BSR: Understanding “The System” in Zimbabwean Politics


Editorial Note: Some loyal readers of the BSR have been asking for a link to the BSR we wrote a few years ago which attempted to explain “the system”, an important apparatus that effectively runs public affairs in Zimbabwe. It seems we lost the original BSR, along with a few others, when some renovations were done on the website, hence it’s been hard to locate it.

Fortunately, we retained copies on our files and we are now re-posting the original BSR but for reference purposes we have kept the date on which it was first posted and we have also not changed the content, although major developments have taken place since it was first published. This is why we have also used an old image of Mugabe and his then general. We believe the original ideas still stand although the principal actors in the system have somewhat changed. So here we go:

August 10, 2016

“You can only fight the system if you have the same weapons. The system has arms and prisons. What do you have yourself besides bare hands? I am in the system and know how lethal it is.”

These were the words of Paul Mangwana, a member of the ZANU PF Central Committee and former co-Chairperson of COPAC, the parliamentary committee which spearhead the writing for Zimbabwe’s new Constitution. He was speaking in “Democrats”, the award-winning documentary on the constitution-making process, following the arrest at the time of his co-Chairperson, Douglas Mwonzora of the MDC-T. It was frank talk by a man who has been in the system for a long time.

“Minister, minister … I am very, very worried. The commanders have been asking me what’s going on with you and the whole system is concerned about you minister … Minister, the system does not trust you at all.”

These were allegedly the words of George Charamba, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Information and Publicity, who’s also the presidential spokesperson. According to Professor Jonathan Moyo, also a Minister in President Mugabe’s government, Charamba was speaking to him during a heated argument sometime in June 2015.

Speaking in an interview with The Standard newspaper, Moyo said Charamba warned him that “the system” was apparently not happy with him opposing Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s ambitions to succeed President Mugabe.“Minister, the system is asking if Moyo is not supporting VP Mnangagwa to succeed, so who then is he supporting?” Charamba is said to have commented to Moyo.

I have quoted these two separate incidents in which “the system” is referred to by senior figures within the ZANU PF political establishment to illustrate the acknowledged existence of this cryptic phenomenon in Zimbabwean politics.

Last year, I wrote a series of articles in which I analysed the phenomenon of “the system” and its political role and significance in Zimbabwean politics. It is a term I used quite separately from the references given to it by Mangwana and Charamba. Whenever people asked me about what had gone wrong in the 2013 elections, in which I was closely involved as adviser to Morgan Tsvangirai, my response had often been encapsulated by that phrase: the system.

It was the system, I had often said after the 2013 elections, which stood in the way of any future prospects of success for opposition parties fighting ZANU PF’s stranglehold on power. It was therefore interesting to note that both Mangwana and Charamba had, in separate incidents, used exactly the same terminology.

It is quite possible, of course, that the three of us have very different understandings of what is meant by “the system”, but nevertheless, one thing in common is that for all of us, “the system” occupies a central and critical role in ZANU PF, and by extension, in Zimbabwean politics. I have decided to re-visit it again, under this re-branded column of The Big Saturday Read, because I believe it is absolutely fundamental to our understanding of Zimbabwean politics.

What is the system?

For Mangwana, the system represents a broad phenomenon, whose strength is underpinned by instruments of force and coercion. While admitting that he is part of it, he also acknowledges in a separate incident, that it is also a danger to his own welfare and survival. The system is a sinister phenomenon, which is powerful and in his words is “lethal”. It has guns and prisons, Mangwana says, revealing that the system is based on the coercive apparatus of the state.

Under Mangwana’s definition, the system does not distinguish between ZANU PF and the state – it is a seamless phenomenon without boundaries, except against the people, whom he refers to as those with “bare hands”. Mangwana is signalling the big force which the opposition has to deal with and he calls it “the system”.

For Charamba, the system seems to be a narrower phenomenon, which has the security apparatus as its centrepiece. The way he refers to it in the conversation with Moyo suggests that the system is synonymous with the security apparatus of the state. Moyo quotes him as making reference to commanders, who presumably constitute the core of the system, as expressing displeasure at Moyo’s behaviour. It is this system which Charamba alleges no longer trusts Moyo. The system too, is portrayed as supporting a Mnangagwa bid for the presidency and as having concerns that Moyo is standing in the way.

Of course, there are common points between Mangwana and Charamba’s description of the system: the security apparatus is central and it has power and influence.

