Will Zimbabwe's new President actually bring change?

emmerson mnangagwa robert mugabe zimbabwe pkg curnow cnni_00003505
emmerson mnangagwa robert mugabe zimbabwe pkg curnow cnni_00003505

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Story highlights

  • Zimbabweans are holding out hope that Emmerson Mnangagwa will usher in a new era, writes Robyn Curnow
  • Mnangagwa previously headed the feared intelligence agency and is accused of involvement in the Matebeleland massacres, Curnow writes

Robyn Curnow anchors the "International Desk" at 11 a.m. ET on CNN International and was CNN's Southern Africa correspondent.

(CNN)The new president of Zimbabwe is called "The Crocodile." Crocodiles are feared and respected in Africa, where the reptile patiently waits for its prey, half-hidden in the brown waters of the bushveld. An impala, a zebra or even a massive kudu knows that when they come to drink at a waterhole, the "garwe" might pounce. The crocodile, like Emmerson Mnangagwa, bides his time and is swift in his execution.

Now the Crocodile, with the help of the military, has dispatched Robert Mugabe to a long-overdue retirement and politically neutered Grace Mugabe and her allies.
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Zimbabweans are all too aware of Mnangagwa's past and of what he is capable.
    This is the man who has headed up the feared intelligence agency as well as the defense and justice ministries during times of state oppression and brutality. He is tainted by accusations of his involvement in the Matebeleland massacres in the 1980s. Opposition figures say he was the mastermind behind election violence, vote rigging and the plundering of Zimbabwe's natural resources. Years ago, the US State Department slapped sanctions on Mnangagwa and others in response to what the Americans called, "acts of violence and other human rights abuses against political opponents." Those sanctions remain in force.
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    Zimbabweans know he was Robert Mugabe's enabler, right-hand man and henchman.
    For now, in this honeymoon period, many are willing to overlook Mnangagwa's history. They are willing to give him a chance. They hope he will lead them as a nation, and not just as the head of the ruling Zanu PF party.
    Many Zimbabweans are still drunk with excitement that the nightmare years of Mugabe are over. And they are even more ecstatic that his wife Grace Mugabe is not the president. A lot of the goodwill toward Mnangagwa comes from a sense of relief that the new President is A.B.G -- Anyone but Grace.
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    Those who know him say he can be a pragmatic listener, that he's not an ideologue. Did he hear all the Zimbabweans who came out onto the streets in the past few days? Will he hear the frustrations of foreign investors? Will he listen to, and give voting rights, to the millions of Zimbabweans in South Africa, the United Kingdom, Australia and the US?
    He will want to give the impression he is taking Zimbabwe on a new path. The optics are key. He will need to show he will do things differently than the man he helped kick out.
    Zimbabweans will cheer him when he talks about jobs and peace, but there is a long to-do list for the incoming President.
    In his address to the nation, Mnangagwa got off to a good start by suggesting that farmers who had their land taken under Mugabe would compensated and that he wanted to tackle government corruption.
    But will he lift repressive media laws and let journalists and publishers do their work without fear of being arrested? Will he punish those who insult the President like his predecessor? Will he remove draconian public order laws? What about the indigenization laws that continue to limit foreign investment? Can he guarantee property rights? He says he will.
    Calling for free and fair elections is important too. But voter registration needs to be extended and the voter's roll cleaned up. The international community must be allowed in to monitor the election too.
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    Zimbabweans know change has come. For now, the change is just at the top: only Mugabe, his wife and their cronies have been removed. As one commentator said, "Dictator has gone, but the dictatorship remains."
    So Zimbabweans now watch the Crocodile, as he watches them, with a bellyful of doubt but also with hopeful hearts and infinite patience.