After recent events in Tunisa and Egypt, where mass public protest has led to profound changes in their governments, many people are asking where it could spread to next.  Many people have asked me of the likelihood of similar events in Zimbabwe, which I believe it is highly unlikely.

There are reasons to think that these protests could spread south, as the situations have their similarities.  Both countries have presidents who have been serving for 30 years, neither have histories of democratic elections, and both are in Africa.  That is where the similarities end.

The Zimbabwean population has proven itself to be a passive one.  As the situation in Zimbabwe deteriorated, mass protests did not appear frequently and when they did they were met with a brutal response from the police.  With an estimated 3 million Zimbabweans having fled the country in recent years, this has prompted an image of them fleeing rather than fighting.  Egyptians have the Palestinian cause to align themselves to, but Zimbabweans have been the black sheep of the region with no neighbours to which to align their plight to.

One significant aspect that has allowed the Egyptian protests to reach its high attendance levels is the apparent acquiescence of the army.  The police did not fare so well, and were sent scampering by the protesters early on, but images of soldiers hugging protesters shows the sympathy that exists between these to elements.  So far any sort of public action, of which I’m sure the brave women of WOZA! will testify to, has been met with utter brutality from the police who show no quarter to their fellow countrymen and women.  Apart from occasional  rumours of police striking in protest to their pay, their loyalty to the government has shown little strain in recent years.

Lastly, Zimbabwe does not occupy and geopolitical position of any significance.  Egypt is the centre of the Arab world, it’s fragility threatens the entire peace process in the Middle East.  There are tens of thousands of foreign tourists in the country at this time and Egypt is seen as a more moderate government in a volatile region.  Although the protests thus far have been effective, the stern words from the US undoubtedly had a say in Mubarak’s two step downs.  No such climate exists in Zimbabwe, where the only state with motivation to react is South Africa, which has done little thus far.

But if protests were needed to change the government, they were need not today but three years ago during the disputed elections of 2008.  The fragile equilibrium that exists there now has gone some way to repairing the damage done in recent years.  But if an election is called too soon and the campaign of terror is resumed by ZANU-PF, then perhaps it will be our last option.

Dinner With Mugabe

Heidi Holland

Penguin Books 2008

The title of Heidi Holland’s book Dinner With Mugabe is a captivating one, simply because it is such an unlikely scenario for any white journalist to find themselves in.  However, it is a slightly misleading title as it refers to a brief moment in 1975 when the author provided dinner and a safe house to the recently released from prison Robert Mugabe.  At the time hewas a relative non-entity compared to the international pariah he has now become. 

Holland’s book is an investigation in how this once mellow head-teacher turned into the monster he is today, tracking developments from his early childhood and important moments in his life that may provide some explanation to this mystery.  Holland does this by engaging with several people who knew Mugabe on a personal and professional level, including his brother Denato, the widow of Lord Soames, various members of the Rhodesian government including Ian Smith, and the enigmatic Professor Jonathan Moyo.  Holland uses psychological methods to construct a character sketch of Mugabe that has never been done before, which makes this book a compelling read.

The theme that reoccurs most frequently in this unauthorised biography is Mugabe’s childhood in Kutama.  He lost his two older brothers at a young age, and the responsibility to look after his family fell on his shoulders.  His father Gabriel left when Mugabe was young which led him to form a close bond to his mother.  The lack of a father figure is one explanation offered to Mugabe’s inability to take criticism all these years later.  Despite losing his brothers and father, he does appear to have had a fairly happy upbringing, spending a lot of his time reading or going to church with his mother.  As important as childhood is in the development of one’s character, I think this issue was probably overused in this book, as we are constantly reminded about his pious mother and lonely upbringing.

There are two moments in Mugabe’s life we are told of that I was convinced had a big impact on his later presidency.  Firstly, when Mugabe’s first son Nhamo died in 1966.  Mugabe was in prison when it happened, and was not allowed to attend the funeral despite convincing pleas’ that he fully intended to return to prison.   Holland’s description of this tragic affair is very emotional, and begs the question how long that type of animosity can be stored up for only to surface years later.  It reminded me that Mugabe was actually a human once, something I could not describe him as now. 