My own view of the system is in the broader sense and closer to Mangwana’s conception. As with both Mangwana and Charamba, the security apparatus is a key part of the system. It is powerful and is an overarching influence. However, in my view, it is Mugabe, not the security apparatus alone, which is at the centre of the system. Everything else, including the security apparatus derive from and are linked to Mugabe’s office.

This was made possible by the consolidation of power in the office of the President which began at party level soon after independence, was given impetus at the 1984 ZANU PF Congress and was cemented by Constitutional Amendment No. 7 in 1987, which created the Executive Presidency. It transformed the leadership into an authoritarian figure.

The Unity Accord of 1987, which brought together the two main parties of the day ZANU PF and PF ZAPU sealed the consolidation of power. It confirmed Mugabe’s position at the centre of the system. This is symbolised by the principle which has been emphasised in recent years, that of the One Centre of Power, personified by Mugabe. He is indeed, the one centre of power of the system

Over the years, there was a steady process by which the state and the party were conflated and this firmed up Mugabe’s position but also established the anchors for the system, with tentacles spreading to virtually every part of the nation state. Thus, for example, the police service is like a party militia which serves the interests of ZANU PF. The intelligence arm of the state also does the bidding of ZANU PF. This was exemplified by a statement made by Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa at a ZANU PF rally, when he described the Commander of the Defence Forces, General Constantine Chiwenga as the “political commissar” of ZANU PF.

However, as I will explain shortly, the system is not just ZANU PF. The ruling party is only one part of the system, which includes various other elements of the state and society.

Like the Mafia, it’s a way of life

The system which has been crated in Zimbabwe is a way of life, which is why it is both hard to define, and difficult to break and overcome. In describing the system, I have previously likened it to the mafia, with Mugabe as the godfather – the Capo di tutti Capi, the Boss of all Bosses. It is a big family, which consists of several branches, some may call them factions, which have their own under-bosses, who ultimately pay allegiance to the godfather. Everyone pays tribute to him. He has files on everyone. He maintains an intricate network of personnel which is ultimately loyal to him.

The way the system works, no one is ever sure who is watching them. Everyone thinks he or she is being watched by someone else, even though they are never sure who is watching them. Perhaps the person they are watching is also watching them. This way, everyone is suspicious of each other, except the godfather. In this way, Mugabe has maintained a system that is intensely loyal to him for a long time.

What keeps the system together, like the mafia, is that, in fact, it is a large-scale criminal enterprise for the mutual benefit of members, which operates under the cover of constitutional government. In this regard, patronage and corruption are the mainstay of the system. Everyone at different levels of the system has a stake – some have bigger portions, others at lower levels make do with smaller portions, but they all feed off the state – contracts from the state are given to their companies and associates – procurement rules don’t matter.

If the tendering process produces the wrong result, it can be disregarded, just like when the election result is wrong, it can be subverted. Friends and associates with the system can grab rural and urban land, but if they fall out with the system, those properties are at risk of being taken away.

If you are a minister, you can command a parastatal under your ministry to give you gifts disguised as “loans”. Licences from government are given to members of the system or their associates. They get cheap concessions, they don’t pay taxes, even though they impose the same upon other citizens. They extort ‘protection fees’ from businessmen and companies.

They even charge fees to enable access to the bigger bosses and the godfather. In short, the system thrives on extracting rents from virtually every part of the economy – from the construction of diesel power plant at Dema to the purchase of a tissue paper at Chikomba Rural District Council.

Therefore, in essence, the system is an intricate and complex web consisting of both formal and informal structures, state and non-state instruments, which control the affairs of both the party and the state. As I have already pointed out, the conflation between the party and state is a necessary feature of the system.

I will discuss this later, but it is worth mentioning at this stage: disentangling this conflation between party and state is a necessary part of any reform process. And this is not just a question of changing the rules of the game. It is about changing the human factor and a way of life.

The fluidity between the state and party can be seen in the typical employee of the electoral body, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission. He might be regarded as a former military personnel or intelligence operative, but he is also as party member and activist of ZANU PF and an employee of ZEC. He moves seamlessly from one role to another depending on the situation.

When the opposition deal with him, they might think they are dealing with a ZEC official and he might pretend to be independent, but he would also be wearing his hat as an operative and as a ZANU PF activist. He is not just a member of ZANU PF, nor is he just an operative or an employee of ZEC: he is part of and the personification of the system. And it is the system that he serves. If he or she deviates, the response from the system is usually brutal.

