HomeOpinion & AnalysisSucceeding Mugabe: Battle of the water carriers

Succeeding Mugabe: Battle of the water carriers

He is a quiet man, the much clichéd man of few words, more at home in the shadows than on the big public stages. When he speaks, he betrays the shy demeanour of a man who finds little comfort in front of the cameras but who must speak nevertheless on account of duty.
There is little drama or hangers-on around him. If it were a football team, he is the player who rarely makes it to the papers, but is always the first name on the coach’s team-sheet on match day.

By Alex T Magaisa

Sydney Sekeramayi
Sydney Sekeramayi

His name has been dropped occasionally in political conversations but more on account of the active rumour mill than open declaration. This was so until the evening of June 1 2017, when Professor Jonathan Moyo cited his name and thereby thrust the man onto the grand stage where the drama to succeed Zimbabwe’s long-time leader, President Robert Mugabe is currently in play. His name is Sydney Sekeramayi.

Beyond the “lecture”

Moyo’s lecture at Sapes, Harare’s foremost platform for political conversation on June 1 2017 was remarkable for three features. First, it was as much a lecture as it was a political statement. Second, it was the most sustained and intense critique yet of Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s bid to succeed Mugabe. Third, it marked a not-so-subtle announcement of Sekeramayi as a serious contender for the same post.

To be fair, it was not the first time that Moyo has publicly criticised Mnangagwa’s succession bid. If anything, he has been the most consistent and most vocal critic within Zanu PF, since Mnangagwa was elevated to the post of vice-president in 2014. The fall-out between Moyo and Mnangagwa was quite remarkable given the apparently close partnership between the two men in the run-up to Zanu PF’s Congress in 2004. That relationship collapsed in the wake of the so-called Tsholotsho Declaration. On this occasion, at Sapes, Moyo launched a public critique on Mnangagwa that was so open and so vicious that it seemed to have floored much of his audience.

Moyo’s purpose was not merely to challenge Mnangagwa’s bid by criticism, but to introduce into the succession discourse an alternative candidate in the form of Sekeramayi. The cover for the brutal assault on Mnangagwa’s ambitions was a critique of the prospects of the “nationalist project” in Zimbabwe. The first part of the lecture was therefore a typical presentation that a professor of political science might give to a new cohort students. This elementary exercise was executed with ease and very quickly shelved. Moyo had not come to Sapes for an academic lecture, a point that some in the audience seemed to have missed. He had come to demonstrate why Mnangagwa and his allies (referred to as Lacoste) were not fit to succeed Mugabe and why Sekeramayi was a better alternative. The value of the “nationalist project” discourse was simply to give intellectual form to what was essentially a political exercise.

Thumping Lacoste

If the first part of the lecture was a sparring session, the second was proper heavyweight thumping of the opponent. Certainly, no punches were pulled. In Moyo’s no-holds-barred judgement, Lacoste presents “a clear and present danger to the nationalist project”. According to Moyo, Lacoste are arrogant, selfish, subversive, divisive and exclusionary. The much-talked about command approach to governance was relentlessly trashed. He lampooned Lacoste’s attempt to present themselves as “stockholders” of the nation and of having a sense of entitlement to the presidency.

In an attack designed to appeal to Mugabe’s insecurities, Moyo criticised Lacoste of “working hard” to win the support of foreigners, citing Britain as an example. After Mugabe’s bitter fallout with the former colonial masters, anyone associated with the British is viewed with suspicion, if not regarded as a mortal enemy. Nevertheless, if the public chastisement of Mnangagwa and his allies was brave, it was also not new. Those who have observed Zimbabwe closely know that Moyo has been a scathing critique of Mnangagwa and his allies in recent years. What was new and certainly more exciting to observers was the belated introduction of Sekeramayi as an alternative. Belated, because his name has been floating around the succession drama for quite some time.

The ascent of Sekeramayi?

