Stunning end to the year gives Zimbabweans new hope
The ousting of the dictator Robert Mugabe has been welcomed but many challenges remain for the new leader
If 2017 is to be remembered for anything, it is certain that at the top of list for Zimbabweans it will be the winkling out of Robert Mugabe after decades of misrule that brought the country to its knees.
Thousands danced in the streets last month to celebrate the toppling of Zimbabwe's ruler after 39 years - but now the pressure is on his successor to show the new regime can return the country to its former glory.
"We couldn't believe it, that he was finally gone," says Itai Shoko, a Zimbabwean with refugee status living in the inner-city suburb of Hillbrow in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The new president Emmerson Mnangagwa is a 75-year-old veteran of Zimbabwe's liberation war against white Rhodesia, and a long-time ally of Mr Mugabe. In late November he staged a coup styled along the lines of the Egyptian leader Abdel El Sisi, also a military leader who ousted a democratic leader.
Like Mr El Sisi, Zimbabwe's new president hopes to win western support and present the military action as a necessary change for good.
While many have reservations around Mr Mnangagwa's sudden grab for power, few regret seeing Mr Mugabe shuffle off into retirement. "No one really knows whether the new regime will be much better, but I have hope that the future is looking good. This is a good thing," says Mr Shoko.
As word of Mr Mugabe's toppling spread, the streets of Hillbrow erupted into an impromptu street party as Zimbabweans, some of whom had not been home for years for fear of political victimisation, cheered.
The ousting came after Mugabe in October replaced finance minister Patrick Chinamasa with the home affairs minister Ignatius Chombo in a cabinet reshuffle amid a severe hard-currency shortage that dealt a fresh blow to confidence and investment in the southern African economy, which uses the US dollar. In addition, Mr Mugabe had become too reliant on his military.
Although Mr Mugabe had fallen out with Mr Mnangagwa before - he had survived a demotion in 2005 - he ended up rising to the vice presidency of the ruling Zanu-PF party anyway in 2014. It was clear Mr Mugabe saw him as a potential successor. Over the course of 2017, as Mr Mugabe's frailties became more public - often falling asleep during high-profile events - Constantine Chiwenga, the Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander, became known as a Mnangagwa ally. When Mr Mugabe fired Mr Mnangagwa last month, accusing him of disloyalty, and it became obvious the dictator would like his wife Grace to serve as vice president and take over from him, Mr Chiwenga made his move, promising to stop "those bent on hijacking the revolution". The military takeover in Harare took place the following day.
In the weeks since the coup, however, Mr Mnangagwa has had to move decisively to demonstrate he plans to steer the country in a fresh new direction. He was quickly endorsed by the ruling ZanuPF party and inaugurated as president, thus putting a veneer of legitimacy to his seizing of power.
Mr Mnangagwa has also sought to send the message that "Zimbabwe is open for busines".
In an unusual move, Mr Mnangagwa has held a town hall public feedback session via Facebook, outlining his plans and inviting responses.
"As Zimbabwe enters a new era, we are making a clean break with the struggles of the past," he said.
Mr Mnangagwa has also made a string of announcements via Facebook, state media and in parliament, all designed to present a rosier picture of his new administration. He cut the size of the cabinet by a third, banned first-class travel for state officials, signed a US$153 million loan agreement with China and presided over a $5.1 billion state budget launch. The African Export and Import Bank has also pledged up to $1.5bn in new loans and financial guarantees to Zimbabwe.
In an apparent snub to Mr Mugabe, Mr Mnangagwa reinstated Mr Chinamasa as his new finance minister, one of the few survivors of Mr Mugabe's cabinet, and presented the country's 2018 budget to parliament. As with his boss, Mr Chinamasa pushed the theme of change.
"As we focus on recovery of our economy, we must shed misbehaviours and acts of indiscipline which have characterised the past, while we address and reduce the high country-risk perception among existing and prospective investors," Mr Chinamasa told parliament this month.
Of particular note to foreign investors was the amending of the country's indigenisation law, which required all businesses to be 51 per cent locally owned. Now only diamond and platinum producers will be required to meet these terms, and then only by a vaguely defined date further down the line.
In addition, platinum mining royalties were reduced from 10 per cent to 2.5 per cent.
Zimbabwe like neighbouring South Africa is a geological treasure trove, with vast deposits of platinum, gold, and diamonds. It is also currently Africa's largest producer of lithium, a material in hot demand right now for battery manufacture, particularly for electric cars.
Yet the sector has plodded along for years as investors put in the bare minimum of capital needed to keep existing operations working, while avoiding new projects altogether.
According to the Zimbabwe Chamber of Mines, the sector needs almost $400m to meet capital requirements for 2018. Current capital investment is almost half that. Fortunately for Mr Mnangagwa's administration, the mining sector is looking a lot more attractive since Mr Mugabe's ousting.
A snap survey by the chamber finds that most mining companies are optimistic that the new government will implement consistent and predictable mining policies.
“Around 50 per cent of [survey] respondents are optimistic about prospects of a consistent and predictable mining policy environment, while 10 per cent were of the view that the policy environment will remain uncertain and unpredictable,” the chamber said.
Probably the most vexing issue the new government must confront is that of land. Around 4,000 white farmers were shoved off their properties over the past two decades, to make way for blacks. Several hundred thousand now eke a living off these properties, with some even thriving as small tobacco producers.
The government's own figures show the country earned $722m from the 131 million kilograms of tobacco it exported in 2016. Major export destinations are China, Indonesia, Belgium, South Africa, Sudan and Russia. Following good rains the 2017 season is expected to deliver even better returns of up to $1bn in sales.
According to the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board, around 72,500 small farmers are registered producers, making the industry Zimbabwe's single largest employer. Therefore, trying to reverse the land reform process is politically a non-starter.
However, in his inauguration speech Mr Mnagagwa said restitution for the evicted landowners would be made. “My government is committed to compensating those farmers from whom land was taken, in terms of the laws of the land."
Quite likely, Mr Mnagagwa will undertake a roadshow as soon as possible to erstwhile colonial overlord Britain to seek help in funding the compensation, as well as to wind back sanctions imposed during the Tony Blair era.
Updated: December 20, 2017 04:34 PM