The future of Zimbabwe

After 37 years in power, Robert Mugabe’s replacement by his long time supporter Emmerson Mnangagwa has potential to finally change the direction of the country but may also keep it on it present trajectory to nowhere.

The geo-political situation of Zimbabwe

In terms of its fixed aspects, Zimbabwe is a rich country located in a strategically important place but without access to the sea. Zimbabwe boasts, for example, the world’s largest deposits of chromite as well as coal, platinum, nickel gold and iron ore. It was, in fact, interest in its mineral wealth that prompted Cecil Rhodes to move into the area in the 1890s and to fight two wars with the amaNdebele to create what became Rhodesia and eventually Zimbabwe.

It has an industrial base, forests, natural parks and wildlife and the country is located strategically between South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana and Zambia.

The problem is that the combination of its colonial past and Mugabe’s rule has left the country with very little of the institutions and elements of cicil society needed to build a modern, prosperous nation despite its potential prosperity. Add to the that the fact that the population has grown from under 4 million in 1960 to over 16 million today, and you have a current geopolitical situation which is very challenging today.

Environmental Problems

As is often the case, political issues are deeply related to environmental challenges and Zimbabwe has suffered from insufficient environmental regulations and very uneven application fo the few laws on the books to do the corruption that has been prevalent during the Mugabe years. Adding to this is the economic desperation of large parts of the population which has led to even more problems such as deforestation.

Zimbabwe is also relatively dry and the country is facing almost a perfect storm in terms of water management with wasteful agricultural practices, rising population, and industrial pollution all adding up to a real and present danger.

The Crocodile

Into this enters Emmerson Mnangagwa a lawyer who once ran Zimbabwe’s intelligence service and who according to the New York Times has a reputation for ruthlessness and is called the Crocodile because he “strikes at the appropriate time”. Mnangagwa served as Mugabe’s Vice president but was fired apparently to pave the way for Mugabe’s wife grace to take over from her Husband. The military take over of the country, which was not called a coup, is widely considered to have been done to avoid that scenario as Mrs. Mugabe had little support outside her immediate inner circle.

Always optimistic

One my students from Zimbabwe welcomed Mugabe’s departure and was optimistic about the future although clearly recognizing the danger that Mnangagwa will merely keep things going as before. The issue is that he is 75 and the entire generation of revolutionary leaders who came to power with Mugabe in 1970 must pass things along to a new generation.

10 years ago I was lecturing in Cape Town and had another student from Zimbabwe who was also optimistic even though the situation at the time was terrible. Perhaps Mr. Mnangagwa will see that the best hope for his country and his personal legacy will be to open up the political process and build a national consensus to address the country’s problems.