The Persistent Crisis of the Zimbabwean State

Brian Raftopoulos, Director of Research Solidarity Peace Trust.


Since the 2013 elections the convulsions within the ruling party have intensified to unprecedented levels. In response to this phenomenon there has been a good deal of analytical commentary on these struggles, focusing on the nature and causes of the contestations and centring mainly on the central question of Presidential succession. 1 Common to all the analyses is the challenge of stabilising and democratising the Zimbabwean state by dealing both with the legacies of colonial period and their continuities, as well as their new iterations, in the post-colonial era. This is not a problem peculiar to Zimbabwe, and in different forms continues to haunt the state in post-colonial Africa, as it is forced to contend with the legacies of both structural inequalities and despotic forms of rule. 2

In Zimbabwe this problem has manifested itself in a centralised, authoritarian ruling party that has conflated its operations with that of the state and overseen the erosion of the capacity of state structures to deliver to and protect the broader citizenry. In the rural areas the state has entrenched its power bases through a combination of coercion, a failure to democratise ‘traditional’ structures and the increasing placement of these under state/party control. Importantly, this consolidation of control in the countryside has also been the result of the delivery of land, with all its attendant problems, through the fast track land reform process. In the urban areas Zanu PF’s control over peri-urban land politics is linked to its undermining of the opposition’s tenuous control of certain urban local government structures and has furthered the reach of Zanu PF’s structures of power and patronage. 3

The Challenges for Zanu PF
These processes were marked by contestations within party and state structures that were accentuated after 2013 by several factors: the belief that the opposition had been decisively defeated; the intra-elite struggles for declining patronage resources and their implications for building and consolidating the support of competing party factions across rural and urban constituencies; and contested views over the path to normalisation with the ‘international community’ as Mugabe nears the end of his political life.

At the centre of these challenges has been Zanu PF’s inability to develop sustainable institutions that can allow the governmental regime to drive a more democratic vision of sovereignty and liberation, and which is also able to embrace the subjectivities of a broad enough range of citizens to create a more consensual, hegemonic and much less coercive form of rule. 4 This project remains elusive in the Zimbabwean polity and has been central to the demands of dissenting voices and political organisations in the country, even when such bodies have displayed similar deficits in their structures and practices.

Within the ruling party, this blockage has resulted in a persistent recourse to a politics of rupture and reconstitution that returns to the logic of authoritarian closure. The repetitive refrains about who speaks the most authentic narrative of the liberation struggle, and consequently who most deserves to be the heir apparent to that legacy, forecloses new questions, even as it reminds the nation of the importance and ongoing resonance of this legacy. One of the leaders of the war veteran’s movement Christopher Mutsvangwa recently provided a good example of this kind of injunction when he restated the claim of the war veterans:

I am happy that the revolution is back in the hands of its owners. Those who want to rule this
country must respect war veterans not daydreaming like what the G40 is doing. 5

These claims and the political capital that is attached to them have dominated the rhetorical battles of the ruling party for much of its history, even as the legitimacy crisis of Zanu PF from the late 1990’s provided greater urgency and political terror to this command mode of political inscription. The louder and more intense pitch of the demands for affirmation and the selective right to pre-eminence and future leadership speak to the high stakes of survival, as the ruling elite peer into a vista of glaring precariousness. This uncertainty is brought to the attention of the vicarious Zimbabwean public through the daily reports of conspiracy, betrayal and threat that now mark the political language of the ‘party of liberation.’ As if to ward off the doubt of a future that looks cumulatively foreboding, the harshness of the critiques between former party comrades and the declarations of a certain future, carry the unmistakable marks of a stuttering vision whose stammer is only accentuated by the energy and vitriol of their statements. It comes as little surprise then that Zanu PF ideologue Nathaniel Manheru had already expressed his concern in November 2015 that Zanu PF had reached the point at which it was governing without a ‘big, filling idea’, and that Zim-Asset could not fill this gap because of its ‘staid, dry and formulaic’ character.

