Zimbabwe: What do we know about Mnangagwa?

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Zimbabwe: What do we know about Mnangagwa?

The political fallout in Zimbabwe between President Robert Mugabe and Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa has resulted in tanks on the streets of Harare, and question marks over the continuation of Mugabe’s presidency. New African interviewed Mnangagwa in 2015, giving insight into his relationship with Mugabe, his aspirations to become President, and Zimbabwe’s unfolding power struggle. 

You will be 73 years old in September (written in 2015). You have been in government for 35 of those 73 years, serving in various positions. For the past  six months, you have been vice president. How has that been?

Well, it’s been 6 months of hard work, really applying oneself more than before. Remember that I still carry the responsibilities of minister of justice, and we are currently in the middle of realigning our laws with the new constitution. It is quite a burden, especially coming on top of my new responsibilities as vice president. [With it] being a new position, I am learning the ropes to assist the president in running the country. Yes, it has been joyful to work [in this way] but it has been hard work.

Talking about assisting the president, you have been with him for a long time. What have you learned from your journey with him? 

You can do the arithmetic. I have been with the president since 1963. We have been working together since then, first in Tanganyika and thereafter we were in prison together; he did 11 years and I did 10 years. The difference was that he was detained and I was in prison, so we couldn’t communicate under the circumstances. After that we were together in Mozambique for the entire period of the armed struggle, and at the Lancaster House Conference in London in 1979, and through 35 years of independence. So altogether, we have been together for 52 years. 

You know the president very well. What do you think has enabled him to withstand his assault by the combined might of the Western world? 

President Mugabe has survived because he is a principled leader. He makes sure he champions the interests of his people. So his people, the majority in this country, stand with him in good or bad times, and he does not desert his people. This is why he has survived. That is the secret.

President Mugabe himself now talks about the twilight years. He is in the evening of his rule and life. His shoes will be difficult to fill, won’t they?

No doubt about that. I don’t think the next generation will be able to produce a person like him. I don’t think we can get a person even in our generation who can fill his shoes [given the way] he has been able to remain an intellectual giant in leading our people and charting a course for the African people of this region, perhaps even continentally. 

The other leaders of the same calibre that I can think of are Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Touré, and Modibo Keita who in the 1950s and 60s spoke about a vision for African unity. Now those leaders are gone. Within the current African leadership, I don’t see many who fit the shoes of the founding fathers. The only one I know, without thinking much, is President Mugabe. 

It will take a long time for this country to produce a man of his calibre, if we can at all. A man who would stand whatever pressure, who would stand the pressures of the West and not sacrifice what is correct for expediency, just to say for now, I will forgo what is right for my people in order to be comfortable. No, Mugabe doesn’t do that. And I don’t see anybody in our region of that calibre, let alone among ourselves as Zimbabweans. 

But, having worked with him for all this time, there are so many cadres who are now solid. However,  they are not of the same vision, character, and intellectual mettle of Mugabe. We shall miss him dearly. He is an outstanding leader and human being. 

Why can’t the many “solid” cadres you talk about be like Mugabe? Iron sharpens iron, doesn’t it?

I don’t know what that means, iron sharpens iron, that is English language phrasing. But I can say that most of us who have worked together in the last 40 years – in government I can count them on my fingers – the majority were in the army. The current army commanders were very young at the time, and I can guarantee you that there is nobody in the army who is of our generation. Those who are heading the military now were junior officers during the struggle because all their commanders have either died or retired. 

But the young people who are now in the leadership follow the footsteps of the president. They admire him and are committed to him both in terms of loyalty and perseverance, and they will uphold what we call “the revolutionary correct line”. 

There are also colleagues in the leadership that I am a hundred per cent sure will continue to identify the correct line of the revolution and follow it. And the correct line is “where we ought to go”, because there is a difference between “where we want to go” as a nation and “where we ought to go”. A leader must not take the people where they want to go, but where they ought to go, whether the people or the leader want it or not, or whether it is hard or not. 

The Zanu-PF government has been in power for 35 years. Would you say it has put systems in place that can be carried forward by the next generation, when the current leaders retire?

To instill a culture of commitment and the upholding of the values of our revolution by the people, we had initially introduced a Youth Service to preach and teach patriotism to our youth. But down the line, we did not have the resources to sustain the programmes at the Youth Service centres. We felt that every child, as they grew up in this country, should put the country
first and their personal interests second. 

We felt that the best method was to introduce the Youth Service [so that] when our children had reached secondary-level education, they would go and be taught the elements of patriotism. That as a nation we are where we are today because we have stood up and are ready to shed our blood for what we believe is ours. And that we must, day and night, remain masters of our destiny and masters of our resources. And we must preserve our God-given resources for ourselves and generations to come, and that anybody who wants to participate in our resources must come on our terms. That is the culture we are preaching. 

But you are asking: Are we satisfied that the future generations will be able to carry on with the spirit of the revolution? We believe that they will, that for the foreseeable future we shall lie quietly in our graves. Else we may wake up from our graves if they fail to teach or continue with the resolute spirit we are imparting to them.

