Politics is dangerous business in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe. So this crowd of 4,000 tired-looking peasants and factory workers, packed into a soccer stadium in the town of Gweru, is understandably subdued. They chat quietly among themselves, listening to a popular Zimbabwean song, "We Are Afraid of the Father," about a patriarch's violent rages. The tune suits the event—a rally for Simba Makoni, the 57-year-old technocrat who is challenging Mugabe, one of Africa's last "big men," in elections this week. The crowd roars when Makoni jogs onto a giant stage and doffs his blue cap. "I am taking off my hat so you can see that I am a man," he says, shouting. "My name is Simba Makoni! And I am the one!"
If ever Zimbabwe needed a savior it's now. An inflation rate that tops 100,000 percent has destroyed the economy. One in five adults in Zimbabwe is infected with HIV; women have the lowest life expectancy—34 years—in the world. And at 84, Mugabe refuses to ease the grip in which he's held the country since independence in 1980. Like dictators everywhere, he's long been sustained by cronies who don't much care what happens to the nation as long as they get their cut. That's why Makoni's political insurgency is so threatening: a former Finance minister, he comes out of Mugabe's inner circle. The system, finally, may be turning on itself.
Makoni is an unlikely giant-killer. Born in rural Zimbabwe, he excelled at school and, in the early 1970s, was one of only about 120 blacks nationwide admitted to the University of Rhodesia. He protested against white minority rule, narrowly escaped arrest and fled to Botswana. He later emigrated to England where he earned a Ph.D. in chemistry at Leicester Polytechnic. Back in Zimbabwe after 1980, and already close to Mugabe, he became the youngest minister in the new government, and later Finance minister. Until he was expelled last month for challenging Mugabe, Makoni was comfortably ensconced in the ruling party's top echelons.
Now he claims to have the backing of key figures within the party. Earlier this month Dumiso Dabengwa, a former military commander and hero to thousands of veterans of the independence struggle—a constituency that has proved unfailingly loyal to Mugabe in the past—endorsed Makoni. There are persistent rumors that retired general Solomon Mujuru, whose wife, Joyce, is the current vice president, may also be quietly backing him. And one faction of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change has thrown its organization and money behind him.
Makoni says he's been trying to change the government for years. As Finance minister in 2002 he fought to stave off hyperinflation by devaluing the Zim dollar but was rebuffed, and later fired for his efforts. He spoke out when government thugs beat up opposition activists in March 2007, even visiting some who had been hospitalized in South Africa. Abiathar Mujeyi, a close adviser, says Makoni's bid has been "a couple of years in preparation." Makoni says he only decided to run last December, after a ruling-party congress rubber-stamped Mugabe's candidacy. "My colleagues were frustrated, they were angry, they were anxious," he says. "Our leadership ... [is] preoccupied with staying in power. We don't look at the suffering."
Not everyone is convinced. Many believe Makoni's bid is part of a plot by Mugabe to keep power in the hands of a small and vested minority, one that will protect him from The Hague. (Makoni says that if he's elected Mugabe would be subject to due process "like any ordinary citizen.") Morgan Tsvangirai, the former labor leader who has led the opposition for nearly a decade, still commands wide support. And Mugabe remains a ruthless opponent. He's approved big pay raises recently for soldiers, teachers and civil servants. And he just amended the electoral law to allow police to enter polling stations and "assist" illiterate voters. Mugabe is widely believed to have rigged elections in 2002 by stuffing voter rolls and intimidating candidates.
That the elections are up for grabs at all speaks to the cracks forming within the ruling party, much as the collapse of the Soviet system began from within. "Makoni is a Gorbachev type of person," says David Coltart, an opposition parliamentarian and supporter. Makoni's advisers say many establishment types can't go public yet out of fear. "Mugabe can't trust his politburo anymore, or his intelligence or his military," says Mujeyi. "We talk to them all the time." One source in Bulawayo, who cannot be named for fear of retribution, reported last week that soldiers were tearing down Mugabe posters near their barracks. Makoni may be their best chance to pull down the big man himself.