Vice President Mnangagwa’s description of General Chiwenga as the political organiser and mobiliser of ZANU PF shows the system’s complete disregard of existing constitutional rules which specifically prohibit members of the security forces from being members of a political party and being politically partisan. These legal distinctions are irrelevant to the system, which has its own reality. This is why Vice President Mphoko could brazenly enter a police station and order the release of suspects: the system does what it wants and there is no regard for rules.

However, simply being in government does not guarantee you passage into the system. The MDC parties found out this reality between 2009 and 2013 when they were in government as ZANU PF’s partners under the Global Political Agreement. The reality is that they were always outsiders and the system never accepted them.

This is why even though as Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai was entitled to attend national security council briefings, he was almost always excluded. He was part of government and a senior leader of it, but the system had not accepted him. It was a closed zone. The system ran a parallel government. And the greatest failure was that in the 4 years they were in government, the MDCs could not break or dilute the relationship between ZANU PF and the state. They failed completely, to break the system.

Why it matters to understand the system

Understanding the system is important because when opposition parties and civil society talk about electoral reforms, they will be too limited in their reach if they are only discuss the technical provisions of electoral laws and the formal structures of the electoral system. Electoral reforms that do not take into account the nature of the system and how it impacts on elections will be too narrow and too limited.

In short, reforming the electoral system is an enormous task which involves not just changes to the rules of elections, but requires an overhaul of the system in the broader sense. In fact, the new Constitution has elaborate provisions which deal with electoral reforms. What is missing is the implementation of those reforms. But as long as ZEC is populated by the same personnel which has been in charge of farcical elections before, the system will always prevail.

“Tsvangirai is going around saying “no reforms, no elections” – I wish to thank him for that. Let him boycott while we rule. I say let him continue boycotting while we rule. Continue with your “no elections, no reforms programme” and we will continue ruling”.

These were the chilling words of Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa at a political rally in 2014. The words are a reaffirmation of the philosophy of the system. The attitude of the system is characterised by arrogance and stubbornness. It is aggressive and bulldozes its way in the face of any obstacles.

Lest we forget, it was the system which blocked Tsvangirai’s path to the presidency when he won the 29 March 2008 elections. A former close member of the system, Didymus Mutasa disclosed last year that Tsvangirai won those elections. Another member of the system, Retired Brigadier General Agrippa Mutambara has also admitted that Tsvangirai was victorious.

These two might be said to be disgruntled members who have fallen out with ZANU PF. But Mugabe himself, in an uncharacteristic gaffe, disclosed at a meeting with generals in 2014, that Tsvangirai had won by 73% before the generals scurried to correct him. It was too late, and although sympathisers defended it as a slip of the tongue, critics argued that it was Freudian slip which revealed the truth of what had happened in March 2008.

In any event, following his loss in the first round, the system ensured Mugabe regained ground through force and violence in the run-up to the run-off election on 27 June 2008. All this happened not because there were no good rules, but simply because the system prevailed over and manipulated the rules. A good set of rules alone, without a reform to the system is fundamentally incomplete reform. This makes it necessary to go deeper in our efforts to understand the system, how it works and how it impacts on elections.

The system and elections

In relation to elections, the system includes the formal structures of the state, including but not limited to ZEC, the department that registers voters and compiles the voters roll, the department of national statistics, the police, the intelligence organisations, the Civil Service Commission, the military units.

The system includes governance of local authorities, such as rural district authorities, traditional leaders – the chiefs, headmen and village heads. All these are part of the system and they are at its service. Virtually everyone and every structure involved in the election is part of the system or responds to its commands.

The system is omnipresent – it penetrates all areas, including state-owned companies, even hotels, lodges and similar venues where political conferences and workshops are held. When an election-related workshop is being held at a local hotel, chances are that the tea lady is a member of the system. Those in politics know only too well that even the concierge who stands by the entrance of the hotel can easily be a member of the system.

Indeed, the man who comes in the morning to clean your room could well be a member of the system. By the time you arrive at the hotel where you are booked, the system already knows. Indeed, by the time your plane lands at Harare International Airport, the system will already know every person of interest on board.

It is very possible that the system even knows your itinerary more than you do! Even in private companies, particularly those of strategic interest like telecommunications, broadcasting and banking, the system is well represented. It is not a coincidence that most state-run authorities include ex-military or intelligence personnel on their boards of directors. The system is literally everywhere.

Realising the importance of the internet, the system is ever-present on social media – monitoring and gathering data and sometimes participating in debates. There are cyber-troops deployed on social media and internet forums to fight on behalf of the system. They dilute discussions and divert debate. Their ‘nuisance value’ is important to the system.

