Nelson Chamisa wants to do the trip in just half an hour. On a bullet train.
At a rally earlier this month in Bindura, a town north of Harare, the fresh-faced, newly minted leader of the opposition promised to deliver a technological miracle to would-be voters. “We want to have the best infrastructure in the next two to three years,” he said. “We want to bring bullet trains that travel at 600 kilometers per hour, from Bulawayo to Harare in 30 to 35 minutes.”
The crowd cheered. After decades of misrule by former President Robert Mugabe, who stayed in office for nearly three decades before a military intervention forced him out last year, Zimbabwe’s public infrastructure is crumbling in plain sight. Paint peels from the walls of public buildings, power is erratic, and potholes disfigure most roads. Who wouldn’t be enthused by the prospect of a gleaming new train network, and the connotations of wealth, development and modernity that come with it? The 40-year-old Chamisa is not just promising a train, he is promising Wakanda, the fictional high-tech African city of the Black Panther comics.
Nonetheless, as politicians’ promises go, this one is on the wild side. Critics immediately latched onto Chamisa’s dodgy mathematics—446 kilometers at 600 kilometers per hour is still longer than 35 minutes—and the billions of dollars it would cost to implement. As the state-run Herald newspaper observed, with relish, “A politician who cares for his future must guard against over promising, lying to and exciting the electorate with unattainable goals.”
“It is helpful for Chamisa to note that in the last 37 years, the country was ruled by a talker of great repute—people are tired of oratory,” the newspaper added.
It was as clear a message as any of just how much Zimbabwe has changed in the past six months. For decades, The Herald was Mugabe’s loudest cheerleader. Now, the state propagandists invoke his name as an insult.
The New Zimbabwe
Mugabe’s reign began on April 18, 1980, and ended on Nov. 21, 2017. He was the only leader many Zimbabweans had ever known, presiding over a violently authoritarian regime that ultimately tanked the country’s economy and devastated its development prospects. A master manipulator and an expert at pitting political factions and interest groups against each other, he was finally beaten at his own game by Emmerson Mnangagwa, his right-hand man, and a cabal of senior military figures who seized power in a carefully orchestrated and largely nonviolent coup.
In his first six months in office, Mnangagwa has worked hard to portray himself as representing a decisive break from the past, even though he is implicated in the worst excesses of the old regime. These include the Gukurahundi massacre of the 1980s, in which the army killed tens of thousands of members of the Ndebele ethnic group, and the 2008 election violence, in which pro-Mugabe forces targeted loyalists of opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai, ultimately forcing him to withdraw from the race.
Among other decrees, Zimbabwe’s new, 75-year-old president has relaxed restrictions on freedom of speech; allowed opposition parties to campaign openly in rural areas; relaxed restrictions on white farmers owning land; legalized cannabis production for medical use; and ordered the police to stop extorting motorists at checkpoints. He has toured the world declaring that Zimbabwe is “open for business,” and relaxed restrictive indigenization laws to attract foreign investment. His portrait has replaced Mugabe’s in offices and shops across the country.
Without a hint of irony, the long-ruling ZANU-PF is pitching itself as the party of change.
But the first major test of Mnangagwa and the post-Mugabe order is still coming. In either July or August, Zimbabweans will head to polls to choose their next president. An official date has yet to be set, but campaigning has already begun. Local and legislative elections will take place at the same time.
Mnangagwa is heading the ruling ZANU-PF party ticket. While the campaign slogan—“Delivering the Zimbabwe you want”—promises something new, the campaign strategy is right out of the Mugabe playbook: A giant banner bearing Mnangagwa’s likeness clings to the side of ZANU-PF’s headquarters, the 15-story Harare landmark located on a street named Rotten Row. And 52 luxury vehicles emblazoned with the party logos were handed over to traditional leaders affiliated with the ruling party.
Most analysts agree that this is Mnangagwa’s election to lose. He is the incumbent, after all, and he enjoys a wave of popular goodwill for his role in unseating Mugabe. Without a hint of irony, ZANU-PF, the only ruling party Zimbabwe has ever known, is pitching itself as the party of change.
“Despite having served in every administration since 1980, Mnangagwa may be seen as a ‘new broom’ by some voters who are eager to see a normalization of relations with the West and the significant economic growth needed for the jobs to return to absorb the country’s indigent workforce,” says Nicole Beardsworth, a researcher at the University of York’s Interdisciplinary Global Development Center.
At the same time, the election also represents the best chance the opposition has ever had of unseating ZANU-PF, if only they can land on an effective message. “Zimbabweans are desperate for long-awaited change,” Beardsworth says, “but with ZANU-PF promising to deliver the change that they need, the opposition will need to pull out all the stops in grassroots organizing to be able to convince citizens that they have the solutions to the country’s pressing problems.”
Enter Nelson Chamisa, and his bullet train.
