Millions of Zimbabweans watched their new president Emmerson Mnangagwa deliver his inauguration speech on Sunday 26 August, and outline the plans for his ‘Second Republic’. Dr Heike Schmidt, Associate Professor of Modern African History, was watching closely to identify some of the problems with his proposals, and ponder just what hope there is for a truly democratic Zimbabwe under his rule.
As expected, the inauguration of Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa was regulated by protocol.
Much attention was given, as always, to the military. Yet the pageantry and the speeches were an intriguing performance of power that sets the president and the party that has ruled the country since its independence in 1980, ZANU-PF, on a path that promises both continuity and change that will affect every Zimbabwean.
Mnangagwa began his presidential inauguration speech by reading a letter that he said was from former President Robert Mugabe, excusing Mugabe and his wife’s absence due to ill health. This one may see as a diplomatic solution to the fact that Mugabe had given a press conference just before the elections, declaring that the nation must vote for the opposition, the MDC-Alliance and its leader Nelson Chamisa, and that he would do so himself, as he had been betrayed by the party and Mnangagwa when he was forcibly removed from office.
What may be seen as a fig leave move, however, turned into a tremendous power gesture towards the nation when the letter continued to say that the Mugabes were represented by their daughter Bona and her husband, hence extending legitimacy and approval to the election results. When the dignitaries lined up to congratulate Mnangagwa and when Bona kissed Mnangagwa on both cheeks and curtsied, loud cheers could be heard resonating throughout the stadium.
The president addressed directly the absence of main opposition leader Nelson Chamisa, who did not attend to demonstrate that he and his party do not recognize the Constitutional Court ruling declaring the elections free and fair. Mnangagwa shamed Chamisa by emphasizing that the country needs unity, as expressed by the leader of the only other party that won seats – Thokozani Khupe of the MDC-T – being present and having congratulated him.
Having taken care of his opponents, Mnangagwa set the agenda for his government, for the so-called Second Republic. He defined himself as a “listening president, a serving leader”, declaring “zero, zero, zero tolerance” to corruption and that civil servants would have to be efficient and “humble and responsive” in their interaction with the public.
Signposting this as change implies that the first republic, under Mugabe’s rule, was the opposite. This is necessary both for the purpose of popular support inside the country and to attract foreign investment. However, it is somewhat of a challenge considering that the ruling party will now move into its fourth decade of continuous rule and that Mnangagwa in his first inaugural speech in November 2017 referred to his predecessor Mugabe as remaining to be his “father, mentor, comrade-in-arms and my leader”.
The second major policy point of the inaugural speech was to elaborate on his slogan “Zimbabwe is open for business”. Mnangagwa was very clear that his goal is to “improve the quality of life for all” and that he intends to do so through “radical economic reform” with a focus on attracting foreign investment.
Oddly, the first point was “domestic savings”. In a country with an estimated formal unemployment rate of more than 90% it is scary to think that the state will withdraw even further from providing services other than improving infrastructure and similar measures that suit foreign interests.
The president declared the core of his five year plan to be job creation, with the reform based on “industrialization, mechanization, and market driven policies”. This neoliberal approach will make it very difficult for the majority of the urban and rural poor to recover a sense of stability and wellbeing, even though support for women, youth, and the disabled is part of the agenda.
There were some important differences in the nuances between the inaugural speech by President Mnangagwa and his Vice President Constantino Chiwenga’s address, which mostly was an affirmative response to the former. Both talked about the post-election violence which centred on the army and police using excessive violence against opposition protesters in the capital and other cities around the country and which culminated in the death of six Zimbabweans, shot with live bullets.
The president said the violence was “regrettable and unacceptable” and that he would appoint a commission of inquiry, albeit without indicating that those responsible would be brought to justice. Vice President Chiwenga characterized the violence as “unfortunate” and regrettable but attributed it to “those who abused the freedom of expression”, clearly pointing the finger at the demonstrators.
Considering that Chiwenga, the former leader of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces, led the military when it removed Mugabe from office in November, and that he, with other commanders, was rewarded by being called to high political office by Mnangagwa, this is rather troubling for the prospect of democracy and freedom in Zimbabwe, even though the president claimed his government had brought these to Zimbabwe since the coup in November.
What hope for opposition?
The pageantry, the power gestures, and the rhetoric performed during the inauguration all point to continuity of silencing oppositional voices.
The head of the African Union, President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, in power since 2000, having amended the constitution of his country to allow for his continuous rule, was seated next to Mnangagwa. After the inauguration, interviewed by SABC and asked why he attended the ceremony, Kagame’s response was that the African Union election observers had declared the elections free and fair and that he had come “to express his solidarity with the winners”.
Meanwhile the domestic savings policies sound troublingly like a time of austerity for a nation that has suffered tremendously economically for almost two decades. Still, a vigorous program of reenergizing the economy, if there is some oversight that protects Zimbabwe’s wealth of minerals and other environmental resources as well as its labour force, brings hope for some important change.