In attempting to deal with the economic and political constraints that it and the country confront,Zanu PF has adopted three strategies. Firstly, after much intra-party disputations over the interpretation of the policy of Indigenisation, a more pragmatic approach was finally adopted to appease the fears of possible investors. This move was part of a longer term process of moving to ‘normalise’ relations with Western countries, which increased from the period of the GPA as the EU dropped most of its sanctions measures. Finance Minister Chinamasa has made it clear that Zimbabwe must be restored as a country that ‘can pay its debts’. In order to do this, Chinamasa declared that the country financing programme of the international financial institutions must be utilised to finance the major sectors of agriculture, the private sector and parastatal reform, in order to ‘build the country’s capacity to pay its debts both past and present.’ 6 The neo-liberal language of this pronouncement clearly won favour with the IMF, who in the March report on the Staff Monitored Programme in Zimbabwe, declared that the authorities had ‘met all the quantitative targets and structural benchmarks under the third and final review of the SMP.’ 7 This position accords with what appears to be a dominant position within the EU, despite indications of dissent from the US, that for the moment the political strategy on Zimbabwe should centre on pressurising the state through the strictures of the IMF repayment schedule, in the hope that at some later date political liberalisation will follow. It is within this context that the criticisms of Biti’s PDP against the British Ambassador should be read. In April, the PDP attacked the Ambassador for what they viewed as the British strategy of placing their hopes on a reformed Zanu PF agenda and ‘in support of the incorrigible regime in Zimbabwe.’ 8

Secondly, Zanu PF responded to a large MDCT-T demonstration in Harare in April with its own ‘Million Man March’ in May. The central objectives of the MDC-T demonstration were both to bring attention to the failure of Zanu PF to deliver the promises of its 2013 election manifesto, and to assert the dominance of both Morgan Tsvangirai and his party in the firmament of opposition parties.


MDC-T Demonstration in Harare April 2016

The major thrust of Zanu PF’s public action, as a recent paper by the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI) points out, was to renew the testimony to and re-inscribe the figure of Mugabe’s dominance in both the state and party in the face of the intense factional fights. The ZDI report also correctly observes that this march was largely driven by the Zanu PF youth around the G40, rather than the war veterans. 9 The absence of employment alternatives for youths makes them extremely vulnerable to such mobilisation by various party structures. The posters at the demonstration (see below) focus on the G40 agenda around Grace Mugabe, and therefore the message around the march was not just about Zanu PF on the ascendancy but about which faction was growing into dominance.

However the demonstrations represented something more. They were the beginning of a gambit to ‘win’ the 2018 elections even before the elections. They represented a politics of electoral numbers through a quantitative assertion of presence on the streets in a country where the election system has been marked by a long and painful history of violence, electoral theft, and the loss of legitimacy. Even Zanu PF knows that given the major questions that will once again be asked about the election system in 2018, it must establish a sufficient public presence to attempt to answer such criticisms.

‘Million Man March’ in Harare May 2016

‘Million Man March’ in Harare May 2016

The third strategy of the ruling party is to find some immediate response to the accelerating economic problems by once again resorting to printing money through the bond notes. For millions of Zimbabweans, the spectre of the bond note invokes the memories of heightened vulnerability and the daily threat of the erasure of livelihoods. Even as the prospect of another round of hyperinflationary disaster may provide speculative avenues for the few, this will be dwarfed by the daily dread that will constitute the lives of the majority. This paucity of policy alternatives is indicative of the general immobilisation of policy makers in the cauldron of the ruling party’s factional struggles.

At an everyday level the effects of the drought and hunger are already apparent. There is a real sense of depression and desperation. The run on the banks has intensified and queues for money are everywhere. As the purchasing power of consumers plunges and people are forced to make desperate decisions about how best to spend the little money they have available, a major battening down of hatches is under way. As businesses contract and the already low level of formal employment declines even further, an environment of general shortages is likely to be pervasive.

Opposition Politics
The opposition parties can take little consolation in the implosions in Zanu PF, for they face major hurdles in attempting to re-assert the presence and hope they once represented. As many analysts and reports have noted in the past, unless there are major reforms to the electoral system in the country, there is little likelihood that the sovereignty of individual votes will be respected. For such changes to occur, a great deal of pressure will have to be built up before 2018, and this can only be done through more effective opposition alliances particularly amongst the major players. In the past such attempts have floundered over issues such as parliamentary positions and personality differences. This should not come as a surprise, for in developing countries where livelihoods outside of the state are so marginal, politics, in an important sense, is about jobs. But more than ever a strategic alliance between opposition parties with clearly set out strategies to demand electoral changes before 2018 is essential.