A Medieval Succession
Mugabe was not the only titan of Zimbabwean politics to leave the stage in the past six months. Morgan Tsvangirai, the founder and leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, the country’s main opposition party, died in a Johannesburg hospital in February after a long struggle with cancer—and an even longer struggle against the ZANU-PF regime.
Mugabe and Tsvangirai were very different leaders, but they shared a weakness: their failure to plan for succession, or even countenance any talk of it. Tsvangirai was a passionate democrat who was imprisoned and tortured for his beliefs, but he ran his party with a distinct authoritarian streak.
This alienated some colleagues, like former Finance Minister Tendai Biti and former Industry Minister Welshman Ncube, who broke away to form their own political movements. A spat over who owns the MDC name resulted in Tsvangirai renaming his party the MDC-T. Naturally, the “T” stands for Tsvangirai.
Tsvangirai was so wary of empowering a successor that in 2016 he rode roughshod over the party’s constitution to appoint two vice presidents, Nelson Chamisa and Elias Mudzuri, in addition to the party’s elected deputy, Thokozani Khupe. This structure eliminated the possibility that a clear No. 2 would emerge.
That didn’t matter too much as long as Tsvangirai was alive. No one disputed his role at the top, knowing that he was by far the person most likely to displace ZANU-PF in an election. Even Tsvangirai’s old foes outside the party recognized this, and some, including Biti, agreed to join forces with him under the banner of a new opposition coalition, the MDC Alliance, which brings together several opposition parties.
But upon his death, an almost medieval succession battle pitted Chamisa against Khupe, with both claiming to have been anointed by Tsvangirai on his deathbed. The fight was ugly, playing out in public insults and social media histrionics, and inevitably it turned violent. At Tsvangirai’s funeral, Chamisa-supporting thugs surrounded Khupe and her supporters, who were forced to shelter in a thatched hut. Some in the crowd tried to set the thatch alight. Mercifully, the roof was wet from rain, and the fire didn’t catch. Eventually, the police were called in to escort Khupe to safety.
By then, though, Chamisa had already won. On Feb. 15, the day after Tsvangirai died, Chamisa chaired a meeting of the MDC’s national council that declared him acting president, effectively nullifying Khupe’s claim to the position. Though Derek Matyszak, a political analyst with the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa, has noted that this meeting was “dubiously convened,” Chamisa is rejecting any challenge to his authority. “Chamisa has now taken the stance that there is neither money nor time for the party to convene an extraordinary congress to affirm his position before the elections,” Matyszak wrote. “He will thus be the party’s presidential candidate by default.”
Khupe wasn’t happy, and she has set up her own faction, also known as MDC-T. As head of the original MDC-T, though, and now the MDC Alliance, Chamisa has inherited the party’s structures and resources, making him the only credible rival to Mnangagwa, for better or worse. But can this 40-year-old lawyer escape from the shadow of Tsvangirai, whose portrait still adorns the walls of Harvest House, the MDC headquarters? And does he have what it takes to topple the incumbent?
An Unexpected Headache
Chamisa’s supporters are optimistic. Latching onto his vision, they call themselves “the bullet train,” and contend that Chamisa’s appeal among young voters will propel him to victory. “The military junta expected to run against Tsvangirai,” says Patson Dzamara, a prominent political activist and a close friend of Chamisa. “They knew he would give them a headache. But they never expected to be confronted with a young person who is energetic, vibrant, charismatic.”
Zimbabweans between the ages of 18 and 40 make up 60 percent of registered voters. That means that if Chamisa can win over the youth, he will have won the election. This is the logic of the “bullet train” rhetoric: Chamisa is positioning himself as a visionary, tech-savvy and thoroughly modern leader, in stark contrast to both the 93-year-old who was last year removed from the presidency and the 75-year-old who replaced him.
For now, Mnangagwa is letting his young challenger get away with it. Not only that, the acting president is facilitating the most open campaign environment in the history of modern Zimbabwe, allowing his opponents to operate freely and even inviting international observers to monitor the vote.
“In the past, it was difficult for opposition leaders, especially Tsvangirai, to campaign in rural areas. Police would stop rallies or get campaign programs canceled,” Dzamara says. “But Nelson has carried out campaigns and rallies in the rural areas. The heavy-handedness of the law enforcement agencies is not being displayed in the current dispensation.”
Chamisa is taking advantage of the changes, drawing huge crowds in rural areas that would have been impossible just a few months ago. He is making the ruling party very nervous. According to a Bloomberg report, three ranking members of the ZANU-PF politburo, the ruling party’s highest decision-making body, worry that the political climate has become too open, and that Chamisa’s momentum might actually sweep the opposition into power.
That being said, the odds are still stacked against Chamisa’s MDC-T, Dzamara argues. “There is still a way to go. There are still a lot of issues to attend to before we can say that the elections are free and fair,” he says. “We are looking at the public broadcaster, the opposition is not given airtime, which is incongruous with the dictates of our constitution.”
