Portrait of Mnangagwa

Emmerson Mnangagwa: a random portrait of Zimbabwe’s new leader

The Big Saturday Read By Alex Magaisa

November 24, 2017

Emmerson Mnangagwa

On 28 June 2013, the atmosphere in the big courtroom in Mapondera Building in the government district of Harare was tense. It was the day of the Nomination Court for the presidential candidates. At the time, I was working with Morgan Tsvangirai, who the Prime Minister of Zimbabwe and leader of the MDC-T. It was my duty to represent him at the Nomination Court and file his papers.

We were held up at Harvest House, the party headquarters. Unbeknown to us, this delay had caused some worry and panic at the court as it created the impression that we were not coming. The background was that we were unhappy with the way ZANU PF was rail-roading everyone into an election without reforms and when the nomination day arrived and we were not present, there was a suspicion that we were boycotting the election. ZANU PF was keen for us to contest.

We started receiving calls from the court, asking where we were as if it was compulsory for Morgan Tsvcangirai to contest. They waited and there was some delight in keeping them waiting. When we finally walked into the courtroom, there was a heavy sigh of relief. I was directed to the front benches. There, sitting quietly, was Emmerson Mnangagwa, holding a file containing his boss’ papers. He smiled and extended his hand as I took my seat. We spoke and laughed, much to the surprise and delight of those who were sitting behind us.

Soon afterwards, Tendai Biti and Nelson Chamisa arrived and there were more light-hearted comments and laughter. Someone complained how expensive it was to file nomination papers (there is a fee of $500 per candidate) at which point Mnangagwa joked, “We are struggling. I was actually asking Dr Magaisa here if he could lend me the money to file my boss’ papers” to which I responded, “I suggested that we may have to go to Chiadzwa!” The exchange produced an explosion of laughter all round.

Later, one journalist told me how surprised they had been to see us sharing light-hearted moments despite the rivalry between our parties and candidates. I told him that this was the spirit that people must embrace, that elections are not supposed to be warfare, and that if we can shake hands and find time to laugh, there is no need for people to be fighting or obeying commands of leaders to fight each other.  

We had other moments but that one was remarkable because of the intensity of the times. I hope he maintains that sense of humour and accommodation as he leads the country. Most leaders fail because they take themselves too seriously. I wanted to compile a few lesser known facts about the new president, but I ended up with a long list which promoted me to do this mini BSR. So here are some random items which, when pieced together, may give a broad picture of the new President of Zimbabwe. Tomorrow’s BSR will critically analyse his inauguration speech:      

  • He's 75 years old. He surprised many when he corrected the media which had been reporting that he is 4 years younger than he really is, a rare feat considering politicians prefer to be seen as younger than they really are.
  • Although he is affectionately known as the crocodile, his totem is the lion (Shumba in Shona). (If he used his totem as his surname as some do, foreign journalists wouldn't have a hard time trying to pronounce his name!)
  • According to a 2003 Herald interview, he is a member of the Mapanzure clan who hold chieftainship in the area. He could alternatively be referred to as Mapanzure (also probably easier for many foreign tongues struggling to pronounce Mnangagwa!)
  • He first became a minister in Mugabe's Cabinet in 1980 at the age of 38. Until his sacking in November 2017, he was one of only two ministers who had served in Mugabe's Cabinet since independence. The other is Sydney Sekeramayi. 
  • He was once on death row after being convicted of a political offence during the colonial period. He escaped the death penalty on the basis that he was regarded as below the of 21 (but it seems if they had used his correct birth year, 1942, he would probably have been executed)
  • Unsurprisingly, he's a staunch opponent of the death penalty and famously refused to carry out any executions during his two stints as Justice Minister. In a 2015 interview he said "Death penalty papers come across my desk, and I am not signing them." The death penalty may now be abolished during his presidency.
  • He's widely regarded as having been Mugabe's chief enforcer – he was security minister in the first Cabinet in 1980 and during the Gukurahundi atrocities of that period. This is a dark spot on his resume which he has never been able to shake off.
  • In 1983, Mugabe signed a certificate of immunity from prosecution for Mnangagwa and members of the intelligence when they faced a lawsuit for alleged violations during Gukurahundi. The certificate said whatever they were alleged to have done had been done "in good faith ... for the preservation of the security of Zimbabwe"
  • He is a trained fighter. He received his first military training in Egypt which was a key supporter of African liberation movements. He was among the first batch of cadres to train as a guerrilla under ZAPU. He later received military training in China, another key ally.
  • The first major television interview he gave after he was appointed as Vice President was with the Chinese national broadcaster in 2015.
  • He becomes the first person to have headed two branches of the state – the legislature and the executive. He was the Speaker of Parliament from 2000-2005.
  • He lost two elections in 2000 and 2005, on both occasions to the then little-known Blessing Chebundo of the MDC.
  • He was born in Zimbabwe but lived in Zambia in his early years after his family moved to the neighbouring country during the colonial era. He still has relatives who live in Zambia.
  • He has a law degree which he gained after his release from prison in the mid-1970s. He worked in a law firm briefly before he re-joined the liberation war at the front in Mozambique where he assisted Mugabe
  • He uses one ear. He claims the other one was damaged as a result of torture by colonial authorities during his time as a political prisoner
  • He was Mugabe's Special Assistant from 1976 but he had already met Mugabe in 1963 and had provided security at Mugabe's house in the Highfield residential area in 1964. He has described his relationship with Mugabe as that of “father and son”.
  • Mnangagwa's first wife, whom he claims was also his first girlfriend, was Jayne Tongogara. She was a sister to the liberation war commander Josiah Tongogara, who died on the eve of independence in 1979. Jayne died of cancer in 2002
  • In a 2003 interview he said he had 12 children - 8 girls and 4 boys. (It's not clear whether he has had more since children then.) 
  • He is a businessman, with interests in various fields, including mining, horticulture, dairy farming, cross-border transport. "I also buy shares on the stock market," he once said in an interview. He is said to be one of the wealthiest people in the country.
  • He was once cited in a United Nations report, as having been allegedly involved in the looting of resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He denied the allegations and accused Rwanda and Uganda of having been the plunderers.
  • He has a reputation as a hard man, but he denies it, famously describing himself "as soft as wool." He said, "People think that I’m a hard person but those close to me know that I’m as soft as wool. But of course I stick to my principles. Maybe that’s where the hardness comes from. I stick to principles no matter what it takes."