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Zimbabwe: Of protests, prayer and legacy

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Zimbabwe: Of protests, prayer and legacy

Percy Zvomuya

05 Aug 2017

18min min read
  • Religion and politics

Emboldened activists are trying to forge a new political path for their country, but Robert Mugabe’s stranglehold on the nation remains. Percy Zvomuya reflects on the past and the possibilities that lie ahead for Zimbabwe.

A second independence

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ational Heroes Acre, an imposing black granite monument located on a thickly wooded hill to the west of Harare, is a cemetery for icons of Zimbabwe’s revolution. The shrine was built in the early 1980s, when the blood of the fallen fighters and nationalists — whose sacrifices in the 1970s liberation war had forced prime minister Ian Smith’s recalcitrant regime to travel to London's Lancaster House to negotiate majority rule — had hardly clotted. 

More than 100 people are interred at the national cemetery including Herbert Chitepo, the first black lawyer in Southern Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was then known); Sally Mugabe, President Robert Mugabe’s first wife and a freedom fighter in her own right; and Joshua Nkomo, a founding nationalist and former vice president. If you tour the monument in a distracted state it would be easy to miss a small cenotaph for Edison Sithole, a lawyer and nationalist, who disappeared, together with his secretary Miriam Mhlanga, on 15 October 1975. 

It is believed that Sithole and Mhlanga were first abducted and then killed by the Rhodesian security state. 

Considering Zimbabwe’s grim history and how the advent of democracy was supposed to mark the end of extrajudicial activities of security organs, it is perturbing that more than three decades after independence, the abduction of activists is still a reality.

The recent case of journalist and activist Itai Dzamara is instructive. On the morning of 9 March 2015, he visited a barbershop in Glen View, a township in Harare. Across the city that day, hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of men went to their barbers for a trim, but we remember Dzamara’s last shave because it was the last time he was seen alive. 

At the barbershop, five men reportedly grabbed Dzamara and forced him into their bakkie before driving off. The Zimbabwe Republic Police has maintained he isn’t in their custody; the Zimbabwe National Army’s military intelligence wing, which was thought to have abducted him, has denied a role in his disappearance. So a man went to the barbershop over two years ago and never returned home. 

When BBC journalist Stephen Sackur interviewed then information minister Jonathan Moyo in 2015 on his programme Hard Talk, Dzamara’s fate was discussed. 

“We do not know who took him, perhaps only those who took him and God know where he is…However, people disappear every day and you mention one person but in fact we have quite some porous borders. A lot of people cross our borders without knowing,” Moyo said.

He has since retracted his statement, explaining, “…the scary and indubitable fact is that he was abducted in broad daylight. So yes, it’s regrettable that I have conflated and confused a missing person with an abducted person.” 

That clarification is significant. In 2014, Dzamara founded the protest movement known as Occupy Africa Unity Square. He led a ragtag army of activists in a campaign against the current leadership and the socio-economic inequalities crippling the country. The ‘occupiers’ held regular vigils in Africa Unity Square, a public park right in the centre of Harare, holding up posters decrying the state of Zimbabwe. 

Africa Unity Square, originally known as Cecil Square (after Cecil John Rhodes), was built by British settlers but repurposed by nationalists after independence. Apart from a plaque from 1988 to mark this reinvention, nothing about it would surprise those who conceived and built it. It’s not musasa, munhondo or other indigenous trees that flourish here; imported jacaranda and other exotic tree species adorn the space. Even the park’s original design, modelled on the skulls and crosses template of the Union Jack, is still in place. 

The park’s allure for Dzamara and the other activists who joined him was its proximity to power. Zimbabwe’s Parliament building, another antique edifice erected in the 1890s, and Munhumutapa Building — the location of Mugabe’s offices — are a short walk away.

At the beginning of the Occupy protests, the authorities may have treated Dzamara with indulgence. He once wrote a letter to Mugabe urging him to resign and pave the way for fresh elections. It was pretty harmless, much like an egret to a hippopotamus. But when he kept at it, and sympathy began coalescing around him, he might have gnawed at the skin of the regime’s enforcers.

