With increasing Chinese influence after Robert Mugabe’s ouster, Zimbabwe continues to struggle with political and economic hardships, which makes people wonder whether the worst is over or not.
On November 18 2017, David, a 31-year-old university graduate who has never worked in his life, was among the tens of thousands of Zimbabweans who participated in a protest march against former president Robert Mugabe.
He had travelled 380 kilometres from rural Bikita in the southeastern part of the country to be part of this historic march because to him and other protestors – mobilised by the military, members of Mugabe’s own ruling ZANU-PF party and the opposition – their future and that of the country depended on Mugabe’s departure.
Three days later, on November 21, their wish was duly granted when Mugabe reportedly resigned.
Now, just over a year after Mugabe’s celebrated departure, David is even more despondent, as nothing has changed for the better. When David hosted this writer on a visit to Bikita West, one of the hotbeds of political violence in Zimbabwe, it was clear from the hushed tones of the villagers and the way they look at strangers, that the same climate of fear that existed during Mugabe’s time has continued.
David has a campaign poster of losing presidential candidate, Nelson Chamisa, of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), in his bedroom.
“This is the only place I could put up that poster here in Bikita West without putting my life and that of my family members at risk,” he said, referring to the elections that Zimbabwe held in July, which retained President Emmerson Mnangagwa in power.
Six people died in the August 1 post-election violence and an enquiry into the violence has since blamed the deaths, and dozens of injuries, on the use of excessive force by the army, while also accusing the main opposition party for playing a role in organising the protests.
“Nothing has changed,” he said dejectedly. “In fact it is not correct to say nothing has changed because in reality things have changed for the worse.” He is now seriously contemplating leaving the country.
The hope that came with Mugabe’s ‘good-riddance’ departure is fast turning into despair as recent developments on the ground indicate that Zimbabweans may have to wait a little longer to see the fruits of this change, if any.
In the past two decades more than three million Zimbabweans – about a quarter of the country’s population – have left the country, fleeing from political repression and a severe economic meltdown. When Mugabe was deposed, there was a groundswell of hope that the new government would provide conditions that would give the Zimbabwean diaspora reason to return. But both the political and economic outlooks remain too dim to allow that.
“There is a lot of uncertainty and this is affecting our plans,” said Mordekai Musundire, a Zimbabwean who moved to Lesotho with his family more than a decade ago. “We were planning to return home but as the situation is like, our plans are in disarray,” he said.
Instead of seeing an improvement, the country has seen more disaffection and protests have continued. The economy continues to be in a mess. Unemployment remains very high and more people continue to sink into poverty.
Doctors are on strike in hospitals without even the most basic of drugs, teachers are going on strike when schools open in January, while acute shortages of fuel, food and many other basics, something last seen more than a decade ago, are the new normal in Zimbabwe.
Solutions to both the political and economic challenges are not coming as promised. In the aftermath of the elections, the new regime has decided to revert to the same commandist strategies that in the past only served to close businesses and send citizens fleeing.
The economic crisis has been compounded by the insistence of the government that its worthless surrogate currency, the bond note, is on a par with the US dollar, when it is worth less than a quarter on the black market, where most transactions in Zimbabwe’s highly informalised economy take place.
“In Zimbabwe we have a situation where the citizens who have foreign exchange will not take it to the bank because of the ridiculous 1:1 fixed exchange rate,” pointed out New York Times journalist Hopewell Chin’ono.
“It is the equivalent of saying that a cow is equal to a goat and yet when I bring a goat to you, you can’t give me a cow and yet you want my cows in exchange for your goats.”
Piers Pigou, Crisis Group’s senior consultant for Southern Africa said the situation in Zimbabwe does not give citizens, either at home or abroad, any hope and the new government has a lot to do if it is going to earn the trust of its people.
“The government will have to make good on key promises relating to property rights and the rule of law. Despite the repeated promises, there have been few concrete developments,” he said, adding that this is not surprising as there appear to be certain continuities in the way this government operates which show that much of the current is rooted in the past.
“It may sound trite, but the critical step for building confidence is for the government to walk its talk on reforms… to be very clear about issues of accountability, ending impunity, ensuring that the rule of law is pursued without fear or favour,” said Pigou. “The hard structural issues are not going to be addressed by a political leadership that fears it will be politically undermined by doing so.”
Professor Kenneth Mufuka, a Zimbabwean who has taught at US universities for most of the time Mugabe was in power, also seriously contemplated returning home, but he says he will have to wait.
“I was one of those who celebrated though I was reminded by my killjoy niece that African presidents are like African boyfriends, the second one is worse than the first. Nevertheless, I still dreamed that now is the time to return to my native land. Today, I am part of the few who hold hope against hope, that maybe it will be alright.”
He is not alone.
Judith Todd, the writer and journalist daughter of the late prime minister of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Sir Garfield Todd, who together with her family was severely persecuted by both the repressive colonial and Mugabe’s regimes, is still hopeful that the worst is over for the country.
“(If it were me) I would certainly return home to try and give the new political and economic climate a boost. It’s never too late to be positive, and to try to be of service,” she said.
Amid increasing restlessness among Zimbabweans, President Mnangagwa appears unfazed, enjoying as he does, the influence and sure backing of his Chinese ‘all-weather friends’ who are believed to have played an important background role in his rise to power.
On the eve of the November 2017 coup, then army commander General Constantino Chiwenga (now vice president) had been to Beijing on a mysterious mission and there were reports of attempts by some security forces to arrest him on his return.
It is believed that Mnangagwa secretly visited China when he fled into exile following his dismissal as Mugabe’s deputy. The Chinese are believed to have played a role in Mugabe’s ousting after noticing that the direction in which the politics of Zimbabwe was going – which could have resulted in a faction of the ruling ZANU PF party headed by former first lady Grace Mugabe taking power – was detrimental to Chinese strategic business and political interests in the country.
Since coming into power, Mnangagwa and the Chinese have been signing a breathless succession of deals that most Zimbabweans say do not benefit the country, just the military in both countries.