How are you doing that?

At the moment, we are pursuing a two-pronged approach: one, to bring back our Youth Service programmes, and two, to change the curriculum in our schools so that the history of the revolution is taught and taught well. I went to school in China in 1963-64 and we were taught about the Chinese Revolution, and up to this day Chinese schools still teach about the Chinese Revolution. As a result, the majority of the Chinese people today are very loyal to their country. This is because they begin at an early age to inculcate patriotism into them. 

We also believe that if we introduce our revolutionary history into schools, it will help the nation to appreciate where we have come from, who we are, where we are going, and why we should continue to be who we are. It will help them to know that other nations are proud of themselves and there is no time when a British or American child ever aspires to be a Zimbabwean. In the same vein, we should also not have our children aspiring to be Americans, Indians, Chinese, and so on. They should aspire to be themselves. If we have that gravitas, then we, the current generation in the leadership, can rest well in our graves.

 But the commitment of the youth of today is not the same as the commitment of the youth of the 1960s? You have talked about catching them young, but what about those who are already out of school and working. How can you whip up their fervour to become committed citizens? 

Well, the generation out of school is in-between the generation in school and our generation that was directly involved in the liberation struggle. In the 1960s, our leaders decided that we must take up arms, and the youth were very enthusiastic to go to war. We had nothing to lose at the time. We had no wives and no property. The only property we had was the clothes we wore. 

Now the generation out of school, they have wives and children, they have homes and mortgages, so to tell them to sacrifice and die for the nation [laughs], they think twice. In fact, resources are our constraint, but our goal is really to catch them young. 

Both you and President Mugabe are also called crocodiles, and we know the strength of the crocodile as an animal. Do your nicknames have a bearing on the strength of your personalities? 

Honestly, I cannot interrogate the nickname given to me. Those who gave it thought it was important. But for President Mugabe, it is his totem. He is a Gushungo which means crocodile. For me it is a nickname arising from the Crocodile Group [during the liberation war]. 

But you know the trait of a crocodile, don’t you? It never hunts outside water. It always goes into the water to catch its prey. It never goes in the villages or in the bush looking for food. It strikes at the appropriate time. So a good guerrilla leader strikes at the appropriate time. That’s the importance of the nicknames we gave each other.

Zimbabwe is a unitary state, but if you hear the talk coming from Matabeleland, you might think the opposite is true. What is your view on that?

Zimbabwe is a democracy and people are allowed to dream. But the truth is that Zimbabwe is a unitary state. I often talk about it. It is a unitary state and those who dream about secession will not be allowed to break up the country. But we will not imprison a person for advocating for secession. You can continue to dream in a democracy. But we are a unitary state and nobody can change that.

Somebody has said that Zanu-PF as a party thrives on having enemies and that if the party has no enemies, it creates one. Is that why there is so much infighting in the party currently?

[Laughs heartily]. No, Zanu is democratic. If you create a democratic situation where people are allowed to think freely, people will not agree on anything, and this is where the healthiness of the party is. This is why the party has survived for 52 years now. It is because we allow internal debate. People debate, they disagree, agree, and agree to disagree. Others get thrown out. This is what it is. 

But if you coerce people into one straight line, then it is like the MDC [the opposition Movement for Democratic Change]. It breaks! Now there are five MDCs, but there is just one Zanu-PF after 52 years!

Lastly, some of your admirers have implied that God has preserved you [this long] for the presidency. Many people inside and outside the country see you as the leading candidate to succeed President Mugabe. Are they right?

No, they are not informed. I think they are outside Zanu-PF. Those inside Zanu-PF know that being vice president or being a member of the Politburo or Central Committee is not a stepping-stone to becoming president. Not at all. A president is elected at the party congress. There are no conditions that you must be at this level or that level to become president. The condition is that you must be a member of Zanu-PF, and anybody can become a member of Zanu-PF. 

So you can’t say that because I am vice president or a member of the Politburo or a member of the Central Committee, I am nearer to becoming president.

You see, you can be on the road between the State House and Zim House, the president’s official residence across the road. You can throw a stone into the yard of the State House when you are on that road, but someone walking from here to China will arrive first before you arrive in State House if you are on that road. So that is what it is. That is how far it is [to reach the presidency]!


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Written by Baffour Ankomah

Baffour Ankomah is New African's current Editor at Large. He has spent much of his 39 years of journalism at the magazine, having served as its Assistant Editor for 6 years, Deputy Editor for 5 years, and Editor for 15 years, retiring from active service in 2014. In 39 years of his journalism career - Africa and his many causes have been his passion. His personal column, Baffour's Beefs, which has been running continuously in New African since 1987, is a big hit and a must-read for the magazine's worldwide readers. He is now based in Zimbabwe, where he and his wife Elizabeth run their own media consultancy and fashion house called "African Interest" which trades under the trademark "I am African".

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