Rugged Investors Only

Leila Sinclair-Bright · Zimbabwe

The result of the presidential election in Zimbabwe, held on 30 July, was announced after a brief period of turmoil, on 3 August. Victory went to the Zanu-PF incumbent, Emmerson Mnangagwa, with roughly 2.4 million votes. Nelson Chamisa, the candidate of the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance, got 2.1 million. The rapid shifts in the political landscape that we've witnessed since Robert Mugabe was removed last November felt exhilarating, but the outcome of the vote leaves big questions unresolved.

Mugabe was still president of Zimbabwe when I last visited in 2016. After a series of byzantine internal ZANU-PF rifts that forced him out of office, thousands of Zimbabweans celebrated on the streets without being beaten by the police or shot at by the army: the absence of violence was striking. For all diaspora Zimbabweans, the feeling of release – and homesickness – was very strong. We wanted to be there.

In the end it was Mnangagwa, a veteran of the liberation war (1964-79), who brought down Mugabe. He was serving as Mugabe's vice-president when he was sacked last November. Within weeks he had forced his way back, with the support of General Constantino Chiwenga, commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces and the National Army. Together, Mnangagwa and Chiwenga drove Mugabe off the stage, after 37 years in power, in what they described as a ‘democratic correction’. Mnangagwa was sworn in as president in the last week of November. Now, apparently, he has a democratic mandate to rule for at least one five-year term and possibly two.

The relationship between Mnangagwa and Chiwenga, between the executive and the military, is not clear-cut. Tensions emerged during the ZANU-PF primaries in May, which saw Mnangagwa and Chiwenga squabbling to get their people into key positions. When an MDC Alliance press conference was stormed by riot police on 3 August, it was rumoured that they were sent in by Chiwenga and that Mnangagwa called them off.

In the last days of Mugabe’s rule, a number of independent opposition social movements emerged. They were based in cities (and on social media), and popular among younger Zimbabweans, fed up with the lack of jobs and not being able to cover even basic daily costs. After Mugabe fell, their numbers only increased. By the time the election came round, there were 300 independent candidates running for parliamentary and local government positions, and 23 candidates for the presidency.

One reason for the plethora of candidates is fractures within the opposition MDC. Founded in 1999, it first split in 2005, but has seen further divisions since then. In 2016, Morgan Tsvangirai appointed Nelson Chamisa and Elias Mudzuri vice-presidents of his branch of the party (MDC-T), in defiance of party rules – the kind of behaviour more usually associated with ZANU-PF.

After Tsvangirai’s death from colon cancer in February, Chamisa was appointed acting leader of the MDC-T, and went into the presidential election as the head of the MDC Alliance, a plausible electoral bloc of seven political parties. Zimbabwe is a presidential democracy: the executive wields most of the power. It wasn't such a bad idea for the opposition to focus its energies on winning the presidency even though they split the vote at a parliamentary level.

According to local coverage, the election went off peacefully, but international news and social media were soon flooded with images of civilians being beaten up by masked soldiers on the streets of Harare. Six dead. Parliamentary results came through with only a short delay, but we had to wait four days for the presidential tally. On day three, MDC supporters took to the streets to protest against vote-rigging. Senior figures in the party declared that Chamisa had won. The final result: Mnangagwa 50.8 per cent; Chamisa 44.3 per cent. Chamisa is challenging the result in the Constitutional Court; Mnangagwa has filed for dismissal.

The president’s biggest challenge is to rescue an economy in ruins. Foreign investment, of which roughly US$10 billion was promised after Mugabe was ousted and Mnangagwa toured the world trying to drum up support, depends on a belief that the country is not about to go up in flames. More practically, a Zimbabwean renaissance requires major work on infrastructure (roads especially) and the return of cash transactions: since the days of inflation rates in the billions (2008) and the issue of the one hundred trillion Zimbabwean dollar note (2009), the country has staggered along as a near-cashless economy, with dead ATMs and bank withdrawal limits at around US$20 a day in government bond equivalents. The informal sector has burgeoned in the debris, with the result that Zimbabwe has next to no tax base. Rugged investors only need apply.

The hunger for foreign investment may be enough to keep violence in check, but will Mnangagwa risk a fully democratic opening? Perhaps before the next election, smaller independent parties will mature and present a serious challenge to both ZANU-PF and the MDC. In moments of dread, I imagine the military gradually increasing its control while Zimbabweans look on in dismay.