Comments on Mnangagwa’s new cabinet

Big Saturday Read: Mnangagwa’s New Cabinet

Alex T Magaisa

September 8, 2018

More than a month since the election and nearly two weeks after the inauguration, President Mnangagwa has appointed a new Cabinet. This article presents some observations on this new Cabinet.

Zimbabwe has long been mired in a debilitating economic crisis which is closely linked to its political challenges. The Cabinet comes at a time when the government is still struggling to firm up its legitimacy. For some, the appointments reflect an effort to deal with the legitimacy deficit after an election which ended on a sour note.

The performance of the government is yet another front to salvage elusive legitimacy. There is a view that it is possible to build legitimacy through solid performance. Much will depend on the government’s ability to find solutions to the problems affecting society. This is why Cabinet choices are critical to the success or failure of the government.

What then, are the key observations of the new Cabinet?  

End of the road for the old boys?

The Cabinet is noticeably free of the majority of the old boys who have dominated government for decades. The more familiar names from the Mugabe era are gone. This includes Obert Mpofu, Patrick Chinamasa, Simon Khaya Moyo, Josaya Hungwe and David Parirenyatwa who have all been dropped. The likes of Simbarashe Mubengegwi and Chris Mutsvangwa who were Special Advisers after the coup are also not on the list. For most, this will be their first time out of government in more than two decades. They will have to get used to life outside government.

Mnangagwa must have known that these old boys were highly unpopular. Their retention following the coup last November left many Zimbabweans disappointed and underwhelmed at a time when they had huge expectations. At the time, it was argued in Mnangagwa’s defence that he was constrained by circumstances and had retained the old boys in order to maintain a steady ship in the period leading up to elections.

Their shelf life in government expired on 30 July. None of them had retired or made themselves unavailable for appointment, which suggests that they still had expectations of remaining in government. They could have saved themselves the embarrassment of being dropped by announcing their unavailability. It was clear that in his bid to impress both the local and external constituencies, Mnangagwa would try to drop the old guard and bring in some new blood.

But has Mnangagwa created a new reservoir of disgruntlement among these old guard? Some may feel betrayed by the exclusion from government. To counter any revolt, Mnangagwa may find other opportunities for them within the structures of the State. In any event, they remain senior members within the party. They might not have seats at the top table, but they will still have their fair share somewhere within the many layers and pockets of the State. Board memberships in the state entities or special commissions present multiple opportunities. ZANU PF looks after its own. No one within the family will starve.

In any event, some of the old guard have amassed huge amounts of wealth during their long tenure in government that they are probably among the richest persons in the country. They will go back to the party headquarters, waiting and hoping for a call should a vacancy arise in future. After all, there is always a Cabinet reshuffle to look forward to. In any event, as we will see later, they could still wield significant influence from the Shake-Shake building, through the central committee and the politburo. Indeed, these men could still make like hard for the newcomers in government.  

Not all of the old guard has gone. Oppah Muchinguri is now the Minister of Defence, probably the first woman to hold that portfolio on a substantive basis. Muchinguri is no stranger to the corridors of power. She has been in charge of various portfolios including Women’s Affairs, Higher Education and more recently, Environment. Hers has been a long road in government, starting off as a fresh-faced deputy minister decades ago.

Another long stayer who has remained in situ is Sithembiso Nyoni. She has been the Minister of SMEs for as long as the memory can remember, literally part of the furniture. That ministry needed someone younger and more dynamic. Mnangagwa could have considered an individual who is more in tune with modern technology and business techniques. Today’s language is one of start-ups and technology hubs. This ministry needs a modern hand to guide it.

New hand at Finance

A highlight of the Cabinet, which has been widely celebrated, is the inclusion of at least two new technocrats of high repute. The first of these is Mthuli Ncube, an economist who has held distinguished posts at institutions such as Oxford University and the African Development Bank. He has advised finance ministers in many countries on policy issues and has a wealth of knowledge and experience in the field of economics. He brings great weight to the office.

Ncube had a blip in the mid-2000s when he tried his hand at banking in Zimbabwe through an institution called Barbican Bank, which was eventually closed down. Critics will no doubt raise questions over this dark patch. That was a difficult era during which an aggressive central bank had running battles with mostly indigenous-owned banks. Only a few survived the scourge.

Nevertheless, Ncube bounced back and re-built a successful international career. The late MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai had high regard for Ncube and planned in 2013 to ask him to run the central bank if he had won power.

While his skills and experience make him a suitable candidate, Ncube was an attractive choice for Mnangagwa because he represents a larger message to the world. This is Mnangagwa showing his pragmatic side – embracing a distinguished professional on merit rather than party affiliation and deploying him to perform a specialised function.

Mnangagwa knows Ncube has colleagues in high places in the complex world of finance and business. When Ncube goes to the African Development Bank or the IMF/World Bank as a Finance Minister, he will be engaging colleagues whose language he is familiar with and understands. They are likely to listen to him and to take his word seriously.

