How Mugabe won over a nation – again

After 32 years in power, Zimbabwe's President is winning new adoration with a familiar formula: taking from white businesses to give to black people. In Harare, Alex Duval Smith reports

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The Independent Online

He may face opprobrium abroad, but at home President Robert Mugabe has soared back to popularity thanks to a campaign to turn over white-owned companies to black Zimbabweans. A crusading indigenisation programme – the corporate version of the farm invasions a decade ago – on Tuesday netted its juiciest prey yet when the world's second-largest platinum miner, Impala, agreed to cede 51 per cent of its Zimbabwean arm, Zimplats.

The controversial minister for indigenisation and youth, Saviour Kasukuwere, described the deal as a "historic moment for Zimbabwe and for the region" and called on black Africans to "reclaim their resources". The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the opposition party which in 2009 formed a power-sharing government with Mr Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), sees the indigenisation wave as a feeding frenzy by ruling-party cronies that will deter foreign investors.

But it is working for the 88-year-old president. In questionable health and in power for 32 years, Mr Mugabe has suddenly, in the eyes of many Zimbabweans, regained the revolutionary credentials he earned fighting white rule in the 1970s. Emboldened by international sanctions, he is riding a wave of populist glory born of lots of rhetoric and a few converging realities: tens of thousands of resettled peasants have reaped bumper tobacco crops, civil servants have taken possession of thousands of hectares of redistributed farmland, and national pride is back, boosted by major diamond finds.

At the same time, the MDC has suffered its share of corruption scandals. It has failed to reverse poverty or define itself as a reforming force within the power-sharing administration. And the indigenisation programme, despite its popularity, has divided the trade unions, the MDC's electoral heartland.

In an interview with The Independent, Mr Kasukuwere , 41, did not deny that indigenisation was favouring Zanu-PF "cronies". In his office on the 20th floor of the Mukwati buildings, in Harare, the firebrand politician and businessman said: "Indigenisation is undoing yesterday's cronies. That is why they are complaining. We are empowering the people of Zimbabwe irrespective of their tribe, language or home area. Yes, some will do better than others, but should I cut down those who are going to grow taller to help those who are still below? Every nation must have a middle class, and if I can create an environment in which millions of Zimbabweans are cronies, then fine, good.''

Mr Kasukuwere , who is among 112 Zimbabweans under European Union sanctions, denied that the programme was a ruinous electoral ploy. "We want to get our people out of poverty. Who can be against that? There is now an appreciation that if the majority of the population remain a minority in the economic affairs of the country then they are beggars. They can now see which political party has their interests at heart."

Fourteen years ago, Zimbabwe was a breadbasket for southern Africa. Maize, tobacco and much more were produced by 4,500 commercial farmers – mostly white – using a black workforce. Then Mr Mugabe launched the often-violent "fast-track land redistribution" drive.

The MDC was supported by the white farmers. Elections in the 2000s were violent, and in the 2008 presidential polls, Mr Mugabe finished neck-and-neck with MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai. A South African-brokered unity government took office in 2009, with Mr Tsvangirai as prime minister. It brought hyperinflation under control by replacing the local currency with the US dollar. Donor countries took over funding social ministries to support the 11-million-strong population. With a few exceptions, Zimbabweans are limping along under the burden of an economy going nowhere.

An agreement to move towards elections with a new constitution has become mired in party infighting. MDC finance minister Tendai Biti on Wednesday warned that the government would have to "close" unless the treasury received income from the diamond fields. Sensing his new-found popularity, the president has begun claiming he will call elections with or without a replacement constitution. He could also simply throw out the proposed document when it comes and hold elections using money from diamonds and indigenisation.

Mr Kasukuwere , accused by human rights activists of leading Zanu-PF mobs before the 2002 elections, said the next poll would be violence-free. "We want peaceful, free and fair elections. Let us sell our ideas. People now understand what President Mugabe has been aiming at. He is the only politician who has clearly articulated his thoughts, unlike the other political parties who are just feeding on our people – look at the corruption in the local councils they [both wings of the MDC] control. How can they win elections when it is clear that they are a tool, an agent? They are incompetent, corrupt characters."

Zanu-PF's recent popularity surge has wrong-footed the MDC. Mr Tsvangirai, who recently visited the Marange diamond field, welcomed it as a boost for the country, even though his supporters are critical of the army's heavy hand in the extraction process. To Zimbabweans, the prime minister is seen as speaking with one voice when he addresses investors, and with another – more Zanu-friendly – when at home.

Mr Kasukuwere said his next targets, as he implements the 2007 indigenisation legislation, will be banks, such as Barclays, Standard Bank and Stanbic. "They take our deposits and yet refuse to lend. They have not been interested in funding our [resettled] farmers. "

Details of Tuesday's Zimplats deal remain sketchy. But Impala has agreed to transfer 10 per cent of Zimplats shares to the community around its mines, 10 per cent to employees and 31 per cent to a National Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Fund, a sovereign wealth fund. State media put the total value of the Zimplats transfer at £383 million. Other miners with interests in Zimbabwe, such as Anglo Platinum and Rio Tinto, will watch developments closely. A few investors have sold up or left Zimbabwe, such as the South African construction giant Murray & Roberts.

Eleven years after the farm invasions were at their height, the Commercial Farmers' Union is struggling financially and has only 575 members, many of them past farming age or having moved their operations to Zambia, Australia or Britain. They are no longer political players and may no longer support the MDC.

It is a climate in which poverty grinds on and politics boils down not to delivery but to which party makes the best promises. To many Zimbabweans, President Mugabe once again looks like the country's best defender.

Fighting talk: The president's man

The son of a liberation war fighter, Saviour "Tyson" Kasukuwere is President Mugabe's point man on the issue he holds dearest: indigenisation.

Aged 41, he built his fortune a decade ago after using his ruling party connections to win five contracts to import oil. But Kasukuwere's oil company, Comoil, and his Migdale transport firm, both run by his wife Barbara, have suffered as a result of American sanctions that forbid US companies from doing business with his concerns. "If anything, sanctions have emboldened me," he said.

Mr Kasukuwere joined the the Central Intelligence Organisation straight from school. He moved into business in his mid-20s and only entered politics when he ran for Mount Darwin South in 2000, a constituency about 200km from Harare, becoming Zanu-PF's youngest MP.

He became deputy youth minister in 2005 and was studying for a political science degree when he was appointed minister of youth and indigenisation in 2009. He went on to do a masters degree in inter- national relations with a thesis on indigenisation and empowerment.