Mnangagwa: Window of opportunity

Mnangagwa: how the “water carrier” became the star of the show

Big Saturday Read by Alex Magaisa

November 23, 2017

Emmerson Mnangagwa

Rise of the "water-carrier" 

Last year, when I wrote on the “special relationship” between Robert Mugabe and Emmerson Mnangagwa, I described the latter as having been the “water-carrier” in that relationship. The water-carrier is a metaphor borrowed from the language of football. When it was used by the Eric Cantona it was meant to mock his fellow Frenchman, Didier Deschamps. When he described Deschamps as the “water carrier” it was to say he was not naturally equipped with football talent but that he was merely a hard-worker who performed the less eye-catching roles.  His role was to serve his more talented teammates. 

The intention might have been to mock but it was also, ironically, an acknowledgement of the vital role of this type of player in a team. They are efficient and effective, doing the hard shift, thereby allowing others to shine. In recent years, such players have flourished and become household names – the likes of Claude Makelele, N’golo Kante, Nemanja Matic and many more in that class. Their value to the team is well-recognized and it would be foolhardy to mock them. 

As I said then, politics has its own version of water-carriers. They work quietly in the background, doing the unpleasant stuff and getting the job done while the leaders shine and take all the plaudits. They are ready, even at a moment’s notice, to do the grim tasks. 

For many years, Mnangagwa was the ultimate water-carrier in ZANU PF, with Mugabe as their main player – the “one centre of power” as the doctrine became known in his last years in power. In 1976, Mugabe hired him as his Special Assistant during the war of liberation. After a stint in jail as a political prisoner and during which he escaped the death penalty, Mnangagwa had been deported to Zambia where he had completed a law degree. His role as Mugabe’s Special Assistant was confirmed at a special congress of ZANU held in Chimoio in 1977. Since then, Mnangagwa remained close to Mugabe. It was surprising that Mugabe later turned against him, which ironically, prompted the military intervention which toppled him. When Mugabe fired him early this month, Mnangagwa was keen to remind Mugabe of their special connection: “I have been very close to the President ever since [1976). We have avoided life-threatening situations together. I even doubled up as his personal bodyguard … Our relationship has over the years blossomed beyond that of master and servant but to that of father and son … No amount of convoluted thinking can diminish my loyalty to my party and the President.” 

Indeed, until his sacking, Mnangagwa was one of only two members of Mugabe’s last Cabinet who had survived from the original Cabinet of 1980. For 37 years he had been very close to Mugabe loyally serving him even though his ambitions to succeed him were wearing thin by the day as Mugabe hung on to power. Mnangagwa had served in various capacities, including security, defence and justice and until he his recent sacking, he was one of Mugabe’s two deputies. 

Now, though, as he takes the presidential oath of office to become the second Executive President of Zimbabwe after engineering the demise of Mugabe’s rule, the water-carrier has truly come of age. He takes centre-stage, becoming the new star of the show. After being led for so long, he will now assume leadership of the team. He will have to find his own water-carriers to do what he has been doing for most of political life.   

Burden of the past 

There is a mixed response to Mnangagwa’s impending presidency. It has come at a time when there is excitement over the departure of Mugabe, who was forced to resign after parliament began the process of impeaching him from office. After 37 years in power in which repression and economic decay caused serious disaffection among Zimbabweans, everyone was prepared to see the back of Mugabe. There was no real interest in carrying out any scrutiny of those who were carrying out the palace coup. If anything, those who did were frowned upon and criticised for allegedly defending a tyrant. 

However, in the midst the cacophony of noise generated by the demise of Mugabe’s rule, there have also been murmurs of doubt. These murmurs, which will grow with time as the euphoria dies down and people become free to share their views more openly, are based on the view that as Mugabe’s chief enforcer, Mnangagwa was part of the same repressive system and therefore it is hard to invest trust in him. Often cited in this regard are the Gukurahundi atrocities in Matebeleland and the Midlands in the 1980s, carried out when Mnangagwa was the minister responsible for state security.

Critics also cite his alleged role during the violent campaign in support of Mugabe after he lost the first round of elections in 2008. These are dark spots on his political resume which give rise to doubts over his leadership. How different will he be to Mugabe? There is no incentive to account for the misdeeds carried out during Mugabe’s rule as they would inevitably implicate him and others in the post-Mugabe establishment. Naturally, those who were victims and survivors of those years will not be convinced that Mnangagwa is the right man for the job. They do have real grievances which need acknowledgement and resolution. 

It is also hard to ignore the fact that even in this succession race, Mnangagwa had to resort to brute force after losing the political battle to his rivals. It is fair to say that without the military’s intervention, he would probably not be taking the presidential oath of office yet. This raises important questions as to whether this represents any change at all.

