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The Dictatorship of the Church

6 min read.

From the enormously influential megachurches of Walter Magaya and Emmanuel Makandiwa to smaller ‘startups,’ the church in Zimbabwe has frightening, nearly despotic authority.



The Dictatorship of the Church
Photo: Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

In Zimbabwe, the most powerful dictatorship is not the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party. Despite the party’s 40 year history of ruthlessly cracking down on opposition parties, sowing fear into the minds of the country’s political aspirants, despite the party’s overseeing of catastrophic policies such as the failed land reform, and despite the precarious position of the social landscape of the country today, neither former president Robert Mugabe, nor the current president Emmerson Mnangagwa, nor any of their associates pose as significant an existential threat to Zimbabweans as the most influential dictatorship at play in the country: the church.The church has frightening, near despotic authority which it uses to wield the balance of human rights within its palms. It wields authority from enormously influential megachurches like those of Walter Magaya and Emmanuel Makandiwa, to the smaller startup churches that operate from the depths of the highest-density suburbs of the metropolitan provinces of Bulawayo and Harare. Modern day totalitarian regimes brandish the power of the military over their subjects. In the same way, the church wields the threat of eternal damnation against those who fail to follow its commands. With the advent of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2020, for example, Emmanuel Makandiwa vocally declared that the vaccine was the biblical “mark of the beast.” In line with the promises of the book of Revelations, he declared that receiving it would damn one to eternal punishment.

Additionally, in just the same way that dictators stifle discourse through the control of the media, the church suppresses change by controlling the political landscape and making themselves indispensable stakeholders in electoral periods. The impact of this is enormous: since independence, there has been no meaningful political discourse on human rights questions. These questions include same-sex marriage and the right to access abortions as well as other reproductive health services. The church’s role in this situation has been to lead an onslaught of attacks on any institution, political or not, that dares to bring such questions for public consideration. But importantly, only through such consideration can policy substantively change. When people enter into conversation, they gain the opportunity to find middle grounds for their seemingly irreconcilable positions. Such middle-grounds may be the difference between life and death for many disadvantaged groups in Zimbabwe and across the world at large. The influence of the church impedes any attempt at locating this middle ground.

Additionally, because the church influences so many Zimbabweans, political actors do not dare oppose the church’s declarations. They fear being condemned and losing the support of their electorate. The church rarely faces criticism for its positions. It is not held accountable for the sentiments its leaders express by virtue of the veil of righteousness protecting it.

Furthermore, and uniquely so, the church serves the function of propping up the ZANU-PF party. The ZANU-PF mainly holds conservative ideals. These ideals align with those of the traditionalist Zimbabwean church. In short, the church in Zimbabwe stands as a hurdle to the crucial regime change necessary to bring the country to success. With a crucial election slated for the coming months, this hurdle looms more threatening than at any other time in the country’s history.

The impact of the church’s dictatorship on humans is immeasurable. Queer people, for example, are enormously vulnerable to violence and othering from their communities. They are also particularly vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases and infections due to the absence of healthcare for them. The church meets the attempts of organizations such as the Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe to push for protection with cries that often devolve into scapegoating. These cries from the church reference moral decadence, a supposed decline in family values, and in the worst of cases, mental illness.

Similarly, the church meets civil society’s attempts at codifying and protecting sexual and reproductive rights with vehement disapproval. In 2021, for example, 22 civil society organizations petitioned Parliament to lower the consent age for accessing sexual and reproductive health servicesCritics of the petition described it as “deeply antithetical to the public morality of Zimbabwe” that is grounded in “good old cultural and Christian values.”

Reporting on its consultations with religious leaders, a Parliamentary Portfolio Committee tasked with considering this petition described Christianity as “the solution” to the problem posed by the petition. This Committee viewed the petition as a gateway to issues such as “child exploitation … rights without responsibility … and spiritual bondages.” The petition disappeared into the annals of parliamentary bureaucracy. A year later, the Constitutional Court unanimously voted to increase the age of consent to 18.

A more horrifying instance of this unholy alliance between the church and the state in Zimbabwe is a recently unearthed money laundering scheme that has occurred under the watchful eye of the government. Under the stewardship of self-proclaimed Prophet Uebert Angel, the Ambassador-at-Large for the Government of Zimbabwe, millions of dollars were laundered by the Zimbabwean government. Here, as revealed by Al Jazeera in a four-part docuseries, Ambassador Angel served as a middleman for the government, facilitating the laundering of millions of dollars and the smuggling of scores of refined gold bars to the United Arab Emirates. He did this using his plenipotentiary ambassadorial status to vault through loopholes in the government’s security systems.

