You hear it before you see it: truncheons hitting metal in a slow, rhythmic beat, followed by a chant.

Policemen wearing helmets packed into the back of a pick-up pound their weapons on the side of the truck as it drives slowly by the main courthouse in the centre of Harare.

“We dare you,” they chant in Shona, a Bantu language spoken by a large number of Zimbabweans.

It’s a regular and not-so-subtle message from the country’s security forces to anyone who might be thinking of demonstrating against Robert Mugabe.

Inside the courthouse, a young lawyer named Promise Mkwananzi is about to put his name to a case challenging Mugabe’s fitness to continue holding office. In recent years, cameras have caught the 93-year-old dictator actually dozing off in the middle of meetings and public seminars with government officials.

In another courtroom down the street, a bail hearing is scheduled for Pastor Evan Mawarire, the leader of #ThisFlag, one of the strongest protest movements against Mugabe in years.

The fact that protest movements are raising their heads above the parapet, despite the risk of jail (or worse), is a sign of the growing pressure on Africa’s oldest strongman.

“We are not fools, we are not naïve, we are fully aware of what can happen,” says Mkwananzi. “But I think the time has come to [look] the lion in the face and really do something about our country.”

Mkwananzi says the key to change in Zimbabwe is showing people how to overcome fear.

“When that fear is gone, this government will have nothing to rely on,” he says.

Video: Lawyer Promise Mkwananzi on challenging Mugabe

While Mugabe may be increasingly frail, he still holds the truncheon of power. The former liberation hero has said he’ll stand for election again next year. But rival factions within the governing ZANU-PF party clearly smell blood, or at least the inevitable march of time.

Potential pretenders to the throne, including Mugabe’s own wife, Grace, have been engaged in an increasingly public battle for favour and position.

Mugabe married Grace in 1996, after the death of his first wife, Sally — although they’d already been having an affair for years.

He met Grace when she was working in his secretarial pool. People who knew her back then say she was beautiful, unassuming and unambitious, although she was also married when she met the president.

In a U.S. diplomatic cable dated August 2007 and published by WikiLeaks, the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe described the First Lady as having “little or no political influence over her husband.”

By 2009, that picture had changed. A dispatch by another U.S. ambassador quoted diplomatic sources describing Grace as a “gate-keeper” controlling who did or didn’t see Mugabe.

In the years that followed, she began to try and establish political credentials, getting herself appointed head of the ZANU-PF Women’s League and obtaining a PhD in sociology from the University of Zimbabwe — in only three months. A street sign in Harare announcing Dr. Grace Mugabe Way went up shortly thereafter.

Grace Mugabe in 1996, before she married the president and when she still went by Grace Marufu. (Howard Burditt/Reuters)
A more fiery Grace Mugabe in 2014. (Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)
Top: Grace Mugabe in 1996, before she married the president and when she still went by Grace Marufu. Bottom: A more fiery Grace Mugabe in 2014. (Top: Howard Burditt/Reuters; bottom: Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)
Left: Grace Mugabe in 1996, before she married the president and when she still went by Grace Marufu. Right: A more fiery Grace Mugabe in 2014. (Left: Howard Burditt/Reuters; right: Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

Today, the First Lady is one of the wealthiest women in the country, known for her extravagant lifestyle and spending habits in the face of her people’s blinding poverty.

She has reportedly had her choice of any of the white-owned farms seized by the government and is accused — like other top-tier ZANU-PF members — of helping herself to the country’s diamond mines, even going so far as to hire her own team of diggers.

Agrippah Mutumbara walks across the long grass outside his farmhouse near the town of Bindura with a slow gait and an easy smile, his yellow dog Dragon at his side. “Dragon” was Mutumbara’s nom de guerre during Zimbabwe’s War of Liberation from white-minority rule between 1964 and 1979 in what was then Rhodesia.

After independence, Mutumbara became a brigadier general in the Zimbabwean army and was later appointed to the foreign service as a diplomat and an ambassador.

The farm he lives on today, surrounded by fields of maize, was one of those seized from white commercial farmers by the war veterans in 2000. They took back the land as their due, they said, in an often violent campaign sanctioned by Mugabe.

Many still credit the chaos of that time with the ruin of Zimbabwe’s economy. Mugabe handed out farms to his cronies instead of ordinary black Zimbabweans — or at least people with knowledge of large-scale farming.