The second moment happened five years into Mugabe’s premiership, when an election is called for the 20 white seats reserved under the Lancaster House agreement.  Whites in Zimbabwe returned nearly all the seats to Ian Smith.  Denis Norman, Zimbabwe’s first Agriculture Minister, describes it in his interview with Holland as a “betrayal”, where Mugabe had done exceedingly well to placate white voters but they continued to vote along racial lines.  Even the most venomous Mugabe critics would agree that his first few years in office were a success, so I can certainly understand where at least some of his animosity towards white Zimbabweans would stem from.  Not that this would justify the action he would later take against them.

Whilst reading the various fascinating accounts of people who worked closely with Mugabe, I couldn’t help but feel that you can only do so much without meeting the person face to face.  The last chapter is a treat, as Holland saves the best for last with a very rare interview with Mugabe himself.  Most of his replies are the ones you would expect from his anti-white, anti-British, anti-everything disposition, but Holland carefully maneuvers her way around his rhetoric to get some interesting snapshots of the man.  There is even an air of reason when he speaks of Tony Blair’s refusal to adhere to the agreements made between Zimbabwe and former Conservative Government, and the disastrous letter sent to him by Clare Short.  He even goes as far to admit that he didn’t have any control over the farm invasions, but merely interprets the invasions as peasants taking land from the ‘British’.

This is a very thought-provoking book that has allowed for a rare look at one of the most despotic leaders in the world.  One of sad realities that struck me whilst reading it is the endemic racism that seems to exist at every level of Zimbabwe, which origins go back over a hundred years.  Everything seems to be black this, or white that.  I can only hope that young Zimbabweans do not inherit this tendency from their older generation, as it will do no good if Zimbabwe is to have a prosperous future.  Another thing that struck me, which is something that Prof. Moyo touches on, is how Mugabe stumbled into office.  I wonder how differently things would have turned out had Herbert Chitepo become Prime Minister, or Joshua Nkomo, or Josiah Tongogara. 

As Holland concludes, Dinner With Mugabe was not intended to offer an explanation of how one man destroyed a country.  All of the draconian laws Mugabe continues to use to suppress his people were inherited from the Rhodesian regime, and there were many external factors that could have driven another leader to take the same decisions.  I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in the region, as it provides a new level of analysis of Zimbabwe that was desperately needed and will no doubt be the last.

It’s been hard to avoid the recent events surrounding Wikileaks and the leaking of confidential government data, of which we have only seen the tip of the iceberg.  Whilst I do not agree with the leaking of this information, as I believe it is kept secret for good reasons, it has made compelling reading especially with regards to American views towards Africa.

Former United States Ambassador to Zimbabwe Christopher Dell is at the centre of the leaks with regards to Zimbabwe, which is unsurprising considernig his very open contempt for Robert Mugabe and his government.  I haven’t had a chance yet to read the original leaks, purely because everytime I try Wikileaks gets moved to a different server.  But there has been wide publicity in Zimbabwean and international press.

Andrew Meldrum, of whom most Zimbabwe watchers will be familiar with, gives an interesting account in the Global Post.  In it, he describes how Dell is almost amazed at the longevity of Mugabe, how he as skillfully managed to remain in power despite the ruin he created for his country.  Dell is also frank with his dissappointment with South Africa and its appeasement towards Mugabe, which he predicts will continue under president Zuma.  He’s correct on that assessment so far.

The Zimbabwean briefly describes how America thinks Mugabe is ignorant of economics (you don’t have to be an diplomat to know that), that Tsvangirai is indecisive and Mutambara clever but a lightweight.  American ambivalence towards Tsvangirai is disappointing but entirely justified.  He is described as a good, honest man, but largely let down by those in the MDC with the exception of Biti.

The idea that these leaks are going to have a negative impact on American-Zimbabwean relations, and even lead to changes in policy, is unfounded.  Nehanda Radio claims that  these leaks are going to have an “impact on politics” in Zimbabwe, but does not describe exactly how this will happen.  This is simply because there is nothing or great significance in these leaks, just some frank and honest correspondence from one diplomat to another.

American policy towards Zimbabwe has never been difficult to work out.  It outright rejects Mugabe as the winner of the 2008 elections and has openly shown support to Tsvangirai and the MDC.  The disappointment described by America of the MDC’s failure to make a real impact on the political situation in Zimbabwe are probably shared by the MDC.

These revelations will be soon forgotten, but do provide us with an interesting take on American policy, away from the usual polite diplomacy and smokescreens that accompany politics.

