What is going on in Zimbabwe? Government is broke and the people are angry. Rifts are emerging within the ruling elite and the leader is no longer a young man.

Mugabe pic

Soldiering on. Mugabe says he will rule till the day he dies. Photo: SABC

But president Robert Mugabe, 92, still has a grip on power. He has ruled the southern African nation since 1980, when he led his people to independence. Young Mugabe, the fearless liberation hero, helped to unshackle the black majority from white minority rule.

Despite early optimism, Mugabe has since become synonymous with the oppression he fought to overcome. And it seems he – and his inner circle – are the only ones who can’t see it.

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A younger Mugabe, seen here in 1976 while in exile from what was then Rhodesia. Telegraph

Mugabe’s excuse for this wilful blindness may lie in a legitimate case of denial, or perhaps a dose of late-onset dementia. Those close him, who are no doubt aware of the true and perilous state of the country, are understandably jostling for political position. The vultures smell the cooling blood of a once-revered man.

His deputy leader, Emmerson Mnangagwa, is seemingly well placed. Mugabe’s wife, Grace, harbours her own leadership ambitions. Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe’s main rival over the past 17 years, also remains in the mix. However Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has faced splits in recent years, weakening his prospects.


Jostling for position. From top left: Mugabe’s deputy Emmerson Mnangagwa; the president’s wife Grace Mugabe; opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai 

Adding to the uncertain future, a new movement for renewal has sprung up in the past few months – led by a modern man of god. Pastor Evan Mawarire, 39, the social media-savvy Christian preacher, drapes himself in the Zimbabwean flag and records video-selfies. The emotional yet clearly communicated videos – calling for an end to “corruption, injustice and poverty” – are then posted to his Facebook page.

Mawarire’s movement, known as #ThisFlag, has become a rallying point for Zimbabweans at home and abroad who want democratic change. The charismatic pastor is currently in neighbouring South Africa, drawing media attention to the plight of his fellow Zimbabweans. He told CNBC Africa that he plans to return to Zimbabwe.

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Flying the flag. Evan Mawarire is causing headaches for Mugabe and his men. BBC

“I’m definitely going back to Zimbabwe. My family is in Zimbabwe. The church I lead is in Zimbabwe. And it’s my home.”

Mugabe told a crowd on July 19 that Mawarire should move to another country if he is unhappy in Zimbabwe.

Whatever the history will be from here, it’s clear that history has judged Mugabe’s rule as a failure. In 1980, freedom and democracy were stillborn.

In mid-2016, Zimbabwe appears to be on the verge of another revolution. But these moments of heightened buzz are not unusual in the country formerly known as Rhodesia.

What’s more, the international news – in its drive to simplify the situation – doesn’t always convey the necessary nuance to allow the reader under the surface.

For this reason, I spoke with Zimbabwean journalist Nqaba Matshazi via email, asking him about the current machinations that are generating international headlines.

Zimbabwean editor Nqaba Matshazi. Twitter

Matshazi, deputy editor of local publication NewsDay, responds to my questions below.

It should be noted that Matshazi replied to these questions before the Zimbabwean Liberation War Veterans Association, a long-time ally of Mugabe, released a statement condemning the president’s “dictatorial tendencies”. This is a significant turn of events. Old certainties are quickly evaporating, but change may still be some way off.

Bill Snaddon: Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, the only serious challenger to Mugabe in recent times, announced recently he has colon cancer and is receiving treatment.  Last week, he picked two new deputies of his party. Has his time come and gone? How is he viewed in Zimbabwe?

Nqaba Matshazi: Morgan Tsvangirai is still a very popular politician in Zimbabwe and cannot be written off under any circumstances. That he has colon cancer will certainly create some machinations against him from some of his lieutenants, although I doubt this will amount to anything. Politics in Zimbabwe is largely driven by personalities rather than issues and as long as he is there, Tsvangirai will continue to command massive support.

If President Robert Mugabe – who has ruled since Zimbabwe overcame white minority rule in 1980 – falls from power in the coming months, who do you think would emerge as the likely new leader?

Well, the Zimbabwean constitution states that Mugabe’s party (Zanu-PF) will have to choose someone to succeed him to finish off his term. The front-runner in this case is his deputy Emmerson Mnangagwa, although there are moves to prevent him from assuming the top office. The situation is quite fluid and it is not helped by Mugabe choosing not to appoint a successor or at least a favourite to succeed him.

The president’s wife, Grace Mugabe, 51, is known to have her own leadership ambitions. With the ongoing #ThisFlag movement in mind, is the First Lady’s power also falling as the president seemingly becomes weaker?