And of course, the opposition needs to resolve its internal tensions. The divisions so blatantly exposed by Tsvangirai’s death are still raw. The MDC Alliance was supposed to bring all major opposition leaders under one umbrella, in the belief that a united front stood the best chance of removing ZANU-PF from power. But leaders like Khupe refuse to join, and Chamisa’s MDC-T has been undermined by additional instances of infighting and defections. Most recently, Jessie Majome, a popular parliamentarian in Harare, left the party, claiming that the MDC-T had thrown its weight behind a rival candidate, reneging on a promise to keep her seat safe.
“There are things that have happened in the run-up to the primaries that send a very clear message that the agenda is to have you out of party circles,” Majome said. “Of late, there has been a lot of malice, discrimination and insults that I have been subjected to by party officials, mostly through social media. All this shows and tells me I am no longer a wanted commodity in the party.”
Dzamara acknowledges that unity is a problem, and laments that opposition infighting has become such a distraction. “This is something I believe could have been avoided, should be avoided, because at the end of the day we do not benefit from this quagmire,” he says. “If anything, these fights only aid the prospect of ZANU-PF to stay in power.”
Fortunately for the MDC, ZANU-PF is also struggling to present a united front, as internal factions battle for positions.
The factionalism of the Mugabe era pitted Mnangagwa’s Team Lacoste—the moniker is a reference to Mnangagwa’s liberation war-era nickname, “The Crocodile”—against the G40 faction led by Mugabe’s wife, Grace. Those factions are dead, but new ones have emerged. ZANU-PF is now roughly divided between those members with links to the military and those associated with Mnangagwa’s “civilian” wing. In late April, several high-profile “civilians” lost party primaries for parliamentary seats.
“The ruling party is currently fractured, and the recent party primaries have highlighted those cleavages,” Beardsworth says. “Rumors abound regarding divisions between the party’s ‘military’ and ‘civilian’ wings, and between adherents of the former ‘G40’ faction, and those who support President Mnangagwa.”
Those divisions could end up playing right into Chamisa’s hands. The current landscape, Beardsworth says, “may presage a situation where a fragmented ruling party and ZANU-PF-aligned ‘independent’ candidates split the vote against united opposition candidates.”
The Third Way
Wary of becoming bogged down in either party’s quagmire, some politicians have chosen to take a different route entirely. In 2016, pastor Evan Mawarire founded the #ThisFlag social movement, which galvanized anti-Mugabe sentiment outside established political party channels. He is now running for a position on the Harare City Council as an independent. “I’m not worried about splitting the opposition vote,” he says. “I don’t think the opposition vote can be split any more than it is.”
The new political landscape is at once unrecognizable and all too familiar.
Fadzayi Mahere, a prominent human rights lawyer, is running as an independent for the parliamentary seat in Mount Pleasant, an affluent Harare suburb, and she’s doing it on her own because she is disillusioned with traditional opposition politics. “The reality is there’s a lack of commitment. They’ve become jaded. They’ve lost some of their purity around the ideals of democracy,” she says. “Being in the trenches for 20 years will do that to you. It’s important to come back to first principles. To stop making our politics about personality, to make it about the people.”
She adds that, even if she wanted to join the MDC, or ZANU-PF for that matter, there would be no space for her. “There are very big structural barriers to females and young people participating in politics,” she says. “What you find in both political parties is that unless you’ve been in the structures for decades you can’t penetrate, they’re not open to new ideas.”
Even now that she has established herself outside party structures, Mahere is finding that doors remain closed to her. “I have written to the MDC Alliance asking for a meeting, asking to cooperate,” she says. “Time and time again I’ve spoken to the principals and senior officials and suggested we collaborate in order to be strategic about winning the constituency. I haven’t had a response.”
The More Things Change…
Zimbabwe’s upcoming elections take place in a political landscape that is at once unrecognizable and all too familiar. Mugabe is gone, as is Tsvangirai, and that makes these polls an exciting step into the unknown for a new, overwhelmingly youthful generation of Zimbabweans. But much has yet to change: ZANU-PF still enjoys all the benefits of incumbency, while the opposition spends as much time fighting among itself as it does in confronting the ruling party.
Not that Chamisa himself is in any doubt about the outcome. Addressing supporters in the diaspora on a high-profile road trip to the United Kingdom, he said he was guaranteed a win in free and fair elections: “If Mnangagwa wins 5 percent in a free election, I will give him my sister. I have a sister who just turned 18 and is looking for a husband. I am betting on this because I know it won’t happen,” he said.
He later issued a “sincere apology” for the sexist joke. He might also want to rethink his confidence. For all Chamisa’s bluster, and his bullet trains, it is still advantage Mnangagwa in the race to lead the new Zimbabwe.