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Impressions of Zimbabwe in August 2009

Posted by CM on October 25, 2009

Visitors to Zimbabwe who have been fed a BBC/CNN-type diet of news about ‘The Zimbabwe Crisis’ and how everything in the country has ‘collapsed’ will be surprised at how ‘normal’ Harare looks at first glance. Driving from the airport into town, there are certainly signs of decay since a few years ago, but no immediate or obvious signs of the ‘collapse’ that certain media have in recent years hysterically, lovingly and perhaps even hopefully talked about.

Looking out of the airplane’s windows as it circled to land and on the drive into town in early August, the most obvious change for me was how areas that had once been at least semi-savannah on the outskirts of Harare had been stripped of trees. One manifestation of ‘The Crisis’ in recent years has been the difficulty in accessing forms of modern energy that had once been taken for granted: petrol, diesel, paraffin, butane, coal, electricity, etc. Their availability had been erratic for many years and their cost prohibitive, forcing many people to resort to firewood for energy. Hence the massive deforestation, which I later found was widespread.

The still newish airport is clean and well maintained, though the number of vacant boutiques compared to, for instance, Nairobi airport’s full complement of seemingly thriving over-charging boutiques was one indicator that things were not quite ‘normal.’ On the drive home from the airport there was no dramatic evidence of ‘The Zimbabwe Crisis,’ though the buildings did look shabbier than before and there were definitely more potholes to dodge on the roads. But the over-riding impression for me was the powerful natural beauty and colour of Zimbabwe, not the indices of the difficult times the country has undergone in recent years.

Having had a few days to unwind at home, I began to gradually drive around and explore my home city Harare. There definitely seemed less traffic on the roads than I remembered from a few years ago. Finding a parking spot in the city center was surprisingly easy at any time of day and the roads there were generally in very good shape, as appeared to be most of the visible infrastructure.

In town and in many of the suburban shopping centers there were many more vacant shops than before, but I was also impressed by the number of businesses that had hung on during the difficult years. But almost all had ‘diversified’ in various ways, with all selling a much wider variety of goods and/or services to survive. I thought the general level of service in shops had declined noticeably. I didn’t encounter any outright rudeness but it seemed noticeably common to be met by disinterested, bored and sometimes almost sullen store personnel. Almost all stores I remembered from a few years ago had a much narrower range of goods than during ‘the good old days,’ but many people mentioned to me that what I thought was a limited range of goods was a vast improvement from the situation a few months ago, and that the availability of goods was improving dramatically by the day, one of the early benefits of the US-“dollarization” of the economy.

While the widespread shortages of all kinds of goods was rapidly receding into the past as price controls and currency restrictions fell away, most things seemed very expensive, sometimes absurdly so. In the weeks before my visit home I had visited Europe and the U.S., as well as having passed through Senegal’s capital city Dakar,  a city not known to be cheap, and so I particularly keenly felt the comparatively high cost of goods and services in Harare. It was easy to understand why many Zimbabweans are only grudging in their praise of the ‘normalization’ that has begun to take place. “We are happy the shops are full again but we can’t afford the goods” was a frequent complaint I heard. But even as people grumble about “we can’t afford anything” the shops are certainly not empty of customers, although many merchants and traders said the level of spending was still low and still limited mainly to necessities. Yet all I spoke to agreed that the situation was significantly better than before, and dramatically better than in 2008, the period everyone agreed was Zimbabwe’s low point, with hyperinflation, shortages, violence and political tension and so on at their worst.

As ridiculously expensive as almost everything seemed to be, even in just the one month I was there prices were creeping down to more realistic levels. And if one took the trouble to shop around, which many more people were doing than I remember from before, it was possible to find widely varying prices for the same thing. A big culture change was that even in ‘formal’ shops it was possible to negotiate for price reductions, common in many countries all over the world but previously almost unheard of in Zimbabwe’s stiff formal economy. So merchants are feeling the effects of consumer resistance and growing competition from the opening up of the economy and the greater availability of goods, and they are being forced to respond by lowering their prices. In the shortage economy that had prevailed for several years, the relatively few people who could raise the hard currency to import goods became accustomed to charging huge, arbitrary mark-ups. The merchant was king, not the customer.