Sekeramayi’s name appeared in Moyo’s delivery as a mere “example”. He cited him as an example of a person who is more senior to Mnangagwa within Zanu PF, having described as a falsehood the notion that Mnangagwa is the most senior person after Mugabe. But this citation as “just an example” belied its true import. It might have been excused as an innocent example had Moyo merely cited the name. But he went further. The detailed description of Sekeramayi’s qualities that followed suggested it was not an ordinary illustration. It was an illustration with a larger purpose.

More tellingly, although it was not presented as a comparative analysis between the two men, every single quality of Sekeramayi came out as a contrast to Mnangagwa’s qualities. Sekeramayi was described as loyal to the party, Mugabe and the country, which suggested that Mnangagwa was not. Moyo lauded Sekeramayi for his “consensus-style of leadership”, which compares favourably to Mnangagwa’s arrogant and exclusionary type of politics. Moyo praised Sekeramayi for his “political experience” and “unquestionable stature”. He spoke highly of Sekeramayi’s “humility” a contrast to Mnangagwa’s alleged “arrogance” and “sense of entitlement”. “Above all, in my estimation” Moyo said of Sekeramayi, “his humility”, making sure to repeat “humility” for added emphasis. “Because of his humility, Dr Sekeramayi’s story is not well known but once you get to know it, encounter it, it’s infectious,” concluded Moyo, words that seemed to be an invitation to the audience to get ready to know more about him.

“He is not arrogant. He’s accommodating. He’s a true nationalist. He’s grounded,” added Moyo, showering Sekeramayi with more praise. In a not-so-subtle reference that Sekeramayi is presidential material, Moyo placed Sekeramayi in the same class as Mugabe and the late vice-presidents — Joshua Nkomo, Simon Muzenda, Joseph Msika and John Nkomo. Although Moyo appeared to dilute the announcement of Sekeramayi by emphasising that he was “just an example” and also citing Vice-President Phelekezela Mphoko as more senior to Mnangagwa, his words had already painted the impression that he had just introduced a serious candidate for succession.

Behind the silent mask

Naturally, Moyo’s lavish endorsement of Sekeramayi invites closer scrutiny of the latter. Who is this man and what is his history? What makes him outstanding at all? How different is he, if at all, from Mnangagwa? Was the generosity given to him by the professor warranted or was it an act of extravagance?

For sure, Sekeramayi is a quiet man, but so was Mnangagwa before he became vice-president. For a long time, Mnangagwa enjoyed a mythical reputation as a quiet but shrewd strategist. But that myth was debunked as soon as he began to open his mouth more regularly. Likewise, we might never know the man behind the quiet mask until he occupies a bigger stage. But it is possible to piece together the scattered parts of the jigsaw to construct a rough picture of the native of Chihota, a dry, parched and windswept land less than 50 miles from Zimbabwe’s capital.

The other “water carrier”

Last year, writing a feature on Mnangagwa’s “special relationship” with Mugabe, I described Mnangagwa as a “water carrier”, a term I appropriated from the beautiful game of football. The inimitable Eric Cantona, the Manchester United legend, once described fellow Frenchman Didier Deschamps as no more than a “water carrier”. “Deschamps gets by because he always gives 100%, but he will never be anything more than a water carrier,” said Cantona before a match between Manchester United and Juventus in 1996.

Undaunted by the attack, Deschamps’ retort was that he had won two European Cups and that in any event, “every team needs its water carriers”. As fans of the beautiful game know, the water carrier is the player who does the heavy work, often in the middle of the park, intercepting and picking the ball but does not keep it. Once he has it, he passes it on to the more talented members of the team — the playmakers, those who create and score goals. The water carriers have no business holding on to the ball. They must shift it to teammates of more superior talent. That is what Cantona thought of Deschamps, who though annoyed, embraced it. As Deschamps said, every team needs a water carrier. There are many water carriers in football teams and they perform a crucial role. They rarely get the glory that is associated with their more skillful team-mates, but they all know that without them, they would not be able to showcase their skills as they do.