Yesterday South African President Jacob Zuma asked the European Union (EU) to lift its sanctions on Zimbabwe.  (Full story here.)  This for me signifies the incredible disappointment that Zuma has been with regards to his troublesome northern neighbour.

I was relatively happy to see Zuma ascend to the office of president of South Africa, mostly because I suspected he would take a harder line on Zimbabwe than his predecessor Thabo Mbeki.  There was talk of trade union solidarity between him and Morgan Tsvangirai, and even ethnic hostility towards the predominantly Shona ZANU-PF.  But on the surface he appears to have achieved little.

His only claim to fame was his apparent influence in the creation of the unity government, under the Global Political Agreement (GPA, and what exactly is so global about this?).  But as Zimbabwe starts down another rocky road towards elections in 2011, the unity government can hardly be viewed as a resounding success.

What makes Zuma’s latest statement to the EU more startling is the topic of sanctions.  Robert Mugabe and his party still claim that the ‘evil and illegal’ sanctions against his regime are the cause of all ills in Zimbabwe, when this is clearly not the case.  If anything the sanctions are far too light, consisting of a mixture of travel bans and asset seizures.  For Zuma to take this case to the EU, it makes a mockery of his already poor efforts to deal with Mugabe.

Startlingly, the EU has recently announced that it has allocated €138 million by way of a development fund for Zimbabwe.  One can only pray that this money finds its intended recipients.

One possible explanation for Zuma’s policy could be an exit strategy for the ZANU-PF top brass.  In the case of Mugabe dying, or ZANU-PF losing the next election (no, I didn’t manage to type that without a wry smile), perhaps Zuma is negotiating a deal with them for a safe passage to escape prosecution, in return for granting concessions to the disputed GPA.  But even this possibility sounds like a long shot.

Zuma’s tenure as president is not quite over yet, and he has time to turn it around.  But up to now it has been very disappointing.  Not only has he failed to deal with Mugabe, but his treatment of Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa has been less than appealing.  I hope I’m proved wrong.

I’m reaching that age where I will be attending several 30th birthday parties this year, although thankfully I’m still a couple of years away from my own.  This is also the year that Zimbabwe celebrates 30 years of independence, and just like all those who turn 30, we spend time considering all that has past in those 30 years.  In previous years I have always wondered how those born after independence, like myself, will view the events on the 18th April 1980.  But this year had a different theme, as it was time to stop looking backward and start looking forward.

On Friday 16th April I attended an event hosted by the Royal African Society (RAS) at the School of Oriental and African Studies, entitled ‘What Next For Zimbabwe?’.  It was hosted by Richard Dowden (Director of the RAS) and speakers included Lovemore Matombo (President of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions), Gabriel Shumba (Executive Director, Zimbabwe Exiles Forum, South Africa), John Mawbey (South African Municipal Workers Union) and Margaret Ling (Treasurer, Britain Zimbabwe Society and Trustee, Zimbabwe Association).  The format of the meeting was based on brief presentations by the speakers followed by questions and answers and a general discussion.

Lovemore Matombo spoke first, telling us that Zimbabwe is currently undergoing a transition to democracy, but warned us that the current unity government is faltering due to continued state sponsored violence. Margaret Ling pleaded for Zimbabweans in the diaspora to be allowed back into the mix, as many were willing to return but most feared for their safety.  She also reaffirmed the high level of education that most Zimbabweans possess, even compared to the average English person.  But Gabriel Shumba said that the diaspora were still hesitant to become fully engaged, and that many Zimbabweans in South Africa are being treated inhumanely and need better treatment by the South African government.  Finally John Mawbey expressed solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe, and complained that South African President Jacob Zuma is not doing enough to lean on ZANU-PF.

The theme that resonated from the presentations and ensuing discussion was that of the diaspora, and how Zimbabwe needs them if it is to have any hope of recovering.  How exactly this will be done is anyone’s guess at the moment, as there is no unified structure or process in place.  Out of a population of over 12 million people, it is estimated that anything up to 4 million of those are outside Zimbabwe.  1/4 of the entire population of a state being displaced is almost unprecedented. 

South Africa is also experiencing a ‘brain drain’, although not quite to the levels of Zimbabwe.  To counter this, the South African government set up the Homecoming Revolution , a ‘non-profit organisation aimed at reversing the South African skills shortage’.  The website includes information on jobs, schools, banks, citizenship issues and stories of those who have returned from overseas back to South Africa.  They recently had a fair in London which I attended, it was the complete one-stop exhibition for those wanting to return to their home.

