HARARE (Reuters) - When veteran Zimbabwe leader Robert Mugabe sacked his vice-president in front of 12,000 baying party members last week, Emmerson Mnangagwa sat quietly in the crowd, a green baseball cap pulled low over his eyes.
The man who stood to gain most from the departure of Joice Mujuru betrayed nothing by his face and gentle clapping — a survival tactic honed during five decades of service from teenage guerilla to minister of defense, finance and justice for the mercurial now 90-year-old Mugabe.
His cap, however, spoke volumes.
Emblazoned across its front, next to the obligatory black-and-white portrait of a grim-faced Mugabe, were four words: “Indigenise, Empower, Develop, Employ” — a slogan of Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party.
If, as analysts expect, the inscrutable Mnangagwa is named this week as new vice-president and Mugabe’s de facto successor, the country will likely see more of the nationalism that has hit investment and growth in the last six years.
It’s a tactic that ZANU-PF embraced to deflect its responsibility for the economic collapse in 2000-2008 - stemming from its disastrous policy of reclaiming white farms and hyperinflation - that sits alongside its continuing blame of outsiders and Western sanctions for Zimbabwe’s troubles.
During the three-day party congress, Mnangagwa’s one speech enforced the message from his clothing.
Besides formally recognizing the black in the national flag as a symbol of Zimbabwe’s indigenous people, the 68-year-old unveiled revisions to the party’s constitution aimed at emphasizing the party’s adherence to the “total ownership and control” of Zimbabwe’s natural resources.
It was a key insight to the party’s direction as it contemplates life beyond Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s only leader since independence from Britain in 1980.
“We will remain forever masters of our own destiny,” Mnangagwa said, to cheers from the crowd.
Such adherence to the mantra of ‘indigenisation’ is worrying for businesses eager to tap the southern African nation’s mineral wealth, and for Zimbabweans desperate to attract the foreign capital needed to kick-start their flat-lining economy.
Indigenisation is loosely based on neighboring South Africa’s Black Economic Empowerment drive to address the legacy of apartheid, and requires foreign firms to transfer a majority of their shares to local black Zimbabweans.
But the policy has had a chilling effect on investment, not least because six years after its inception Harare has still not clarified the rules, saying different sectors will be treated differently.
Some 4,600 Zimbabwean firms have closed in the last three years, with the loss of 55,000 jobs. Growth remains anemic and unemployment stands above 80 percent.
At an investment conference in Johannesburg last month, Chinamasa inadvertently revealed the extent of confusion and double-speak in Zimbabwe’s corridors of power.
“I hope that sooner or later I will be able to clarify, on a case by case basis, the law of indigenisation,” he said. “We’ve been working very hard on trying to build consensus on clarifying it.”
But with ZANU-PF in the grips of an intensifying personality cult and politicians jockeying for space in a post-Mugabe administration, economic reality is slipping ever further down the list of the party’s priorities.
In eight hours of congress speeches on Saturday, its only mention came from a 13-year-old schoolboy reading from an autocue — and battling a deafening sound system — about the Zimbabwe Agenda for Sustainable Socio-Economic Transformation, known by the catchy acronym ZIM-ASSET.
By contrast Mugabe focused his two hours of ad lib speaking on diatribes against perceived enemies such as former colonial power Britain - a “little, little island” - and “treacherous” factions within ZANU-PF led by the departed Mujuru.
Sowing further confusion and prolonging anxiety about his lack of clear successor, he then declined to nominate his two deputies for another four or five days, saying he did not wish to “rush” the decision.
“This is all about power. Everything else takes second place,” one senior ZANU-PF source, who did not wish to be named, said of the congress. “The economy doesn’t matter.”
Editing by Sophie Walker