Importantly, Prophet Angel was appointed in 2021 as part of a frenetic series of ambassadorial appointments. President Mnangagwa handed out these appointments to specifically high-profile church leaders known for their glamorous lifestyle and their preaching of the prosperity gospel. Through these appointments, Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government earned itself a permanent stamp of approval from the church and access to a multi-million member base of voting Christians in the country. Mnangagwa’s gained access to freedom from accountability arising from the power of the endorsements by “men-of-God,” one of whom’s prophetic realm includes predicting English Premier League (EPL) football scores and guessing the color of congregants’ undergarments.

In exchange, Prophet Angel has earned himself a decently large sum of money. He has also earned the same freedom from critique and accountability as Zimbabwe’s government. To date, there is no evidence of Angel ever having faced any consequences for his action. The most popular response is simple: the majority of the Christian community chooses either to defend him or to turn a blind eye to his sins. The Christian community’s response to Prophet Angel’s actions, and to the role of the church in abortion and LGBTQ discourse is predictable. The community also responds simply to similar instances when the church acts as a dialogical actor and absolves itself of accountability and critique

Amidst all this, it is easy to denounce the church as a failed actor. However, the church’s political presence has not been exclusively negative. The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, for example, was the first organization to formally acknowledge Gukurahundi, a genocide that happened between 1982 and 1987 and killed thousands of Ndebele people. The Commission did this through a detailed report documenting what it termed as disturbances in the western regions of the country. Doing so sparked essential conversations about accountability and culpability over this forgotten genocide in Zimbabwe.

Similarly, the Zimbabwe Bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission has been involved in data collection that is sparking discourse about violence and human rights abuses in Zimbabwe. In doing so, the Commission is challenging Zimbabweans to think more critically about what constructive politics can look like in the country. Such work is hugely instrumental in driving social justice work forward in the country. What uniquely identifies the church’s involvement in both of these issues, however, is that neither touches on matters of Christian dogma. Instead, the Commission responds to general questions about the future of both God and Zimbabwe’s people in ways that make it easy for the church to enter into conversation with a critical and informed lens.

The conclusion from this is simple: if Zimbabwe is to shift into more progressive, dialogical politics, the church’s role must change with it. It is unlikely that the church will ever be a wholly apolitical actor in any country. However, the political integration of the church into the politics of Zimbabwe must be a full one. It must be led by the enhanced accountability of Zimbabwean religious leaders. In the same way that other political actors are taken to task over their opinions, the church must be held accountable for its rhetoric in the political space.

A growing population has, thus far, been involved in driving this shift. Social media has taken on a central role in this. For example, social media platforms such as Twitter thoroughly criticized megachurch pastor Emmanuel Makandiwa for his sentiments regarding vaccinations. This and other factors led him to backtrack on his expressed views on inoculation. However, social media is not as available in rural areas. There, the influence of the religion is stronger than elsewhere in the country. Therefore investments must be made in educating people about the roles of the church and the confines of its authority. This will be instrumental in giving people the courage to cut against the very rough grain of religious dogma. Presently, few such educational opportunities exist. To spark this much-needed change, it will be useful to have incentivizing opportunities for dialogue in religious sects.

More than anything else, the people for whom and through whom the church exists must drive any shift in the church’s role. The people of Tunisia stripped President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of his authority during the Jasmine Revolution of January 2011. The women of Iran continue to tear at the walls that surround the extremist Islamic Republic. In just the same way, the people of Zimbabwe have the power to disrobe the church of the veil of righteousness that protects it from criticism and accountability.

In anticipation of the upcoming election, the critical issues emerging necessitate this excoriation even more. This will open up political spaces for Zimbabweans to consider a wider pool of contentious issues when they take to the polls in a few months. Above all, the people of Zimbabwe must start viewing the church for what it is: an institution, just like any other, with vested interests in the country’s affairs. As with any other institution, we must begin to challenge, question, and criticize the church for its own good and for the good of the people of Zimbabwe.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Job Tapera is a final year high school student studying in Johannesburg, South Africa.


