Change in Zimbabwe is happening; and is driving a Tsunami of expectation. But there are many different perspectives on that change, offering the prospect of a spectrum of reactions over time ranging from assertively expressed self-interest to popular disillusionment and discontent. None of this is to propose that Zimbabwe cannot have a secure, stable, prosperous future. But to secure these goals, quite a number of issues will need to be managed well, and in an integrated fashion.
Reasons to be cheerful: One…
Following the events of November 2017, the interests of people, party and state are probably the most aligned that they have ever been – and will ever be again in the future. Although the motivations of the various actors are not always the same, the consensus around a future Zimbabwe characterised by jobs, a functioning economy, the rule of law, services and accountability is currently secure. For some – particularly the ruling elite (not much changed from before) – these commitments represent a rhetorical yet pragmatic need to differentiate themselves from what went before. For others – particularly the broad mass of citizens – this is a real and present need which they now dare to hope will be fulfilled.
Set amongst a generalised sense of powerlessness on the part of the population, recent events have given citizens two significant levers which – pulled wisely – will help them to secure what they want and need from recent changes. The army – and more latterly the Government – have been at pains to earn legitimacy with the population. Initially derived from just being (and speaking in terms which are) different to the former regime, the principle power which ordinary people have is to withhold legitimacy pending actual change in their lives. Linked to this desire for legitimacy is a need, on the part of those in the new regime whose roots lie in the old, to ensure their survival.
And there are signs that the new Government understands that they need to be – and be seen to be – more responsive to popular concerns. The new President’s first attempt at appointing a Cabinet appeared to break the rules on the proportion of appointees not drawn from the ranks of elected MPs; and the appointment of serving members of the security sector to the Cabinet. It also failed to include any women. Following an outcry, and within only two days, the President revised the composition of his Cabinet to include a (lone) woman; and to remain within the rules over the appointment of non-MPs. Although only time will tell if he also manages to resolve the status of the military officers in his Cabinet, this episode suggests that – unlike his predecessor – the new President is at least susceptible to popular concerns.
There may be trouble ahead
But these positives all share a darker underside. The amount of time which people are prepared to wait for their “change dividend” is limited. And the elite will not want to wait long for the legitimacy which they crave. These pressures of time offer potential for turbulence in the run up to the next elections.
At the moment, the “new” ZANU-PF could probably win an election on the basis that it, with the support of the army, has removed the person (or two) most closely identified with the difficulties faced by the country. But this effect cannot last for long. As the cold light of post-transition reality is revealed to look very much like pre-transition jobless-ness, economic peril and kleptocratic practice, the transition bump will fade. In terms of people who have come to believe that their long standing service delivery and employment woes are about to be addressed, there must be a question about ZANU’s ability to bounce through the next election (due by August 2018) on promise alone.
As time passes, and completely understandable challenges hinder the delivery of overhyped expectation, the political opposition might expect to profit. There are some signs that attendance at biometric registration centres is up; and that this is on the back of a small but growing desire to vote ZANU out of office. The question of whether the opposition – now much more fragmented and diverse than it has ever been – is capable of organising to win an election, take power and deliver is moot.
The army is revered for the calm and professional way in which it has initiated and overseen the transition. The police – hitherto an expensive and daily headache for the population – are still all but invisible on the streets. But as the military tries to play the role of the police, it will inevitably run up against difficult situations which, handled poorly, will quickly cause the population to cool on them. The military leadership will be keen to return (metaphorically) to barracks as quickly as possible – every day they remain in visible control is a threat to their reputation.
These dynamics could interact unhelpfully, undermining the credibility and legitimacy of the new government; and consequently, threatening the self-interest that really put it in place. The military – on record as saying that they will not serve someone who was not a liberation fighter - are highly unlikely to tolerate an electoral process which removes ZANU from power and threatens their interests; and ZANU – an organisation with an adaptive survival instinct – is unlikely to allow itself to be removed. This means that if there is a national election in 2018, ZANU will want to win it convincingly.
At present, ZANU clearly plans to hold and contest the election. But the new President’s pragmatism might yet get the better of him. Confronted with a choice between cheating and winning or playing fair and losing, the logical choice would be to defer the election until a later date and form a Government of National Unity (thereby co-opting the opposition). To do so would avoid a potentially divisive and violent election campaign, retain ZANU’s effective hegemony and protect the interests of the ageing elite as they walk slowly towards the sunset. And it would give election-weary Zimbabweans a break.