There are also water carriers in politics. They may not be glamourous but they perform their roles, often quietly but they do it efficiently. A closer look at Mugabe’s political career shows that he has benefitted immensely from the water carriers in his team. Mnangagwa is one of them and Sekeramayi is the other. It is not surprising that this pair has been in Mugabe’s team permanently since independence in 1980. It is also not surprising that at any given time, one of these two men has occupied one of the security ministries – defence or national security. From 1980 to 1987, Mnangagwa was the security chief, operating from the Prime Minister’s office. It was a role he had executed during the liberation war, as a Special Assistant to Mugabe as leader of Zanu.

In 1982, Sekeramayi became the chief of defence, also operating from Mugabe’s office. The pair were Mugabe’s reliable water carriers during the early 1980s, probably the dirtiest period on account of Gukurahundi. It is therefore hard for most people in Matabeleland, to reconcile the man described by Moyo and the man who performed a key role during this dark patch of Zimbabwe’s history. If one of Mnangagwa’s darkest spots in his long political career is his alleged role in Gukurahundi, it is hard to see how the other half of the pair, Sekeramayi, can escape the same charge.

In her book, Through the Darkness, Judith Todd refers to Sekeramayi as having been quoted by The Chronicle newspaper on 12 February 1983, saying the Fifth Brigade was in Matabeleland to stay for a very long period of time. However, this was already when innocent civilians were being killed and terrorised by the notorious Fifth Brigade. Writing in The New York Times of March 11 1983, Joseph Lelyveld also quotes Sekeramayi mocking Joshua Nkomo and calling him a “coward” after he had fled Zimbabwe to Botswana fearing for his life. “He will cry human rights and he knows he will have a sympathetic audience …” said Sekeramayi. “He hoped to use acts of banditry to put pressure on the government. That was his trump card …” He is also quoted in the same report blaming civilians and justifying the Fifth Brigade’s operations, “The situation was really gravitating to the point where the local population was totally behind the dissidents. At that point, you either abdicate or take stronger measures. We decided to take stronger measures”. He was also critical of Botswana for opening up the border for refugees fleeing Gukurahundi. But Sekeramayi was doing the dirty work for his boss. He was playing the water career role, just like his colleague Mnangagwa who was head of the security ministry.

Political expediency

In light of this, the selection of Sekeramayi by Moyo and allies owes more to the forces of political expediency – probably what they are calling “practical politics” – than principle. It can only be explained by the argument that the group opposed to Mnangagwa had to find someone who could match him pound for pound. These factors include liberation credentials, political experience, influence in the security sector, international stature and ethnicity. Sekeramayi ticks most, if not all the boxes just like Mnangagwa does. G40 or the loyalists, as Moyo described this force, may have realised that the lack of a leader and credible candidate was a serious handicap. Their rivals had a known leader and candidate. But on their part, they seemed to be dithering. The idea of Grace Mugabe as a candidate was touted but it was always fanciful at best. They needed someone who could stand toe-to-toe with Mnangagwa. They seem to have settled for Sekeramayi.

To be sure, The Zimbabwe Independent reported as much way back in November 2015. In their story, “Sekeramayi back in succession race”, Owen Gagare described how “Sekeramayi has bounced back [into the succession race] after a realisation by G40 [that] Grace lacks history, experience and gravitas necessary to win the cut-throat Zanu PF power struggle.” They were said to be hunting for a “heavyweight candidate” and had identified Sekeramayi as the perfect fit. https://www.theindependent.co.zw/2015/11/27/sekeramayi-back-in-succession-race/

Liberation credentials

This is not surprising as Sekeramayi’s liberation credentials are solid – he is said to be the only other person in the present government except Mugabe and Mnangagwa who was in the Zanu PF Central Committee after the 1977 Congress in Mozambique. Like Mnangagwa, Sekeramayi’s relationship with Zanu PF dates back to the 1960s. While Mnangagwa went to train in China, Sekeramayi was sponsored by Zanu PF to study medicine in the then Czechoslovakia and Sweden. In her book, Re-living the Second Chimurenga, Fay Chung cites him as one of the university educated graduates who were brought in by Mugabe when he consolidated his leadership of Zanu in the mid-late 70s. No one, not even the war veterans can dismiss his liberation war credentials. Like Mnangagwa, he has been trusted by Mugabe with the sensitive security ministries – National Security and Defence. Indeed, he is the current Defence minister.