Understanding Africa’s Middle Class

The middle classes of Africa are often idealized as spearheads of democratization and opponents of corrupt regimes. But what does the research actually say?



Understanding Africa’s Middle Class
Photo: Loresho Crescent, suburban Nairobi. Image credit Susan MacMillan for ILRI via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Since the early 2010s, development actors, financial experts, and academics have been discussing the “middle classes” in Africa. The rising income of considerable shares of the populations in many countries triggered a focus on a so-called “indispensable” middle class and was eagerly promoted by the African Development Bank. It had an aura of success in “development” and counteracted the long-cultivated perception in the Global North of Africa as a “lost continent.” Not surprisingly, the discourse received considerable attention.

Middle classes are defined mainly by daily income or expenditure. But the concept seemed to stand for much more than a slight financial improvement. Many of the ascriptions of middle classes in Africa were either hopes promising a better future, or unconsciously taken over mostly from middle class descriptions in North America and Europe since the 1950s. However, measurable empirical evidence was mostly weak with regard to middle class criteria, such as financial stability and well-paid employment or entrepreneurism, a lifestyle with consumption and leisure time, and a pro-democratic political orientation.

This middle-class concept came under critique and posed the question “Where and what (for) is the Middle?” Nevertheless, many of these connotations drew much attention to the “narrative of the African middle class.” Idealized as political actors, middle classes were turned into fictitious spearheads of democratization and opponents of corrupt regimes. The idea of middle-classes as political actors received increasing attention in reaction to the Arab Spring that began around 2011. North African and Middle Eastern countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, and Turkey saw massive protests against authoritarian regimes. These protests were frequently labeled as “middle-class.”

Yet, the discussion about the middle class as political actors in Africa remained arbitrary. Although many referred to an economic definition of middle class, they added a range of characteristics, such as a certain political consciousness. The empirical foundation of middle classes in Africa, their political positions, and the theoretical explanations remained thin. They could be considered a kind of distraction from and a caricature of class analysis. We engaged, therefore, with some of the main arguments about middle classes and protest and have been discussing them more systematically with colleagues.

The starting point was a 2017 conference in Stellenbosch funded by the German Research Foundation´s Point Sud program. Scholars from a wide range of African countries and other parts of the world identified crucial questions and examined the relationship between middle classes in Africa and protest. Many of the presentations focused on South Africa, but other speakers discussed the situation in countries such as Kenya and Namibia. As a follow-up, we initiated a guest-edited special issue of the Journal for Contemporary African Studies on African middle classes and social protest now published. It offers a range of case studies from Ghana, Cameroun, Kenya, South Africa, and Namibia. In our introduction, we summed up four major difficulties in the transfer of the middle-class category from Europe and North America to African societies.

African societies are not only heterogeneous in comparison to each other, but also they have different historical trajectories from Europe and North America, where the concept of the middle class originated. There, merchants and self-employed craftsmen began to advance their positions in the 19th century, when overwhelming numbers of people were working on farms and in burgeoning industry (with North American settler colonies still a different case). In the 20th century, better education and demanding physical work led to higher wages in the industrial societies of the Global North. Households became mostly identical to the nuclear family, workers had one qualified occupation, and families benefited from several public and private security systems. This was the foundation of the middle class as a social group and way of life. Can we compare the situation of these middle-income groups with middle-income earners in colonial and postcolonial African societies? The innocent use of the term “middle class” suggests that.

There is no compelling connection between a middle-income position and a pro-democratic orientation. Again, the progressive European and North American “middle classes” were the outcome of a specific historical context with certain economic and cultural conditions. Even in Europe, the association of middle-class and pro-democratic worldviews has only been true for certain episodes of the 20th century. Consequently, a transfer of the concept to African settings must consider the divergent backgrounds. As history suggests, middle classes were as often displaying conservative if not reactionary tendencies as liberal democratic ones and were active participants in right-wing policies. By all standards, they were never homogenous politically.

In the international academic division of labor, European and North American research is still hegemonic. This is problematic on many levels: African contexts have been marginalized for decades and are still marginal in empirical research and theory building. The knowledge about Africa is limited and social structures in Africa are not a common topic of theoretical explanation. To date, research on Africa is in the mainstream of many disciplines in international academia considered merely area studies or knowledge about “exotic” contexts. The lack of data and expertise in international disciplinary debates such as sociology and political sciences is a major factor because we must rely on potentially misleading terms like “middle classes” to describe social strata in Africa.

