On 6 August 2020, a week after Zimbabwean authorities instigated a major crackdown on opposition activists and journalists, amid allegations of torture and human rights abuses, regional leaders have reluctantly begun to respond. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that he would send special envoys to Zimbabwe to try and intervene in the burgeoning political and economic crises enveloping the country. The envoys are former speaker of parliament, Baleka Mbete, and former local government minister, Sydney Mufamadi. Although they are senior politicians, the choice of these two underscores that Ramaphosa is reluctant to have any involvement in Zimbabwe or intervene in a meaningful way. Had the South African President taken the situation seriously he would have dispatched a sitting cabinet member or, most appropriately, the highly-regarded Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor under whose portfolio such diplomatic intervention should fall. The limited intervention by South Africa has further given the rest of the region and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) at large cover for further inaction. SADC continues to view Zimbabwe as a perennial problem which it prefers to ignore rather than address.
The current crisis was instigated by a planned opposition demonstration on 31 July to condemn ongoing corruption and political violence by the ruling regime. The demonstration in turn was partly driven by the 20 July arrest of respected journalist and government critic Hopewell Chin’ono. In response, President Emerson Mnangagwa banned the protest and deployed the armed forces, citing the threat of the spread of Covid-19. However, this was clearly not the main motivator, with the President intent on continuing his policy of silencing and repressing opposition dissent. In fact, in the days leading up to the protest, Mnangagwa described the demonstration as a “planned insurrection” funded by Zimbabwe’s foreign enemies ‒ a rhetorical return to the era of Mnangagwa’s predecessor Robert Mugabe.
The demonstration went ahead regardless, albeit in mostly isolated locations and by small groups or lone individuals. Security forces responded with a widespread crackdown arresting at least 60 people. The arrests were accompanied by credible reports of torture and human rights violations by security forces.
On 3 August, after days of domestic and international condemnation, Mnangagwa doubled down on his political rhetoric and described the opposition and civil society activists as externally funded terrorist groups. It appears that the Zimbabwean President is intent on pursuing his goal of incapacitating political and organised opposition in the country as well as repressing any media critical of his administration.
Mnangagwa’s comparatively weak position will likely fuel his quest to oppress the opposition. He initially rose to power after a coup orchestrated by his political faction within the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) with the backing of the Zimbabwean military then led by current Vice President Constantine Chiwenga. Mnangagwa was aware that he owed his position to the military and sought to cement his position by instituting reforms and holding elections in 2018. However, the election was fraught with irregularities, and ZANU-PF and Mnangagwa won by only slim majorities. The main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T), disputed the legitimacy of the result leading to widespread protests which were violently put down by the security forces. Regardless, the election failed to bolster Mnangagwa’s position and instead further illustrated the extent to which he was dependent on the security forces.
Accordingly, Mnangagwa is now looking to entrench his power within the ruling party and the armed forces by eliminating any meaningful opposition and deepening his control over the state. He is likely hoping to use this entrenched control to then remove any rivals within ZANU-PF itself.
Notably, the current crackdown coincides with reports of a growing rift between Mnangagwa and Chiwenga. The two have an uneasy relationship given Mnangagwa’s dependency on the military, which remains loyal to Chiwenga, and the fact that Chiwenga essentially installed Mnangagwa as President. Mnangagwa is reportedly suspicious that Chiwenga is actively undermining him and is impatient to take the helm as president himself rather than wait the agreed two terms. Mnangagwa allegedly accused Chiwenga of planning to use the 31 July protest and the ongoing economic crisis to humiliate him. This is likely why Mnangagwa appointed Chiwenga on 3 August to also head up the country’s health ministry and Covid-19 response. The high-profile position will draw significant attention and make Chiwenga the face of any corruption and failure by the state to address the pandemic while simultaneously indicating that Mnangagwa takes the issue seriously enough to appoint the Vice President to address it. Such a move is typical of the tactically minded Mnangagwa, whose cunning earned him the nickname “the Crocodile”.
In addition to the threats posed by the opposition and Chiwenga, Mnangagwa is struggling to address the ongoing economic crisis in Zimbabwe. The country is again in economic freefall, with inflation exceeding 700% and the country’s foreign exchange reserves running low. This has all been worsened by the global economic recession and travel bans caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Mnangagwa is aware that his future as President and ZANU-PF leader is potentially dependent on economic recovery. To this end, he has taken steps to appease the international community and investors and has agreed to a landmark US$3.5 billion restitution agreement to farmers and landowners who were stripped of their property during the Mugabe-era land seizures. Mnangagwa hopes that this will both encourage investors to the country and offer enough progress to persuade regional and international powers to reduce sanctions on the country and turn a blind eye to the ongoing political repression.
Mnangagwa is clearly feeling insecure in his position and trying to disperse any perceptions of weakness to entrench control over his party and potentially even shift the security forces’ loyalty from Chiwenga to himself. He is doing this in increasingly difficult economic conditions and as such will be further dependent on oppressing opponents of ZANU-PF in order to secure the party’s loyalty. However, Mnangagwa has little to fear from external intervention as most powers that could intervene in some form, such as South Africa, the United States (US), and the European Union (EU), are focused on the Covid-19 pandemic and economic recession and have little appetite for addressing the longstanding and complex challenge that is Zimbabwe. Accordingly, the country is expected to slide deeper into political and economic turmoil and the crackdown on the opposition and media is expected to continue with minimal interference.