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Can an old croc learn new tricks?

NEWS ANALYSIS

For those hoping that Zimbabwe’s new president would represent a decisive break with the past, Emmerson Mnangagwa’s first official proclamations are not encouraging.

Not only did “The Crocodile” reappoint Mugabe-era stalwarts Patrick Chinamasa and Simbarashe Mumbengegwi as acting finance minister and foreign minister respectively, he also announced a new public holiday to honour Robert Mugabe’s legacy.

“It is hereby declared that February  21 of every year henceforth shall be a public holiday to be known as the Robert Mugabe National Youth Day,” according to statutory instrument number 143. February  21 is Mugabe’s birthday, marked in previous years by lavish, expensive celebrations.

The new president seems determined to protect the legacy of his predecessor. “To me personally, he remains a father, mentor, comrade-in-arms and my leader,” he said in his inauguration speech. “We thus say thank you to him and trust that our history will grant him his proper place and accord him his deserved stature as one of the founders and leaders of our nation.”

Such loyalty is to be expected from Mnangagwa, given his decades-long role as one of Mugabe’s top lieutenants — and his well-documented complicity in Mugabe’s worst excesses, including the Gukurahundi massacres of the early 1980s. Until the new president can execute his own vision, Mugabe’s legacy is Mnangagwa’s too.

But behind the public praise-singing, Mnangagwa has offered several clues that he might be willing to do things differently. Most controversial of all has been his promise to pay compensation to white farmers whose land was seized in Mugabe’s land reform programme of the early 2000s, a programme central to Mugabe’s vision of himself as decoloniser-in-chief.

This promise is widely seen as a message to Western countries, especially the United Kingdom, that Mnangagwa will pursue a less confrontational relationship with them. In the process, Mnangagwa will be hoping to open the floodgates of development assistance and investment, bringing desperately needed foreign currency into Zimbabwe.

Another likely source of foreign currency is China. Although it denies involvement in planning the coup that ousted Mugabe, the presence of both Mnangagwa and General Constantino Chiwenga in Beijing in the weeks leading up to it suggest a tacit endorsement from China. It is also telling that one of Mnangagwa’s first official meetings as president was this week with Chinese special envoy Chen Xiaodong.

In fact, China’s political model, with its heavy emphasis on economic development coupled with minimal respect for civil and political rights may be an attractive option for Mnangagwa, who enjoys a reputation as a pragmatist.

As David Pilling of the Financial Times reported: “Behind the scenes, even while Mr Mugabe was running the country into the ground, Mr Mnangagwa was more open to the idea of tackling these [economic] problems, according to diplomats. He backed aborted attempts, eventually scuppered by his boss, to clear up Zimbabwe’s debt arrears and get international lending flowing again. Now that he has a freer hand, the question is: can Mr Mnangagwa play the Deng Xiaoping to Mr Mugabe’s Chairman Mao? The answer is that, if he chooses, yes he can.”

Another sign of Mnangagwa doing things differently came in Harare’s high court on Wednesday, where Pastor Evan Mawarire, a vocal dissident and the founder of the #ThisFlag movement, was acquitted of charges of trying to overthrow the government, which were instituted while Mugabe was still firmly in power.

But Mawarire warned against reading too much into the decision. “This could be evidence of a freer Zimbabwe but this case had no legs to stand on. I think a lot more needs to be seen to determine whether this is a free judiciary going forward,” he said.

The same can be said for Zimbabwe’s new president: although early signs may suggest positive change, we need to see a lot more from Mnangagwa before anyone can confidently predict the direction of his administration.

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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