Six months ago, the coup that Zimbabwe’s government refuses to call a coup, gently pushed 93-year-old Robert Mugabe off his seat and replaced him with Emmerson Mnangagwa. How far has Zimbabwe come since then?
For Zimbabweans, the change meant the end of an era. Mugabe was gone and the man known as "the crocodile" presented his new course which was less isolationist, open to new ways of developing the country and preparing Zimbabwe for upcoming elections. After years under Mugabe, many celebrated Mnangagwa as Zimbabwe's hero, turning a blind eye to the fact that he had served as Mugabe's right-hand man.
"These are not new boys in town. These are the very people who were working with Mugabe,” veteran musician Thomas Mapfumo said about Mnangagwa and his government. Mapfumo had sung songs against the colonial regime and knew the war veterans around Mugabe. In April 2018, he held his first concert in Zimbabwe after years in exile. "The real change we're talking about is freedom of speech, freedom of movement, our people must have jobs," he said.
"We still have long queues at banks; there are still cash shortages. Companies are still struggling to get foreign currency to import raw materials they need for production," Salome Macheya, a 34-year old vegetable vendor in the capital Harare told DW's Columbus Mavhunga.
"We haven't really seen the benefits of the funding that is said to be coming into the country,” Mercy Ranganai, another Harare resident, said. "In terms of freedom of expression, a lot more people are liberal with their views and opinions. You find that there are a lot of political parties that have come to the fore," she added.
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More freedom, but for how long?
At the forefront of the political fight for change is political activist and lawyer Doug Coltart. It's true, he admits, the political space has opened up. Striking nurses and mineworkers were allowed to stage protests, rights activists voiced their grievances at live-streamed town meetings and a theater group even put on a satirical play about Mugabe and his wife. But that could change.
"I think political space will close up after the elections if Mnangagwa does win 'by hook or by crook'," says Coltart. "The presidential spokesperson, George Charamba, has been absolutely clear that for them this election is a foreign policy tool. It's about legitimizing themselves." While the government would never admit that they came to power through a military coup, says Coltart, they are well aware that the international community sees it as such and that without elections, they would lack credibility.
In the past week comments from Mnangagwa's own cabinet indicated that he was ready to use his command over the military to remain in power. "This goes back to a statement the military made in 2002, that said the military would not salute anybody who doesn't have liberation credentials," says Coltart. This statement, he argues, still holds true today and would, of course, exclude any leader not old enough to have fought for independence in 1980.
Opposition and human rights groups have also decried the proximity of the military to members of the electoral commission, as well as the alleged deployment of military personnel in rural areas throughout Zimbabwe in the past few months.
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One promise that Mnangagwa has kept is that he has re-opened the country for business. He has welcomed diplomats and investors and requested re-entry into the Commonwealth.
"International engagement and foreign direct investment are things that Zimbabwe has been really starved off for a long time, so that engagement in theory is a positive thing," says Coltart. The one thing that concerns him, however, is how the government plans to handle its new position in the international limelight.
"With countries like Zimbabwe, the first people to come in are the unscrupulous characters. So the concern is, what benefit will there be to ordinary Zimbabweans or will this just be a case of the political elite going into business with unscrupulous foreigners?" Unless you have a government that ensures that foreign investment is spent well, you cannot expect investment to go into the correct areas, he argues.
Zimbabwean economist John Robertson, on the other hand, has a more positive outlook on the country's future. "The difficulties we face were built slowly into the system by 38 years of very badly chosen economic policies," he argues. "We are six months later. What could have been done to repair the damage that was done? I think this is why the president is waiting to put the elections behind him."
As Zimbabwe moves into its election period – elections are expected to take place between July and August – the political battleground seems to be more open than in the years before. The main opposition party, MDC-T, has after the death of long time opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai been taken over by the much younger Nelson Chamisa. Even though the opposition is split, Chamisa told DW that he believes he has the chance of winning on a youth ticket.
Columbus Mavhunga and Privilege Musvanhiri contributed to this report.