Neither Mugabe nor Grace is any weaker. In fact, the past few weeks are likely to strengthen their resolve to stay in power. While Grace is a key player, it’s important to note that her power is derived mainly from her husband and she is nothing without him. Mugabe and Grace are certainly treating the #ThisFlag movement as an inconvenience that deserves to be crushed. But far from being weaker, Mugabe is still in control.

Every so often there is a spike in international news on Zimbabwe. This current spike in news, from afar, seems different. Mugabe and his backers look more vulnerable than normal, and more people seem to be openly calling for change. Is this reading of the situation correct? Or do you think these current protests will settle down and Mugabe and his inner circle will go back to business as usual.

I agree that Mugabe looks quite vulnerable. The economy is in an awful position. The government cannot pay public workers on time and there is a crippling cash shortage. This has emboldened some to openly challenge Mugabe. However, the spike in news can be attributed to people using social media, both at home and abroad. This amplification of voices challenging Mugabe could be misleading. There are far too few people online to make Mugabe feel vulnerable, although the voices of those few cannot be ignored. WhatsApp has been quite a useful tool in amplifying the voices of dissent, because it is a cheaper tool and is quite ubiquitous.

I doubt, however, that the protests will quiet down. I expect them to grow because the government will fail to pay its workers on time for the foreseeable future. What I see is a confluence of offline and online realities to confront Mugabe, and the police and the army are set to respond with force.

Pastor Evan Mawarire, leader of the #ThisFlag movement, is bringing international attention to Zimbabwe’s push for democratic reform. Is he the real deal? Could he lead Zimbabwe out of its current mess? Or do you think the protests he’s leading will be a flash in the pan?

I doubt he is much of a political leader. He is the rallying point of dissent and discontent, but I don’t see him being anything more than that. Questions about his longevity will be asked and how he responds to arrests and harassment will be key.

After organising a nationwide strike in early July, Mawarire was charged with inciting violence. Just before his court appearance, prosecutors changed the charge to the more serious offence of treason. On July 13, the day of the court hearing, thousands of Zimbabweans took to the streets in support of Mawarire. The case was dropped. The magistrate told a packed courtroom that in bringing the new charges police had violated the pastor’s rights. Do you think Mawarire would have been cleared if so many people hadn’t come out to support him?

Yes, he has been cleared of all charges, on a technicality albeit. I think he would have been cleared in the long run but not as swiftly as he was. My opinion is the crowd forced the court’s hand, although some will be quick to argue against that. The crowd played a big role.

How do you see the next few weeks and months playing out? It’s been reported that the country is quickly running out of cash and the army has not been paid. Is an unhappy army more of a threat to Mugabe than the #ThisFlag protests? Is there a chance that the army will join the protest movement? If so, would this tip the balance against Mugabe?

I doubt the army will join in on the street protests. In the short term, money will be found to pay them. How sustainable this is, is anyone’s guess. I have already pointed out that inability to pay the army also contributes to the government’s vulnerability. So far the army has been, predictably, on government’s side, and the authorities will pull out all the stops to ensure the army is well looked after. 

An outside observer cannot help but notice the religious flavour of this current protest movement. How important is religion in Zimbabwe’s struggle for democracy and freedom? 

Zimbabwe is largely a Christian nation and religion always plays a big part in things happening here. The crisis has also pushed more people to churches, as they believe that is where they can get salvation. A story is often told of how in most cases where companies have shut down in recent years, their buildings have been taken over by churches. That’s how much churches have been growing.

It’s been reported that women protesters are beating pots as a sign of hunger and to signal their displeasure against the ruling party. From what you can see, how much female anger is boiling under the surface in Zimbabwe?

Female anger, just like male anger, has been boiling under the surface for a long time. I doubt the present situation is gendered in such a manner, but rather, the beating the pots was a symbolic march to say “we have nothing to cook”. If I were allowed to get into hyperbole territory, I would equate it to the Women’s March on Versailles during the French Revolution. Although I cannot offhandedly dismiss women’s anger and equate it to men’s, I think Zimbabwe is experiencing a perfect storm, where several groups with varied grievances are beginning to speak up at the same time.

What will Mugabe’s legacy be? In 50 years, what will people say about the man? 

I have no crystal ball. But history has a way of sanitising characters who are then seen as heroes – when a few short years ago they were considered villains. Some will see him as a hero who dared fight colonial powers and gave land to the poor. Others will insist he presided over Zimbabwe’s collapse, left corruption unchecked and encouraged cronyism.