Emmerson Mnangagwa, Robert Mugabe and Phelekezela Mphoko. Picture: REUTERS/PHILIMON BULAWAYO
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe walks with vice-presidents Phelekezela Mphoko, right, and newly installed Emmerson Mnangagwa, at State House in Harare on December 12. Picture: REUTERS/PHILIMON BULAWAYO

IT IS said that the darkest hour of night comes just before the dawn. Certainly, Zimbabwe has been stumbling about in the darkest phase of its 34 years of independence since Robert Mugabe returned to unchallenged power with another rigged election last year.

Yes, it’s even worse than the mess of 2008 when then president Thabo Mbeki came to the rescue by engineering a government of national unity, with power shared between Mugabe’s Zanu (PF) party and Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change. And that was bad enough, in the same league as Germany’s Weimar Republic during the Great Depression. I still have a Z$500m bank note as a sobering souvenir of how low a country’s economy can go.

Now Zimbabwe is broke again and no longer even has a currency of its own. Its people use anything they can get hold of: dollars, rands, pula. So the government can’t even ease the pain through devaluation.

As for the country’s political condition, with Mugabe’s wife Grace, half his age and with zero political experience, running a bizarre presidential campaign, and the ruling Zanu (PF) party’s congress ending with the firing of vice-president Joice Mujuru and all her supporting cast, with threats of a murder charge thrown in, it’s been a veritable Monty Python show.

But then again, having spent much of my life following African politics, I learnt long ago never to judge the affairs of our continent at face value. Things are not always what they appear to be.

In fact, behind all this apparent confusion, I believe Zimbabwe may be in the process of remaking itself. Of transforming. That in the course of the coming year we may see the dawn of a new era.

I say this because what we have been witnessing is the passing of the baton of power to Mugabe’s successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa — a tough man, so ruthless that even Mugabe himself has feared him — who I believe will use his toughness to revive Zimbabwe and bring it back to economic health, though maybe not as a democracy.

Mugabe will remain president, at least for another two years, but in a nominal role, almost that of a monarch.

He is not stepping into the background because he wants to, but because he has to: he no longer has the strength, political or physical, to dig Zimbabwe out of the hole it is in, but he knows this must be done if he is to survive until 2017, as he badly wants to do.

And he knows Mnangagwa is the only one who can do that for him.

Mugabe wants to reach that magic year because 2017 is when he is due to become head of the African Union, thanks to the body’s system of rotational chairmanship.

Imagine that! After being treated as a pariah by the West, with personal sanctions slapped on him, his family and his cohorts, he will emerge as the most important political figure in Africa, the man all the other leaders of the world will have to acknowledge and consult with when they want to deal with Africa. What an up-yours for the way they have treated him! What a way to end his glorious career!

This is no sudden airy theory on my part. I spent some time in Zimbabwe two months ago talking to old contacts and other locals to find out what was going on in that benighted land from which serious news and analysis seems to have dried up through decay and fatigue.

It was at a time when Grace Mugabe was making her weird election pitch, which outsiders thought was an attempt to establish a Mugabe dynasty and which SA’s media treated as a hilarious joke.

But as my contacts assured me, and as I wrote in my column of October 8, Grace Mugabe was no more than a decoy, set up by none other than Mnangagwa.

The plot goes like this. Mnangagwa realised that Mugabe needed to pass the baton to someone, and the person in pole position was vice-president Joice Mujuru. Mnangagwa also knew that Mugabe feared and distrusted him.

Not only is Mnangagwa steeped in the political intrigues of Zanu (PF), but as justice minister and chairman of the Joint Operational Command, which comprises the commander-in-chief of the defence force, head of the army, the commissioners of police and of prisons and the director of the Central Intelligence Organisation, he has all the levers of power at his fingertips.

The focus of Mugabe’s fear, I was told, was that his family might suffer after his death under a Mnangagwa presidency.

Mnangagwa realised that if he were to be tapped as the successor, he would have to do two things: reassure Mugabe that his family would be safe with him at the top, and elbow Mujuru out of the way. Grace Mugabe became the key to both objectives.

First, Mnangagwa persuaded one of his acolytes, Oppah Muchinguri, to vacate the important position of chairwoman of the party’s Women’s League. Grace Mugabe, emerging from her political obscurity, replaced her, thereby becoming a member of Zanu (PF)’s powerful executive committee.

That was to reassure Mugabe that his family would be looked after.

Next, Grace Mugabe was encouraged to launch an extravagant national election campaign — almost certainly financed by the exceedingly wealthy Mnangagwa — which was primarily focused on trashing Mujuru.

That set up the vice-president for her destruction at last week’s party congress, where she was not only demoted but expelled from the party.

There is a further twist to this tale that strengthens my belief that Mnangagwa will embark on a reconstruction campaign.

As I reported in my column after my excursion to Zimbabwe, Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa, in his desperate search for financial aid to replenish his empty coffers, made three trips to Beijing.

He eventually came away with what he thought was a promise of $1bn to cover the hole in his national budget and $4bn for infrastructure investments to get the country running again. But the Chinese wanted to meet Mugabe before committing the money. Mugabe flew to Beijing last September. Yes, they said, they would give him the money, but on three conditions.

First, he had to sort out the succession issue. They were not going to commit money to a country without knowing who was going to be running it in a few years’ time. Second, Mugabe had to fix his relationship with the international community. The Chinese in effect told him: we can’t be your only friends in the world. Third, he had to put Zimbabwe’s economy back on track by lifting disincentives to foreign investment.

The Chinese told him they were not prepared to invest in a failed state.

What they didn’t say outright, but which Mugabe and all other Zimbabweans know, is that Mnangagwa has long been China’s man in Zimbabwe. Those three requirements, I reckon, are enough to turn Zimbabwe’s fortunes around within the next two years

Funny, isn’t it, how simple it is when someone hands you the formula and you are in no position to refuse because you’ve already hit rock bottom?

• Sparks is a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail.