Zimbabwe’s political context is conditioned almost entirely by the President’s (apparently rapidly) failing health; and the jockeying around him for power and influence – both in the near term; and with an eye to future political (and in the case of the wider Mugabe family, legacy and financial) settlement. In this respect, Zimbabwean people are enjoying a period of relative stability as they are not directly affected by the machinations of the political classes who are too busy with their own interests for the moment. But change within Zimbabwe’s political classes can be swift, unpredictable and destabilising.

There is a sense that change may be imminent (2-4 months), although whether this is through the death or retirement of the President is unclear. There is genuine uncertainty about how any political settlement or accommodation might play out within the party and/or within the country. But for now, it seems that Vice-President (Emerson Mnangagwa; EM) has managed to outwit his opponents and is in pole position to take over from the President. He does not enjoy unconditional – or even majority – support within the party, but by taking a number of policy initiatives (and thereby filling a vacuum) he has established an, at least temporary, first mover advantage. Critically, he appears to have neutralised what appeared to be the main threat to him and his group (the so-called Team Lacoste after the crocodile like tendency to lurk, observe and pounce; but also the clothing brand) from a coalition of the First Lady and a younger faction within ZANU-PF informally known as the G-40 (after the Constitutional provision that Presidents must be at least 40 years of age). The First Lady appeared to have moved decisively against him in recent months, but EM has regained the advantage for now. She will not, however, go quietly; and she has the President’s ear in a way that no-one else has.

The big question – now – is what EM might do with power. There are some suggestions that he has sought and made alliances with ZIPLA and ZANLA, and in so doing has made himself more acceptable to the War Veterans (whose declaration for the MDC of last year may or may not still stand). He also appears to be acceptable to senior officers in the military. And he has made undertakings to the President about the future safety and welfare of the Mugabe family (although they are unlikely to take these at face value.) It looks, therefore, as though he could currently command the “state” (higher echelons of the party, the government and the security apparatus). But he does not command the “street” – where ordinary people, left to a free choice, would probably choose from the opposition parties. This makes an election in June 2018 a key point of vulnerability for him. (Although as the architect of the resounding ZANU victory in 2013, he surely knows how to solve this problem if necessary.)

But there may be a more pragmatic solution in the wings. Aside from the convictions of a very small group around the President, the actual policy differences between ZANU and MDC (led by Morgan Tsvangirai; MT) are really very small. Both want to solve the land problem and to reverse the indigenisation strategy – essentially as a necessary kick start to the economy. And both recognise, within limits, that corruption needs to be substantially reduced. Both also recognise that an election is likely to be contentious, volatile and potentially violent. At the same time, Zimbabwe’s economic crisis is deepening and, although an oft repeated view over the years, must be on the verge of spiralling out of control. Pragmatism may drive the various protagonists to an accommodation which sees some form of Transitional National Government (TNG) installed without a full election along with a sunset clause leading up to generational change in the leadership of both ZANU and MDC in the future. Such a deal, if backed by donors and key influential powers, could offer a way
forward without the apparently mandatory violence and rigging which has been the hallmark of recent elections.

The nature of a possible deal between MDC and ZANU – or, more likely, between EM and MT- would be hard fought; and would have to cover a wide range of potentially contentious issues, such as security sector reform, economic reform, electoral reform and governance reform. It would need to be backed by substantial funds – estimates range between USD 15 and 30 billion over ten years – and would need to be carefully monitored to ensure compliance in all sides. Such negotiations, were they to take place, could only be held outside Zimbabwe. And their pace would be conditioned by Mugabe’s health.

For the deal to mean any more than just the re-arrangement of the deck-chairs of power on Zimbabwe’s Titanic, it will need to include some form of process which acknowledges the hurt and pain suffered by all sides during the liberation struggle; the gestation of the new Zimbabwe; and the years since independence. Alongside this, there will be a clear need for “space” within society to discuss the issues which affect its members; and for well thought out communications strategies on the part of government, the opposition and donors.

There is some suggestion that arrangements for TNG negotiations might have already begun. There is, apparently, tentative agreement to dismantle the hard centre of security management in Zimbabwe (The Joint Operations Command; JOC) and to replace it with a National Security Council co-chaired by EM and MT; and there have been discussions about how Cabinet might be managed under a TNG (some kind of alternating Chair is perhaps envisaged). South Africa is reported to be keen to host and broker the negotiations, as much as a prop to Jacob Zuma’s beleaguered reputation – and perhaps as a distraction from the domestic political problems which he is suffering at home. There are suggestions that discreet contacts have been made with key outside interests, including China, the US and the UK – all of whom are reported to be keen to hear more. (In this respect, a relatively non-traditional alliance of donors might be possible as no-one is getting what they want from Zimbabwe now, and everyone fears the national and regional consequences of a descent into civil war and total economic (and perhaps humanitarian) collapse.

Whatever happens – deal or no deal – Zimbabwe is in for a rocky ride in the near future. Not even Singaporean health care can sustain the President indefinitely. His near-term departure from office currently offers the prospect of the least-worst way forward – EM and MT in some kind of TNG sustained by a donor funded emergency package and with elections deferred for, perhaps, another five years. The President’s retirement – to a position of Father of the Nation, or some such honorific – would permit the transition to be managed best. But time may be against this option. The more time that passes, the more chance that the political sands will shift. EM and MT’s interests align in this respect.