisa can effect change in state personnel and in the mode of governance, drawing on the MDC’s long-held social-democratic principles.

To be clear, Nelson Chamisa is no Nelson Mandela, but he has so far been able to hold together the MDC Alliance that Tsvangirai built — although his ascent was based on realpolitik rather than democratic politics. Chamisa’s magnetism and ability to unite will be tested in a field that has three significant opposition alliances — the MDC Alliance, the People’s Rainbow Coalition and the Coalition of Democrats — alongside a multitude of candidates from smaller parties all making a play for parliamentary seats and the presidency.

All these parties and candidates share the belief that Zanu-PF cannot radically transform political and economic governance in the country. What separates them is their estimation of their own abilities to take the lead and the inadequacies of others.

Trusting in “We the People”

Paulo Freire warned that some of those who challenge oppression as freedom fighters become the next oppressors.

Politicians and political parties are in the business of seeking power. They are known to use promises of change in order to persuade voters, and then, when they attain power, use it to serve parochial interests. These reasonable grounds for suspicion suggest that meaningful political change in Zimbabwe is the task of the current generation of citizens. They have the political power to change the old guard through their votes and the potential to protect their choices. But the kind of governance changes that are needed goes beyond the polls. Beyond changing the maestro and orchestra, it means changing the music.

Therefore, even if there is a change of political guard in Zimbabwe, the best potential for transformative political change lies with a vigilant citizenry, uncaptured by political interests, clear on the changes they require, brave enough to demand them, and organised enough to campaign effectively for them. This kind of citizenry and civil society is burgeoning in Zimbabwe. Throughout the events of 2016 and November 2017, Zimbabweans showed that they can be mobilised, and only lack organisation.


It would be unwise to bet on Zanu-PF reforming itself out of power. To achieve significant political reform, Zanu-PF would have to shed a comfortable and familiar skin for an unaccustomed and more tight-fitting one. The task is made harder by the fact that Zanu-PF is not just a party, but also a culture that has developed over decades in power.
The best chance for real political change in Zimbabwe lies in the simple task of everyone playing their part and the complex task of coordinating these parts into a formidable force. The people have the most significant role to play in fighting for political change beyond leadership change, as this is their interest. But to succeed they need allies, so-called “reformers”, within the state. This means not painting the incumbent regime with one brush, but rather strategically analysing where power lies and attempting to influence its disposition. It means allying with the opposition to control political power, and pushing for reforms beyond the institutions that moderate power (like elections) to those that moderate the political and economic elements of people’s lives.

The coup has opened a crack in the authoritarian wall, allowing people to reimagine what they can accomplish to widen that crack. If the people’s movements can be built and organised, civil society will be stronger and independent. This can provide the base and the arsenal to push for real political change in Zimbabwe.

Lewanika is a local political commentator

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