The system is also present in other areas, including religious institutions, the media, the justice system. The rural areas are an important zone where the workings of the system of the system can be observed through the institution of traditional authority. The chiefs, headmen and village heads play a critical role for the system in a zone where 67% of the population resides. Their authority is respected, feared and obeyed by the people. In return, the system favours them with an array of benefits.

It is very rare for people to leave ZANU PF willingly, because that can lead to losing the benefits of the system. Oft-times they have to be pushed out, kicking and screaming. The reason why most cannot leave voluntarily is that their lives are completely tied to and dependent upon the system of patronage over which the system presides. A snapshot of this can be observed in statements made by Professor Jonathan Moyo to the US Ambassador in March 2006.

According to a US cable on Wikileaks, Professor Moyo told the Ambassador that: “The stakes of patronage and succession made them [ZANU PF members] hang on to their moribund party even though they were emotionally ready to leave … He [Moyo] explained that few could afford economically or politically to break from the party for more than a couple of months”.

As if to confirm this, last year, when Mnangagwa spoke at a ZANU PF rally he likened the fate of leaving ZANU PF to that of a leaf that falls off the tree. It quickly shrivels, Mnangagwa said, pointing out that life outside the system is miserable. Unsurprisingly, many who leave do not do so voluntarily, because a departure represents the loss of their only source of livelihood.

Can the system be broken?

Having understood the nature of the system, its pervasive character and its far-reaching effect, the reader might by this time be feeling quite despondent. Is it ever possible to break the system? Can the system be diluted? Can it ever lose its grip on the levers of power?

Arguably, the best opportunity to break the system was during the era of the Inclusive Government. However, as I have already stated, this was a missed opportunity. When the talks were taking place in 2008, I was in support of an Inclusive Government because I believed it was the best opportunity for the MDCs to enter the state system and break or dilute ZANU PF’s stranglehold on the state and thereby break the system.

However, for reasons that require their own full article, the MDCs failed to achieve that objective. By the time the 2013 elections were held, the system was still intact. Nevertheless, after 2013, the system has faced unprecedented challenges. And it is there that the source of the system’s collapse probably lies.

When the system eats itself

The last sixteen years of the MDC-led opposition have demonstrated the severe impediments in the way of external challenges against the system. Even when there are internal contradictions and tensions within the system, it tends to regroup and close ranks whenever faced by an external threat.

Therefore, when ZANU PF lost the 29 March 2008 elections, in part because of internal divisions which saw some members of the system playing Bhora Musango (playing the ball into the long grass) – where they basically decampaigned or did not actively support Mugabe’s candidacy, the core elements of the system closed ranks and ensured Tsvangirai and the MDC did not take power.

The system – in the form of the security sector generals – had also come out openly in support of Mugabe and against Tsvangirai before both the 2002 and 2008 elections. 2008 demonstrated the extreme difficulty faced by the opposition in trying to take away power from the system. The system is aggressive and violent in defence of power as shown by the orgy of violence, killings and destruction of property in the run-up to the run-off election on 27 June 2008.

Can the system be expected to carry out reforms that would usher in a fairer electoral system? The answer to this was encapsulated in a tweet by Professor Moyo in 2015, when he scoffed at demands for electoral reforms, saying it was unreasonable to expect ZANU PF to reform itself out of power. ZANU PF has perennially resisted serious electoral reforms because it is not in the interests of the system to create conditions that might allow it to lose power. As the system is in charge of the machinery for electoral reforms, it is very difficult to guarantee credible reforms to the electoral system.

During the Inclusive Government, the system ensured that it retained control of the key pockets of government responsible for power, elections and electoral reform. These included the ministries of justice, defence, local government and home affairs. When the MDCs pushed to have control of at least one of the security sector ministries, ZANU PF stubbornly resisted. The only concession the former opposition parties got was that the MDC-T would co-share the home affairs ministry with ZANU PF.

The home affairs ministry was critical, not only because it was in charge of the police force, but because it also controlled the Registrar General’s Office, which was in charge of voter registration and the voters’ roll. In the end, although the ministry was co-shared, it was the ZANU PF Minister who was really in charge with the MDC-T half of the ministry often excluded and regarded as an outsider. The clearest demonstration of the MDC-T’s powerlessness was that the party could not get the electronic voters roll even though the co-Minister for Home Affairs was from the party.

The one possible route by which the system might be broken is through its own cannibalistic tendencies. The system is costly to maintain. As already pointed out, it thrives on a system of patronage and corruption. However, this depends on resources, which are finite. Invariably, there is internal competition over resources, which creates tensions and divisions. More importantly, despite the outward appearances of unity, there are tensions and divisions within the system over power and control. These tensions and divisions create competing factions.

