Africa Watch

Final throw of the dice for Mugabe?


President Robert Mugabe survived many past threats to his rule in Zimbabwe, but this time he might have reached a bridge too far. There are also serious implications for South Africa.    

For some years now pundits have predicted the demise of Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s only president since independence in 1980. The 92-year-old has, amazingly, proved them wrong time and again.

This is all due to his political acumen and ability to effectively remove any possible threat to his position from within his own ruling ZANU-PF by whatever means. Any opposition threat was often suppressed by naked force and intimidation by the fiercely loyal security establishment.

It came at a cost, in monetary terms as well as human lives, that is impossible to assess.

But current developments in Zimbabwe suggest that Mugabe is finally losing his seemingly unbreakable grip on power.


For years, outsiders were bemused at the patience of ordinary Zimbabweans, absorbing growing abuse from an increasingly paranoid regime, but the Zimbabwean News Day reported last week: “The past few months have seen increased citizen activism and participation on a hitherto unprecedented scale.

“Citizens have become more emboldened and are challenging the government on a number of issues.” 

The Standard was more direct, stating; “President Robert Mugabe is a besieged man, and his aura of invincibility appears to have all but gone as protests pop up like mushrooms in summer, while calls for his removal grow into a crescendo.”

Pressure groups that took the initiative are considerably more daring and challenging than in the past, using social media to good effect, not only calling on Mugabe to resign immediately, but in an unheard of show of defiance also threatened to storm his official residence, State House.

A social media announcement invites Zimbabweans to join public protests, informing them: “We will be marching to State House and demanding Mugabe to leave office. We will do whatever it takes to liberate ourselves. Mugabe must go this month. This is a month to liberate ourselves from this evil regime. We are just doing this as angry citizens seeking solutions to our problems. We need jobs, we need a better life. The time for fear is over, we need to be resolute because we believe what we are doing is not illegal. There is no going back; more stay-aways and demonstrations are coming.”


The current upheaval started on Friday 1 July at the Beit Bridge border post between South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Skirmishes broke out on the Zimbabwean side over new restrictions on the import of goods into Zimbabwe resulting in the first closure of the border in a century.

Protests soon followed in the public transport sector over continuous police harassment, and workers in the sector blocked transport movement.

Then, the real showdown came when civil servants, mostly doctors, nurses and teachers, went on strike to protest the late payment of their June salaries.

Forming part of a wider stay-away protest, it was widely judged the biggest general strike in the post-independent history of Zimbabwe. The cash-strapped Zimbabwean government has struggled to pay civil servants and in an attempt to resolve the problem opted to pay workers in batches. The military and the police force, however, have been paid their June salaries.

The protests also spread from Harare to Bulawayo and several major towns across the country.

Imploding economy

Why is the Mugabe government for the first time facing a real, serious popular uprising?

The economy is imploding and public anger mounting. Not only is Zimbabwe no longer producing its own currency, but it is also running out of US dollars, bringing normal business activities almost to a standstill.

People are increasingly forced to resort to barter arrangements and the ailing Mugabe’s government is apparently at a complete loss as how to resolve this problem.

An attempt to introduce a new Zimbabwean currency via so-called ‘bond notes’ met with universal condemnation amid fears of a repeat of the disastrous hyperinflation, which caused the scrapping of original Zimbabwean dollar.

Restrictions on South African imports, particularly basic consumer goods, to keep US dollars from leaving the country, amid arguments that it would rejuvenate the local economy and its production sector, are rejected.

It was in the first instance the Zimbabwean government that was responsible for the country’s economic disaster through years of short-sighted fiscal and agricultural policies.   

Since the imposition of new import restrictions, smuggling along the notoriously porous South Africa-Zimbabwe border increased dramatically. It is significantly nullifying the perceived outcome.

It is also doubtful whether the reported announcement – in a belated attempt to limit the damage – that some goods will be exempted, will have the desired effect.

The government must still fork out 80% of its almost non-existent revenue to pay government wages, while nearly 90% of the population remains unemployed as a result of government’s mismanagement and self-defeating policies.

Coupled with one of the most severe droughts in southern African history, food is in increasingly short supply, exacerbated by Mugabe’s latest folly. This, perhaps more than anything else, represents an existential threat to his regime – the people are hungry.

A telling remark came from a striking taxi driver in Harare: “The government is asking us to be patient, but we’ve been patient for nearly twenty years. You can’t be patient if you’re hungry and can’t buy food, you can’t be patient if ministers in expensive cars are telling you to wait.”

The future

It is obvious Mugabe has no workable plan to deal with the biggest threat ever to his presidency. He fell back on his tried and trusted solution to send in the police and loyal party thugs to subdue the protesters by brutal force, intimidation and incarceration.

Taking a cue from his southern neighbour, the Mugabe regime also blames the protests on the phantom “third force”. The normal culprits, Western embassies, puppet mastering all the anti-Mugabe actions, also followed.

It is doubtful whether this tactic will succeed this time around. External intervention might become inevitable, but will be extremely challenging.

Logic dictates such intervention should come via the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), with South Africa, as a leading member and most important neighbour, playing a leadership role.

The history of past attempts indicates that the chances for success are slim. Mugabe mostly ignored external intervention in the past. Former President Thabo Mbeki’s ill-advised “quiet diplomacy” approach springs to mind.

It seems improbable that Mugabe will take instructions or advice from organisations that not long ago bestowed on him standing ovations, applause and the honour of leading them as chairman – ignoring his self-destructive domestic policies.  

An urgent solution is desperately needed, but a sinking feeling remains that things could still get worse.

South Africa should prepare for another wave of refugees, with a real possibility – the South African government will hopefully heed – that it might trigger a resurgence of xenophobic incidents. This in turn, might put unbearable strain on local law enforcement agencies, already confronted with the tension and political intolerance associated with the upcoming local elections.    


by Garth Cilliers

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