The military coup that ended the ruinous 37-year rule of Robert Mugabe was greeted with genuine enthusiasm both in Zimbabwe and abroad. Any skepticism of Emmerson Mnangagwa was drowned out by the new president’s calming rhetoric about unity and reconciliation and his commitment to a “new beginning.” It seemed churlish, amid such optimism, to deny the long-suffering people of Zimbabwe their moment of hope.

Yet that spirit has been dashed recently as Mnangagwa’s reforms have been exposed as cosmetic, at best. Instead of a new Zimbabwe, it is the same old state within the narrow parameters imposed by the ruling party, ZANU-PF, with no prospect of any change that might encroach upon its power.

Even before this month, the hope for fundamental political and economic change had largely waned with last July’s disputed election and the killing of unarmed demonstrators protesting its outcome. While noise about reform diverted global attention, the daily harassment of grassroots civil society activists like the Zimbabwe Crisis Coalition and trade unionists has continued under the radar. Despite the repeated claim that Zimbabwe was “open for business,” Mnangagwa has presided over further economic decline: 90 percent unemployment, galloping inflation at 35 percent, a failing local currency coupled with a chronic shortage of foreign currency, scarcities of virtually all basic goods, and an inability to convince potential donors and investors that the country is on a new path. 

All this culminated in January with the extraordinary decision to announce a doubling of the price of gasoline, an economically irrational decision with damaging knock-on effects throughout the economy. Those with jobs could no longer afford to travel to work, and higher transport costs increased the price of basic commodities, further impoverishing an already destitute population currently kept afloat by remittances from the massive Zimbabwean diaspora.

The regime’s response to the subsequent protests in the streets and the more organized work of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions has proved to be a defining moment in reshaping perceptions of Zimbabwean politics, reminding observers of the underlying character of Mnangagwa and ZANU-PF. The mask of reform finally slipped last week when a presidential spokesperson, George Charamba, warned that the state response was merely a “foretaste of things to come.” Live ammunition had already been used against protesters, killing 12 and wounding hundreds, to say nothing of the beatings, abductions, mass arrests, and the use of the army and police as the ruling party’s paramilitary enforcers.

Unsurprisingly, the government blamed the Movement for Democratic Change, or MDC, and the trade unionists for the unrest, thus legitimizing a wider assault on both of them. It is no coincidence that much of the crackdown has been concentrated in the poorer neighborhoods of Harare and Bulawayo, which are strong areas of MDC support. ZANU-PF has viewed this crisis as an opportunity to forcefully remind those voters of the realities of its power. And all of this was conducted under blanket censorship, with the internet and social media closed down.

Where does Zimbabwe go from here? The scale of state violence—the most severe since 2008—demonstrates that the historical fixation with Mugabe has obscured the fact that the country has a systemic problem with its ruling party, rather than a crisis rooted in the leadership of any one individual. ZANU-PF has no shortage of Mnangagwas. His departure in any potential palace coup would make little difference; Vice President Constantino Chiwenga, the general who led the military takeover that ousted Mugabe, has an equally bloody resume. 

The regime in Zimbabwe has far too much to lose materially to willingly yield power. Yet its continuing rule is lethal to the country’s prospects.Indeed, the party is so corrupt, authoritarian and dysfunctional that the very idea that it can restore stability—let alone provide a lasting resolution of Zimbabwe’s problems—is a contradiction in terms. ZANU-PF’s commitment to rule in perpetuity in order to preserve its embedded patronage networks and its various rackets to loot the state, often through state terror, make it a source of instability and permanent crisis. These events have also stripped away many of the illusions about Mnangagwa, confirming that he represents continuity with Mugabe and the past rather than a radical departure. To expect groundbreaking liberal reform from an individual whose entire political career has been immersed in violence and coercion always represented the triumph of hope over experience. 
Nevertheless, rather than highlight its strengths, the recent unrest has at least exposed ZANU-PF’s weaknesses. It is a measure of the regime’s insecurity that it was prepared to jettison its own much-lauded commitment to a new way of doing things on account of protests which, although serious and widespread, hardly constituted a meaningful threat to state power. They certainly could have been dealt with without live ammunition. 

This reveals two things. First, ZANU-PF considers any form of protest a threat to its power and, as a matter of principle, will seek to stamp it out so it can’t take root and mature into a real challenge. It is a very deliberate policy of using maximum repressive force to generate fear and serve as a warning to others. The regime feels that anything short of that may be perceived as weakness and will invite further pressure given the limited nature of its popular support, which repression and ballot-rigging have previously disguised. 

Second, Zimbabwe is now a new kind of militarized regime, a hybrid model providing for the repressive ferocity of military rule where required, while crucially avoiding the harsh international criticism and isolation of a conventional military regime, as the security forces’ influence is formally channeled through party rule. There are striking parallels with P.W. Botha’s militarized regime in South Africa in the 1980s, which also sought to combine the language of reform with state violence and lawlessness. When a state establishes such heavily militarized political structures, places its armed forces beyond the law, and uses disproportionate violence, it is a reliable indicator that its principal driver is the fear of its own people—rarely a basis for progress. South Africa’s 1980s experiment in militarization produced economic decline, political paralysis and international isolation. There is no reason to believe Zimbabwe’s current version will produce a more favorable outcome. Nor does a Zimbabwean F. W. de Klerk appear to be anywhere on the horizon. 

Zimbabwe finds itself in a paradox. The regime has far too much to lose materially to willingly yield power. Yet its continuing rule is lethal to the country’s prospects, as it is incapable of good governance and its rampant plundering ensures rapid economic decline, which will further erode its political authority. Crisis and violent turmoil are virtually guaranteed outcomes.

In the absence of external intervention, which doesn’t seem at all likely given South Africa’s hands-off policy toward its neighbor, Zimbabwe will continue on its descent. Each stage of economic decline will increase the likelihood of greater upheaval, whether in the form of a new mass exodus to neighboring states, principally South Africa, or violence, ungovernability and even a low-intensity civil war. This may sound like a future “too ghastly to contemplate,” in the words of South Africa’s apartheid-era Prime Minister John Vorster, but is it so far off?