However, much will depend on the latitude that Mnangagwa is willing to give him. The best way is for Mnangagwa to design this portfolio as a quasi-prime ministerial role. Ncube is the playmaker who must control the game and make sure the entire team delivers. Past Finance Ministers have failed to achieve their objectives not because they were bad but because there was undue political interference and toxic policies based on populism.

The younger generation might not know and older memories may have forgotten but there have been accomplished technocrats in this post before. They include people like Dr Bernard Chidzero who was recruited from overseas as a technocrat in the 1980s and Dr Ariston Chambati who was a renowned corporate executive. They both had to navigate a toxic political terrain in which populism stood in the way of economic prudence. Ncube will have to brace for that challenge in his new role.   

Olympic champion

The other big name is Kirsty Coventry, Zimbabwe’s most decorated Olympic champion. There is much to commend in this appointment. She is a young woman who has represented her country at the highest level. She is a winner, a quality that is essential to any team. She appeals to a broad demographic group and her appointment represents the country’s racial diversity. She understands sport. The appointment of a person with a sporting background and also international experience was long overdue. As with Ncube, Mnangagwa’s appointment of Coventry communicates to the local and international public.

Will she cope with the toxic political climate? She is widely celebrated across party lines and her arrival in government has been welcomed. Sport has great potential but it has been grossly mismanaged. She has a big job cleaning up the mess in various areas including cricket, football, rugby, tennis and athletics.  

Removing illegality or a mere ruse?

The appointment of Oppah Muchinguri as Minister of Defence is also an important step away from the illegality of the past. Before the elections, Retired General Constantine Chiwenga held both posts of Vice President and Defence Minister, which, as previously argued, was unconstitutional. If Mnangagwa has taken heed of the criticism that could be a good sign.

Politically, however, it could be regarded as a stripping down of the Vice President’s powers. Being in charge of the Ministry of Defence gave the former soldier close proximity to the defence forces, which he commanded to execute a coup against Mugabe. Chiwenga’s role in defence appears to have muddied waters over the chain of command. There were many questions following the deployment of the army on 1 August which led to the killing of civilians. Physically, Chiwenga will now have to vacate Defence House where he allegedly retained an office since his retirement from the military.  

But sceptics believe it’s just a ruse. The move is regarded as a well-calculated step to deceive elements in the international community who are uncomfortable with the role of Chiwenga. International media has carried a number of stories in recent weeks which seem to point fingers at Chiwenga as a problem in Mnangagwa’s quest for international approval. This worsened after the 1 August killings and claims of militarisation. So it may not be a whittling down of power after all. These sceptics see Muchinguri as a mere figurehead in the greater scheme of things, with no real influence over the military. The role could have been given to another former senior soldier, Retired Air Marshall Perrance Shiri, who retained his portfolio in agriculture.    

Ministers for Provinces

Mnangagwa has retained Ministers of State in the 10 provinces. They are disguised governors of the old era. As argued before, this is improper as it is designed to circumvent the devolution model provided for in the Constitution. Chapter 14 of the Constitution vests power in the people to elect their own provincial leaders through provincial councils. This limits the power of the President to make political appointments. However, when former President Mugabe was in charge, he ignored the devolution provisions and appointed Ministers of State. After the coup, President Mnangagwa persisted with this practice.

Regrettably, this has continued notwithstanding Mnangagwa’s undertaking to promote devolution during this term. Hopefully, these Ministers of State will give way to Provincial Chairpersons should the government decide to fulfil the constitutional requirements. The fear of devolution is probably explained by ZANU PF’s preference for centralised power. The notion of the One Centre of Power has remained an important theme in ZANU PF’s approach to governance.

On a related note, Mnangagwa’s failure to appoint a Minister of State for Harare reflects the challenge that his government has in relation to urban areas. There was an indication that he was still identifying a suitable candidate since most of his candidates had lost. ZANU PF lost the vote in most of the major urban areas, which are controlled by the MDC Alliance. It is indicative of the challenge that Mnangagwa’s government faces, where the bulk of the economically active population in urban areas rejected it. There is a lot to be done to win them over.

Looking after the boys

Despite scandals that rocked his tenure as Transport Minister, Joram Gumbo has been retained in Mnangagwa’s new Cabinet. The Zimbabwe Airways saga was the most prominent. He is one of the loyal comrades and Mnangagwa was not going to disappoint him. In a game of musical chairs, he has simply moved Gumbo from Transport to the Energy portfolio, which ironically had its fair share of corruption scandals and is in need of cleaning up. This is a weakness, reminiscent of the Mugabe era.

Others like Supa Mandiwanzira have been shown the door. Another casualty is Mike Bimha, who was at Industry and Commerce for some time. A relation of the Mugabes who had surprisingly been retained after the coup, Bimha lost primary elections in the Chikomba constituency. Another Chikomba MP, Sekesai Nzenza is one of the new faces in government where she becomes Public Service Minister.