From the discussion I attended, I am convinced this is exactly what Zimbabwe needs.  Of course, Zimbabwe is dealing with its own internal problems, and some may think that the issues and concerns of Zimbabweans who have not left are more pressing.  But it is absolutely vital that the diaspora is united and some sort of movement is created to help those return, no matter where they are in the world.  For those that do not want to return as they have set themselves up in their new countries, then they must be allowed and encouraged to send money back to Zimbabwe to their friends and family.  But those millions of returning Zimbabweans will bring skills that their country desperately needs, and an organization that facilitates this can streamline the process of returning skilled workers. 

I have refused to allow myself to become depressed over the downward spiral Zimbabwe has experienced over the past 30 years, it’s time to look forward and to consider what action need taking to help rebuild our home.  The returning of the diaspora must be high on that list.

The 6th of December is always a humble occassion for me each year, as it marks the date in 1996 that I left Zimbabwe to move to South Africa.

That day is still vivid in my memory.  Only 13 years old, me and my mother waved my grandfather and uncle goodbye as our train pulled out of Bulawayo Train Station on its 30 hour journey to Johannesburg.  I was too young and naive to realise the full implication of what was happening, in fact I remember being quite excited about the prospect.  I had visited South Africa often in my childhood and the idea of living in Johannesburg was enticing, especially after things had become more trying for us in Zimbabwe. 

I remember the first few weeks as being very exciting.  It was nearing Christmas and all the shopping centres were buzzing, our cats and dogs had arrived from Zimbabwe too, and we were staying in a huge rented house in Weltevreden Park.  But within a couple of months I would be in school and it would be a tough year.  I was a year ahead of my age group and the work I  was doing was quite difficult.  I became distinctly aware of being different to the other students, although I made friends with a couple of other Zimbabweans who had recently moved down too.  I would eventually settle in and make friends, all whilst my Zimbabwean identity became stronger.

When I left in 1996, things were not really that bad.  There had been small price increases, and the Bulawayo Chronicle had lost some of its independent voice by then, but there were no signs of things to come.  I witnessed all of Zimbabwe’s major events from outside Zimbabwe, such as the opening and closing of the Daily News, the 2000 referendum, the first farm invasions, and the subsequent collapse of the economy.  Even being quite young when this was happening I couldn’t avoid a feeling of abandonment, that I should be there doing something. 

I visited Bulawayo frequently between 1996 and 2001 as I still had family there.  Everytime we drove up Esigodini Road I was thrilled to be home, although each time the city looked a little worse for wear.  One of my favourite trips up was in 2000, when me and my best friend drove up for an end of year road trip to Victoria Falls to celebrate finishing school.  Although I can claim the last time I set foot in Zimbabwe was in August 2009, when I was in Zambia and crossed the halfway point on the Victoria Falls bridge!

So after 13 years, where to now?  Sometimes I have felt like I will never get to go back home, but developments over the past 18 months have filled me with hope.  It is tragic that so many white Zimbabweans who left the country have completely abandoned it, but for me there would be no greater pleasure than to return and help rebuild my country.  I will always take flak for being absent from the country during its most trying time, but so was a quarter of the population.  My greatest dream would be to return to Bulawayo and to get into some form of local government, perhaps do some teaching or open some schools in the bush, I would work in a bar if I had to.  Because even after 13 years I have never stopped dreaming about Zimbabwe at night and have never stopped calling it my home.

Yesterday Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) were awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, in a ceremony at the White House.  President Barack Obama was there to hand over the award to the founding members Magodonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams, and video can be seen here.

I am a great admirer of Obama, and in particular his talent of making speeches.  I watched his speeches in Moscow, Cairo and Accra, but for me this was one of his finest.  In his presidential campaign, he spoke endlessly about hope, and I think he met the manifestation of hope in the form of WOZA.

It can be so frustrating that after nearly 30 years of Mugabe’s dictatorship, there doesn’t seem to be anybody willing to stand up to him anymore.  But it takes the women of Zimbabwe to prove this assumption wrong, as the members of WOZA have taken countless beatings and never backed down.  They are an inspiration to Zimbabweans around the world for their courage, bravery and determination.

But there is still work to be done.  WOZA deserve all the accolades they receive, but there is still so much to do.  It’s not very often that Zimbabwe has a good day, but the 23rd November 2009 was one of those.

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