Endgame for Mugabe

Simon Bright

On 4 November, Grace Mugabe announced that she could see no problem with her succeeding her husband as president of Zimbabwe. ‘What if I get in?’ she said. ‘What’s wrong with that?’ Then Robert Mugabe fired the vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, the last of his long-term allies. That wasn’t wise. Mnangagwa, one of the original freedom fighters from the 1960s, is deeply embedded in the army and Zimbabwe’s security structures. He had been planning to succeed Mugabe himself.

On 8 November, Christopher Mustvangwa, the head of the War Veterans Association, accused ‘Gucci Grace’ of attempting a ‘coup by marriage certificate’. He took the precaution of speaking from South Africa, having seen many of the contenders to Mugabe’s throne eliminated in various ways over the years.

On the morning of 15 November, a friend posted photos on Facebook of tanks and armoured personnel carriers jaunting around the streets of Harare. Zimbabweans joked that the notoriously corrupt traffic police had got hold of some serious enforcement hardware. In reality, it looked like another succession battle within the ZANU-PF elite. People went to work and children went to school as if nothing was happening. The BBC and the rest of the international press had not reacted. The only place to find out what was happening was on social media.

A third-generation Zimbabwean from a family that fiercely opposed Ian Smith’s regime, I escaped Rhodesian military service by going to the UK in 1968. I was able to return home after Mugabe won the 1980 election and got a job in the Ministry of Agriculture. I also made anti-apartheid films in Mozambique and Angola.

But then in 1996 – the year that Robert and Grace Mugabe were married – I produced Ingrid Sinclair’s feature film Flame, a sympathetic portrayal of the women who fought in the Zimbabwean war of liberation. It provoked a fierce reaction from some of the senior male war veterans. Police were sent to seize the negative of the film. Chenjerai Hunzvi, who spearheaded the 2000 land invasions, said that I should be imprisoned, and that any cinemas showing the film would be burned down. We survived that onslaught. But in the early 2000s during the land invasions Mugabe was going for white Zimbabweans across the board. I was briefly imprisoned. So our family decamped to the UK again. I went back in 2009 to shoot a documentary, Robert Mugabe: What Happened? As I watch from the UK, the end of the story is gripping.

By 2 a.m. on 16 November, it was clear that the army had taken over the TV station. A major-general appeared, dressed in freshly ironed battle fatigues, saying that this was ‘not a coup’ but a ‘pacification’. The president was being looked after for his own safety; the members of the Generation 40 faction of ZANU-PF, which supported Grace Mugabe and was now accused of destroying the economy, were to be locked up.

Gunfire and explosions were heard in the suburb where the finance minister, Ignatius Chombo, lived. His front door was blasted in. A key member of the G40, he is deeply unpopular and famously corrupt. He presided over the issue, earlier this year, of the new ‘bond note’ alternative currency. People took to the streets to protest against it, fearing – with good reason – a repeat of the hyperinflation of 2008.

According to the rumour mill, Chombo was arrested with ten million US dollars in cash, ready to flee. But there is no confirmation of the whereabouts of any of the G40. The army announced yesterday that they are holding Grace Mugabe.

On Saturday, 18 November, the war veterans called for a public demonstration of support for Mugabe’s ouster. White farmers marched with war vet land invaders beneath banners that said ‘No Mugabe Dynasty’. It was astonishing to see soldiers in tanks riding with the people rather than firing on them.

Meanwhile, the ten provincial ZANU-PF committees expelled Mugabe from the party he founded.

It seemed that the generals, the war vets and Mnangagwa had between them orchestrated a bloodless coup, taking over the reins of power in a disciplined manner; a massive, peaceful march had shown Mugabe, the African Union and the world that Zimbabweans had had enough of his rule.

All the same, the AU condemned ‘the coup’. Zimbabweans swung into action on social media, telling the Southern African Development Community and the AU to stay out of Zimbabwean politics. After the rigged elections in 2008, the SADC forced a government of national unity on the country, perpetuating Mugabe’s rule for nine more years.

We all hoped that Mugabe had no more room for manoeuvre. On Sunday, 19 November he was supposed to announce on TV that he was standing down. Instead we watched a tired old man rambling on, losing his place in the speech and – to everyone’s disappointment – not resigning. Had he resigned, the coup would have been elite fighting elite and Munangagwa could then have stepped into the presidential shoes as he always planned to, presenting the spectre of more ZANU business as usual.

Having refused the graceful exit offered by his former comrades, Mugabe will now be impeached by parliament. That will require the votes of 75 per cent of MPs – including the opposition – and open the way to a cross-party caretaker government, which will try to put Zimbabwe’s economy on an even keel. Presumably the ailing Morgan Tsvangirai would serve as prime minister and Tendai Biti – who salvaged the remains of the economy after the inflation debacle of 2007 – would be finance minister. It might win real support and cue Zimbabweans, including those who are scattered all over the world, to begin rebuilding the country.