In spite of the aforementioned critique, we think it is highly promising to study “middle classes” and protest in Africa. New groups of middle-income earners are part of ongoing political and economic changes. Urbanization, economic growth, and new ways of life are a matter of fact in most parts of the continent. It is crucial to develop a more nuanced concept of “middle-class,” rather than the overstretched but rather empty notion that persists. There are many questions: How do individuals arrive at their middle-income position? How stable is their situation? How can we study different groups in the same income range?

We, therefore, opt for a multi-dimensional and intersectional approach. Socio-cultural features such as the extended family as a household unit, ethnicity (as well as gender and religion) as a relevant factor, and the specific shape of political networks are significant influences. Middle classes and protest have to be investigated in relation to culture, lifestyle, ethnicity, and/or “race” and religion, as well as gender and other sociocultural positioning.

These and many other aspects must be understood in a mix of empirical research and theorization to get to an appropriate understanding of middle classes and politics in Africa. Our published thoughts and arguments, in company with many others, are a modest effort to contribute to a more nuanced, less Eurocentric debate to challenge the hegemonic status of Western scholarship.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site every week.

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Who was Ndabaningi Sithole?

Zimbabwean founding father, Ndabaningi Sithole, has largely been edited out of the country’s history. But thanks to the tremendous archive of writing Sithole left behind, we can edit him back in.



Who was Ndabaningi Sithole?
Photo: Downtown Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Image credit Sputniktilt via Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

In the fall of 2019, I visited the Library of Congress in Washington, DC with a specific mission. At the time, I was researching and interested in the idea of encountering Ndabaningi Sithole, one of the founders of the modern state of Zimbabwe, at his peak. For hours I watched videos of Sithole as a young politician, and I was there to witness the unfiltered evolution of a political figure who remains at the margins, unrecognized and uncelebrated. I listened to radio interviews of Sithole articulating the roots of the liberation struggle. The myth of Robert Mugabe as the most eloquent political actor in Zimbabwe is just that.

Sithole, who died in 2000, did not have the benefit of Google. He was frozen in time, at the twilight of his life. For a long time on YouTube, the only clips of Sithole were of an aging man, hobbling to court, fighting for his life after being accused of treason and attempting to kill his rival, Mugabe. The accusations were a shoddy plot by the central intelligence office to ensure that Sithole spent his final years fighting for his freedom. As the journalist Bill Saidi reported in The Daily News: “The plot was so incredible, it would have qualified for a hilarious spoof: ‘The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.’”  The political tensions between Mugabe and Sithole, it was clear then, did not end with the war, as this trial demonstrated.

The Sithole I encountered in old black and white videos was as eloquent, confident and appeared like a future black leader of independent Zimbabwe. He was a charismatic figure with a preacher’s sweeping rhetorical gifts. Unfortunately, this visual archive remains hidden in an American basement and a young generation of Zimbabweans don’t have the benefit of seeing and learning from one of their national liberation heroes. Because Sithole has been reduced to a “minor” historical figure, there has been no interest in opening this archive to a broader public.

The story of Ndabaningi Sithole has been very much dependent upon his own writings, both published and unpublished, but this material has never been easily accessible. His books, published since 1956, were banned in then Rhodesia. And by the time independence arrived in 1980, Sithole had been displaced from any form of moral or political leadership. There was no desire from the new government to repatriate his books or republish them for the benefit of a new generation of Zimbabweans. Sithole’s books, now out of print, are available in libraries and archives around the world, yet not in his home country.

In order to write the book Ndabaningi Sithole: A Forgotten Founding Father, I had to seek the subject in basements, summon books and documents hidden in off-site storage facilities. Sometimes, I had to speak to people who knew him personally, such as his family or other political actors. I also had conversations with historians and archivists who offered their opinions about Sithole and nationalist history in Zimbabwe. I made a trip to Chipinge where Sithole is buried, and to Matabeleland, a region that had a profound influence on his writing, all in order to make sense of a political and intellectual figure who has remained submerged in the past. And my parents, both retired, were more than supportive in the research of the book. They were my resident librarians, keepers of my Zimbabwean library, and with short notice scanned newspaper articles and book chapters, or bought books in aid of my work.