It is Mandiwanzira’s fall that is the most significant as he was one of the younger ministers. He started off as a deputy minister just 5 years ago before he was elevated to a full Minister in charge of ICTs. His short stint as Minister had its fair share of controversies, not least the public spate with former head of NetOne, Reward Kangai, and the appointment of colleagues to boards of companies under his ministry as well as the purchase of Telecel by government. There must be something wrong that has led to his fall given that Mnangagwa had promised to have more young people in Cabinet.

Victor Matemadanda, the war veteran who has been loyal to Mnangagwa finally gets recognition with a post as deputy minister of defence where he will work with Muchinguri. It was surprising when Matemadanda was not recognised after the coup after he played a prominent role. Instead, it was his boss Mutsvangwa who became a Special Adviser. Now though it is Matemanda’s star that is shining, while Mutsvangwa is left at the margins after losing the Norton seat to Temba Mliswa.

One man whom Mnangagwa was never going to disappoint is July Moyo. If Mnangagwa was Mugabe’s water-carrier, then July Moyo is a reliable water-carrier for Mnangagwa. There are few men who have demonstrated more loyalty and dedication to Mnangagwa over the years. He took punches for Mnangagwa but never wailed or surrendered. He stuck by his man. Moyo lost the election, but true to form, Mnangagwa threw him a life jacket. He returns to head one of the most powerful ministries at Local Government.

Energy Mutodi is another loyalist who has also been rewarded with a deputy Minister’s role. Mutodi took many punches during the factional battles between Lacoste and G40, especially after he presented Mnangagwa with the infamous mug inscribed with the words “The Boss” at a Christmas event. He joins the likes of Kazembe Kazembe, who was also at the receiving end during the Lacoste-G40 wars before he rose to become a Minister after the coup.  

Too many deputies

Although Mnangagwa is happy to tell the nation that he has trimmed his Cabinet, the problem is that in real terms the number of Ministers remains too big for a small country. This is because the number of deputy ministers has actually increased. It is hard to see why the Ministry of Sport requires a deputy minister or VPs require two Ministers of State. He had done very well to reduce the Cabinet to 20 Ministers, but 11 deputies add an unnecessary burden on the taxpayer. Fortune Chasi is however a sensible appointment – he could easily have been a full Minister and will probably be underutilised in a deputy’s role.  

Party-State Conflation

The real problem for this Cabinet, as with others before it is the conflation between the party and the State. The line between the party and the State is too thin. The first problem is that the politburo, which is ZANU PF’s own “cabinet” is a critical player in the policy-making processes which also affects the government. In the past, Ministers have also generally been members of the Politburo or the Central Committee, which ensured that they had influence in both the party and government. Technocrats in government who are not also in the party’s decision-making bodies might find themselves in a difficult situation, especially when important decisions are directed from the party. Indeed, they might find their policies clashing with party policies.

The technocrats must also brace themselves for clashes with populists and populist policies. In the past, even when a ZANU PF Minister tried to exercise prudence, he would be overruled in favour of a populist decision. When as Finance Minister, Patrick Chinamasa tried to withhold annual bonuses because the State could not afford it, he was simply overruled by Mugabe at a public ceremony. Chinamasa took it on the chin. The technocrats will always be reminded by party apparatchiks that they are outsiders. Will the technocrats have the shock-absorbers to deal with such irrationality?

In the current euphoria, it is easy to forget that they are not the first technocrats to join government from outside ZANU PF. A prime example is Nkosana Moyo, an accomplished professional when he was recruited by Mugabe in 2000. He did not complete 12 months, such was his frustrations of working in a system which refused to embrace new ways of doing things. Mugabe is gone but has the system that he built changed? That remains to be seen as the new technocrats settle into office. It is very important for Mnangagwa to begin the process of separating the party from the State and much depends if he has the courage to do so.

For a start, Ministers should not be required to spend hours lining up at the airport to greet or bid farewell to the president whenever he travels. These technocrats shouldn’t spend time attending endless political party events. This is one part of governmental culture than needs to go. It’s a waste of time and resources and adds no value whatsoever to governance.


Overall, while Mnangagwa has rid himself of the old faces that had become an embarrassment, his new cabinet is still 70 per cent men and women who were in his pre-election government. At least 14 of the 20 Ministers were already in government. There are important new names, notably Ncube, Coventry and Nzenza.  

More important, however, is a transformation in the culture of Cabinet. Gone should be the days of sycophancy and wasting time on inane political events. If Mnangagwa gives freedom and resources to Ncube, perhaps Zimbabwe might just turn a corner. The question though is whether ZANU PF is ready to change and embrace the ideas of the newly recruited technocrats. If you hire Lionel Messi, you cannot expect him to spend the whole game in defensive mode.