ZANU-PF National Congress Portends Business as Usual in Zimbabwe – By Brooks Marmon
A shopping centre in Harare’s smart northern suburbs demonstrates the dichotomies in Zimbabwe ahead of a critical ZANU-PF national congress scheduled for early December. A regional fast food chain displays a massive sign bearing the Zimbabwean flag, proclaiming that Chicken Inn has “that original Zimbabwean taste we luv (sic).” The establishment competes with a new KFC franchise, located just on the other side of the parking lot, proudly bearing the image of Colonel Sanders.
The indigenization versus liberalization struggle is mirrored in the political realm, too. Internal divisions in both major political parties threaten the recent economic success that enabled the return of international establishments like KFC to Zimbabwe following nearly a decade of hyperinflation.
President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF emerged triumphant following 2013 elections, delivering a major blow to the opposition MDC with which it formed a dysfunctional unity government after suspect elections in 2008. ZANU-PF was further strengthened in April 2014 by the latest in a series of MDC splits following a failed attempt by former Finance Minister Tendai Biti to unseat long serving party leader Morgan Tsvangirai (although it now appears that reunification of the main MDC offshoots is imminent).
ZANU-PF is dealing with challenges of its own, however, as the political debut of President Mugabe’s second wife, Grace has radically upended the ruling party in recent months. As a result, ZANU-PF’s vitriol has shifted from Tsvangirai’s perceived Western-sponsored regime change agenda to curbing the national leadership ambitions of one of its own – Vice President Joice Mujuru. A liberation war veteran, Mujuru was married to a prominent military commander who died in a mysterious fire in 2011.
In August, it was announced that Ms. Mugabe would assume the leadership of ZANU-PF’s Women’s League at the party’s December Congress. Cars custom wrapped with her image appeared on Harare’s streets soon thereafter and Grace’s ascension continued when she received her PhD from the University of Zimbabwe the following month after mere weeks of study.
In October she embarked on a “˜Meet the People’ rally series across Zimbabwe, sowing the seeds for what has been a drastic and rapid reorientation of the country’s political landscape ahead of ZANU-PF’s national congress. Beginning with veiled attacks on VP Mujuru, who is seen as leading one faction in the race to succeed the President (Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa heads the other) the tone rapidly escalated, with Ms. Mugabe explicitly calling on Mujuru to resign. The state media has also fanned tensions, describing Mujuru’s “˜legendary ineptitude’ and reporting that she extorted duty free shops at Harare’s airport.
Mujuru’s allies have not been spared either. At a recent politburo meeting, war veteran leader Jabuani Sibanda was expelled from the party while ZANU-PF spokesperson Rugare Gumbo was suspended. Almost all of ZANU-PF’s Provincial Chairs have been dismissed, and key members of Mujuru’s faction have been implicated by state media as leading a plot to assassinate President Mugabe.
Against this backdrop, ZANU-PF opens its national congress on December 2 under a theme that ostensibly focuses on President Mugabe’s blueprint for social and economic revitalization – ZimAsset. However, all eyes will be on the succession struggle and Mujuru’s fate.
Many governments, including the US, which identified Zimbabwe as an “˜outpost of tyranny’ during the Bush administration, anticipated that either the 2013 elections or the inevitable post-Mugabe transition would quickly return the country to an environment based on the rule of law. The rise of Grace Mugabe and the possibility of a Mugabe dynasty threatens any transition to a citizen-centric state in Zimbabwe. President Mugabe continues to assail the West at the UN, depose white farmers from their land, and water shortages and blackouts persist. The opposition is in disarray and an assault on an activist leading a occupy protest in a park behind one of the country’s smartest hotels indicates the lengths to which the state will go to repress popular protest.
While the US is undoubtedly disappointed by the collapse of the MDC and the EU bereft that its removal of sanctions on key ZANU-PF officials has not resulted in greater rapprochement, the biggest losers in the nation’s Game of Thrones style saga are Zimbabweans themselves.
From unlicensed taxi drivers to bitter white industrialists, Zimbabweans complain about the current situation. In Zimbabwe’s third city, Mutare, a once impressive industrial center has collapsed. Not far from the diamond deposits that are bringing in much needed resources for ZANU-PF, factories lie vacant or house small businesses unable to afford the rents of downtown office buildings. Unemployed painters loiter with brushes outside hardware stores where posters promise easy loans for civil servants. The single remaining cinema has closed and the city’s premiere business hotel has lost its Holiday Inn franchise tag.
While Zimbabwean elites are now able to enjoy the trappings of a middle-class Western lifestyle, the country’s political crisis continues to undermine the livelihoods of citizens across the country. There is a distinct possibility that the current crisis within ZANU-PF may return the country to further economic crisis and international isolation. ZANU-PF’s upcoming congress should provide ample fare to determine Zimbabwe’s future.
Brooks Marmon oversees the Africa portfolio at the Accountability Lab