Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe with his wife Grace. Picture: AFP PHOTO/POOL/SIPHIWE SIBEKO
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe with his wife Grace. Picture: AFP PHOTO/POOL/SIPHIWE SIBEKO

THE hoary old "WHAM" question is before us again. It was first raised by foreign investors worrying about what would happen after Nelson Mandela, which, of course, they know only too well today: steep decline under President Jacob Zuma.

Now the question is alive again in Zimbabwe, where the ruling Zanu (PF) has to resolve the long-delayed issue of President Robert Mugabe’s succession at its December congress. This is not to say the grizzly old nonagenarian is about to go, although Zimbabwe’s new constitution gives him the right to name a successor to complete his term of office if he retires. Or the congress may appoint him president-for-life with a prime minister to help run the country for whatever few years he has left.

Either way, the important thing is that the succession issue, which has dogged Zimbabwe for so long, has to be resolved even if Mugabe remains in power for another few years. The party has to clarify who will succeed him when finally he goes.

The matter has come to a head because Zimbabwe is broke once again. The four years of recovery achieved by the government of national unity that former president Thabo Mbeki engineered came to an end last year with another rigged election that kept Mugabe in power. And back to penury.

I have been wandering about Zimbabwe recently, meeting people and trying to find out what is going on in that benighted country, where even the news channels seem to have dried up through fatigue and decay.

What I have learned is that the government is desperate for money. Salaries are not being paid and the temperature of discontent is rising. New Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa is travelling the world with his begging bowl, but to little avail.

The only glimmer of hope he encountered was in China. After three visits to Beijing, he thought he had come away with a promise of $1bn to cover the hole in the national budget and $4bn for infrastructure investments to get the country running again. But the Chinese wanted to meet Mugabe before committing the money.

This, I understand, is why Mugabe flew secretly to Beijing last month. He was in for a shock. The Chinese were not simply going to hand over the money; they laid down conditions before doing so:

• Zimbabwe would first have to sort out its succession issue. They could not commit money to a country without knowing who would be ruling it in a few years’ time;

• Mugabe should fix his relationship with the international community. As the Chinese in effect told him: we can’t be your only friends in the world; and

• Put the economy back on its feet. Remove restrictions on foreign investment. They were not going to invest in a country that was unstable and could become a failed state.

I was told that Mugabe was displeased by such bluntness, and so hot-footed it to Russia, only to find this attempt to play an old Cold War gambit had annoyed the Chinese. Still, his worried hangers-on back home are pressing ahead with trying to meet the conditions. Hence the decision to resolve the succession issue at the December congress.

At the moment Joice Mujuru is deputy president, but that will be up for review at the congress. She is the widow of the late Solomon Mujuru, who under the nom de guerre of Rex Nhongo was commander of Mugabe’s forces during the war of liberation. Joice Mujuru was herself a bushfighter and the combination has given her status within both the military and the party.

But she has a serious challenger in Emmerson Mnangagwa, a longtime party stalwart with a strong struggle record as well as a law degree and a reputation for intelligence and ruthlessness that has made him a feared figure.

Mnangagwa is a former minister of national security and of justice, and is chairman of the Joint Operational Command, a body comprising the chiefs of the army, the air force, the police, the prisons and the Central Intelligence Organisation, which makes him the most powerful figure in the country after the president.

Mujuru’s position was weakened three years ago when her guerrilla chief former husband, with whom she was still on good terms, died in a fire at his rural home that nearly everyone in Zimbabwe believes was a political assassination.

Mnangagwa, meanwhile, is disadvantaged by the fact that Mugabe doesn’t like or trust him.

But the Chinese like him. Mnangagwa has been in their orbit for many years, going back to the Cold War and the ideological conflict between the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong’s Communist China. He was their man then and he remains so now.

Then there is the sudden appearance on the political scene of Mugabe’s 49-year-old second wife, Grace.

Without having shown any previous interest in politics, she has suddenly replaced a stalwart Zanu (PF) figure as chairwoman of the party’s Women’s League.

That, plus the remarkable bestowal of a doctoral degree on her after only two months of study, has prompted speculation that Mugabe is pushing her to become his successor — that he wants to establish a dynasty. That is almost certainly wrong.

The most persistent explanation I heard is that Grace Mugabe’s sudden elevation is a cunning move by Mnangagwa to improve his poor relationship with the president.

Mugabe’s one great fear, apparently, is for the safety of his family when he is no longer around. And he fears the ruthless Mnangagwa most of all. They come from different clans of Zimbabwe’s dominant Shona-speaking community: Mugabe is a Zezuru and Mnangagwa a Karanga, and there is historic animosity between the two. The two men have clashed at a personal level too.

But Mnangagwa knows that if he is to stand a chance of winning the succession struggle, he will need Mugabe’s support. Or at least his neutrality.

To that end, he apparently persuaded the sitting chairwoman of the Women’s League, Opra Michinguri, a woman of significant influence in the party and a close ally of Mnangagwa’s, to step down and allow Grace Mugabe to take over.

That will also make Grace Mugabe a member of the national executive of Zanu (PF), thereby reassuring Mugabe that if Mnangagwa succeeds him as president, the Mugabe family will not be persecuted.

So who will win in December? And what will it mean for Zimbabwe?

Mujuru is the more popular candidate. But most people I spoke to felt Mnangagwa would be the more effective president, someone with the strength and determination to fix this broken country. It is a belief tinged with fear of the man himself, though.

Mnangagwa is regarded as ruthless and autocratic. His nickname is "The Crocodile", not because of a blazing temper like our PW Botha, but because of his narrow, watchful eyes. As someone put it to me: "He lies there silently, watching through those tiny slits, taking in everything, then suddenly he will lash out."

Efficient but authoritarian. Or a change to someone more popular and democratic. Those appear to be Zimbabwe’s options for the future.

Sparks is a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail.