Two years after the military coup that removed Robert Mugabe from power, Zimbabwe has entered a new spiral of decline that threatens to take the country back to the worst days of his era. President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who came to power in that coup, had promised a “new beginning” for Zimbabwe. That initially bought him some valuable breathing space, and even goodwill from the international community, which seemed willing to give him an opportunity to make good on his pledge.
It hasn’t taken long for the euphoria—always rooted more in the demise of Mugabe than in the rise of Mnangagwa—to vanish. The first indications that so-called reform was likely to be superficial came in July 2018 with Zimbabwe’s disputed presidential elections. It was all too familiar, including when security forces used live ammunition against protesters, killing at least six people.
Then, early this year, more protests against huge increases in the price of fuel triggered more repression, with more protesters killed by security forces. The regime’s response in poorer urban areas also expanded to include a campaign of mass arrests, abductions and rape.
Since then, the authorities have intensified their campaign against the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, while also targeting civil society activists for “subverting” the government. That repression demolished one of the two pillars of Mnangagwa’s “new Zimbabwe”—a supposedly sincere commitment to political reform and national dialogue.
By the summer, the second pillar was also collapsing. Far from being “open for business,” as Mnangagwa proclaimed, Zimbabwe has experienced an economic and social meltdown. The International Monetary Fund has forecast that the economy will contract by 5.5 percent this year. Inflation reached 300 percent in September and was still rising, the second-highest in the world behind Venezuela. The value of the reintroduced Zimbabwean dollar is in freefall, and the Reserve Bank—the source of the infamous hyper-inflation of the previous decade—is once again printing excessive amounts of money. Meanwhile, there are acute shortages of water, fuel and electricity across the country. Power cuts of up to 18 hours a day have destroyed daily life and what little is left of manufacturing.
Most serious of all is the food crisis. The United Nations World Food Program issued a warning in August that over 5.5 million people, one third of Zimbabwe’s population, will be at risk of famine by early 2020, with 2.5 million already “marching towards starvation.” In September, it revised these estimates upwards, with 8.5 million people now likely to require emergency food aid.
Both the health care and educational systems are in crisis. With hospitals lacking basic equipment, health professionals are warning of a “silent genocide.” Meanwhile, doctors have been striking as their salaries no longer allow them to make ends meet. Teachers’ unions have also announced their members will only work for two days a week, given their low salaries.
Zimbabweans, who have far too much experience in finding ingenious ways to survive, are approaching the limits of their ability to eke out an existence. This year has definitely ended any notions that the country’s problems flowed purely from Mugabe rather than from the rule of his party, ZANU-PF. It has also dispelled the idea that in Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe had found its Gorbachev or de Klerk—a courageous leader making a genuine attempt to break with a failed system.
It hasn’t taken long for the euphoria—always rooted more in the demise of Mugabe than in the rise of Mnangagwa—to vanish.
There are, of course, some mitigating circumstances, including several natural disasters, from a severe drought that has damaged harvests and the water supply, to the aftermath of Cyclone Idai, which swept through Southern Africa in March. But years of economic mismanagement and neglect of the country’s infrastructure meant Zimbabwe was hit harder than its more stable neighbors in Mozambique and Malawi.
It is difficult to see what the ZANU-PF regime can do to get the country out of this abyss, and it appears to be completely out of ideas. All Mnangagwa could offer in his state of the nation address in early October was a call for “time, patience, unity of purpose and perseverance.” The party’s kleptocratic nature prevents it from embracing a technocratic and transparent approach to economic policy. Actual political reform—the introduction of a constitutional state with free elections, independent state institutions, checks and balances and a thriving civil society—is anathema to the very basis of ZANU-PF rule. But those are the kinds of changes needed to uproot a patronage-based economy still entrenched under Mnangagwa that guarantees the wealth of the ZANU-PF elite and of the military hierarchy underwriting its rule.
Mnangagwa has been trying to project the image of change—to help secure enough external assistance to stabilize the economy without disturbing the foundations of this authoritarian system. With the deepening crisis, this project has clearly run its course. Now the regime is trying to deflect any responsibility onto Mugabe personally and onto the sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union.
Mugabe’s tenure was undoubtedly disastrous, but that is no alibi for the current ruling elite led by Mnangagwa and two former generals, Vice President Constantino Chiwenga and Foreign Minister Sibusiso Moyo, both key figures in the coup. All three were staunch supporters of Mugabe for decades and deeply complicit in that era of misrule. The country was also in a deep crisis long before the imposition of Western sanctions. In any case, the sanctions—which freeze assets and ban travel for some ZANU-PF and military figures involved in human rights abuses, and target companies controlled by many of those corrupt figures—are too narrowly focused to determine the fate of the entire economy.
Responsibility instead lies at the door of the only party ever to have held power in Zimbabwe. Hopes would normally rest with the opposition defeating such a failed government at the ballot box. Zimbabwe’s democratic façade, however, barely conceals the reality of a military-party junta. Based on the past two decades, placing hopes in the ballot box will likely lead to more disillusionment, and for now, the outcome of street protests is equally grim and predictable.
So what are the prospects for change? As the crisis grows, the regime will face some acute dilemmas. The support of South Africa, China and Russia has not translated into substantial financial backing because they are all aware of just how dysfunctional ZANU-PF is. The crunch will come when the regime struggles to find the means to pay civil servants—and therefore to maintain the machinery of government and the state apparatus—and the army on which its rule ultimately depends. If it cannot pay them, those sectors may crack and ZANU-PF’s impregnability could crumble.
That would carry the grave risk of a failed state, but it may create a situation in which elements of ZANU-PF and the military see the wisdom in reaching out to other political forces for a genuine national dialogue, and to the international community for emergency assistance and a long-term economic stabilization package. If that happens, they could serve as catalysts for a fundamental reconfiguration of the country’s politics. But it means that things in Zimbabwe may have to get even worse before they can get better.