Change is happening in Zimbabwe.  But its nature is unclear, its trajectory is unknown and any assumption that it is for the better is very tenuous.  What is clear, however, is that it ought to be an opportunity to lever better outcomes in the future.  Managing the change will be a bumpy ride for people, administrators, government and parties.  It will be disorienting for some; and will fail to satisfy the (inflated) expectations of others. Understanding the context within which the change is happening and how it affects ordinary people will be key.  Helping people, and the groups that they form to represent them, to lever the potential of whatever change is on offer would be an investment in their resilience in uncertain times.

The real fragile moment

It is increasingly clear that what is happening in Zimbabwe now is really internal ZANU-PF politicking being played out with military means.  In that respect, it is not really a coup – yet.  The military, as a function of the Party, is seeking to ensure that their interests are protected.  That the majority of Zimbabweans appear to believe that this is a good thing is a sign of the extent to which the Party (specifically its elites) have captured the state.

Some kind of resolution will almost certainly be achieved.  The delay is probably because the one lever which President Mugabe retains is his ability to deliver the fig leaf of constitutional due process.  What happens next will be vital.  The most likely outcome – either within the next week or by the end of the year (after the ZANU Congress) – will be a transition from Mugabe to Emerson Mnangagwa (the military’s preferred candidate).  This will almost certainly be followed by some kind of Transitional National Government (TNG) including people (if not parties) from the current opposition.  Vitally – and potentially controversially for the international community – any such arrangement will almost certainly include the deferral of the 2018 elections by anything from five to ten years.  (All Zimbabweans, but not apparently all foreigners, know how divisive and violent a near term election could be.)

Although the military and their political allies are really fighting for their own interests, many ordinary Zimbabweans particularly in the urban and peri-urban areas, have invested a great deal of expectation in the change which they imagine is coming.  And the military have done little to manage that expectation to reasonable levels. Any post-Mugabe solution will be accompanied by fever pitch excitement and an assumption that there really will be jam tomorrow.  Against a backdrop of an almost totally failed economy, high unemployment and collapsed public services, even the best intentioned of governments is likely to disappoint the majority of the population.

And Mugabe is not without supporters – at least by default.  Older, rural people are likely to view his departure as the removal of the one certainty – albeit not always a good one – which has featured in their lives.  Powerless aside from their regular vote in support of him, rural people are ill-equipped to understand and engage with the changes which will affect them.

The real fragile moment in Zimbabwe, then, is not now as the big beasts are manoeuvring for advantage, but later when ordinary people realise that their lives have not improved greatly – if at all.  This offers the potential for significant future destabilisation as the vice-like grip that Mugabe has employed to date is replaced by a new regime which, by definition, is vulnerable to external forces and internal bickering.

The opportunity

Recent events in Zimbabwe were not unplanned – although the timing may not have been that which Mnangagwa or the military might have chosen.  The smooth and hitherto peaceful way in which the military has acted suggests a significant amount of prior preparation and planning.  This has almost certainly extended to planning for post-Mugabe government.  Mnangagwa knows that he must re-start the economy; and that this needs to translate swiftly into visible change for the ordinary citizen.  His early statements when in office will almost certainly focus on moves to correct the “errors” of the past (five years or so) and steps to attract investment and promote economic activity – and thereby employment followed by future tax revenue.

In order to move beyond mere rhetoric, Mnangagwa’s government will need to be seen to deliver.  That it is likely to be a TNG will simultaneously limit his room for (political) manoeuvre and require him to take into account opposition demands for service delivery and accountability.  This will, in effect, be an invitation to the population to collaborate with the TNG to articulate their needs and to hold government to account.