The war vets have propped Mugabe up over the decades, often using violence and intimidation in exchange for pensions and positions of influence. But last summer, the powerful National Liberation War Veterans Association publicly split with Mugabe. It’s widely acknowledged that an intense dislike of Mrs. Mugabe, and the influence she’s believed to have over her husband, was one of the reasons.

“Mugabe has lost control,” says Mutumbara. “The wife has taken over.”

Video: ‘We have a mammoth task to remove Mugabe’

Critics say another reason war veterans are so angry with Mugabe is that state coffers have been allowed to run so low that he can no longer afford to buy their support.

If Mutumbara is experiencing a change of heart, it has certainly arrived very late in the day, after three decades of Mugabe’s authoritarian rule.

“He forgets that we are the same people who propelled him into power,” says Mutumbara. “We fought in his name.”

Mutumbara resigned from ZANU-PF last year out of anger, he says, over the president’s increasingly dictatorial style. ZANU-PF loyalists responded by attacking Mutumbara’s farm and demanding he return it.

He had to chase them off with a shotgun.

The ZANU-PF headquarters in Harare is one of the city’s few skyscrapers. At 34, Kudzai Chipanga seems a tad old for his position as the party’s secretary for youth affairs, and sitting behind a giant desk in a room crowded with leather furniture, he looks older than his age.

Getting loyalists to speculate about the future of the party after Mugabe is gone is hard work, a testament to the hold Uncle Bob still has on ZANU-PF.

Chipanga compares him to Christ, a God-given saviour for Zimbabwe.

Video: In the offices of ZANU-PF

“You know, President Mugabe has given us dignity. We as Zimbabweans. We as black people. We wish we could have President Mugabe for life.”

In the absence of that option, the other main rival for Mugabe’s job is his vice-president and long-time confidante, Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Mnangagwa fought alongside Mugabe during the liberation struggle and became Zimbabwe’s first minister of state security in charge of the Central Intelligence Organization. The spymaster and Mugabe enforcer has been accused of helping mastermind violence leading to the Matabeleland massacres aimed at silencing the opposition in the 1980s.

His reputation is so fierce it’s earned him the nickname “the Crocodile.” His supporters are called the “Lacoste Faction.”

Now in his 70s, Mnangagwa’s aspirations to lead ZANU-PF and Zimbabwe are an open secret, although he got himself in trouble a while back for allowing himself to be photographed with a mug bearing the slogan “I’m the Boss.”

But Mnangagwa has the blessing of the war veterans and the army. There’s even chatter that he is being “rehabilitated” in the West as a candidate of potential stability — one who might convince the World Bank to help Zimbabwe out of its financial crisis.

“There’s a convenient, sort of expedient amnesia in the tendency to see Mnangagwa as not being part of the state,” says Harare-based political analyst Ibbo Mandaza.

“But Mr. Mnangagwa has been part of the architecture of the state in every respect. Therefore, the attempt to extricate him, reinvent him as some have tried, is a bit false.”

Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, also known as ‘the Crocodile.’ (Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)
Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, also known as ‘the Crocodile.’ (Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

Mandaza describes it as a typical neo-colonial view of Africa: Western countries worry the “natives” can get restless, he explains, so prefer a “strongman” to maintain stability, no matter how undemocratic.

Activist Promise Mkwananzi calls the ZANU-PF power struggles “the same rubbish in a different dustbin.”

The opposition, including Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change and the grassroots political movements challenging Mugabe in the courts, hope they can beat Uncle Bob or any potential successor in an election next year despite the country’s history of voter fraud.

Mkwananzi’s recent court case against Mugabe was dismissed on a technicality, but he’s vowed to relaunch it, ever optimistic that fear will finally begin to lift in Zimbabwe and set the people, and its institutions, free.

But more violence might arrive first.

ZANU-PF’s rival factions, locked in their power struggle, know it is a dance to the death.

“When people say this is the last stage, it’s the last stage not only for Mugabe, but also for those who have thrived around him,” says Ibbo Mandaza. “Those who the state has kept afloat.”

Everyone can hear the drumbeat of those police truncheons on metal in Zimbabwe these days. It lingers in the air.

But no one is quite sure anymore who they’re coming for. Or who - if anyone - will answer the dare.