A guide to President Mugabe’s new regime

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RULING party conferences are, typically, rather dull, stage-managed affairs. This is especially true in Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe is firmly in control of Zanu PF and has been for decades. But the 2014 edition of the Zanu PF jamboree was different: this time, change was in the air, and questions needed to be answered. Was this the end for the Joyce Mujuru faction? Would the 90-year-old Mugabe anoint a successor? What role would his wife Grace Mugabe play?
President Mugabe, ever the genius political strategist, did not disappoint. By the conclusion of the party conference, Zimbabwe’s political landscape looked completely different to how it had before. “This is uncharted territory,” said Piers Pigou, southern Africa director for the International Crisis Group. He’s right – even if, as ever, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Mujuru’s finished, but factions are here to stay
Over the last few years, the inner workings of Zanu PF have been understood as a struggle between two main factions: the hardliners aligned with Justice Minister Emmerson ‘The Crocodile’ Mnangagwa, so nicknamed because of a reputation for ruthlessness and violence; and the more moderate faction under Vice-President Joyce Mujuru, which supposedly fought to keep the party true to its liberation struggle idealism. Both Mnangagwa and Mujuru haboured ambitions to take over from Mugabe.
Only Mnangagwa is still in that race. After a series of vitriolic attacks from Grace Mugabe – clearly sanctioned by the president – Mujuru saw the writing on the wall and chose to avoid the conference entirely. So too did many of her supporters, memorably described in the conference resolution as “a cabal of counter-revolutionaries and quislings”. This means that key administrative and political positions in the party will now be occupied by Mnangagwa supporters. Mujuru, meanwhile, lost her seat on the central committee.
It’s curious that Mujuru did not put up more of a fight. Perhaps she knew that, with Mugabe against her, she simply did not stand a chance, no matter how much support she had amongst the Zanu PF rank-and-file; or perhaps she was concerned about the lengths to which her enemies would go to get her out of the way. Her husband, the famous civil war general and one-time Mugabe confidante Solomon Mujuru, was burnt to death at his home in a mysterious fire in 2011 – was Joyce Mujuru worried about meeting a similar fate?Advertisement

In theory, there should be one upside to the demise of the Mujuru faction: at least now the party will be united, right? Wrong. Divide-and-conquer is Mugabe’s favourite method of control, and he’s already setting up an alternative centre of power within the party in the form of his wife Grace. Faction fighting is here to stay: instead of moderate versus hard-line, we’ve now got hard-line versus even more hard-line, if Grace’s belligerent rhetoric is to be taken at face value.
The power of the family name
Politics in Zimbabwe is a lot easier if your surname is Mugabe. Just ask Grace. From quiet first lady and shopper-in-chief, she’s become a political heavyweight in the space of just a few months (not to mention a successful doctoral candidate). In fact, at the party conference, only two people were confirmed to serve on the party’s all-important central committee: Robert and Grace Mugabe (in a break from standard procedure, the rest would be hand-picked by President Mugabe in the next week).
Grace’s role in the bigger picture is unclear, however. We know she was sent in as a wrecking ball to destroy Joice Mujuru, and she succeeded, but what now? Is she going to remain in the public eye? Is Mugabe really grooming his wife to succeed him? Even in Zimbabwe, this sounds ridiculous: Grace has no track record in government, no liberation struggle credentials, and no genuine qualifications. A more likely explanation is that her elevation – and the side-lining of Mujuru – is designed to give Mugabe himself more control over the party infighting, and particularly to establish a firm counterweight to Mnangagwa’s increasing power.
But can the president keep his wife on the leash? She is a Mugabe, after all, and she’s got plenty of ambition. She’s unlikely to be happy playing second fiddle to anyone except her husband, and certainly not to Emmerson Mnangagwa. And her vertiginous rise might just convince her that she has what it takes.
No succession plan in sight
Officially, Zanu PF doesn’t need a succession plan because President Mugabe isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. In fact, the party is so confident of the nonagenarian’s longevity that it unanimously endorsed him at this conference as their presidential candidate in the next elections, which are scheduled for 2018. So what if he can’t keep his eyes open during public functions?
Unofficially, the party is consumed by the topic. Despite all indications to the contrary, Mugabe is not in fact immortal and there is a high chance that he will die in office before the next elections. Hence all the jostling for position.
Mugabe must know this, of course, but is nonetheless reluctant to give anyone his seal of approval. It’s not hard to work out why: endorsing a successor is his last big trump card, his last power play. When a successor is announced, then Mugabe will swiftly fade into irrelevance as the new man or woman becomes the focal point of Zimbabwean politics. Competing for Mugabe’s endorsement also keeps his top lieutenants loyal to his will, as he has something that they all want.
Don’t expect this to change any time soon. As long as Mugabe is in charge, he’ll keep the world – and, more importantly, his potential successors – guessing.