At some point, work on the book stalled. When I first approached the HSRC Press (who published the book as part of the Voices of Liberation series) there was no urgency to do this project. Frustrated, I decided to write a short piece on Sithole for The Conversation as a way to test out this theory, but also to investigate how he would be read through the prisms of contemporary Zimbabwean politics. Three weeks after my article was published, president Emmerson Mnangagwa used the occasion of heroes day to posthumously declare Sithole a national hero among others who had been shunned by the previous regime. This was no coincidence. But it signaled a radical break from Mugabeism by the new dispensation. The discourse about heroes and heroism had been opened up. I knew then that the impulse to bring to surface Sithole’s writings was urgent and timely.

The coup d’etat of November 2017 empowered young people in Zimbabwe to ask questions about their history. Though Sithole is mostly known as a politician, he was the founding president of ZANU in its first decade (1964-1974), and the inaugural commander of the second Chimurenga but was later replaced by his once secretary general, Mugabe. Indeed, Sithole is fascinating and confounding. He was an ordained minister and a teacher. But perhaps, his most important contribution to Zimbabwe was through his writings. He was the author of poetry, polemics, and fiction.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Sithole was one of the most prolific black writers in Rhodesia alongside Stanlake Samkange, Lawrence Vambe, and others. His books were published in Dar es Salaam, Cape Town, London, Nairobi, New York, and various other locations. In large part owing to the success of African Nationalism (published in 1959), Sithole was the most translated Zimbabwean author of his time. His book was translated into more than a dozen languages including Arabic, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Spanish, and Swedish.

Despite this success, Sithole was not read as a writer but as a politician. Yet, he wanted politics to have a literary quality. He had a high regard for language, which he believed was an instrument for tearing people out of their ordinary perceptions and forcing them to see and feel. He knew that history does not exist except as it is composed. However, Sithole also wrote as a teacher; his books are didactic, with a mission to educate. It is ironic that most of his books remain unavailable in Zimbabwean libraries and bookshops.

Sithole published the first Ndebele novel in Zimbabwe, AmaNdebele ka Mzilikazi in 1956, which was republished a year later as Umvukela wamaNdebele. Sithole also wrote the first novel in English serialized in African Parade between 1959 and 1961. And his most famous book, African Nationalism, was the first autobiography by a black political figure of his generation. In that sense he was a trailblazer. Sithole also knew that fighting colonialism was an intellectual battle.

Sithole’s tenure as leader of ZANU was mostly from prison. It was a treacherous time. Most of the black political leaders in Southern Rhodesia had been rounded up, detained, killed, or forced into exile. While in detention, Sithole was never inactive. He directed ZANU’s insurgent activities from his prison cell and used this downtime to further develop his thoughts on the philosophy of the liberation struggle. Sympathetic prison guards and young members of the nationalist movement smuggled his manuscripts out of prison to be later published overseas. In the University of Oxford Press archives more manuscripts are mentioned to have been submitted for consideration, but only a small fraction of these were published.

As if he knew history would not be kind to him, Sithole coordinated the liberation struggle through the barrel of the pen. His writing is preemptive; he writes himself into history, not only as a chronicler of the liberation struggle in real-time, but also as an archivist for the future. And it is the archive that informs the basis of this book. It was only possible because of the archive that Sithole left behind. It is important to examine Sithole’s biographical and intellectual accounts and historicize him in relation to the complex social and political history of Zimbabwe.

Few works have critically engaged with Ndabaningi Sithole’s writings; he is just a footnote in published historical narratives. And yet, to deny his contributions to the struggle undermines the struggle itself.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site every week.

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‘Crush and Grind Them Like Lice’: Harare Old Guard Feeling Threatened

With the launch of the Citizens Coalition for Change, Zimbabwe’s political landscape has undergone a significant shift, with a younger activist generation increasingly impatient with the unfulfilled promises of liberation.



‘Crush and Grind Them Like Lice’: Harare Old Guard Feeling Threatened

On the 26th of February 2022, Zimbabwe’s Vice President delivered a chilling threat to the opposition. In a speech the “retired” army general Constantino Chiwenga, the chief architect of the November of 2017 putsch that removed Robert Mugabe, threatened that the opposition will be “crushed and ground on a rock like lice”. The General claimed that the ruling party was a “Goliath”; the Biblical imagery of the diminutive David “slaying” the giant Goliath was entirely lost on the Vice President. Here are his words:

“Down with CCC. You see when you crush lice with a rock, you put it on a flat stone and then you grind it to the extent that even flies will not eat it… But we are as big as Goliath we will see it [the opposition] when the time comes”.

