Zimbabwe without Robert Mugabe: what has changed?

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Robert Mugabe was president for 37 years until 2017

There is still a climate of fear in Zimbabwe five years after long-time ruler Robert Mugabe was ousted. As the country marks this milestone, few people are willing to speak openly about whether the government that has come to power has fulfilled its promise of transformation, whether in terms of raising living standards or guaranteeing human rights.

“I mind my own business,” a street vendor told the UKTN, who did not want to be named. “People who speak their mind – some end up in jail. So I keep things to myself and do what I have to do to survive.”

Little has changed since the departure of President Mugabe. Many ordinary people and critics still risk arrest for insulting the president, human rights lawyers say.

Tendai (not his real name) sells groceries from his trunk – washing powder, deodorant, snacks and cooking oil are all neatly piled up. Even though he graduated from college with a dual major in marketing and human resources management, he says being a street vendor is the only way he can make a living because there are no jobs available.

“Since Robert Mugabe left, everything has been the same or even worse. But while it may sound far-fetched, I still have hope for the future,” he added.

Inflation today is 268% – many times higher than when Mugabe left office, according to data from Zimbabwe’s National Bureau of Statistics. Meanwhile, the share of Zimbabweans living in extreme poverty has nearly doubled — from 30% in 2017 to 50% during the coronavirus pandemic, the World Bank says.

This has driven more people to despair.

Harare is teeming with informal traders, including an increasing number of middle-class people selling goods from their cars. A woman sells fresh meat from plastic bins in her van, to customers who come by foot or car for ever-shrinking rations of meat – some paying as little as $0.50 (£0.42) at a time.

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“Personally, I wasn’t one of the people who was happy when Mugabe stepped down. People didn’t know they were celebrating an impending doom,” the meat seller told the UKTN.

Women holding a Zimbabwean flag take part in a demonstration by students of the University of Zimbabwe in Harare on November 20, 2017, as pressure mounts on Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to resign and after criticism of his wife Grace.

Zimbabweans filled the streets of the capital before and after the announcement

“They thought that after he left they would get bread with margarine and jam, eggs and milk, but that didn’t happen.”

Praise and promises

The streets of Harare erupted as people celebrated Mugabe’s resignation on November 21, 2017. A week earlier, tanks had rolled into the streets of the capital when the army seized the public broadcaster and placed the 93-year-old president under house arrest.

Former Mugabe vice president Emmerson Mnangagwa emerged as the hero taking on the strongman. He vowed to end toxic and polarizing domestic politics, turn the economy around and mend broken relations with Western countries.

However, skeptics pointed out that he had worked closely with Mugabe for years and was accused of playing a major role in some of the worst atrocities of the Mugabe era, and questioned whether he was really the man to bring about change. Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party remained in power.

“I went into government because I loved my country and not the coup,” award-winning author and lawyer Petina Gappah said during an online discussion held by political think tank SAPES Trust to review the post-coup era.

She had been recruited as an adviser on international re-engagement to the State Department, but it only lasted 18 months. She says she left with sadness, not anger and disappointment, not bitterness.

Petina Gappah poses for a portrait in 2010.

“I loved my country and not the coup,” says award-winning author and attorney Petina Gappah

“Some leaders called it a miracle. We felt like something new was coming — unfortunately it didn’t come,” she said.

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Last week’s visit by a Commonwealth delegation considering the takeover of Zimbabwe suggests a positive shift has taken place since President Mugabe’s departure. Such a visit was previously unthinkable.

Zimbabwe withdrew from the body in 2003, accusing what it called an “Anglo-Saxon unholy alliance against Zimbabwe”. The previous year, Zimbabwe had been suspended for human rights abuses, including violent takeovers of white-owned farms and the persecution of members of the opposition.

Zimbabwe’s return to the Commonwealth would be a symbolic victory for President Mnangagwa’s government – a sign that the feud with the UK over land was over, analysts have told Gappah.

The main opposition party – the Citizen’s Coalition for Change (CCC) – wants conditions put in place before Zimbabwe can rejoin, citing continued persecution of its members, journalists and other government critics.

The week of the Commonwealth visit, 15 CCC members, including MP Godfrey Sithole, were finally released on bail after serving five months in prison for allegedly inciting public violence during clashes with government supporters in Nyatsime , south of Harare, which they say is politically motivated. Job Sikhala, another legislator, remains behind bars on the same charges.

While the Commonwealth delegation led by Deputy Secretary-General Luis Franceschi said Zimbabwe has made “very impressive progress” in meeting conditions, member states will need to consider whether economic, human rights and electoral reforms are sufficient for readmission .

At this stage, the Zimbabwean government remains hopeful. “We have done everything we can to be re-admitted – there are countries in the Commonwealth that are similar to us,” said Zanu-PF spokesman Nick Mangwana.

Sensitive to bigger things

However, some companies say there has been a positive shift. GDP increased from $17.5bn (£14.8bn) in 2017 to $20.2bn last year.

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“This government is more sensitive to business needs. They could do more, but you can’t compare it to the previous government,” said Kurai Matsheza, chairman of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries manufacturing lobby.

He says there are fewer business closures than in the Mugabe era, adding “the policy shifts, the price controls are not at the same level as they used to be”.

The government has attracted hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, mainly in mining. Platinum giant Zimplats will invest $1.8 billion over the next 10 years, after negotiations with the government. Meanwhile, Chinese miner Zhejiang Huayou Cobalt is set to invest $300 million in its lithium mine.

A steel project that stalled under Mugabe has been revived. The horticultural sector that had collapsed is now back after investments in irrigation. Wheat production is at its highest level in 17 years. Roads and dams are being repaired and constructed.

However, this does not yet translate into enough jobs to prevent young Zimbabweans from doing everything they can to make a living elsewhere.

A customer buys cooking oil from a stall selling smaller quantities of cooking oil in Harare Mbare Musika marketplace in 2019.

Bigger companies may be doing better, but inflation hurts casual traders

So what is the government doing about it?

“Now 50% percent of turnover goes to capital investment – ​​to improve lives, you have to improve outcomes, so the government had to provide infrastructure,” says government spokesman Mangwana.

“The Word Bank says the country has reached middle-income status, which means incomes have improved. We have not arrived at our destination, what we have is work in progress,” he adds.

But Ranga Mberi, editor of business news website Newzwire, says more is needed. “While it’s good to talk about mining growth and investment, what matters is what’s on the table and in people’s pockets.”

“Inflation is the big issue people will judge him [Mnangagwa] through,” he adds.

“The test is that everything has to translate to full stomachs. And that’s the big test for Mr. Mnangagwa going into 2023.”

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