Questioning my beliefs to understand reality opened my eyes to the truth.
Written for Round 16 of:
"Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect."
Thomas Chideya works at the Total fuel station on Harare's Lomagundi Road, but he doesn’t work for the garage. A tall, well-built man in his early thirties, Thomas’ reading glasses are an unusual contrast to the thick dreadlocks hanging down to his shoulders. He dresses in blue jeans, sneakers and a short sleeved cotton shirt over a colourful t-shirt. I meet him every couple of weeks when I fill my car with fuel.
Thomas is what Zimbabwe’s government calls an “informal trader”, selling fruit and vegetables from the service station. His products are well priced and packed carefully into clear plastic bags. He is engaging, polite and smiling, and counts me as one of his regular customers. Six months ago he asked me if I was a Zimbabwean. After telling him I was indeed a native African and had lived here for virtually my whole life, he told me he’d gone to university.
“I have a degree in economics from the University of Zimbabwe,” Thomas said. “I graduated with honours four years ago, and immediately found employment. Unfortunately the company closed nine months after I got my job. Since then I have been unable to find any work, which is why I am selling fruit and vegetables here.”
Thomas’ lifestyle is one of the sad realities of today’s Zimbabwe, a country whose birth 36 years ago was feted as a wonderful example of democracy in Africa. On 17 April 1980, the official speech by the new prime minister gave Zimbabwe, the African continent and the world much hope for the new nation.
“An evil remains an evil, whether practiced by white against black or by black against white. Our majority rule could easily turn into an inhuman rule if we oppressed, persecuted or harassed those who do not look or think like the majority of us,” he proclaimed.1
The prime minister was Robert Gabriel Mugabe, now President of Zimbabwe and the only leader the country has ever known. At 92 years of age he’s the oldest head of state in the world.
Most Zimbabweans will find it difficult to believe he ever made that statement. Recent video footage of Mugabe reveals a frail and sometimes inarticulate man, unsteady on his feet and given to rambling and blaming everyone in the world for the state of his country. Yet it is apparent to all of us living here that Mugabe’s 36 years of misrule has brought a country described by Tanzanian Prime Minister Julius Nyerere at Independence as “the jewel of Africa” to its knees.
I was born in 1965, the year Rhodesia declared independence from colonial power Britain. A vicious bush war ensued and worldwide sanctions were immediately imposed on Rhodesia - only the second country in history after the United States of America to unilaterally declare independence from Britain.
My father was in the British South Africa Police (BSAP), which meant our family was stationed in police posts all over the country. I knew my country was in a state of war, yet my childhood was barely affected. At Zimbabwe’s birth I was fifteen years old, living in a secure and stable family environment and receiving an excellent education at a government school.
That speech Robert Mugabe gave at Independence encouraged some white people to remain and become a part of the new Zimbabwe. Our loyalties were to our country and our new government. Zimbabwe’s leader appeared to offer us an olive branch. We embraced his words with hope for the future.
“If yesterday I fought as an enemy, today you have become a friend and ally with the same national interest, loyalty, rights and duties as myself. If yesterday you hated me, today you cannot avoid the love that binds you to me and me to you. Is it not folly, therefore, that in these circumstances anybody should seek to revive the wounds and grievances of the past? The wrongs of the past must now stand forgiven and forgotten.”
A few years later Robert Mugabe told us: “Don’t take any notice of what I say. Watch what I do.” These words have come to define this man’s rule more accurately than any of his other quotes.
In 1983 the Shona government accused the Matabele people initiating an uprising to overthrow their rule, and launched a campaign called Gukurahundi. Hostility between Zimbabwe’s two main tribes dates back to 1837, when the Matabele, under King Mzilikazi, fought and displaced the Shona people to create the area we call Matabeleland.
Using the Fifth Brigade, a special militia trained by North Korea, between twenty and thirty thousand people died in what is now considered genocide. Ordinary Zimbabweans knew nothing of the horrific slaughter of villagers in the rural areas in Matabeleland. The state-controlled media reported the army’s activities as necessary to maintain peace and security in the country.
We believed the reports.