The following day violent mayhem broke out in Kwekwe, the very town where the fiery speech was made. By the time the chaos ended, the opposition reported that 16 of their supporters had been hospitalised and it was recorded that a young man was sadistically speared to death. The supporters of the ruling party had taken the threat to “crush” and “grind” the opposition seriously. Details emerged—from the police—that the suspects were from the ruling party and had tried to hide in a property owned by a former minister of intelligence.

The launch of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) has galvanised the opposition. Going by the youthful excitement at the rallies, the violence flaring against its supporters, and the way the police has been clamping down on CCC rallies, the ruling elites have realised they face a serious political threat from what has been called the “yellow” movement.

Exit Mugabe and Tsvangirai: Shifts in opposition and ruling class politics

The death of opposition leader and former prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai in February 2018 came in the wake of the November 2017 coup and other significant political events that followed. The death was a big blow to the opposition; there had been no succession planning, which was rendered more complex by the existence of three vice presidents deputising Tsvangirai. The MDC Alliance succession debacle set in motion a tumultuous contest that splintered the opposition. Court applications followed, and the ruling elites took an active interest. When the court battles ended, the judiciary ensured a “win” for the faction favoured by the ruling class. That faction was formally recognised in parliament, given party assets and provided with financial resources by the Treasury that were meant for the opposition.

As for the ruling party, there has been a shift in the political contests along factional lines, accentuated following the death of Robert Gabriel Mugabe in September of 2019. There is high suspicion that the 2017 coup plotters (generals and commanders) now want their proverbial “pound of flesh”—the presidency. With the presidency as the bull fighter’s prize, the factions are now lining up either behind the president or the behind generals and this is cascading through the ruling party structures. The historical faction known as G40 (Generation 40) that hovered around the then first lady has been practically shut out of political power, with its anchors remaining holed up outside the country. Remnants of the G40 faction in Zimbabwe have been side-lined, with some of them subjected to the endless grind of court processes to ensure they keep their heads down.

Yet another element has emerged, that of a president who feels besieged and is re-building the party and executive positions in the image of his regional ethnic block, bringing into the matrix a potent powder keg waiting to explode in the future.

The ruling party has gone further to entice Morgan Tsvangirai’s political orphans in order to decimate the leadership ranks of the opposition. Patronage is generously dished out: an ambassadorial appointment here, a gender commissioner position there, a seat on the board of a state parastatal…, and so on. These appointments come with extreme state largesse—cars, drivers, state security, free fuel, housing, pensions and the list goes on. The patronage also includes lucrative gold mining claims and farms running into hundreds of acres that come with free agricultural inputs. The former opposition stalwarts must be “re-habilitated” by being taught “patriotism” at a Bolshevik-like ideological school and then paraded at rallies as defectors to ZANU-PF.

Yet another element has emerged, that of a president who feels besieged and is re-building the party and executive positions in the image of his regional ethnic block.

As these political shifts take place and the opposition divorces itself from the succession mess, there are also changes in Zimbabwe’s economy and this has a direct impact on the trajectory of politics in the country.

Transformed political economy: Informality, diaspora and agrarian change  

From about the end of the 1990s and stretching into the subsequent two decades up to 2022, Zimbabwe’s political economy has shifted significantly. Firstly, the fast-track land reform of the early 2000s altered land ownership from white settler “commercial” farmers to include more black people. The white-settler class power was removed as a factor in politics and in its place is a very unstable system of tenure for thousands of black farmers that have been married to the state for tenure security and stability.

Secondly, the follow-on effect of the land reform meant that Zimbabwe’s industrial base was altered, and this has resulted in a highly informalized economy or what others have called the “rubble”. An informal economy is now the new normal across the board for ordinary citizens and this has weakened organized labour as a voice in political contests. In 2020, the World Bank estimated extreme poverty at 49 per cent; this is infusing a sense of urgency for political change and is putting pressure on the political elites in Harare.

