President Emmerson Mnangagwa had yet another chance to show leadership in a national address Tuesday morning. But, as he has done countless times, he squandered it in a tone deaf statement that only further dents his standing.
Planned protests last Friday were met with disproportionate force as authorities moved in to head off any widespread demonstrations. Scores of people were arrested, including the opposition MDC Alliance spokesman Fadzayi Mahere and the writer Tsitsi Dangarembga in Harare.
In Bulawayo, Tawanda Muchehiwa, the nephew of journalist Mduduzi Mathuthu, was abducted. He was returned to his home days later, battered and bruised. His images caused national outrage. Online, a Twitter campaign, #ZimbabweanLivesMatter went global, reflecting badly on an administration that oddly still wants to be seen as reformist.
Internally, the old grumblings of factionalism are being heard in ZANU-PF, with reports of secret meetings and witch-hunts, all which hark back to those last days of Robert Mugabe.
In the economy, inflation is rising and, despite a slowdown in the collapse of the Zimbabwe dollar, sentiment remains largely downbeat. As a gauge, the stock market was sluggish on the first day back from a totally pointless month-long suspension.
In all this, Mnangagwa woke up today to speak into this storm.
Here is what you expect, as a citizen, from your leader in such times; a uniting presence that calms your worst fears. You want to think he understands your frustrations. You don’t expect him to have all the answers. But you expect him, at the very least, to show he is in touch with how you are feeling. You want compassion.
Anything else only fuels a nation’s frustrations, and makes people angrier and more despondent.
So, how did he do? Let’s see.
Does he take any responsibility for how the economy has turned out under his watch?
No. His administration, he said, “has been undermined by the divisive politics of the opposition, sanctions, cyclones, droughts and now COVID19”. His reform plan has suffered under “foreign economic aggression”.
Does he think protesters have genuine grievances? No. They are “bad apples” who must be “flushed out”.
Can he moderate the hate speech and promote the unity that he says we need to grow the economy? No. The opposition are “destructive terrorist opposition groupings”.
In his speech, he spoke against corruption. He detailed reforms such as the repeal of the Public Order and Security Act and AIPPA. He spoke of the need for peace and patriotism. All these are good points, which many would believe if they saw change on the ground.
For, what is the point of repealing repressive media laws, when journalists are still targeted? What is the point of dropping a bad security law, when civilians are still beaten in the streets and taken from their homes by night?
There has been a hardening of positions from the government. As we warned in an editorial back in June, a paranoid ZANU PF is a danger to us all. We said ZANU PF would go after opponents and become more erratic on economic policy.
Sure enough, since then, rights abuses have escalated on the political front. On the economic front, we have seen attacks on the stock exchange and on mobile money. All these actions are based on self-serving, paranoid security reports, placed at Mnangagwa’s feet. The outcome has been a series of own goals that have embarrassed even the most patient ZANU PF supporter.
A good leader would have seen through all that, and chosen the right path that convinces the nation to buy into his vision, securing his standing as leader.
But the own goals have continued, repeatedly. The old line that “the President is captured by hardliners” no longer holds. He, as President, has agency and a full mandate to do what is right. If not for his country, then for his own legacy.
He has chosen the path of those that believe Zimbabwe can prosper without the participation of its citizens. This includes even ZANU PF supporters, who now realise that his promises to them have been forgotten, for the sake of pandering to the old clique around him that wouldn’t survive in a progressive, patriotic administration.
Mnangagwa said it himself in a recent speech: “Zimbabweans deserve better. Zimbabwe deserve better”.
On Tuesday, every Zimbabwean watching his tone-deaf speech must have agreed.