This was confirmed by his wife Sheffra Dzamara in an interview with Amnesty International. “The authorities felt that Itai was a threat. They became afraid that people were starting to support his thinking and that this would cause trouble for them,” she said. In a prelude to Dzamara’s fate, he and his fellow activists were severely assaulted by riot police in November 2014, an encounter which landed them in the local hospital. His abduction followed a few months later. 

“The authorities felt that Itai was a threat. They became afraid that people were starting to support his thinking and that this would cause trouble for them"

In mid-2016, the memory of Dzamara a tiny speck disappearing into Harare’s open skies, a new crop of activists emerged. Many described this period as a winter of discontent, and it was. Zimbabwe had erupted in fresh protests as people’s frustration with the government over poor public services, a deteriorating economy, corruption and its failure to pay civil servants reached a boiling point. 

In Harare’s townships, unemployed youths and taxi drivers fought with cops to protest the ubiquitous roadblocks at which traffic police toll the motoring public even for the vaguest of reasons, including driving a dirty car. Doctors, teachers, schools and businesses joined nationwide shutdowns.

A catalyst for the unrest was the government’s proposal to print its own bond notes — equivalent to the US dollar — as a way to stave off a cash crisis. Many feared this would eventually result in the reintroduction of the Zimbabwean dollar, which was abandoned in 2009 due to high levels of inflation.

Despite bloody clashes with police, detention and arrests, protesters persisted.  

One of them was Stern Zvorwadza, chair of the National Vendors Union of Zimbabwe and a key player in organising protests at Town House, the offices of Harare City Council, whose municipal police terrorise vendors and impound their goods.

Zvorwadza was also a constant presence at Rainbow Towers, a five-star hotel in Harare, to protest vice president Phelekezela Mphoko’s flagrant waste of public resources. Dissatisfied with his government-secured mansion, Mphoko had moved into the hotel in December 2014 while renovations were underway. His extended stay there reportedly cost tax payers well over $250,000, infuriating Zimbabweans who were struggling to make ends meet.

But it was not just the second-in-command who was living in luxury. Reports suggested that the government, frequently unable to pay civil servants on time, had just bought Range Rovers for several ministers at around $200,000 a piece. When one of them was quizzed about his new ride, his riposte was, “I am a minister. Am I expected to walk around the city on foot?”

Mugabe, the chief architect of this mess, is himself totally insulated from the quotidian inconveniences and systematic dysfunction the average Zimbabwean endures on a daily basis. His annual birthday bashes set the country back hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more. When he catches a cold, off he flies to Singapore for medical treatment.

Elites exist in realities that are tangential to the daily lives of ordinary citizens.

“We want our government to look out for our interests, us ordinary citizens, not just their interests,” Zvorwadza told me in an interview at the height of the protests.

“We want independence. But someone will ask me, ‘what kind of independence do you want? Didn’t you get independence in 1980?’ We had independence devoid of freedom. We are more oppressed [now] than under Smith. We want a true independence, which we are going to call a second independence.

“The independence of 1980 is not the one we longed for, or that our parents longed for. We want an independence that brings peace, truth, freedom, which takes away poverty, improves service delivery…”

Zvorwadza, acknowledging fellow activists, continued: “We don’t want to be oppressed any more, which explains all these disparate groups that have risen.” 

One of the most prominent of these is #Tajamuka (Shona slang for “We have rebelled”), a youth movement led by Promise Mkwananzi. A student leader at the University of Zimbabwe until his expulsion, Mkwananzi is a member of the Movement for Democratic Change’s youth wing and renowned for his superb organisational skills. 

At the height of the demonstrations last year, I sat down with Dirk Frey, co-leader of the Occupy Africa Unity Square movement and Dzamara’s lieutenant. He told me that a while after Dzamara’s disappearance, people began to gravitate towards the park again, which they had renamed Itai Dzamara Square. Whatever dungeon the disappeared activist was incarcerated in or whatever fate had befallen him, in his vanished state he had assumed totemic stature. 