In 2008, Mugabe had to resort to brute force in order to hang on to power after having lost the political battle to his rival Tsvangirai. For Mugabe, the irony is that the same squad that saved his presidency in 2008 came back to haunt him 9 years later – they were merely withdrawing the power that he was renting from them. This history of having been a key part of Mugabe’s rule, which many believed was repressive and incompetent, is a huge burden that weighs upon Mnangagwa’s shoulders as he takes office. The onus is upon him to shift this burden and by doing so, change the perceptions of him that people have.   

 However, there are also Zimbabweans who are prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. They understand that he was part of a repressive system but they like to hope that he is a different man outside the shadow of Mugabe. Their argument is that the man needs to be given a chance. For now, they are prepared to overlook his alleged misdeeds of the past, in the hope that he surprises his doubters. Mnangagwa must know that this is partly because people are dying for change, having lost all hope under Mugabe’s rule. This is a very narrow window. It will be exhausted very quickly if he does not demonstrate a change in leadership culture during the first few weeks of office. The first 100 days in office will be critical.

Power of symbolism

In this regard, Mnangagwa must work very quickly to transform the public perception of leadership. For too long, people have been exposed to and become accustomed to a leadership that is arrogant, greedy, wasteful, megalomaniac and generally uncaring. They are dying to see changes in the style of leadership. Part of this style is represented by symbols of leadership. This symbolism of authoritarianism and sycophancy that became associated with the Mugabe regime must be dismantled without delay.

One of Mugabe's great weaknesses was that he never interacted with the people. He talked to them through rallies. He shunned the media and had just one big television interview each year, with a captured national broadcaster. It was a useless interview because it was a choreographed affair. There was no scrutiny at all. He moved around in a long and noisy motorcade which inconvenienced other road-users. His rule thrived on fear and failed to command real respect among the people. He and party supporters wore regalia that carried his portrait and signature. He was, by law, chancellor of all state universities. His portrait was virtually everywhere, including government offices, places of business, etc. His birthday was turned into a national spectacle. Lately, there was a plan to build a university in his name and the capital’s airport had just been changed to his name. The Mugabe name had literally become synonymous with the presidency.

There was a lot of sycophancy all round, with ministers and party officials waiting on him as if he were royalty. All these and more are symbols of centralisation of power and megalomania which Mnangagwa must shun and get rid of to demonstrate that he is really prepared to make a break with the past, and that he is not a Mugabe-lite. He must also remember that Mugabe did not create these symbols all by himself. Oft-times, it was people around him who created this drama around him in the hope of finding favour with him.

Mnangagwa will have many sycophants around him, too, all trying to do exactly the same things, treating him like a demi-god. If he falls for it, people will not see the difference between him and Mugabe. I mention symbolism in particular because these are the easiest things to change without must cost or inconvenience in the early weeks. These are part of the so-called low-hanging fruits as he embarks on transforming leadership culture which is part of the changes that Zimbabwe desperately needs.

Hate speech

Another key aspect of symbolism is the tone of political language. For years, political parties have indulged in aggressive and violent language against opponents. It’s worth pointing out that this criticism is not limited to ZANU PF as the opposition parties are also guilty of making violent slogans. But it is a culture that started with and is well-entrenched in ZANU PF. During the war, when guerrillas said “Pasi naSmith”, it literally meant Smith must be killed.

In 1980, these slogans were carried into the new Zimbabwe and became part of our political culture. Joshua Nkomo, one of the icons of the struggle for independence bemoaned the use of political language which advocates the killing of political opponents. Speaking in 1986 at the burial of Lookout Masuku, the war-time commander of ZIPRA, an emotional Nkomo said, “We are enveloped in the politics of hate. The amount of hate that is being preached today in this country is frightful … You cannot build a country by firing people’s homes. No country can live by slogans, pasi (down with) this and pasi that. When you are ruling you should never say pasi to anyone.” This is true today, just as it was in 1986 when the man who carries the title Father Zimbabwe uttered those words.

Regrettably, while ZANU PF carries on with the “Pasi” slogans, the opposition parties have their own equivalents, which are also unedifying. As national leader, Mnangagwa must lead by example. This includes desisting from the “Pasi nemhandu” or “Kuvukura” slogans which have come to be associated with his political performances. As a national leader, he carries the burden of uniting a divided nation. He should also speak out against repressive laws such as provisions of the criminal law under which people have been arrested for allegedly “insulting” or “undermining the authority of the president”. It would be ironic if law enforcement authorities started arresting people for these offences which had become symbols of intolerance and repression under the Mugabe regime.

Even now, there are indications that there have been serious violations that have been carried out under the veneer of peaceful transition. It is good to see that Mnangagwa has issued a statement condemning apparent recriminations but it is important to stamp out any violations lest his government starts off on a wrong footing and squanders the good will that it has among some Zimbabweans and in the international community. Hopefully the inauguration speech will be strong on this issue and it will be followed by action which demonstrates real change. All those detained unlawfully must be brought before the courts or released.