Most Zimbabweans, riding on the euphoria of the new democracy and anxious to be part of this vibrant country, accepted the government’s explanations. Today we know Robert Mugabe was instrumental in Gukurahundi, determined to run Zimbabwe as a one-party state under his Shona tribe. Today we also know Britain and many Western countries knew of Mugabe’s role in Gukurahundi, but chose not to condemn Mugabe’s government’s actions.
Gukurahundi ended in 1987, when Mugabe’s rival and Joshua Nkomo, the de facto leader of the Matabele nation, signed a unity agreement that merged the two parties. Zimbabwe became a one-party state under Robert Mugabe, seven years after the world welcomed him as leader of Zimbabwe.
Shortly before he unleashed Gukurahundi, Robert Mugabe described Joshua Nkomo and his political party as “a cobra in a house. The only way to deal effectively with a snake is to strike and destroy its head."
Years later, Joshua Nkomo told his historian Eliakim Sibanda he’d signed the unity accord to stop the murder of the Matabele people: “Mugabe and his Shona henchmen have always sought the extermination of the Matabele.”2
Sir Martin Ewans, Britain’s High Commissioner to Zimbabwe from 1983 to 1985, told the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) on 10 March, 2002: “I think the advice (from London) was to steer clear of it (Gukurahundi) in the interests of doing our best positively to help Zimbabwe build itself up as a nation.”
Asked if he had any regrets about not taking Mugabe to task about Gukuruhundi, Ewans replied: “No. I think this business has really perhaps been rather blown up. It wasn't pleasant and people were being killed, but as I said, I don't think anything was to be gained by protesting to Mugabe about it.”
When I first read this interview back in 2008 I was appalled. I felt betrayed. How could Britain, a country we’d honoured and respected during both the Rhodesia and Zimbabwe years, have behaved in this manner? I'd spent my entire childhood in Matabeleland. My family’s housekeeper has been with us for over forty years: his younger brother Brena was forced to dig his own grave and was buried alive by the Fifth Brigade. The thirteen year old Brena was saved by fellow villagers, but suffered brain damage and was never able to go back to school.
I have lived in Zimbabwe for my entire life, apart from seven years spent in Greece and Turkey from 2003 until 2010. During those years I found myself reading and researching Zimbabwe. I began to question my past understanding and acceptance of the actions of my government. Gradually I realized how the media had controlled our understanding of the reality of life in Zimbabwe.
We’d left Zimbabwe when my husband lost his job in the local tobacco industry, following Mugabe’s seizure of white-owned farms. In 2000, the government conducted a referendum on constitutional amendments. The proposed changes would allow Mugabe to stand for a further two presidential terms, absolve government and military officials from prosecution for illegal activities committed while in office and seize white-owned land for redistribution to landless black people without compensation. Despite initially appearing on television to tell Zimbabwe he accepted the resounding 55 percent rejection of the referendum, Mugabe immediately unleashed his supporters on the 4,800 white-owned farms.
Farmers and their workers were displaced after being tortured, beaten and, in some cases, murdered. The vibrant agricultural sector, once the mainstay of Zimbabwe’s economy, collapsed. This destroyed the country’s economy; bank loans were no longer honoured and companies working with farmers closed because farms ceased operating.
Most of the farms were given to members of the ruling party and not to landless people. Many of the new farm owners had no idea how to run a farm as a business, and simply abandoned these once thriving, productive properties. Illegal land seizures continue today – there are perhaps a couple of hundred profitable farms left in Zimbabwe, and every couple of weeks we learn of one of Mugabe’s ministers or someone with connections deciding he or she is entitled to a working farm. The selected farm is invaded by the ruling party’s supporters, and the farmer ordered to leave.
No farmer has been compensated for the loss of land, implements or crops. Robert Mugabe claims Britain should compensate the former farmers because the land was taken from black people without compensation when Zimbabwe was colonized in the 19th century. Initially Britain supported Zimbabwe’s land re-distribution exercise, paying 44 million pounds to the government for land reform on a “willing buyer willing seller” basis. No funding has been provided since 2000 because, according to the British Embassy in Zimbabwe: “Fast-track land reform has not been implemented in line with these principles and we cannot support it.3
Thomas, my friendly fruit and vegetable supplier, is now one of the 95 percent unemployed people in our population. This is the highest unemployment statistic in the world – even Afghanistan with all its strife reflects unemployment levels of 35 percent.4
The Zimbabwe government denies this figure, and claims unemployment is just eleven percent. This is because the government considers Thomas employed. The informal sector is Zimbabwe’s biggest employer – this is the people who sell cellphone airtime at the -traffic lights, second hand goods at flea markets and vegetables and fruit at public places.