“We look at Itai as the beginning, the foundation of what is happening now. None of this would be happening if it weren’t for Dzamara,” explained Frey. 

“Dzamara isn’t like figure[s] of old [old-style activists] who were in the trenches then. He is the first of our generation of activists. He is the pick that broke the hard ground and prepared it for what we are doing today. Now we have many Itai Dzamaras fighting for the things that he fought for [before he disappeared].” 

In search of the people's hero

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n that winter of 2016, when usually lethargic citizens seemed to stir and rise as one, it appeared as if it was Evan Mawarire’s trail they were following. “A national hero must have a nation,” Caribbean historian C.L.R. James wrote in Beyond a Boundary.  

The cleric Mawarire, affectionately known as Pastor Evan, first captured the Zimbabwean imagination through a video in which he delivered an impassioned monologue about his frustrations with Mugabe’s administration, with the country’s flag draped around his shoulders. He shared it with the hashtag #ThisFlag and it spread "like an avalanche". A new social media-based protest movement was born, one whose basic premise was that Zimbabwe’s independence was a ruse. 

A groundswell of supporters rallied around #ThisFlag, sharing their discontent with the political status quo. Coupled with Occupy Africa Unity Square activists and #Tajamuka, it seemed civil protest in Zimbabwe had reached critical mass.

The campaigns continued online and offline for months but, in usual draconian fashion, authorities arrested Mawarire in July 2016. The charge: attempting to “subvert a constitutionally elected government”, a crime that carries a jail sentence of 20 years. 

The case was thrown out of court after his lawyers successfully argued he had been denied a fair trial. But fearing for his and his family’s safety, the Mawarires left Zimbabwe in mid-July. Their first stop was South Africa, where the cleric conducted a series of lectures, and they then moved to the United States.

Zimbabweans were heartbroken by his decision. It seemed the nation hadn’t found its national hero, after all.

Six months later, in February 2017, Mawarire returned home after months of “exile”. He was arrested on arrival at Harare International Airport for, again, "subverting a constitutionally elected government". Tyranny, you see, has a long memory. 

"For a rudderless and demobilised population, it is natural that people’s hopes coalesced around a young, credible and charismatic pastor."

He would spend two weeks in D Section, the most secure wing of Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison, with murderers, armed robbers and rapists for company. 

Surely you knew you would be arrested, I asked him when we sat down together for an interview at an eatery in Avondale, Harare, in March.

“There was an expectation that I might be. But, in my mind, I was trying to be optimistic. I was thinking that they would let me through, follow me for a couple of days and then leave me depending on what they find,” he said.

Even though Mawarire is under tough bail conditions, he loves being back home. 

“For someone who has a passion for Zimbabwe, it’s the worst feeling,” he said, talking about his “exile” in the United States. “I was away from my life in Zimbabwe in terms of the church, my larger family; I was away from a season that was life-changing for me. I wanted to see it through. Every single day that I was in the US was a difficult one.” 

He became depressed, insomnia set in and he took to overeating. In the time he has been back, he has lost weight thanks to a proper diet and an exercise regimen. Palestinian theorist Edward Said was right: “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognised need of the human soul.”

The despair of his sojourn in the US was also compounded by the knowledge that many Zimbabweans were disappointed by his decision to relocate there. For a rudderless and demobilised population, it is natural that people’s hopes coalesced around a young, credible and charismatic pastor. “He got his Green Card,” some sneered; “All he wanted was a passage to America,” others quipped.

“Some understood the position I had to take but they were still enraged. Others didn’t and were extremely enraged at the decision.” This explains why Mawarire’s court appearances following his re-arrest, which had a carnivalesque atmosphere last year, have now been stripped of that energy. 

Mawarire’s “exile” and later incarceration at Chikurubi were experiences that toughened him.  

