Harare, Zimbabwe – A lot of attention will focus on US President Donald Trump at the World Economic Forum under way in Davos. But from Africa, all eyes are on Zimbabwe’s new President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
He deposed longtime ruler Robert Mugabe, who was the world’s oldest leader until the military intervened in November last year.
Mnangagwa says he’s in Switzerland to hear from world leaders and potential investors about what they want Zimbabwe to do to convince them the country is ready to re-engage with the international community.
Back in Zimbabwe, there are mixed feelings about Mnangagwa’s first trip abroad.
After nearly 20 years of economic stagnation, company closures and job losses, Zimbabwe is now one of the world’s worst-performing economies. There is a shortage of foreign currency, rising food prices, and high unemployment.
We went to Glenview – a low-income neighbourhood in Harare. Many say they used to have jobs in factories before the stagnant economy shut those down. They try to eke out a living making furniture.
Carpenter Brighton Dingembira wants the international community to end Zimbabwe’s international isolation.
“Robert Mugabe has gone. They should give Mnangagwa a chance,” he says. “There is no way we can survive without the relationship with the international community.”
But Mnangagwa has baggage. He stood by Mugabe’s side during the seizure of land from white farmers, alleged human rights abuses, and the collapse of a once-vibrant economy.
He is known as “the Crocodile“. Critics say he is shrewd and calculating. An opposition supporter said, “It’s still the same ruling Zanu-PF party. The driver has changed, but it’s still the same bus.”
Mnangagwa is trying to cleanse his image both at home and abroad. But sceptics and investors want guarantees their investments will be safe. Conditions some are insisting on include compensating white farmers whose land was seized during the land reform programme, and the holding of internationally acceptable elections.
The state-owned railway company is one example of how dire Zimbabwe’s economy is. The trains are old and some of the infrastructure is dilapidated. Over the years, many workers have been laid off.
After 37 years of Mugabe’s rule, public hospitals have run out of basic drugs. Sometimes there is no running water. Several public schools lack resources to provide a proper education.
Economists predict it could take at least three years before there are real signs Zimbabwe’s economy is on the mend.
Zimbabweans know, for now at least, Mnangagwa has the international good will.
If the new president manages to charm world leaders in Davos this week – not only could he bring much-needed investment – he might be able to rebrand himself as the total opposite of Mugabe, who is blamed for ruining what was once called the “land of milk and honey”.
Elections are in a few months. Opposition parties are currently in disarray.
If Mnangagwa returns from Davos with realistic timeframes for economic recovery, some analysts say it could improve his chances in those polls.