The importance of Mujuru’s People First party in this equation remains an open question. The party has begun to deal with the realities of an oppressive state and its intolerance towards dissent and this will no doubt intensify as the country draws nearer to the 2018 election. It is also unclear whether both Mujuru and Tsvangirai will work together with the other opposition parties to unify their efforts against the ruling party. For such a broad coalition to succeed the inclusion of these two parties will be paramount.

The opposition parties must also face the challenges of mobilising within a social structure now fundamentally defined by generalised informality. 10 The weakening of more formal structures of organisation and civic action amongst the subaltern classes, and the extension of Zanu PF’s structures of patronage into these informal spheres demands different forms of engagement. The rapid loss of the possibility of more stable employment and social rights as a central requirement of citizenship has created major challenges in asking the question ‘what next’ for the general population. Even where, as Ian Scones has pointed out, the growth of small towns as a result of the fast track land reform has provided the ‘basis for significant accumulation and wide economic activity’, this prospect remains ‘fragile, poorly remunerated and operating with poor conditions.’ 11 Under these conditions, building more fluid forms of political organisation within more fragile and transient social structures presents a major challenge.

Living in and through Crisis has become the modality through which Zimbabwean politics has come to be practiced and imbibed in daily lived experience.  This mode of practice has allowed the ruling party to continuously unsettle the more predictable forms of institutional rule that would open the way to greater democratic accountability, even as it has done so through continued centralisation of key forms of state rule. This will be a difficult legacy to transform but it is challenge that must be confronted.

[1] B.Raftopoulos, Solidarity Peace Trust,  Zimbabwean Politics in the Post-2013 Election Period, Africa Spectrum, 49,2,2014, 91-103; Brian Raftopoulos, Zimbabwe’s Politics of Despair, Solidarity Peace Trust, 2015;  Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, ‘Protracted Road to Transition: Dissecting Zimbabwe’s Succession Conundrum.’ Harare, 2014; D.Matyszak, The Mortal Remains: Succession and the Zanu PF Body Politic, Research and Advocacy Unit and Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum, Harare, 2014; I. Mandaza, The Political Economy of the State in Zimbabwe: The rise and fall of the Securocratic State, in I.Mandaza (ed), Zimbabwe”: The Challenges of Democratisation and Economic Recovery, Harare, Sapes Trust, 2016; B.M.Tendi, State Intelligence and the Politics of Zimbabwe’s Presidential Succession, African Affairs, 115/450, April 2016, pp 203-224; Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, Contestations and Contradictions in Zanu PF Power Struggles, 2016.

[2] M.Mamdani Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1996. 

[3] J.Alexander, J.McGregor and B-M Tendi Politics, Patronage and the State in Zimbabwe, Harare, Weaver Press, 2014.  

[4]  For a further discussion of the idea see C.Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, Duke University, 2004.

[5] B.Mashaya, ‘Mnangagwa primed to take over’. Daily News, 31/05/16.

[6] ‘IMF give the Zim Reforms thumbs up,’ Herald, 23/0416.

[7] IMF Staff Completes 2016 Article IV Consultation Mission to Zimbabwe and the Third and Final Review of the Staff Monitored Programme. IMF Press Release No 16/96 March 9 2016.

[8] PDP Press Release 21/04/16.

[9] Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, The Zanu PF ‘Million Man’ March: Mugabe’s Game Plan? Harare, 26 May 2016.

[10] For a in depth discussion of this process see Ukuthula Trust/Solidarity Peace Trust, Hoping against hope: Murambatsvina Ten Years on. 2015.

[11] I.Scoones, Small towns and Economic Development: Lessons from Zimbabwe. (Accessed on 23/05/16).

Thu, June 9 2016 » Zimbabwe Update

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One Response

  1. Sthwalosenkosi Gemase July 11 2016 @ 6:50 pm

    The question kept lingering my mind as i read the issue is whether oppositional parties are prepared and mature to burry personal and ideological differences to unite with a common objective that will see them setting up structures and strategies which will result in engaging concerned bodies drawing and perhaps adjusting electoral reforms in a way that wil reduce post election fever that has rocked and charecterised post election since 2000.if not then the rat race continues might be 2018 elections that might see the demise of the giant revolutionary party however a short sighted misguided ideological approach to these elections by the oppositional parties will result in yet another defeat.

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