Zimbabwe at 37: Independent We Are Not

On April 18th 1980 Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, marking the end of a brutally racist white regime and the return of African rule. All that was wrong with our country supposedly became right.

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Image from: http://independenceday2017images.com/happy-independence-day-2017-zimbabwe-images-wallpapers-photos-pictures.html

 

Today Zimbabwe celebrates 37 years of independent rule. This year more than any other, the proclamation rings hollow, because independent we are not and the only thing to celebrate is the bravery and boldness of those who sacrificed much in the run up to, and since 1980.

I remember independence year like it was yesteryear. My family was living in Jamaica at the time, alongside a whole load of other Zimbabwean expatriates, who had been flung to all corners of the earth by the oppressive and racist white regime of Ian Smith. We attended a ceremony to celebrate the occasion, and even as a 7-year-old, the significance of the moment was not lost on me. The adults were really serious, more serious than funeral serious as up until then, for me, funeral serious was the most serious anyone or anything could be. So this was big. When they sang the new national anthem, the pride in their voices was audible, and the emotion in their souls was palpable.

In my adult years, I came to know that many of the adults that day including my father, had left Zimbabwe when it was Rhodesia with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Some had left part-way through a higher education that their uneducated parents had sacrificed much for them to gain. Others had left families, dead and alive. But none, including both my parents, had left without the hope that one day they could return home, free, to resume their interrupted lives, and rebuild the nation they had fought for.

The Pre-independence Years

In my adult years I think back to my childhood, my pre-independence childhood, in rural Rhodesia. In my little world, with my extended family, it was a happy and safe world. But, intriguingly, all the images and memories of that time are always covered in a grey cloud, literally. There is no colour. I figured out that this cloud represented the soldiers that lurked everywhere whenever we went into town. Big white soldiers, with red faces, dirty blond hair, mean mouths and big guns held up against their green army fatigues. They watched our every move and made sure we didn’t go into the stores we weren’t supposed to shop in or the restaurants we weren’t supposed to eat in. To this day I feel nauseous at the sight of anything, absolutely anything, with the pattern of those fatigues whether green, grey or blue.

In my adult years I think back to my uncle, my youngest maternal uncle, a true ‘army vet(eran).’ He ran away at 14-years old or so to join the freedom fighters. I now imagine how heartbroken my grandparents who raised me and numerous other cousins must have felt, not knowing the whereabouts of their youngest child. They never showed us that heartbreak, or even fear for that matter, not even on the night that the white soldiers burst into our kitchen, pointing their big guns at my grandmother, probably demanding that she tell them where her son was.

In my adult years, when you hear of the brutality of civil wars across the globe, I now know that we survived that time purely by grace, My uncle did come home. I have yet to hear the story of how he turned up, but though he must have seen some very ugly things he came back with more joie de vivre than I remember him disappearing with. I saw him every time I went back on vacation; every time until 1996. That was the last time I saw him alive. He had survived a brutal war only to die, one day before Zimbabwe turned 17, at the hands of a regime equally inhumane, an African-led government that failed to respond to the AIDS epidemic, waging war, this time against its own.

Modern-day Warfare

Today that war rages on with different rules of engagement, but a war nonetheless. The shops and restaurants may now be open to all, but far from all can pay for anything therein. The country has run out of money for the 2nd time in 10 years and this time round the government issues a worthless currency, saving the real money for themselves of course. No one who holds a decent job gets paid at the end of the month, any month in fact. To get paid you need to run a hustle or be connected to someone in power. And the icing on the cake, those same people in power say it’s okay to use goats – as in livestock goats – to pay for school fees, while they use the country’s money to fund their children’s education at elite schools around the world.

There is no infrastructure: if you have water and electricity at the same, by default you must be living in the presidential residence. The best roads are at the airport to impress visitors or in the president’s constituency. The capital city is a shadow of its former self. The offspring of the wealthy elite boast that they have never set foot in Harare – way below their worth to do so.

In 2017, any voice of dissent is shut down, imprisoned or disappears. Worse still, the masses are so broken that they have no faith in anyone who stands up to the regime. Where are the leaders in waiting? Not allowed and nowhere to be seen. When they do manage to rise, they somehow falter as there is no fertile ground for their growth.

Today, a Facebook friend posted a video of part of the Independence Day proceedings in Zimbabwe. A procession of middle-aged men, surrounding one very old man, shuffles along to the beat of a brass band playing what I call afro-imperialist music – dreary, overbearing, repetitive, with bars reminiscent of the old colonial days, trumpets on the verge of screeching and drums too loud. These are the ruling elite, Zimbabwe’s new oppressors. Fatigues have been replaced by suits and the weapon of choice is now the dollar. Their mouths remain mean but now their faces are black and their heads bald. There isn’t a woman or young person in sight. Everyone is serious, funeral serious, because this time round there is everything to mourn and nothing to be proud of.

Zimbabwe at 37 – independent she is not.

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Image from: http://www.heraldonline.com/news/business/article145176029.html

 

 

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In the week where the world remembered the mass kidnapping of young girls in Nigeria, as the savagery that is ISIS and the murderous tendencies of US police simmered on in the background, we were hit with a side-blow – xenophobia: South African style. I’m just going to think aloud on this one, as an outsider not privy to, or fully cognisant of the intricacies involved in the evolution of this nation:

We all like to think that when Nelson Mandela was freed in 1994, to declare SA a ‘rainbow nation’, all would surely be well. But in reality nearly 21 years later, South Africans, black, white and every shade in between, are basically just breaching through the perimeter of the misogynistic bubble that is apartheid. As xenophobia again rears its ugly head in SA,  the wide-reaching ramifications of this system again come centre-stage; this is just one of many chapters of the story of the rebirth of a broken nation.