The ethnic factor is no less significant in the succession dynamics. People tend to understate it, but it is, regrettably, an ever-present factor in our national politics. It was a big issue during the liberation struggle and it is still a big issue to this day. Although Mphoko already holds the post of vice-president and Moyo described him as more senior than Mnangagwa, G40 know that because of ethnicity, his chances of succeeding Mugabe are remote. As a Zezuru, Sekeramayi does not suffer the same handicap. It is common cause that already there are ethnic under-currents in the succession race. It has been said that Karanga politicians believe it is their turn to take over national leadership. The Zezuru have been accused of dominating and monopolising the state since independence.

On the other hand, Zezuru politicians are said to resent the idea of a Karanga ascendancy. The emergence of Sekeramayi will make this a race between the Karanga and Zezuru, the two dominant ethnic groups, with an influential section of the Ndebele seemingly closing ranks with the Zezuru. This is not about principle but political expediency or the so-called “practical politics”. But it is also a recipe for disaster, a dangerous cocktail which could split not only Zanu PF but a large section of the population and cause untold chaos. Close observers of national politics should have seen this coming. A Grace Mugabe-rally in Chiweshe last year revealed the ethnic under-currents that were already brewing in the party.

There is some evidence, albeit unsubstantiated, suggesting that this will not be the first time that the relationship between Sekeramayi and Mnangagwa has been by ethnic clashes. A US Cable from 1988 revealed by Wikilleaks in 2011 provides detailed profiles of Mugabe’s new Cabinet appointed after the Unity Accord. It quotes sources stating that Mnangagwa was disappointed that he had not been appointed to a senior portfolio in Defence or Home Affairs after serving as National Security minister since 1980. He had expected an elevation but he had apparently been elbowed out by Nathan Shamuyarira and Sydney Sekeramayi who advised Mugabe against it.

According to the cable released by US Ambassador James Rawlings, “A Zezuru clique [led by Nathan Shamuyarira and Sydney Sekeramayi] in the GOZ persuaded Mugabe not to appoint Mnangagwa, a Karanga to a Security ministry. We understand that Mnangagwa was disappointed with this new assignment, especially since Justice’s most important task i.e drafting the constitutional amendments and ending racial representation in Parliament and establishing an Executive Presidency has been completed. We heard that Mnangagwa was even considering at one point retiring from government and going into private business but he is now said to have accepted his new position …” If this is true, then there is no love lost between the two men and the ethnic factor will feature prominently in the contestation.

The Great Escape

There’s, however, some irony to the suggestion of Sekeramayi as a contender to succeed Mugabe. If he does actually become a serious contender, it will complete a remarkable turnaround after a terrible patch which culminated in the humiliation of his wife, Tsitsi in December 2014. In fact, Sekeramayi had his own version of the Great Escape in 2014, as he too could have been swept aside by the tide. At the time, Sekeramayi was alleged to be a staunch ally of Joice Mujuru, the then vice-president who was widely touted as the successor to Mugabe. However, when Mujuru’s fortunes collapsed in spectacular fashion in the summer of 2014, Sekeramayi’s star also appeared to dim.

One day, when Tsitsi Sekeramayi arrived at the Zanu PF headquarters to get accredited for the congress, she was heckled, harassed and shoved by rowdy Zanu PF youths. The Daily News quoted Zanu PF youths shouting “waifunga kuti uchaita first lady” (You thought you would become the first lady). Some reports say she wept. It was an embarrassing moment which reflected the precariousness of Sekeramayi’s political career at that time. It did seem like his Zanu PF carrier was imperilled. But he survived and it seems Mugabe was instrumental in saving him. It would be a remarkable turnaround if he eventually becomes the president and his wife, Tsitsi becomes the first lady. The yobs who harassed her would have their comeuppance.

