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International community will judge new Zimbabwean president by actions not words

Since Robert Mugabe stood down and was replaced as president by Emmerson Mnangagwa the mood here in Zimbabwe has been positive. There is a sense of optimism and hope for the future.

The new president has been saying the right things. He has promised free and fair elections this summer. He has promised to tackle corruption. He has made a commitment to clear the $1.8 billion national debt. But these promises and commitments must be backed up by actions.

Yes, there have already been some signs of progress on various fronts. A new budget has been set which has seen a small increase in investment in health (although there is a long way to go yet on this front). The number of police checkpoints in the country has been dramatically decreased. The president has given individuals three months to bring money back into the country that has been residing ‘offshore’. A new Peace and Reconciliation Commission has been set up to try to address the awful history of violence in Zimbabwe that has never had the benefit of any kind of healing process.

But there is a lot more still to be done. The elections will be a real litmus test for the president. He must ensure that there is no violence, no intimidation, a level playing field for candidates and the mechanisms to ensure a transparent registration system for voters.

Citizens will be watching the elections very closely. They will want transparency and international observers. The international community will be key to holding the president to account.

The president has said Zimbabwe is open for business and he needs to court international investors and donors. He needs foreign investment if the country is to flourish. The economy has stagnated for years and is the number one concern for many citizens, particularly for young Zimbabweans, many of whom unwillingly emigrate. Unemployment in the ‘formal economy’ is estimated at 80-90% (although many people are employed in the ‘informal economy’ making money where they can on a day-by-day basis).   

However, it’s not just around the elections that people are demanding change. They want to see ‘pro-poor’ investment plans, particularly for small farmers together with investment in sanitation, roads, health facilities and schools. But economic reform must go hand-in-hand with upholding human rights. Business and human rights standards must be met.

The mood is optimistic but seasoned with a heavy dose of realism. Zimbabweans lived for three decades without change, so there is a big sense of wait and see. There have been recent worrying incidents that have seemed to be a throwback to former times – with heavy-handed put-downs of protests by students and street vendors. A strong judiciary exists in Zimbabwe, but now is the time to further strengthen this to provide greater oversight and ensure that human rights are protected.

Trócaire will continue to support the work of local organisations to ensure human rights are upheld and that Zimbabweans are supported to fulfil their potential and achieve a more inclusive society that benefits all. Our work with local organisations to ensure that young people and women in particular register to vote and understand their rights is critical at this time, as is support for pro-poor economic growth and policies, particularly for smallholder farmers who form the backbone of the economy.

There are a lot of tests to come but events in Zimbabwe, and more recently South Africa, have shown people that change is possible. Leaders can be held to account. There is hope and as someone said to me recently “You can’t underestimate hope”. People here truly believe that even greater change is possible.

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Mrs Sitabile (meaning ‘happiness’) and her family benefited from support from Trócaire sister organisation Caritas during the drought in 2016. Photo: Isabel Corthier/Caritas

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