As he was being driven from the magistrate’s court to the maximum security prison, he told me that he wondered whether it was the prison itself that he was headed to or one of the safe houses used as torture centres by the security state. Would he disappear like Dzamara?  

Mawarire was shivering so much that his leg irons were jingling. “I was in no Steve Biko or Nelson Mandela mode,” he confessed. When the prison truck pulled up at Chikurubi, relief set in. “I have never been happier to see a prison in all my life.”

The cleric was contemplative about it all. “What we call the struggle has its moments of revelation that those of us who are going to be committed to this have to [engage in].” 

In jail he was adopted by prisoners who had heard about his pro-democracy work via the prison telegraph. They quickly gave him a crash course on the inner workings of the penal system. 

Prisons are, of course, no holiday camps but what he saw shocked him. In his section there were about 500 people in a space meant for half that number; the food was atrocious; the humiliation from the prison officers was constant. It was in prison, he said, that his passion for Zimbabwe morphed from his struggle to provide just for his family to one that embraced every Zimbabwean.

Mawarire came to the conclusion that “Chikurubi is a microcosm of Zimbabwe” for “Zimbabwe is like one big jail”. The shortages of food (there have been food riots in the past), the broken families and the cramped conditions reflect the country at large: the millions driven into exile, the battles that Zimbabweans endure to provide for their families. 

Mawarire has in the past been cagey about his political ambitions, but this time he was forthcoming.

 “That’s the next step, to run for political office. One of my roles at the moment is to advocate for new players: young, credible people with a clean past. There is a realisation that I am one of these people and I think if I excluded myself from serving for public office, I am shutting down doors that are open to me. The thought is there, there is a good chance that I will run for public office.” 


Some veterans in the opposition are wary of his increased involvement in the political space and fear that he will “split the vote”. He realises the enormity of the task ahead and that “turning Zimbabwe around will require a confluence of different forces … one person cannot [do this alone]”. 

Mawarire didn’t say so, but surely he was referring to the high unemployment rate, the crumbling health system and the disappearing manufacturing and industrial base. 

The national statistical agency ZimStat pegs unemployment at 11% although some estimates suggest it might be as high as 95%. (In the Orwellian logic of the statutory body, a person who has been laid off from a factory and then sets up a stall to sell cigarettes is still employed.) 

According to reports, scores of companies have shut down since the 2013 elections, when Mugabe’s government promised to create two million jobs. 

Why are individuals stepping into the breach in a country in which charity shouldn’t be necessary? Why is the leadership of Zimbabwe unresponsive to the suffering of its millions? What preoccupies it?

I asked Mawarire whether people like black American theologian James H. Cone mean anything to him. Cone is a cleric and scholar who, in the 1960s, reinterpreted liberation theology for North America with his book Black Theology & Black Power. God, until that point, had been a white patriarch whose concern was only with whites and whiteness. Cone’s project was “to emancipate the gospel from its ‘whiteness’”. Cone wrote: “To be Christian is to be one of those whom God has chosen. God has chosen black people.” 

Mawarire replied: “The values and teachings of Jesus Christ are fundamentally about liberation theology, how almost everything he did was about setting the captives free.”

He was referring to the New Testament’s most revolutionary mantra, the verse in which Jesus set out his mission in the gospels: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the broken-hearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.”

Naturally, Mawarire’s foes are not just in government but in the church as well. Some clerics claim he has crossed the line, that his project has no biblical sanction. “They say the bible says we must pray for those in authority and you have been confronting them and you are causing chaos. I think the opposite is what we should be doing as a church. The true expression of the church is when we take what we believe in and put it into practice,” said Mawarire.   

The cleric turned 40 in March and used the milestone to reach out to struggling mothers. Using his wide social media reach, he asked people to donate diapers, clothes and other necessities for newborn babies and distributed these across the country. His gesture was especially well received at a Harare hospital where one mother was using her own blouse to wrap her infant.

