Saviour Kasukuwere, the Zanu-PF national commissar, expects little to change at the ruling party’s annual people’s conference in Masvingo this week. "It’s a normal conference. Zanu-PF is a mature party and doesn’t go to these conferences holding expectations of chaos and mayhem," he told the Financial Mail in an interview.
For watchers of the weekend-long Zanu-PF retreat, the big, but unlikely surprise would be if Robert Mugabe were to lose the support of delegates to lead the party, or if a successor to his rule emerged.
Mugabe, a shrewd man with a lifetime of experience in politics, has expertly cast himself as irreplaceable in Zanu-PF.
The script is likely to be the same at this week’s Masvingo showpiece as in preceding years; party slogans will be chanted, the opposition will be denounced and Western-imposed sanctions will be blamed for the country’s economic meltdown.
This conference will ultimately set the stage for the official endorsement of Mugabe as Zanu-PF’s presidential candidate, ahead of the 2018 elections.
In those polls Mugabe will face long-time rival Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and his former deputy in government and in the ruling party, Joice Mujuru, now leader of Zimbabwe People First.
Mugabe, who turns 93 in February, has made it clear he wants another term in office.
Under Zimbabwe’s constitution, adopted after a referendum vote three years ago, the incumbent is eligible for two terms in office. Should he win the next elections, he would be 99 at the end of his second term in 2023.
Cumulatively, Mugabe would have held eight consecutive terms since independence from Britain in 1980.
Yet this is unlikely to bother party delegates gathered in Masvingo, who instead are likely to fall over each other in praise of Mugabe. In the past, bootlicking of the veteran ruler has taken a comical twist. He has been described as a coffee creamer ("Cremora") to being an "angel" (Gabriel is his middle name) by the party faithful, which have all but urged him to rule as long as he wants.
But beneath the veneer of "normal" which Kasukuwere talks up, all is not well within the party.
Mugabe’s endorsement ahead of the 2018 polls is a sign that the party is still nowhere near resolving its succession dilemma. It raises the question of whether Zanu-PF can imagine a future without Mugabe at the helm.
Shepherd Mpofu, a research fellow at the University of Johannesburg, says it is "tragic" that Mugabe will yet again be put up as the face and leader of Zanu-PF.
The party continues to "keep an old man in power ... because he serves their factional agenda", he says.
Rashweat Mukundu, chair of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, a Harare-based think-tank, says it is too early to expect blood on the floor from this conference.
"Factionalism will be tackled, but Mugabe will likely be making calls for unity," he says.
Mugabe has not made it easy for those who dare to talk up succession while he is alive. Often he has angrily told them to
In December 2014, he took the unusual step of kicking Mujuru — and more than 200 party officials aligned to her — out of the party for fanning factionalism. Two years on, those expulsions have failed to prevent infighting.
Kasukuwere, however, says it is not true that there are rifts in Zanu-PF. "The party is united and strong. Three-quarters of these claims are fiction and it may be what people want to see happening, but it is detached from the political realities," he says.
Kasukuwere himself is reportedly linked to a faction called "G-40", made up of youthful party loyalists pitted against a faction led by Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice-president.
The G-40 camp is cheering for Mugabe to stay on, despite growing concerns over his health. It has popularised the slogan "one centre of power" in support of Mugabe.
"Just like every other political party we have our own challenges, but we will focus on the main issues; we will discuss the economy and the state of the party," Kasukuwere says.
Discussion over the economic implosion appears to be too little, too late. Zanu-PF has been found deeply wanting in fulfilling its 2013 election promises on the economy.
One such promise was the empowerment of locals under the 51% indigenisation programme, which was spearheaded by Kasukuwere, a former indigenisation minister.
Kasukuwere, whose nickname is "Tyson", is known for bullying foreign-owned companies. He has issued ultimatums and threats against their operations for noncompliance with the indigenisation law.
SA firms such as Pick n Pay, Tongaat Hulett and Zimplats (a unit of Impala Platinum) clashed with him over the indigenisation law. Kasukuwere’s successor, Patrick Zhuwao, who is Mugabe’s nephew, also did his fair share of harm. In April this year, he threatened to shut down firms for noncompliance, a move economists said led to capital flight and a run on the banks.
Economic growth has fallen to 0.6% this year, from peak growth rates of 11% in 2011.
The stagnation of the economy is compounded by an annual budget which has been static at about $4bn for three years.
Last week, finance minister Patrick Chinamasa again unveiled a $4.1bn budget to parliament for next year. Government has been struggling to keep up with salary payments for its public workers. Cash shortages have worsened and bond notes introduced last month have failed to stave off the cash crunch.
The ruling party has also all but gone quiet over its promise to create 2.2m jobs under its flagship economic programme, the Zimbabwe Agenda for Sustainable Socio-Economic Transformation (Zim Asset).
Stern Zvorwadza, chairman of the Zimbabwe National Vendors Union, says an informal economy has mushroomed as the formal economy shrinks.
"We have about 5.7m informal-sector workers and this keeps growing," he says.
The Zim Asset economic blueprint has faced funding hurdles. It needs $27bn to take off. Traditional financier China is sceptical of extending any more loans to Mugabe. Beijing is not only wary of the political risk and uncertainty posed by infighting in Zanu-PF, but also by Harare’s poor track record of loan repayments.
BMI Research, a unit of the Fitch Group, said in its latest report on Zimbabwe that despite the economic meltdown, the end was not yet in sight for Mugabe.
"The introduction of bond notes will not be sufficient to trigger the collapse of the Mugabe regime in 2017 without some form of substantial economic blunder from government. However, all risks lie to the downside and tensions between government and the wider population will continue to boil over into occasional violence," it said.
But Kasukuwere, the man in charge of marshalling Zanu-PF ahead of the 2018 polls, says the party still has a lot to celebrate.
"We have our footprint right across the country now, in places such as Bulawayo where we are on par with the MDC and have six seats there."
Kasukuwere makes no secret of the fact that in the new year, his attention will shift to the 2018 election, where all eyes will be on him as party commissar to come up with winning strategies for Zanu-PF.
"The most important thing is for us to win elections. To expect that the sickly and fractured opposition will fight against Zanu-PF and win is like waiting for a dream that will never come true," he says.
Zanu-PF may be battered and bruised, but the one-time liberation movement still has some fight left in it.