Thirdly, the exodus of Zimbabwe’s younger population into the diaspora has introduced another factor into the political matrix. According to official figures, the diaspora transferred about US$1.4 billion in 2021 alone, but this figure doesn’t capture remittances that are moved into Zimbabwe informally; the figure is much higher. The diaspora has actually used its cash to have a political voice, often via the opposition or independent “citizen initiatives”. It is proving to be a significant player in the political matrix to the extent that Nelson Chamisa has appointed a Secretary for Diaspora Affairs. For its part, the ruling party has blocked the diaspora vote.

Fourth, the national political economy has been “captured” by an unproductive crony class to the extent that researchers have estimated that as much as half of Zimbabwe’s GDP is being pilfered:

“It is estimated that Zimbabwe may lose up to half the value of its annual GDP of $21.4bn due to corrupt economic activity that, even if not directly the work of the cartels featured in the report, is the result of their suffocation of honest economic activity through collusion, price fixing and monopolies. Ironically, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has been a public critic of illicit financial transfers, is identified by the report as one of the cartel bosses whose patronage and protection keeps cartels operating.”

Fifthly, and often under-researched, is the substantial role of China across Zimbabwe’s political economy as Harare’s political elites have shifted to Beijing for a closer alliance. This has paid handsomely for China which has almost unrestrained access to Zimbabwe’s natural resources, and the political elites are “comrades in business” with—mostly—Chinese state corporations; China’s influence is pervasive and evident across the country. Put together, the factors above mean that the political economy structure has changed significantly and it is within this landscape that the Citizens Coalition for Change—dubbed the “yellow movement” — that has been launched by the opposition will have to operate and organise.

‘Yellow Movement’: Re-articulating the future beyond the ‘Harare Bubble’? 

Since its launch, the opposition movement has swept into the CCC’s ranks the younger demographic of activists together with some solid veterans who survived the brutal years of Robert Mugabe’s terror. Zimbabwe’s median age is reported to be about 18 years of age; if these young people can register, turn out to vote and defend their vote, there is a whirlwind coming for the old nationalists in Harare.

Some within the ruling party have noticed this reality, with a former minister and ruling party member stating that “Nelson Chamisa is gaining popularity because the ZANU PF old guard is fighting its own young men and women”. This admission is consistent with the words of Temba Mliswa, another “independent” member of parliament and a former leading activist in the ruling party, who stated that:

“The generational approach is like you trying to stop a wave of water with your open hands. You cannot ignore it. It’s a generational issue. You cannot ignore it. You need to look at it. You need to study it… There is no young person in ZANU PF who is as vibrant as Chamisa, who is as charismatic as Nelson Chamisa. Chamisa is going to go straight for ED (President Emmerson Mnangagwa)… There is no gate preventing this.’

These admissions are an indication that the CCC movement poses a serious threat to the ruling party. But beyond the contest of politics, of ideas, of policy platforms, the “yellow movement” will have to divorce itself from the “Harare Bubble”. The ruling nationalists polished a rigid centralised political system inherited from settler-colonialism, and have used this to build a crony network of robbery based in the capital city while impoverishing other regions. But they are not alone in this; even the opposition has often overlooked the fact that “all politics is local” and it has also created a “Harare Bubble” of yesterday’s heroes and gatekeepers who, armed with undynamic analyses, continue to cast their shadows into the arena long after their expiry date.

“Nelson Chamisa is gaining popularity because the ZANU PF old guard is fighting its own young men and women”.

The yellow movement will have to go local and divorce itself from the parochial legacy of previously progressive platforms that have now been cornered by an elite who have become careerist, corrupt, inward-looking and, like civil warlords, only loyal to imported 10-year-old whisky bottles and their kitambis—their visibly ballooning stomachs.

Yet there is no ignoring it; Zimbabwe’s youth have been emboldened by political change in Zambia and Malawi, and by the rise of younger leaders in South Africa. The winds are blowing heavily against the status quo. In the 2023 general election, the ruling nationalists will face a more tactful, daring and politically solid Nelson Chamisa who has strategically pushed back against “elite pacts”. Added to his eloquence, his speeches are getting more structured, substantially more polished, and he is projecting the CCC movement as a capable alternative government. With the indelible footprints of Morgan Tsvangirai in the background, the next general election, in 2023, will be an existential contest for Harare’s old nationalists—they are facing their Waterloo.

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