South Africa’s president says longtime Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe is “confined to his home” in what appears to be a military-backed effort to oust him after 37 years in power.
President Jacob Zuma, who chairs the Southern African Development Community (SADC), said in a statement he spoke early Wednesday to President Robert Mugabe “who indicated that he was confined to his home, but said that he was fine. South Africa is also in contact with the Zimbabwean Defense Force.”
The developments are a reaction to Mugabe’s unpopular moves earlier this month, in which he fired his deputy, Emmerson Mnangagwa, and indicated he was planning to replace the ousted vice president with the first lady.
Tanks rolled through the capital, Harare, on Tuesday, a day after the head of Zimbabwe’s armed forces, General Constantino Chiwenga, warned he would “step in” unless Mugabe stopped trying to purge the ruling ZANU-PF party of Mnangagwa supporters.
Dozens have been arrested since the vice president was fired on November 5. Zimbabwe’s ruling party accused Chiwenga of “treasonable conduct” after that statement.
Not a takeover, army claims
Soldiers took over state television early Wednesday.
“We wish to make this abundantly clear this is not a military takeover of government,” army spokesman Major General SB Moyo said.“What the Zimbabwe defense forces is doing is to pacify a degenerating political, social and economic situation in our country, which if not addressed may result in violent conflict.”
Zimbabwe’s ruling party said on social media that Mnangagwa will return. His whereabouts are currently unknown, though he is rumored to be in South Africa.
“Last night the first family was detained and are safe, both for the constitution and the sanity of the nation this was necessary,” said a tweet early Wednesday sent from the @zanu_pf handle, “Neither Zimbabwe nor ZANU are owned by Mugabe and his wife. Today begins a fresh new era and comrade Mnangagwa will help us achieve a better Zimbabwe.”
The Twitter account has previously been used to air the party’s beliefs, though it was not possible to independently verify the claims.
The U.S. and British embassies have advised their citizens in the capital to stay in their homes, and the British ambassador said on Twitter that soldiers remain deployed “at strategic locations around Harare.” Both embassies were closed to the public Wednesday.
Late Tuesday, a VOA reporter was physically assaulted by soldiers in the capital while attempting to cover events at the state broadcaster. Soldiers beat the reporter and a local-media colleague with batons, kicked them and took the reporter’s money, phone and press card.
Witnesses reported at least three explosions and heavy gunfire early Wednesday in the capital.
Calls for calm
A State Department official said the United States “encourages all Zimbabweans to approach disputes calmly and peacefully while following democratic, transparent, and constitutional processes for resolving differences.”
Zuma, in his statements, also “called for calm and restraint and has expressed hope that developments in Zimbabwe would not lead to unconstitutional changes of government.”
Many observers saw the move to fire Mnangagwa as a step toward the installation of Mugabe’s wife, Grace Mugabe, as vice president. That would put the first lady in position to become president when her 93-year-old husband retires or dies.
Mnangagwa, 75, was seen for years as a likely successor to the president, and maintains strong backing in the army. Grace Mugabe, 52, has support in the party’s youth wing and is believed to have engineered the firing of another vice president, Joice Mujuru, in 2014.
Sebastian Mhofu in Harare contributed to this report.
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