Zimbabwe steps into the future

Regardless of the result, this week’s election has pressed the post-liberation reset button

Another step: observers check votes at a polling station in Mbare, a suburb of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, on Monday. Luis Tato/AFP/Getty Images

Mugabe’s departure is not the only novelty of this ballot. Also missing is Morgan Tsvangirai, opposition stalwart of the Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, who contested the presidency in 2002 and at every election since. Tsvangirai carried considerable moral authority in the early years of this century, holding together a coalition of opposition, trade union and progressive forces, and bearing the scars of beatings at the hands of ZANU-PF. After he was denied an official victory in the 2008 elections, the outcry installed an internationally-brokered national unity government that survived until the 2013 election.

By then, Tsvangirai’s lustre had waned, and since then his coalition has only become more fractured. He died in February this year.

Inheriting the MDC mantle is lawyer Nelson Chamisa, contesting these elections for the seven-member MDC Alliance. Chamisa turned forty earlier this year, only just attaining the age qualification for presidential candidates. In a society where deference to age is deeply ingrained, Chamisa’s youth has presented a challenge. On the up side is the desire for generational change in leadership and the appeal to an overwhelmingly youthful population (although a quarter of the population is under eighteen and too young to vote).

Chamisa’s relative youth is not the only factor that made his MDC inheritance a contested one. His ascension pushed aside a senior female MDC figure, Thokozani Khuphe, who had been Tsvangarai’s deputy and served as deputy prime minister in the national unity government. The boy’s clubs (young and old) on both sides of politics have been increasingly exasperating for the many highly competent and energetic female politicians who have been kept just below the pinnacles of power.

Khuphe contested the validity of Chamisa’s assumption of the MDC leadership, presenting as a candidate in these elections for MDC-T (the ‘T’ standing for Tsvangirai, as opposed to the MDC-N, headed by Welshman Ncube, an earlier iteration of splits in the party). Khuphe also labours under the burden of coming from the minority Ndebele population, which predominates only in the south of the country.

Another high-profile female among the twenty-three candidates for president was Joice Mujuru, who was a very young firebrand in the liberation struggle. Her rise to the vice-presidency in 2004 came at Mnangagwa’s expense, and she was dismissed by Mugabe in December 2014, probably because she was becoming too popular within ZANU-PF. Her attempts to form a strong rival party — initially People First and subsequently the People’s Rainbow Coalition — struggled to gain traction.

For his part, Mnangagwa has spent the eight months since his ascendency to the presidency assiduously assuring Zimbaweans that a new era was under way. He has repaired relations with the international donor community, maintained close relations with China, declared Zimbabwe newly open for business, and even held a meeting with white farmers to assure them of a role in restoring Zimbabwe’s place as the region’s bread basket.

On the ground, however, there’s sense that little has changed. The economic challenges remain profound, chief among them the task of stimulating growth when you don’t have your own currency. (Since the hyper-inflation of 2008, Zimbabwe uses the US dollar.) Corruption persists as a threat to progress at both micro and macro levels. And any future government will have to chart a course between encouraging inflows of money, and becoming dependent on development assistance.

Western development agencies congratulate themselves on squeaky-clean funds distribution, but their practices often induce a different kind of corruption of the spirit. Money flows to projects whose objectives are set by the external donor, local recipients become practised in the art of telling the donors what they want to hear, and the hard choices in resource-constrained environments are never faced.

Mnangagwa has sought to reinvent himself as the technocrat best able to navigate these choppy waters. Indeed, he may well be able to position Zimbabwe to benefit from the contest for supremacy between China and the West. He has set his face assuredly to the future, not least because his past includes the 1980s Gukurahundi killings, which obliterated the Ndebele as a political force.

At the time of writing, the outcome of the presidential election is yet to be declared but ZANU-PF has gained a handy majority of seats in the parliament. If Chamisa wins the presidency, it will be a shock equivalent to Mohamad Mahathir’s return to power in Malaysia.

The MDC Alliance leader would face all the same challenges as Mnangagwa, but may be less well-placed to overcome them. His campaign showed some worrying signs. He has cloaked himself in a facile religiosity, accompanying many of his campaign tweets with the hashtag #godisinit. In 2016 he graduated as a pastor from the same theological college that has produced some of Zimbabwe’s more prominent self-appointed “prophets,” hugely popular in Zimbabwe with their combination of prosperity gospel and fire and brimstone.

Chamisa was able to attract crowds over the course of the campaign, but many of his promises — high-speed rail, $15 billion of investment from America (denied by the US Embassy), rural airports to air-freight produce to Europe — were fanciful. When he claimed to have been endorsed by Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame, the response from Kagame was to say he’d never met him – and Chamisa’s riposte, a tweet of a photo showing him shaking Kagame’s hand at a public occasion, was hardly convincing.

But if the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission does declare Chamisa the victor, they will dispel any fears they are prepared to rig elections for the government. By contrast, if Mnangagwa is declared victor, the MDC Alliance is already preparing the ground to declare themselves robbed. Within hours of the polls closing, social media was flooded with claims Chamisa had won, along with purported tally sheets from electorates and claims that Mnangagwa had fled the country.

Meanwhile, like a hammy actor prolonging his death scene on stage, Mugabe gave an election eve press conference to declare he would not support the ZANU-PF candidate. Amateur theatrics is the last thing Zimbabwe needs now.

In the reality-based universe, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission appears to have been doing a through and diligent job. International election observers are on hand to give assurance, regardless of the outcome. Whatever the next couple of days hold, Zimbabwe will have taken another major step to forge its future.

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