Fixing a broken economy

Mnangagwa knows that he can quickly win favour, even among his ardent critics, if he makes quick gains on the economy. People are concerned by the dire economic conditions. With unemployment at more than 90%, cash shortages and huge debts weighing upon the economy. He has his work cut out. However, he is also fortunate to have the goodwill and favour of many in the international community who are willing him to do well. Zimbabwe is at the centre of a battle between China and the West, bonds vying for a prime spot in a new Zimbabwe.

Western countries have thawed their approach towards Zimbabwe after 2013, investing more in fixing the broken relationship with ZANU PF whereas before they had been openly pro-opposition. Although human rights, governance and political reforms feature still in their statements, emphasis seems to have turned towards finding a working relationship with a “reformed” ZANU PF. There appears to have been a shift from emphasis on the idea of democracy to the notion of stability.

China on the other hand has been heavily invested in Zimbabwe but it had also become increasingly disillusioned with Mugabe’s leadership. Mnangagwa therefore arrives on the scene at a time when external players are willing to look away from the past and focus on the future. In this regard, there could be a flurry of economic packages as was the case in 1980. The Lima[i] strategy on clearance of Zimbabwe’s arrears is likely to have a new lease of life as attempts are made to assist Zimbabwe out of the economic quagmire. If the economy does well, Mnangagwa will gain more favour, even among the sceptics, which would place him in good stead for the next elections. This should be an incentive for him to do well.

Continuity or change?

Finally, many people are looking to see the team that he is going to select to help him. Many are suggesting that he needs to be more inclusive, creating a broad-based government that will unite the nation and focus on development. If he does that, he won’t be the first to take that route. Mugabe had a similarly broad-based and inclusive government when he started in 1980. However, there are also some hardliners on his side who will probably be urging him to consolidate his position in the party and avoid diluting his new government with persons from outside the party. Likewise, there are also those in the opposition who feel after the experience of the GNU between 2009 and 2013 it is imprudent to be part of a ZANU PF government.

However, beyond party politics, there are also those urging Mnangagwa to avoid the same faces that have dominated government in the past and instead to demonstrate a willingness to change by appointing fresh faces. In this regard, some people are urging a more technocratic government which will be transitional in character and focused more on fixing the country’s economic, social and political challenges. However, it will be hard for him to overlook loyalists who have got him to where he is now. In my opinion, while there is a tendency to focus on ministerial positions, real reforms are more important and needed at operational level of the state – the senior civil servants who are responsible for the actual day-to-day work of government. Here, Mnangagwa has an opportunity to draw upon the vast pool of talent that Zimbabwe possesses in various fields both within and outside the country. Reforming the country’s civil service, state institutions and parastatals by bringing in competent technocrats would be a more revolutionary move. These people are not politicians – they are professionals who must be brought in to enhance the government apparatus especially in areas such as the economy, investment and trade.

It has been a tumultuous 3 years for the water-carrier but Thursday is surely the biggest day in his political career. He has shed off that less decorated title and he is now set to be the star player. He will need to appoint able water-carriers who will win the ball and pass it on to him to do the rest. Despite his past, which many rightly question, he is enjoying some goodwill among his fellow citizens who are still euphoric over Mugabe’s departure and among potential partners in the international community who are prepared to overlook that unpleasant past. It would be foolhardy to squander this opportunity because in these matters, the window is very small.

 Alex Magaisa:    


[i] LIMA PROCESS: ZIMBABWE’S debt and arrears clearance plan, known as LIMA, was adopted in Lima, Peru in 2015. Under the Lima plan, Zimbabwe committed to planned simultaneous repayment modalities to the IMF, World Bank and the African Development Bank.  In September 2015, Minister of Finance, Patrick Chinamasa, issued a document titled “Zimbabwe’s strategies for clearing external debt arrears and the supportive economic reform agenda.”

Comment by Eddie Cross (MDC) in Zimbabwe:  “This is the best analysis I have seen so far.”

Information on Dr Alex Magaisa:


Dr Alex Magaisa holds a PhD in Law from University of Warwick in the U.K. He trained as a lawyer in Zimbabwe and the U.K and he currently teaches law at Kent Law School, the University of Kent. Alex has extensive experience in and knowledge of Zimbabwean law and politics. He has held positions which have given him a vantage view of Zimbabwean law and politics.?

Between 2012 and 2013 he was the chief advisor to Morgan Tsvangirai, then Zimbabwe's Prime Minister in a coalition government and leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, the main opposition party. He oversaw the affairs of the Office of the Prime Minister and was closely involved in the campaign for the 2013 elections.

?Between 2011 and 2012 he was part of the team that wrote the new Constitution of Zimbabwe which was adopted at a referendum in 2013. Having been a technical adviser, Alex has intimate knowledge of the new Constitution and its history. His views on law and politics are regularly sought after by Zimbabwean and international media. He has appeared on the BBC, Al Jazeera, Monocle Radio, Radio 702in South Africa, SABC, and his views appear in several other international media. He has also been retained to offer professional and expert opinions on matters relating to Zimbabwean law and politics.