As opposition politicians enjoy new liberty, fears remain that a government dominated by generals will nobble July’s election
When Fadzayi Mahere organised a football tournament for young people last autumn in the Harare constituency she is contesting, riot police broke it up. She was arrested and held for eight hours.
Two weeks ago, the 32-year-old Cambridge-educated lawyer held a large gathering, with free medical and legal advice and a DJ. Drinks and biscuits were handed out by campaigners in yellow T-shirts proclaiming “Be the Change”.
“We opposition can openly campaign in a way we never could before,” she said. “But that’s not enough — you can’t give basic normal freedoms and call that real change.”
Six months after tanks came onto the streets of Harare, bringing 37 years of rule by Robert Mugabe to an unexpected end, Zimbabweans are still trying to work out whether it is real change or more of the same only with more generals.
Some differences are undeniable. Police roadblocks, which made life a misery with their incessant demands for money, are nowhere to be seen — though the flipside is some manic driving on potholed highways.
For the first time in 18 years reporting from Zimbabwe, I was able to wander around openly with a notebook, and people spoke to me without fear. Turn on the radio and you will hear the government criticised. But state TV and The Herald newspaper remain mouthpieces for the ruling party, with headlines such as “Zanu-PF manifesto gets thumbs up”.
The new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, 75, was Mugabe’s right-hand man for decades and is believed to have been involved in some of the most heinous acts of that regime, such as the Matabeleland massacres of the 1980s in which as many as 20,000 people were slaughtered.
He heads the oldest cabinet in Zimbabwe’s history and retains some of Mugabe’s most notorious stalwarts including his long-time spokesman George Charamba. The former army chief is vice-president and the former air force commander is land minister. “It’s the same old bus, just a new driver,” shrugged Gift Phiri, news editor of the Daily News.
Others fear it may be worse. “The reality is we’re being run by a military junta with a thin civilian veneer,” said David Coltart, a senator from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). “All they’ve done is exchange Mugabe for Mnangagwa.”
Women feel particularly aggrieved. Only three of Mnangagwa’s 22-member cabinet are women, as were just a tenth of Zanu-PF’s candidates in the elections. Men dominate posters for both the main political parties, and the MDC has sacked its female deputy leader.
“There’s no place in traditional politics for a young woman and a fresh face,” says Mahere, who is running as an independent. “It’s all about patronage and jobs for the boys. And they are failing to deal with the problems.”
Mnangagwa has been travelling the world saying, “Zimbabwe is now open for business,” wearing his colourful new trademark scarf and calling himself ED, his first initials, as if he were someone different. The aim is the removal of sanctions and the return of foreign investment. His government requested readmission to the Commonwealth last week.
One of his biggest cheerleaders is the British ambassador, Catriona Laing, who describes him as a pragmatist. Mnangagwa told a rally last weekend that Britain had agreed a $100m (£75m) loan for banks. The embassy quickly tweeted that the money was for the private sector. Even so, it is the first direct commercial loan to Zimbabwe from the UK in more than two decades.
While ministers try to claim Zimbabwe is so advanced that it is the world’s first cashless economy, the reality is that it has run out of money. Ten days ago a queue of hundreds stretched outside the National Building Society in Harare. People waited from 4am to be able to withdraw just $30.
Estimates for the unemployment rate are as high as 90%. The pavements of Harare are crowded with people selling everything from boiled eggs to rivets. Hospitals have no drugs and suffer frequent power cuts and water shortages. Pregnant women have to take their own bucket, gloves and cotton wool to be admitted to give birth.
“We know what needs to be done, but we can’t perform miracles,” argues Terence Mukupe, a former Wall Street banker who is now deputy finance minister. “We’ve had stagnant growth for more than 20 years, and it could take a whole generation to change that.”
The key test for whether anything has really changed will be elections expected in July. Mnangagwa has pledged they will be free and fair. Few believe the generals went to the effort they did in November just to let the opposition win.
Not surprisingly, the man who announced Mugabe’s detention to the world last November with the words “this is not a military takeover” does not agree.
“Free and fair elections don’t necessarily mean the opposition win,” said Sibusiso Moyo, the retired general who is now foreign minister. “Zimbabwe is lucky in that it has a leader who has experience, who walked the road, who knows where all the corners were, and so can create a vision which avoids previous mistakes. If you bring in new, you are bringing in new mistakes.”
Nelson Chamisa, 40, leader of the MDC, fears a return to old tactics including “manipulation of ballot papers and polling stations. We need transparency in who will print the ballot papers. Will we see the voter’s roll? Is it full of dead people as [at the last election] in 2013?”
He believes that “our chances were never this good. We have a weakened and divided opponent in Zanu-PF, and with the departure of Mugabe the cost is clear. The pillars of dictatorship are crumbling, the new is coming and I represent that new. If we get less than 70%, this is not a proper election.”
– The Times