Thin political base

Zanu PF politicians who have served under Mugabe have all suffered a common weakness: a thin national base. The reason is simple. For more than 40 years, they have had to operate in the shadow of one man – now more openly referred to as the One Centre of Power. Mugabe’s subordinates have long understood that it is fatal to outshine the master. The result is that no Zanu PF politician has ever been able to build a national profile. They simply never got a chance. The only person who had a broad national profile and support base was Joshua Nkomo, but this was more on account of his role from the nationalist struggle for independence, from where he earned the undisputed title of Father Zimbabwe.

Mnangagwa has struggled to build a national base, losing twice in parliamentary elections in Kwekwe. Sekeramayi’s political reach is no better either. In fact, prior to the 2014 congress, Sekeramayi had been dropped from the Zanu PF leadership in Mashonaland East. He had to be rescued by Mugabe who ordered fresh elections in the province. Sekeramayi expressed gratitude for the fresh elections at which he eventually prevailed.

But if Sekeramayi benefitted from Mugabe’s rescue efforts, he is not alone. Mnangagwa too, has been rescued by Mugabe when the chips were down. When he lost to MDC’s Blessing Chebundo in the 2000 elections, Mugabe threw him a lifeline when he returned to Parliament as the Speaker. Both men are therefore grateful recipients of Mugabe’s benevolence.

The diesel that never was

Few images invite as much derision and mockery of government among Zimbabweans as the pictures of government ministers in awe of a fake traditional healer who claimed to have discovered diesel from the rocks of Chinhoyi, a small town to the west of Harare. Her name was Rotina Mavhunga. She told government ministers that she could extract diesel from rocks and they believed her. She made them take off their shoes, sit on bare ground and clap hands for her by way of respect as she pretended to pump diesel from rocks. They sat there, smiling and praising her while she tricked them.

One young woman with very limited education had made fools of all these men who were in charge of government affairs. One of these men was Sekeramayi. He was not alone, but how a Swedish-trained medical doctor could have been duped to believe such nonsense is a truly remarkable show of naivety. Perhaps it was the desperation of the times in a country that was battling severe fuel shortages but it is hard to imagine one of those men actually leading a country in the 21st century. If they can be conned in such a manner, how can they be trusted with complex affairs of government? It was a hugely embarrassing episode, one that will live with Sekeramayi and his government colleagues until the end of time.

Dark moments

One day, in 2011, Farai Maguwu was on his way to Dublin, the capital of the Republic of Ireland, where he was due to attend a human rights conference. Maguwu had done a lot of work covering the looting of diamonds and human rights violations in the Chiadzwa diamond fields. At the airport in Harare, he was apprehended by members of the CIO, the intelligence organisation and his goods were confiscated. He was prevented from travelling to Ireland. Maguwu went to court and sued the minister in charge of intelligence.
Sekeramayi was the minister. The first judge, Justice Samuel Kudya granted provisional order for the return of Maguwu’s property. Justice Nicholas Mathonsi later granted the final order. His judgement was highly critical of Minister Sekeremayi’s conduct in the matter. Describing him as “untruthful”, “unreliable” and lying under oath, Justice Mathonsi dismissed the minister’s feeble attempt to suggest that the CIO operated outside the law. This was a damning judgement which raises concerns about his commitment to the rule of law.

Mugabe’s hand

Sekeramayi has often been referred to as the “dark horse” of the succession race. It is also important to consider the role of Mugabe’s hand in the latest developments. During his delivery, Moyo looked relaxed and confident, with the assurance of a man who knew what he was doing. He was ready and prepared to discuss the succession issue openly. It is hard to imagine that he threw in Sekeramayi’s name by accident. Moyo is clever enough to have known, or at least to have anticipated, the implications of deploying Sekeramayi’s name in the context of his stinging criticism and dismissal of Mnangagwa’s presidential ambitions.