When apartheid was ratified by law in the 1940’s, racial segregation was already woven tightly into the fabric of SA’s society. The Dutch had kicked it all off in the 1700s, with the British duly perfecting the regime in the 1800s. Legislation in 1948 was a mere formality for a totally irrational system where Filipinos were classified as black, because whites worked out that they were…well…black. And yet Malays were classified as ‘coloreds’. Television was only introduced in the 1970s, and when it was, it too was segregated. One cannot believe how ‘nuts’ that system was…and is.

Apartheid means literally ‘the state of being apart’ – and the system not only kept the races within SA apart from each other, but also kept South Africans, especially black South Africans apart from the rest of Africa and the rest of the world. The concept of pan-Africanism is foreign to a significant proportion of black South Africans. Apartheid led to the evolution of generations who knew and still know very little of the great continent to which they belong. My own experience is that this ignorance and insularity is not limited to black South Africans alone either. I have a vague recollection of a conversation with some white and ‘colored’ South Africans soon after 1994, during which it became apparent that these seemingly enlightened individuals couldn’t tell you the first thing about any of the countries neighboring theirs – not a thing. You could argue the same about a lot of other people, but at least Americans could tell you that some Canadians speak French, and the English could tell you that the Germans speak German, and Indians could tell you how Pakistan became separated from India. These South Africans were totally blank when it came to anything about neighboring Zimbabwe, Botswana or Mozambique.

I read somewhere that 65% of the black South African population, is between 15-65 years old. Many in this age bracket have grown up in a world no bigger than their townships, physically and mentally. And some of the harshest acts of mass violence against black South Africans was meted out in these same townships, when this group were children or young adults, a time when thought processes and reasoning are heavily influenced by one’s environment. And their parents also grew up in a world of violence and all sorts of other social injustices – substandard education, inadequate health services, broken family life, lack of cultural evolution. This mass chronic dehumanisation would surely have a disastrous psychological impact. And there are lots of studies about the way in which apartheid affected the mental health of black South African children – some of these same children who are now in that 15-65 age bracket. And forty percent (40%) of this group are unemployed, compared to, and get this, 8% of whites, 18% of Indians and 28% of coloureds. And that 40% unemployment rate eerily matches the 42% rate for education to high school level only.

Surely the great Madiba’s release in 1994 was going to relieve some of this misery. But really, can 300 years of brutality against the souls of a people be reversed by one man, in less than another 300 years? Especially when followed on by a government run by individuals, who despite putting on the right appearances, are products of the same system? I’m going to be controversial here, but this is where you can kind of see where the Castros of this world were coming from, in principle; after your country is liberated from oppressive rule and you inherit a glaringly unfair system where the disadvantaged tip the scales upside down, your first priority is to fix that imbalance pronto. Because isn’t that injustice the reason why you took up arms and got your butts exiled in the first place? So how can you now squander the opportunity to fix that which you fought for? The new SA government should have tackled inequality aggressively from the start. This was an opportunity to show us a new kind of African leadership. But I guess that would have come with too much sacrifice…of self-gratification, wealth and power.

So now you have a sizeable sector of the society that is frustrated and angry because there is no sign of any rainbow as far as they can see. Frustration and anger mixed in with all the other social and behavioural pathologies that apartheid created is a ticking time-bomb. Because SA is still so segregated along colour lines, most black immigrants, the majority of whom are from Zimbabwe, live side-by-side with black South Africans. These immigrants have left their homes with the sole purpose of making a better life for themselves and their families. No one leaves their homeland because they have nothing better to do; when they land wherever they land, they will work hard to fulfil that purpose. Right-wing rhetoric may have us believe the opposite – of course some do not abide by the law of the land and spiral into a treacherous underground of devious behaviour, but this is not representative of the majority.

The perpetrators of this current wave of xenophobic violence see these immigrants creating the life that they should have without realising that the ‘foreigners’ are using skills and education and drive that they, these black South Africans just never had the opportunity to develop. These immigrants never had their psyche bound by the chains of apartheid so they are not subject to the same limitations. Yes, they have their own problems in their own countries, but they are not fresh out of something as sinister as that regime was and continues to be. Unfortunately, living side-by-side means that the immigrants are right in the line of fire of all this pent-up resentment – a mild term for this in fact. The privileged, of all races, are too far away to target, because the type of perpetrator dishing out this violence doesn’t really venture out of ‘his’ immediate vicinity. No, their immigrant neighbor is easier to get to, a soft spot; and besides harsh lessons have been taught in the past about lashing out at the real oppressor: when you revolt against that system, what do you get – the Sharpeville massacre and the Soweto uprisings…

Some have termed this brand of xenophobia, ‘afrophobia’ as a result. But you know, whatever we want to call it, it’s purely academic and just about semantics. What we are witnessing is just ugly and frightening and unbelievably tragic. Reactions have been largely based around calling out South Africans for being hypocritical, because many African countries took them in during their hour of need. That is true and we are free to point that out, but we cannot dwell on that because it will not stop the maddening crowd. The great majority of South Africans, black and white, do not support xenophobic crime – some may be racist, yes – but supporting these atrocious acts is another ball game altogether that they wouldn’t want to partake in.

Instead, it should be about calling out the current South African leadership to be aggressive in protecting the victims and anyone at risk, to bring the perpetrators to justice quickly so as to deter others from following suit; to speak responsibly and appropriately to their electorate so that there is no doubt as to where they stand on the issue of violence against ‘foreigners’; and to get pro-actively creative in addressing – no, fixing – the social and economic imbalance that is the root of this current evil. Apartheid and its creators are  where all this started – there is no denying that. But we cannot go back and undo history. Progress is about being focused on the now with a view to creating a new future that South Africa deserves…that Africa deserves.