„We dream politics now“

Robert and Grace Mugabe @Robert Dandjk
After the resignation of Africa’s longest-serving dictator, Zimbabwe’s youth is drawing hope. But what if the old elites just carry on as before?

In these hours, a city flies. It is intoxicated, drunk with joy. The beggars forget to beg, the petrol man leaves the tap, a soldier climbs down from the tank to flirt. The brokers run out into the streets, and the pastors, office workers, housewives do the same. A father pulls his two young sons behind him, he wants to take photos with them in front of the tanks „so that one day they can stick it in their photo album and say: We were there at that historic moment.“

Strangers hug each other in the streets, hold hands and dance. No drug in the world could have done what this news did, spreading meteorically across Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital in southern Africa, at just before 6pm on this Tuesday. They shout it to each other, from car to car, from house to house. „We are free!“

Robert Mugabe, the 93-year-old dictator who ruled the country for 37 years, has just stepped down. For years they have been silent, all whispers, now they want to shout, sing and celebrate. „We never dared to talk about politics,“ exclaims a student. „Now we eat, drink, sleep and dream politics!“

When tanks had rolled into Harare a week ago, it had electrified people across the capital. But there were also cautious ones like Prince Nzou.

Whose job so far had been to make the dictator look good. Prince Nzou was in the process of designing a party poster, a picture in which the 93-year-old would look much more vital than in reality: Mugabe among corn cobs and cheering supporters, meant to symbolise a prosperity and enthusiasm that has not existed in this country for a long time.

Prince Nzou was born in 1982, two years after the dictator seized power. Since he started working as chief designer for the ruling Zanu PF party three years ago, he has had Mugabe’s likeness printed on thousands and thousands of T-shirts, stickers, posters and billboards. The poster, which he was working on when the country’s most powerful man ended up under house arrest, was to promote the party’s extraordinary congress in December. Mugabe’s wife Grace was to be elected vice-president and successor to her husband there after a long internal party power struggle.

As people in neighbouring houses began to cheer, fear crept over Prince Nzou. If Mugabe were to fall, what would that mean for him?

Prince Nzou does not want to read his real name in the newspaper. He has worked his way up from a simple party member to what he calls a „somebody“ who now has to fear „losing certain privileges“. He has seen enough infighting and purges in his political career to understand that it is better not to put all your eggs in one basket in Zimbabwe. „Never show that you belong to one person,“ he says, „but always to the party.“

For this is an organisation born in the liberation struggle, aligned to Leninist principles and whose members, after 37 years, have become accustomed to the fact that all power comes from them. There are steeled and ambitious fighters in this party, men who have experienced guerrilla struggle, prison and torture. And there are many „trained to bend with the wind“, says Nzou.

The power struggle to succeed Robert Mugabe has been raging for a long time. The man who freed Rhodesia, as the country used to be called, from British rule. For a long time he was celebrated as one of Africa’s most progressive leaders, until he finally completely ran Zimbabwe, once the breadbasket of Africa, into the ground. In the face of hyperinflation and mass unemployment, his time should have been over long ago – and yet Mugabe managed to cling to power by violently suppressing the opposition, having elections rigged and playing off his internal party opponents against each other.

His companion Emmerson Mnangagwa, 75, had long had hopes of succeeding him. He was of the same stock: at 16, he had joined the liberation struggle, survived prison and torture, served Mugabe as a bodyguard and assistant. He later held numerous government posts, and is said to have been partly responsible for the murder of thousands of opposition members. He received military training in China and Egypt and organised his party’s business activities. Party friends describe him as cruel. His nickname is Crocodile because it is the totem animal of his tribe, but also because he knows exactly when to strike. His allies are the war veterans and the military.

They watched with disgust as Mugabe’s wife Grace, 52 – also known as „Gucci Grace“ because of her extensive shopping orgies – tried to challenge Mnangagwa for his post. She was supported by a group of younger officials, the so-called G40, and the police. When Robert Mugabe fired Mnangagwa as vice president on 6 November to replace him with his wife, the Crocodile and its allies – called Team Lacoste – decided to fight back.

From the beginning, the peculiarity of this coup was that it was not meant to look like one. Team Lacoste did not want to alienate the international community. The spokesperson for the war veterans spoke of an „exquisite military intervention“. Clearly, it was prepared long in advance. According to Zimbabwean intelligence sources, the crocodile had been flirting with the idea for a year. When the country’s military chief was on a visit to the protecting power China in early November, he is said to have learned there that Mugabe wanted him arrested on his return. He decided to beat him to the punch. The visit to Beijing gave rise to speculation: Had the military chief obtained the approval of the Chinese government?

Because the putschists did not want to appear as such, they urged Mugabe to resign. But Mugabe refused to do them this favour for almost a week.

On Sunday last week, Prince Nzou pushed his way through the crowds that had gathered for the special party conference. It’s an event reminiscent of a meeting of the Chinese Communist Party, one official saying that basically it doesn’t matter what parliament decides. „The real decisions are made here.“ But at least there is more Zimbabwean joie de vivre here. Delegates sing and dance as the decisions are announced: Grace Mugabe and her allies are expelled from the party, Mugabe is removed as party leader, Mnangagwa is declared his interim successor. The party gives Mugabe an ultimatum, which Mnanagagwa, who is still abroad, will confirm in writing in the days that follow: either he resigns. Or else he would face the ignominy of impeachment proceedings.

„The same people who voted against Mnangagwa and for Grace just a few days ago are now dancing for him and against her,“ Nzou says quietly. He looks at the T shirts and caps printed with a Lacoste crocodile worn by the cheering supporters of Team Lacoste. „They did that themselves. And without the mandate of the party. It’s not in line with the design rules,“ murmurs Nzou bad-temperedly. „This individualism is divisive.“ What he doesn’t say is that the unknown designer who designed this might soon do his job. What will become of someone like him now?

In all these years, Nzou says, Mugabe has become something of a father figure to him, even though he never met him in person. „When you spend so long building up a man, you don’t just get rid of him.“ Whether a person has been good or bad, Nzou says, „at some point there is a moment when you just miss him.“

In the following days of the coup, Prince Nzou hardly sleeps. There is no thought of work anyway. He doesn’t even know which head will be emblazoned on the poster inviting people to the special party congress in December. Emmerson Mnangagwa’s? He also prefers not to go out on the streets any more, because people there are cheering that the old man has finally been driven out. The same soldiers who are now being hailed as heroes by passers-by were yesterday considered to be the stalwarts of the hated regime. The military is happy to accept the expressions of sympathy, as it gives them legitimacy. After all, they only acted at the request of the people!

No one knows at present where the journey will lead, but at last much seems possible. People are suddenly demonstrating on every corner of the capital Harare. Students. Christians. Members of civil society. They hope that Mnangagwa is only a man of transition. They are betting on next year’s elections. They hope they will be free and fair. „And then,“ shouts one student, „we will finally vote out Zanu PF. Then a new era will begin!“

The more sceptical remind that the crocodile is also a man of the old order. One who dared everything to succeed Mugabe – and who now has much to lose. This is the situation on this Tuesday evening in Harare: Behind the first decided power struggle – Mugabe against Mnangagwa – a second one is already lurking.

It is the one between an authoritarian party and all those in the country who want real freedom.

Published November 2017 in Die Zeit, automatically translated by deepl