Flanked by pith-helmeted soldiers and horses sired in Southern Africa’s finest studs, Robert Mugabe’s procession to the annual opening of Parliament reflects the president’s fondness for imperial pomp and ceremony.
Yet for keen watchers of Zimbabwe’s politics, the performance also offers a rare insight into Mugabe himself – his precarious health, waning rhetorical power, and political priorities in the year ahead. Clearing the low bar set in 2015, when the President shambled his way through the wrong speech amid opposition laughter, a visibly tired Mugabe surprised this year’s MPs with plans to amend a key investment law.
The flagship indigenisation programme, designed to hand 51% of new and existing foreign and white-owned enterprises to black Zimbabweans, was supposed to represent the culmination of Mugabe’s lifelong crusade against white minority interests. In reality, the law has repelled investors, stunted job creation and deprived the economy of much needed foreign currency since its 2008 introduction.
For Mugabe’s critics, the amendment represents an embarrassing climb-down, the end of the road for a radical programme that has brought little or no prosperity to the vast majority of black Zimbabweans. Yet for the 92-year old President, the great survivor of post-liberation African politics, pragmatic changes to an unpopular law offer a sly chance to extend his rule yet further.
As the country slides once more into recession, increasingly brazen public protests have gripped the cities, rocking a government consumed by factionalism and obsessed with dividing the spoils of Mugabe’s rule. Many have suggested, not for the first time, that the President’s grip on power is loosening as succession battles heat up. Against this fraught but familiar backdrop, Mugabe appears to have pinned his hopes on a transformative deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The painstakingly negotiated $986m lifeline will allow the government to clear debts, import food and pay civil servant salaries, including the all important army and police on which Mugabe’s rule depends. It also offers the last route out of a deepening economic crisis which the IMF predicts will lead to a real GDP contraction of -0.3% in 2016 and -2.5% next year.
The IMF, long used to Zimbabwe’s erratic relationship with development finance, insists on strict conditions for its support. The president’s bid to soften the law – much like his tentative steps to compensate white farmers for the disastrous 2000 land reform programme – will send a message to the IMF that he is serious about the deal.
For Mugabe, the move would represent a final victory of survival instinct over radical political impulse; a tacit admission that few of his policies will outlast the man. For the public – tired of international pariah status and crying out for economic stability – it offers a glimpse of a future beyond Mugabe’s self-serving rule.