Zimbabwe: The land of nervous laughter

Robert Mugabe arrives at Zanu-PF's conference in Bulawayo, on December 8, 2011 Image copyright AFP
Image caption Robert Mugabe appeared well as he arrived to deliver his speech in Bulawayo

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe moved to the podium with his trademark blend of languor and briskness - still looking reasonably sprightly for an 87-year-old in reportedly poor health.

The crowd - perhaps 3,000-strong, seated, hot and mildly expectant after waiting for some nine hours for this moment - had just been warned not to "dare" to even talk to their neighbours during the president's speech.

There had been a big build-up ahead of the keynote speech of Zanu-PF's annual party conference. And yet, there was a tangible sense that everyone in the pavilion in Bulawayo was going through the motions.

President Mugabe launched - after a brief delay to rearrange his notes - into a long and familiar attack on Western imperialism and past injustices.

Within minutes, I counted four out of 10 people in the row behind me, slumped in their seats with their eyes closed. They were not an exception. The crowd rallied, periodically, when the president made a joke, or a particularly biting remark. But the atmosphere was heavy and tired.

Mr Mugabe did stray from his usual targets - former British Prime Minister Tony Blair still a major preoccupation - to touch on the "momentous" but unfinished events of the Arab Spring - an awkward subject, you might think, for a man who has been in power for more than three decades.

Mr Mugabe described Libya as "well-developed but autocratic" but concluded that "Nato terrorists" had bombed the country back by a century in order to carve up its oil assets at a "mini-Berlin conference". Other African countries with mineral wealth - Zimbabwe for example - should beware.

What next?

The security at the event was astonishingly tight - the full apparatus of the Zimbabwean state employed for a party political event. My colleague even had to take out a contact lens to prove to a suspicious guard that his lens cleaning kit was not hazardous.

It was a sharp and telling contrast with Zimbabwe's other main party, the former opposition MDC - now "partners" in an uneasy unity government - which can rarely even secure police permission for its rallies, and whose ministers are sometimes abused or detained at police roadblocks.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Robert Mugabe received a warm welcome from Zanu-PF supporters at the party conference

In public, no-one I met at the Zanu-PF conference seemed willing to even entertain the thought that their elderly leader might not rule forever and that perhaps it might be prudent to discuss the succession issue. Behind the scenes though, there is frantic speculation about power struggles, factions and even possible coup plots.

As things stand, President Mugabe is pushing for re-election in 2012. But before that happens, Zimbabwe is supposed to have a new constitution, and new rules governing its heavy-handed security services - responsible for at least some of the violence during the chaos of the 2008 elections. So what will happen?

  • An ailing president might be pushed by hardliners into calling a snap election before the new rules are in place, in order, perhaps, to rig the vote and secure Zanu-PF another term. But would the South Africans tolerate any of that?
  • The constitutional process may continue to meander along its slow course, delaying elections for another year or more - after all, Zimbabwe's political elites, Zanu-PF and MDC alike, seem to be enjoying the spoils of office far too much to rock the boat
  • Age and ill-health might catch up with Mr Mugabe, prompting Zanu-PF either to collapse, trigger a coup, or rally with their ruthless instinct for self-preservation.

I'm inclined, for now, to go with the middle option.

'Loot-ocracy'

In the real world outside the Zanu-PF conference, Bulawayo seems superficially calm and stable. The shops are full, the traffic lights are working, the pavements are being cleaned, and most people I spoke to acknowledged, with relief, the continuing political truce that has allowed Zimbabwe to pull out of hyperinflation and economic free-fall.

And yet, the low-level intimidation of journalists and activists continues - a reminder that the state and Zanu-PF remain almost synonymous here - and according to Moses Mzila-Ndlovu, an MDC MP and minister for national reconciliation, "the rest of the world thinks that things have stabilised and improved but in so far as we talk of real meaningful change in the lives of the people, we are still facing this deficit."

Ask anyone on the street to talk politics, and Zimbabwe is still the land of nervous laughter. One man ventured that "perhaps President Mugabe might want to retire", but most people I spoke to preferred to avoid the subject.

"It's so dangerous to speak about him in any way. Some secret service may be following and might arrest you. God knows what might happen. There has been some bit of liberalisation in many facets of life, but politically not much has changed," said one businessman who declined to give his name.

And so Zimbabwe staggers on. The foreign investors - who were queuing up to return to the country in 2009 - are now pulling back warily, waiting for clarity about Zanu-PF's "indigenisation" programme.

"These things have to be cleared up," said John Sullivan, who runs a Bulawayo factory manufacturing parts for the mining industry. He had 300 employees. Now, for a variety of reasons, he has 10. "Investors are very reluctant - this is a very hostile environment towards business. There's a 'loot-ocracy' at work… profiting from the situation. [Zanu-PF] still call the shots. They have their… tentacles in a lot of business activity."

He is critical of President Mugabe's plans to force companies to sell 51% of their business to black Zimbabweans. "This is just a mechanism for looting. They target certain [lucrative] businesses."