24 November 2017 was an electrifying day for Zimbabweans. For the first time in 30 years, they would have a new president. Robert Mugabe, who for so long had dominated and controlled Zimbabwe’s political and economic landscape, was no longer in power. Emmerson Mnangagwa, his deputy, would now be the one referred to as “His Excellency,” and with his inauguration, there was hope that after years of economic stagnation and political instability, there would be change for the better.
Four months after his inauguration, has Mnangagwa managed to deliver on any of the grand promises he made when he addressed Zimbabwe for the first time as president?
He promised to bring an end to corruption. He promised to work on electoral reforms for free and fair elections. He promised to jumpstart economic growth and specifically called on Zimbabwe’s youth to get involved. These are all laudable goals, to be sure. But perhaps the most visible change for most Zimbabweans has been on their commute.
The Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP), long notorious for making life miserable for both drivers and commuters, has been deeply humbled. Their roadblocks and bribery have been curtailed for the most part, and now people can drive and use public transport without dreading traffic police.
Another noticeable has been in the education sector. When Mnangagwa reappointed Lazarus Dokora as Primary Education Minister he immediately came under some public pressure — Dokora’s changes to the curriculum were very unpopular. Yhe President bowed to public pressure and replaced him.
Furthermore, the media landscape is opening up. One demonstration of this is that Mnangagwa is on Twitter and Facebook – a far cry from a time when the government tried to limit access to social media in a bid to snuff out citizen activism. Also significant is that state-controlled media have started covering opposition party events in news programmes, ending years of a state media ban on anyone who wasn’t from the ruling party.
Zimbabwe also seems to be taking some steps towards opening up its economy to outside investments. Headlines during Mnangagwa’s first 100 days in office detail new investment deals, engaging with the international community, cracking down on corruption and making steps to revive Zimbabwe’s dead industries.
Despite these steps, has life really changed for the ordinary Zimbabweans?
For a country with 90% unemployment, damaged roads, collapsing healthcare and a vulnerable banking system, ‘fixing’ Zimbabwe was never going to be an overnight job. But in the space of four months, nothing much has changed in the daily lives of Zimbabweans – in some instances, life has gotten harder.
Political analyst Natasha Fuyane agrees that there hasn’t been any significant change for Zimbabweans, those both inside and outside the country. “The Zimbabwe situation is very unique in that it affects people regardless of distance. It affects your personal economy,” she says. The ability to work, get visas, send money to relatives while supporting yourself and not have to worry about your life being completely disrupted by another economic or political shock: none of that has changed for the better yet. For Fuyane, it all comes down to the fact that despite having a new president, the same people are still in power. “It would be remiss to think of this as a different outfit altogether. There hasn’t been any change. For citizens, it’s still ZANU PF.”
Mnangagwa himself, although only becoming president less than a year, has held some position of political power in government since 1980. Most of his Cabinet ministers have been in Parliament for more than a decade. There has been much talk about introducing fresh ideas and new people into governance, but it is still ZANU PF – the party that’s been at the helm for 37 years – that’s running the show.
Expecting an immediate improvement in Zimbabwe’s economy and politics in only four months is an unrealistic expectation. However, that there has been no significant change is worrying, and frustrating. Mnangagwa has done a good job in rehabilitating the image of the Zimbabwean presidency, especially on the international stage, but that work has yet to be translated into tangible results on the ground.
“I personally don’t support the argument that it takes time to feel an effect. We should be feeling some effect by now. The administration hasn’t been able to tap into any of their goodwill,” Fuyane says, adding that Mnangagwa’s administration has not been able to get any quick and easy wins. The current doctors strike is an example. Tired of poor working conditions and little pay, doctors and nurses have been on strike since March 1. A strike whose grievances could have been addressed from the beginning has dragged on for four weeks, deepening an already serious health crisis. What could have been a victory for Mnangagwa’s government is highlighting just how much things haven’t changed, despite a few steps towards progress.
Despite this, Zimbabweans still have hope that Emmerson Mnangagwa succeeds in his calls for economic growth and progress. “We all benefit from a good Zimbabwe, no matter where we are,” Fuyane asserts. Despite hopes being crushed over and over again, Zimbabweans still hold onto the hope that this presidency is the beginning of a turnaround, however frail that hope may be. As general elections look ahead, the test for whether things have truly changed lies in the ballot box.