Nevertheless, it would be interesting to know whether Mugabe was privy to what happened. Zimbabwe watchers generally agree that Mugabe has always used and benefited from the factional battles in his party. Some believe that he deliberately engineers them to keep his potential successors busy. It wouldn’t be surprising if he is firmly behind the latest developments. Moyo’s confidence suggests that he acted with the full backing of his boss and if not his boss, then certainly his wife, Grace Mugabe. Once, at a political rally, Grace Mugabe invoked an old Shona proverb, “mugoti unopuhwa anyerere” (a reward is usually given to those who speak less). At that rally she had just chastised politicians who have a sense of entitlement, and most observers interpreted this criticism to be directed at Mnangagwa. It now seems it was Sekeramayi whom she had in mind when she said the cooking stick is given to the quiet one.

A future president?

Moyo was keen to associate Mnangagwa and Lacoste with foreigners. Evidence from declassified documents in the US and the Britain suggest that Sekeramayi has also long enjoyed a favourable reputation in those circles. A 1982 declassified British cable speaks highly of Sekeramayi, describing his redeployment from the Lands and Resettlement ministry to Defence in 1982 as “a loss from the point of view of the land resettlement programme. He has been consistent, decisive and reliable minister with whom to do business.” Moven Mahachi who succeeded him was by contrast described as “much less intelligent and … more difficult to deal with, despite his superficial affability”. Sekeramayi was described as someone who would be “an asset in his new post” in defence, where ironically, he was succeeding Mugabe who had held the ministry of Defence since independence in 1980.

As far back as 1988, according to one a US cable, the Americans saw him as a future leader. “He is an impressive individual in conversation and appears both brighter and more articulate than most of his colleagues. He must be considered as a future president,” wrote the then US Ambassador, ambassador James Rawlings as revealed in the Wikilleaks cables. If Mugabe believes Sekeramayi is presidential material, he won’t be the first to have been impressed.


The twists and turns in the race to succeed Zimbabwe’s nonagenarian leader are truly fascinating. After years of rumours, Moyo has finally thrust Sekeramayi into the limelight. Meanwhile, Sekeramayi will probably do what any loyal cadre in Zanu PF is expected to do. He will issue a statement denying any ambition to succeed his boss. It won’t mean much.

He may be a reluctant candidate, one who prefers to remain in the background, but he now has to contend with the new expectations of the public stage. If he does go on to challenge, it will be a fascinating contest between the two men who have been with Mugabe the longest in this government, the two loyalists who have performed the water carrier role with near perfection.

Mugabe has never dropped either of them from his government since independence. Both have been loyal. Both were for a long time quietly efficient, doing the dirty jobs without complaining. But one became more impatient in recent years. It is probably that sense of entitlement so heavily criticised by Moyo that could be Mnangagwa’s undoing. Sekeramayi’s advantage is that he has not shown ambition.
One war comrade had this to say, “He was modest and indeed humble, never ambitious but with a sound understanding of the power dynamics in the party and state … he has been markedly loyal to his boss, who in turn has trusted him with the sensitive portfolios of Security and Defence ever since 1988 when he replaced Mnangagwa at Security”. That old comrade was Ibbo Mandaza.

One thing for sure is that this looks like a big challenge for the Mnangagwa team, one that they may not have anticipated. If Mnangagwa does go on to lose the race to Sekeramayi, it would be a bitter pill to swallow, not least because it would be the second that he would have lost the prize to an old comrade just when he thought it was within reach. The last time was in 2004, when Joice Mujuru pipped him to the vice presidency. Could it be déjà vu for Mnangagwa?

Certainly, 1 June 2017 will go down as the evening when Moyo and his allies literally threw the kitchen sink at their rivals. Yet, when all is said and done, neither Mnangagwa nor Sekeramayi represent prospects of change. They are fully paid up members of the establishment. Whatever happens in Zanu PF’s succession race, fascinating though it may be to observers, salvation for Zimbabweans lies beyond the old party. It is not an ideological battle. Nor is it a battle between a new order and the old order. It is not a battle of generations. It is quite simply a raw, bare-knuckle fight for political power. It will be a war between Mugabe’s water carriers.

Alex Magaisa is a socio-political commentator and legal expert. He can be contacted on email: wamagaisa@gmail.com

Recent Posts

Stories you will enjoy

Recommended reading