The week Mugabe resigned: how News24 covered the fall of a 'dictator'

News24 Africa editor Betha Madhomu.
News24 Africa editor Betha Madhomu.

"AS IT HAPPENED: Zanu-FP rejects coup claim, accuses army chief of 'treasonable conduct'"… This was my last headline on a live update article that I busied myself with on November 14 when the Zimbabwean political drama started to unfold.

It was around 20:00 when I decided to go to bed and still it was not clear exactly what was happening in the southern African country which Robert Mugabe, now former president, had ruled with an iron fist for 37 years.

On that Tuesday, the ruling Zanu-PF party was clearly in denial of the political crisis that was brewing. By the way, the army chief, Constantino Chiwenga, had on the previous day (Monday, November 13) criticised the instability in the country's ruling party which seemed to have been caused by Mugabe himself after he sacked his deputy then – now president of Zimbabwe – Emmerson Mnangagwa on November 6 over "deceitfulness and unreliability".

With the succession battles that had intensified in the revolutionary party, Mnangagwa's sacking had somewhat opened the way for Mugabe's wife, Grace, to be named a vice president at a special conference of the party. The same congress is set to take place this Friday.

Mnangagwa himself had been widely backed by the army and had over the years been viewed as a potential successor to the president.

Purging and cleansing process 

Chiwenga said at the time that "instability" in the ruling party had caused "distress, trepidation and despondence."

He accused the party of expelling senior officials who participated in the 1970s war against white-minority ruled Rhodesia, saying "counter revolutionaries" were plotting to destroy the party.

"The current purging and cleansing process in Zanu-PF which so far is targeting mostly members associated with our liberation history is a serious cause for concern for us in the defense forces," said Chiwenga, at a press conference, reading from his statement.

"We must remind those behind the current treacherous shenanigans that when it comes to matters of protecting our revolution, the military will not hesitate to step in. The current purging of which is clearly targeting members of the party with a liberation background must stop forthwith."

This was indeed the first time Zimbabwe's military had directly criticised the infighting in Zanu-PF and it marked a rift between Mugabe and an institution that had been a key pillar of his power.

Chiwenga did not state at that particular time what action the military was going to take but said the defence forces "strongly urge the party to stop the reckless utterances by politicians from the ruling party denigrating the military which is causing alarm and despondency within the rank and file".

But in its reaction to Chiwenga's utterances, Zanu-PF issued a stern statement in which it accused the army general of "treason conduct". The party also maintained that was not facing a political crisis.

Zanu-PF also said that Chiwenga's criticism of Mugabe was "clearly calculated to disturb national peace..."

To add to this, the country's former minister of higher and tertiary education Jonathan Moyo also tweeted in denial.

He posted on his Twitter page at 19:27: "Fake news by any other name or any other scheme for any purpose or wish is just fake news!"

And yet there clearly was unease and tension in Zimbabwe, particularly in Harare where reports indicated that the military had been seen moving tanks from the barracks to the capital city.

Other reports also said that some uniformed soldiers had been deployed in street corners all day on that Tuesday. But no comment was immediately available from army officials.

Some on social media were quick to dismiss the development as a “normal routine” by the army. But definitely this was not something to be taken lightly. Yes, it could have been something that the military usually did, but it was indeed the timing that heightened the anxiety. An open rift between the military and the 93-year-old Mugabe was clearly evident.

At around exactly 04:03 on Wednesday morning, I received a WhatsApp message from a friend saying that the army had taken control. The message was accompanied by a link to the tweet which read: "The army is now on state television. Chiwenga [head of the armed forces] has taken over." Brace yourselves, folks.  

At that moment it dawned on me that something VERY serious was going on in Zimbabwe. All I needed to do was to try and get confirmation from the News24 correspondents based in Harare. I also had to check with my family and friends in various parts of the country.

"Have you heard about the so-called announcement by the military on Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) television?" That was the question I asked.

Meanwhile, I also quickly searched on social media to see what people were posting. Within a few minutes of searching, I came across the video of Major General Sibusiso Moyo, now the minister of foreign affairs as he announced on ZBC television to the world the military intervention against Mugabe.

In that clip the general made it clear that Mugabe and his family were "safe" and that their security was "guaranteed". He also urged Zimbabweans to remain calm and "limit unnecessary movement". BUT most importantly, Moyo also made it clear that this was "not a military takeover".

So clearly, it was not "business as usual" in Zimbabwe. Life, however, had to continue as "normal". People had to continue with their daily routines - going to work, going to school and so on, BUT with milliatry tanks and soldiers in their midst.

For the News24 Africa desk, it meant a lot of extra hours of work and extra resources to cover the story extensively. A team of three journalists was quickly dispatched to Harare and they did a lot of work. While they filed stories, photos and videos from the scenes where thousands gathered to celebrate, back in the newsroom, we watched the news feeds and social media for any developments until the inauguration of Emmerson Mnangagwa as the country's new leader on November 24. 

The story unfolded so dramatically and so unexpectedly so much that it created a lot of interest among our readers. News24 Africa's traffic shot up tremendously, with a total of over 22 million page views recorded for the month of November alone.

The day that Mugabe resigned - November 21 - remained the most significant as events happened to quickly and unexpectedly. That was the day Zimbabweans said "goodbye" to a man who helped bring the country's independence from Britain but viewed by some as a tyrant, particularly in his final days in power. Many took to the streets to celebrate.

But of great importance in all this is that; as the new leader of Zimbabwe, Mnangagwa has already indicated his commitment to a democratic, just and prosperous country. However, it remains to be seen whether his promises won't live to be mere rhetorical intentions.  

Betha Madhomu is News24 Africa editor and she also hails from Zimbabwe.

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