Before she landed herself in hot diplomatic water by allegedly attacking a South African model with a power cord, Zimbabwe’s notoriously ill-tempered first lady, Grace Mugabe, joined the clamour for her aged husband Robert to name a successor. Curiously, she also called for a female vice president, stirring up rumours that she’s positioning herself for a presidential bid in 2023, not next year. That may take her name off a growing list of potential successors to one of the world’s oldest presidents.
Mugabe still plans to be his ZANU-PF party’s presidential candidate in 2018, but were he to win and complete a full term her would be 99 years old. A new potential candidate to succeed him is political veteran Sydney Sekeramayi, seemingly endorsed by the Generation 40 group long associated with Grace. As with his rival presidential hopeful Emmerson Mnangagwa, the septugenarian Sekeramayi does not represent a new generation. What both men stand for is the liberation generation’s last chance to redeem itself after Mugabe, before the “born frees” or “young frees” finally get to build a future their elders seem unable to imagine.
At the start of August, Robert Mugabe took a call from an emeritus of another liberation movement: the former South African president, Thabo Mbeki. Rumours abounded that Mbeki semi-officially endorsed Mnangagwa as South Africa’s preferred successor.
South Africa needs guaranteed stability on its northern borders. Pretoria can be expected to throw its lot in with the man who out guns the others, and Mnangagwa’s strong historical links with the military make him perhaps the strongest contender.
The frenzied speculation over the future of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF was matched only by the almost surreal clumsiness of opposition politics. Attempting by command and fiat to form a coalition of opposition parties, Morgan Tsvangirai only succeeded in alienating his own party lieutenants, trading away their parliamentary seats as inducements to others to join a new alliance under the banner of his MDC party.
Curiously, MDC thugs beat up those party lieutenants who seemed to be protesting against the giving away of their seats. And the alliance did not include such key figures as former ZANU-PF vice president, Joice Mujuru, and former ZANU-PF ministers Simba Makoni and Nkosana Moyo.
Despite the efforts at a coalition, the alliance is brittle. The seat-trading exercise has riven Tsvangirai’s reliable base with faultlines, and long-running quarrels between Tsvangirai and his new partners are still only papered over. Still, Tsvangirai is at last attracting the support of key war veterans already at odds with Mugabe. They will lend him and his alliance a smidgen of liberationist credibility for the first time.
Most bizarre of all, of course, was the political storm Grace Mugabe stirred up on her visit to Johannesburg, when she allegedly used a power cord to strike a South African model who had been partying with her sons.
Grace Mugabe promptly disappeared, and border alerts were issued to stop her absconding from South Africa altogether. Zimbabwe sought to secure her diplomatic immunity. Robert Mugabe arrived early for a regional meeting. After three days, immunity was granted, and she slipped back across the border.
The South African leadership had been in two minds about what to do. On the one hand, they were keen to avoid unnecessary diplomatic tension, not just with Zimbabwe but with other African governments who still see Zimbabwe as a complicated but real icon of African nationalism. But on the other hand, this was a chance to improve Mnangagwa’s chances by leaving a Mugabe in public ignominy.
Zuma’s former wife and preferred successor, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, said that Grace Mugabe must answer before the law – but if it had come to that, Grace Mugabe’s own sons would have had to testify in the case. The embarrassment and mileage in the cross-examination would have been profound, and even in Zimbabwe, it would have made her permanently unelectable.
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Grace Mugabe escaped that particular humiliation – but where she previously seemed temporarily reconciled to biding her time, she may now have no choice.
Set against a severe economic meltdown, of course, this all looks like soap opera. As things stand, the country’s greatest accomplishment is its pretence of relative normality in a time of deep crisis.
Zimbabwe is highly dependent on imports, including for food. There is no liquidity; a parallel market has developed between the US dollar (widely used in cash form) and the Zimbabwean central bank’s bond notes, and the Zimbabwean currency is increasingly at a disadvantage.
Despite the introduction of bond notes, more and more electronic money transfers are denominated in dollars. If all those electronic dollars can’t be backed up on demand with physical dollars, that will create a dangerous bubble. As soon as a large company seeks to reclaim its electronic dollar deposits but is given only bond notes, the game will be up. And ultimately, Zimbabwe needs to service its gargantuan debts in dollars: if those dollars run out, prices will rise, raising the prospect of severe food shortages.
What will the nonagenarian president say on the campaign trail? Will he really try and convince people he can print bonds faster than they lose value? Can he really keep blaming the West for wrecking his own economy? He may be counting on the fractious, chaotic opposition to fall apart – but the economy could still make retaining legitimacy harder than ever.
Stephen Chan is Professor of World Politics at SOAS, University of London
This article was originally published on The Conversation