Johannesburg (CNN)It was classic Robert Mugabe.
Speaking in front of loyalists this week at his party headquarters in Harare, the 93-year-old leader tapped into his fondness for parables.
“There is no short cut to being the leader of the people,” he said. “You should not try to say because the journey is long, then I should take a short cut to arrive quickly. The road has lions. There are pitfalls. There is death.”
Mugabe is used to intimidating his rivals; the world’s oldest president has been a wily survivor for decades.
But despite the projection of strength in the capital, many Zimbabwe watchers see Mugabe at perhaps his most vulnerable in decades. And that the battle to succeed him is entering a brutal final stage.
Jabbing the ‘Crocodile’
For years, the ruling Zanu-PF party has been embroiled in a bitter succession battle that has sometimes spilled out into the open.
But not like this.
On Monday, Mugabe dropped a political bombshell, sacking powerful Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa — his right-hand man for nearly four decades.
Mnangagwa, known has “Ngwenya” or the “Crocodile” to many because of his well-honed survival instincts, was with Mugabe from the start: first as his assistant during the liberation struggle, later as his intelligence chief, cabinet minister and all-round enforcer.
In recent months, Zimbabwe’s press has reported on increasingly open animosity between the Crocodile and the first lady Grace Mugabe — another leading candidate to replace Robert Mugabe. Still, it was surprising to many that the president sacked Mnangagwa so close to elections slated for next year.
Mnangagwa has a strong following in Zimbabwe’s powerful military and amongst war veterans who fought in the liberation struggle, and has been a key strategist for Mugabe in past elections, says David Coltart, a former cabinet minister and opposition leader.
He says that after decades of discarding allies, Mugabe may have taken a step too far this time.
“Mugabe, for all his faults, has shown amazing political acumen over the years,” Coltart says. “But this is a foolish move.”
“It is a clear demonstration on who is wearing the trousers — Grace is. It is a high risk desperate game that she is playing.”
A door opens for Grace
The dramatic purge of Mnangagwa opens the door for the First Lady, who will no longer have to contend with her most powerful rival in the race to succeed Robert Mugabe.
“Grace Mugabe without Robert Mugabe will not survive a single day politically. But as long as Mugabe is there, she will do what she wishes,” says Alex T. Magaisa, a lecturer at Kent University and former aide to ex-Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
Grace Mugabe has never been one for small measures. Born in South Africa, Mugabe’s second wife has developed a reputation as a shrewd, if sometimes extravagant, politician in her own right.
Given the moniker “Gucci Grace” by Zimbabweans for her exorbitant shopping trips, she has steadily gained influence with the younger generation of politicians in Zimbabwe who lack significant links to the liberation struggle.
Earlier this year, she made headlines for the wrong reasons when a South African model accused the First Lady of assaulting her with an electric cord when the model was with her sons in Johannesburg.
She denied the charges, but was granted diplomatic immunity before she could make a court appearance.
Her youngest sons are regulars in the high-flying party scene in South Africa’s economic capital, frequently making gossip headlines for their antics on social media.
And the prospect of a being led by the current First Lady is an anathema to many in Zimbabwe’s old guard, who tie links to the armed struggle with political credibility.
Until recently, Robert Mugabe could depend on groups like Zimbabwe’s War Veterans association for political support, but no longer.
Chris Mutsvangwa, the head of the group, put it pretty bluntly this week in Johannesburg, saying, “We can’t have the Zimbabwean state lead by a mad woman and a senile leader.”
Endgame or not?
But this political battle is far from over.
Mnangagwa immediately went into hiding after being sacked, and called on others to join him in building a broad coalition to take on Grace Mugabe at the next election.
But there was certainly no mass outpouring of support on the streets at the news. The Crocodile is tainted for many Zimbabweans because of his alleged role in massacres committed by the North Korean trained fifth brigade in the 1980s.
“This guy has been in government for 37 years — he has been an enforcer for all that time for Mugabe. Zimbabweans aren’t stupid. They won’t forgive him,” Magaisa, the university lecturer, said.
But as the politicians jostle for power, ordinary Zimbabweans continue to suffer. The economy is being hammered by rampant inflation and a severe shortage of hard currency. Civil servants have frequently been paid late, and long lines form at the banks as people try to withdraw their cash.
“Right now, Zimbabwe faces a gathering perfect storm,” says Coltart, “and the world needs to pay attention.”