The one aspect which has been the foundation of artificial unity is the presence of Mugabe, whom they regard as the One Centre of Power. As I have stated before, he is the talisman who has been able to hold the party together, playing the factions against each other. A master of divide and rule politics, Mugabe has deftly used this strategy to keep away potential rivals to his power with the system.

However, with the sure advancement of his age and diminishing returns of his long stay in power, tensions and divisions between the factions were bound to increase and this is precisely what has become the main source of threat to the system.

The sub-thesis, therefore, is that the best way to unlock the system is through the system itself, that is, when factions within the system collide in their pursuit of power. These are tensions and divisions which begin to challenge and threaten the notion of the One Centre of Power, the fulcrum of the system. It is almost impossible for the system to survive in its original form without the long-serving leader.

In this regard, we have observed in the last couple of years that the system is beginning to eat itself. The first phase saw the purge of the Mujuru faction between 2014 and 2015. The second phase has been characterised by a bruising war between two factions, the G40, which allegedly has the backing of Grace Mugabe and Lacoste, which is allegedly led by Mnangagwa, although both deny any involvement in the factions.

When the Mujuru faction was brutally ousted at the 2014 Congress, first appearances suggested that Mnangagwa was surely heading for the presidency. However, with a few weeks, it emerged that there was a faction which was resisting his elevation. This faction, the G40, has been chipping away at Mnangagwa’s ambitions, leaving him in a precarious position.

However, it is also plain that Mnangagwa still retains influence and support within important pockets of the system – such as the state media, the military and even the judiciary. Circumstances indicate that the system is at war with itself. This internal war results in cannibalism which could eventually weaken and break down the system.

While it might be argued that the factional fights are form of “creative destruction” which will result in a new, leaner and more focused ZANU PF, the odds are that this is self-destruction which will eventually tear the party into pieces. The eventual departure of Mugabe, who is the glue that currently holds the party together, will lead to a serious power vacuum which will be followed by serious contestation between the factions. What might mitigate this rupture is if Mugabe manages to settle the succession question before such departure. This is highly unlikely as Mugabe has no intention of leaving power.

Working with “pentiti” to break the system?

I have already compared the system to the mafia. Law enforcement agencies have found it hard to successfully break and eradicate the mafia because it is in essence, a way of life. The system in respect of ZANU PF, shares similar characteristics, which makes it hard for the opposition to break.

One way by which law enforcement agencies have sought to break the mafia is through the use of pentiti – former members of the mafia who have repented. They would have been caught and are used to go after the bigger criminals, in return for immunity and protection. The idea behind this is that in such cases, you need those who know the mafia to catch the bigger criminals, the godfathers. By analogy, the idea is that in order for the opposition to successfully break the system, it needs to work with former members of the system.

Therefore, while there are serious and important questions raised about the propriety of working with former members of the system, there is an argument that it might be strategically prudent to have them onside because of their knowledge of how the system works. They have been part of the system for a long time and they probably still have influence and allies within the system. Their knowledge of how the system operates and how it manipulates and rigs elections may be vital to breaking the system. Their strategic allies within the system might also provide leverage which the traditional opposition on its own does not have.

Admittedly, working with pentiti is devoid of principle and is informed more by pragmatism. Those who favour religious adherence to principle will find it extremely hard to accept the concept of pentiti. But those who are more pragmatic might think it is a price worth paying if use of the pentiti will help take away power from the system and perhaps dismantle it because it is the system, the way of life, which is the single most important impediment to democratic reform in Zimbabwe. It is also an obligation on the part of the political pentiti to demonstrate that they have truly repented. They have to earn trust and confidence of the long-suffering Zimbabweans.


Like I said at the beginning, it is absolutely important to understand the system and how it operates. As Mangwana said, the system is powerful and lethal. It is not a figment of imagination. It is a way of life which ZANU PF has created over the 36 years of its rule. Reforming electoral rules is one thing – after all the Constitution already does that. Changing the way of life which the system has fostered is a harder and more demanding task.

But the system also has internal contradictions and tensions, which in recent years have been brought to the fore and escalated due to the war on the most critical resource of the system: Power. The competition over succession is weakening the cohesion of the system.

Going forward, the opposition has to strategise on how to take advantage of these internecine wars within the system. In asking how to deal with the political pentiti from the system, they will have to confront the question between principle and pragmatism. But ultimately, they must choose a course which helps to break the system. For without breaking the system, prospects for reform will remain bleak.