The sad reality is Thomas pays no taxes, is unable to contribute to Zimbabwe’s totally inadequate social welfare system. He does not own a car or a house. He doesn’t own a piece of land. If he’s lucky he makes twenty dollars a day selling his vegetables. He looks after his elderly parents, two nieces and pays two hundred dollars a month rent for a single room. He cannot afford medical care for anyone in his family. He cannot afford to marry and even if he could he’d be unable to provide for children.
Zimbabwe is now in an untenable economic position. The five percent of the population that do pay taxes cannot carry the economy. In the capital city Harare one liquidator told me she’s handling up to eight company closures every week. In addition, almost 97 percent of the government’s budget is spent on wages, meaning there’s almost no money for development.
Zimbabwe’s infrastructure has suffered dreadfully from the misrule of Robert Mugabe. Arthur is a driver employed at my husband’s company. He’s twenty six years old, and has never known clean water to flow regularly from kitchen taps. He cannot comprehend driving at night in a city with no streetlights and on roads with no potholes. He doesn’t know that the police are supposed to protect the public, not to attack, beat and arrest people on the ruling party’s orders.
This year has been an interesting one for Zimbabwe. I don’t think the country has ever been as united as we are right now. It took one man to open our eyes, take our heads out of the sand and acknowledge that our leader has brought our beautiful country to its knees and intends to continue aimlessly down this chosen path, apportioning blame for our current woes to everyone - except himself.
The man who “woke us up” is Pastor Evan Mawarire. In April he found himself unable to pay his children’s school fees. Frustrated, Mawarire posted a video of himself on Facebook, the Zimbabwe flag draped over his shoulders as he called for reform in Zimbabwe.
"I'm not a politician; I'm not an activist. I’m just a citizen,” Mawarire said. He indicated the colours on our flag, telling Zimbabweans to find inspiration from them.
"They tell me that the green is for the vegetation and for the crops. I don't see any crops in my country. Green is the power of being able to push through soil, push past limitations and flourish and grow." 5
His video went viral. Evan Mawarire united the country the way no politician has done in 36 years. At the beginning of May Zimbabweans followed his example, draping the flag over their shoulders and speaking out against the government and describing their hopes and dreams for Zimbabwe.
In July he led Zimbabweans in a peaceful mass action that shut down the entire country. A week later an arrest warrant was issued for the pastor, who handed himself in at a police station. He was charged with “inciting public violence and disturbing the peace”. The next day he was brought to court – the courts are notorious for siding with the government because the judiciary is packed with Mugabe loyalists.
The scenes at the courts were unprecedented in Zimbabwe’s history. Thousands of people flooded the court building and the surrounding ground. When the presiding judge asked who represented Pastor Evan Mawarire, eighty lawyers stood up as one and affirmed they were providing their services pro bono.
The prosecutor’s charges were immediately altered to “attempting to overthrow the government”, a charge that carries the death penalty in Zimbabwe. Incredibly the prosecutor dismissed all charges, stating the state could not expect the accused to appear in court without first hearing the charges laid against him.
Pastor Evan Mawarire is currently living in the United States. If he returns to Zimbabwe he will be arrested, or he’ll die in a car accident, the way many of those who have dared to challenge President Mugabe’s policies have done. Evan Mawarire has given Zimbabweans hope, and proved one man can make a difference. Never have I been prouder to call myself a Zimbabwean than at this point in time.
In conclusion, these words, also from Mugabe’s 1980 independence speech seem a complete contradiction to the promises he made: “Democracy is never mob-rule. It is and should remain disciplined rule requiring compliance with the law and social rules. Our independence must thus not be construed as an instrument vesting individuals or groups with the right to harass and intimidate others into acting against their will. It is not the right to negate the freedom of others to think and act, as they desire.”