A recent World Bank report observed that “Zimbabwe has enormous potential given its generous endowment of natural resources, existing stock of public infrastructure, and comparatively skilled human resources”. So why are individuals stepping into the breach in a country in which charity shouldn’t be necessary? Why is the leadership of Zimbabwe unresponsive to the suffering of its millions? What preoccupies it?

The perennial president

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In May, Mugabe spent time in Singapore for medical treatment – his second trip to the island city-state in two months. The president, often ridiculed by media and opponents for dozing off in public, was seeking treatment for eye issues.

"At 93, there is something that happens to the eyes and the president cannot suffer bright lights. If you look at his poise, he looks down, avoids direct lighting," his spokesperson George Charamba said.

After the gates to Europe were closed, Mugabe and other Zanu-PF elites had to look elsewhere for new friends and new destinations. Over the years, he has been to Singapore numerous times for “private visits”, “eye operations” and “medical reviews”.   

Earlier in March his office announced he was in Singapore for “a scheduled medical review”. The statement was lifted from a template that is regularly used ever since the European Union placed Mugabe under sanctions in 2002. That same day, Zimbabwean nurses joined a doctors’ strike to press for the payment of their 2016 bonuses. If the veteran president had used local facilities, there would have been no doctors available to attend to him. Army doctors would have stepped into the void. 

Singapore is a small country with limited natural resources, little arable land and a population of around six million; Zimbabwe has vast mineral wealth, huge tracts of arable land, good rainfall and a population of around 16 million.

So what is special about Mugabe’s beloved destination?

Singapore attained independence in 1959. Its first leader Lee Kuan Yew was born in 1923, just a year before Mugabe. Like Mugabe, Kuan Yew was in power for a long time; his term stretched from 1959 to 1990. Even after he resigned, and, as is typical of ‘founding fathers’, he remained a spectral presence and the real power in Singapore before his death in 2015.

Kuan Yew ran a centralised state which suppressed assorted freedoms, resulting in Singapore being, in many ways, a one-party state. Similarly, Mugabe in the 1980s would, at every given opportunity, espouse the merits of a single-party state. “I am an apostle of a one-party state system,” he said. 

He even tried to legislate for a one-party state but failed. What he couldn’t get through a legislated one-party state he attained through the executive presidency, a position created in 1987 which made him a virtual demi-god. In many ways, the failure by the opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), to unseat Mugabe derives from the wide powers which accrued to him when he became executive president.   

“Zimbabwe has enormous potential given its generous endowment of natural resources, existing stock of public infrastructure, and comparatively skilled human resources”

But while the citizens of Singapore suffer lack of personal and political freedoms, they enjoy a standard of living most Zimbabweans can only dream of. According to the World Bank, Singapore’s GDP is US $300 billion, its GDP rank on a table based on purchasing power parity (PPP) is 38 out of 186 countries and its unemployment rate is 1.8%. In other words: Singaporeans have it good. Zimbabwe, on the other hand, has a GDP of US $14 billion, a GDP rank of 120 out of 186 countries and an unemployment rate of 5.1%. However, in Zimbabwe, that figure is disputed; depending on who you talk to, the unemployment rate ranges widely.

How did two countries with such a common history embark on such wildly divergent trajectories? Looking at the sturdy but crumbling infrastructure, the factory shells (some have been converted into churches) and the street corners with an increasing number of vendors, it’s difficult to believe that in 1980 Zimbabwe was universally admired in the region for its sound economy. The manufacturing industry had weathered years in the wilderness because of Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Britain in 1965, but remained robust; in fact it was the only economy in the region for which industrialists in South Africa had respect. 

In the crisis years between 2000 and 2008, Zimbabwe’s GDP declined by half, a scenario which the World Bank described as “the sharpest contraction of its kind in a peace time economy.” In its country overview, the Bank observed that "poverty rates rose to 72% and left a fifth of the population in extreme poverty. Health, education and other basic services — once regional models — largely collapsed. Zimbabwe’s position on the Human Development Index in 2011 stood at 173 out of 187 countries." 

However, following the signing of the 2008 agreement which brought the two foes, Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai, together in a government of national unity and the adoption of the US dollar in 2009, Zimbabwe’s fortunes improved.  

According to the same World Bank report, “Zimbabwe has regained its outcomes of the early 1990s. Underpinning this is a reduction in HIV prevalence to about 15% since 2014, down from more than 40% in 1998. Life expectancy recovered from 43.1 years in 2003 to 53.3 in 2012, compared with a high of 61.6 years in 1986. The maternal mortality rate declined from 960 deaths per 100 000 live births in 2010–2011, to an estimated 614 deaths in 2014; under-five mortality fell from 94 per 1 000 in 2009 to 75 in 2014”. Despite these improvements, Zimbabwe still failed to achieve a significant number of the Millennium Development Goals. 

In trying to explain his country’s philosophy, Kuan Yew told the New York Times, “We are ideology-free. Does it work? If it works, let’s try it. If it’s fine, let’s continue it. If it doesn’t work, toss it out, try another one.

“To understand Singapore and why it is what it is, you’ve got to start off with the fact that it’s not supposed to exist and cannot exist. To begin with, we don’t have the ingredients of a nation, the elementary factors: a homogeneous population, common language, common culture and common destiny.”

Catherine Lim, a Singaporean novelist, told the Times in that same story that “this man is a statesman. He is probably too big for Singapore, on a level with Tito and de Gaulle. If they had three Lee Kuan Yews in Africa, that continent wouldn’t be in such a bad state.” 

In Africa, alas, we've had Jacob Zuma, Laurent Kabila and Robert Mugabe.

Mugabe's privilege is worlds apart from the reality of his people. An examination of Parirenyatwa, Zimbabwe’s biggest hospital group, is revealing. In 2014, the Auditor General reportedly said the country’s biggest public hospitals had antiquated machinery, suffered chronic shortages of medical equipment and was short of basic drugs. 

The main hospital, formerly known as Andrew Fleming, was originally meant to serve only whites, and after independence was renamed Parirenyatwa (after Samuel Parirenyatwa, Southern Rhodesia’s first black doctor and a founding nationalist). The hospital’s maternity unit is named Mbuya Nehanda and its eye clinic Sekuru Kaguvi, after two of the most celebrated heroes of the 1896 anti-imperialist war against white settlers.  

As these various names attest, the hospital is nationalism’s beating heart, a site which was meant to reflect the triumphs and aspirations of the nationalist movement (such as desegregation of health facilities and provision of excellent facilities for all, regardless of class or race). In a development not without tragedy and irony, it is David Parirenyatwa, the first black doctor’s son, who is minister of health and presiding over its rot. 

At this year’s independence celebrations, Mugabe was reading from the same liberation script he has used over the decades. “The assignment is not yet complete. It’s still incumbent upon us all to translate into true meaning that freedom, sovereignty and independence," he said. 

Don’t let that “us” fool you into believing that Mugabe sees the national project as a collective project, inclusive of everyone in Zimbabwe. That “us” is just a manner of speaking, the royal plural. It’s all about him. 

“Succession is a fact of biology, of life. No one individual governs forever. I have to be succeeded,” he once told a party meeting. That was nine years ago. At 93, he has been confirmed as Zanu-PF’s candidate for the 2018 elections. If Mugabe finishes that term, he will be 99. 

And if his wife Grace is to be believed, Mugabe is, even in the afterlife, the right man for Zimbabwe’s top job. “If God decides to take him, then we would rather field him as a corpse,” she said earlier this year.

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n the next election, Mugabe will face Tsvangirai and the same opposition figures of old that he has over the years fought, bruised and defeated. The aging leader is likely to win the poll — surely his last — but Zimbabweans have reason to look out with hope to a different future: one designed by activists like Mawarire, Zvorwadza and Mkwananzi. After the depredations of the nationalist period and the failures of the opposition, this caliber of cadres could deliver the “second independence” that Zvorwadza envisioned.