One of the most disheartening remaining signs of how Zimbabwe has slid was in the complete absence of a daily media alternative to the state media. There are no daily independent newspapers and at US$2 an issue, the weekly private newspapers are way out of reach of most people. Of course there is no private TV or radio so there is a huge information deficit. But this is not to say the state media dominates the shaping of opinion. Despite its near monopoly, state newspapers, TV and radio are so dull and so blatantly pro-establishment that their credibility is extremely low. The public has largely learned to sense when they are being fed propaganda instead of news, which is rather often, and to dismiss and ridicule it even if they don’t know for sure what the other sides of the story are. Even more than before, the propaganda is so crudely done that I found myself often marveling that the government didn’t find it embarrassing and a negation of its attempt to win heart and minds. The stiffness, awkwardness and the over-the-top nature of much of the state media in the support of Mugabe and ZANU-PF and against Tsvangirai and the MDC had an almost surreal, self-defeating quality in its crudeness.

President Mugabe is still ass-licked by the state media as much as ever before, and in a way that I do not think does him any credit. One big change was that Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Gideon Gono was no longer the swashbuckling public hero the media had tried to make him out to be when he was first appointed five or so years ago, promising to swiftly bring down hyper-inflation and perform all kinds of other miracles. Even in the slavish state media Gono’s gloss had long turned dull, with him now struggling to defend his controversial legacy to a tired-of-him, sceptical public. One would have to have been there in his early days in office and to experience what a dominant public presence he came to be to understand how far the man has fallen in public esteem.

Electricity and water cuts were frequent, although even in these regards many people said I had visited when the situation was getting much better than it once was. People are inconvenienced but out of necessity have had to adjust, and the down times are handled very matter of factly. Up until a few years ago I had never even seen a fuel-powered electricity generator but now many in the cities who can afford them have them and they are widely advertised in the Press. Those who have boreholes or wells can avoid the worst inconveniences of the periods without running water, but I was shocked by the number of people who calmly mentioned having gone for months without seeing a drop of municipal water in their taps, a major cause of last year’s cholera outbreak.

Visits to some of Harare’s once-bustling industrial areas were depressing. A few years ago a quick drive through any of them would have been enough to show anybody why Zimbabwe’s economy was the sub-region’s most dynamic after South Africa’s. Now they are quiet, many companies still open but quite clearly operating at a low level. The areas do not have the bustle of before; buildings, roads and company premises are no longer maintained like they once proudly were. But from job-seekers to company owners, many people said whereas most companies were just treading water for several years, there are now signs of activity picking up as a result of the policy changes in the economy and the relative political calm.

With low productivity in agriculture and industry for several years, and given all the crises the country has undergone, it is startling to see the number and proportion of smart late-model luxury cars on the streets of Harare. There seemed a very bizarre disconnect between the economy under-performing as it has done for years and the number and types of expensive cars which would have turned one’s head even in a wealthy, ‘normal’ economy. While the signs of the lack of investment in many critical areas of the economy were everywhere, this certainly did not seem to extend to the cars many higher-ups in government and the private sector drive. I’m still trying to figure out what this says, and whether this is positive or not.

My impressions are of a tiny slice of life in Zimbabwe. For instance, I only made two one-day forays into rural areas to visit relatives, and only made one other one-day trip out of Harare during my one-month stay. There are obviously many parts of the traumatic economic and political period Zimbabwe is just coming out of that will only be fully understood by those who were there during it. But the instinctive adaptation that one “who was there” undergoes to the rapidly changing situation is also precisely why it can be hard for them to pin down and catalogue the changes, even though they will have an insider’s deeper understanding of events they were a part of. On the other hand an inside-outsider like me, visiting for the first time in about three years, can much more quickly see what is different even if he has no first-hand knowledge and experience of the factors and events that drove the change.

When I ended my previously visit to Zimbabwe, in early 2007, it was with a very heavy heart. The economy was very steadily declining and the tensions between the rival political parties escalating. That state of affairs had been on-going for close to 10 years. There was a widespread sense that the country was still going down, with no one able to guess when we would hit bottom or how bad things would be then. I left home then worried and depressed.

My feelings were quite different this time. There remain many political and economic problems but there is now a widespread feeling that the worst is behind the country. There is not the same feeling of widespread political dread and economic desperation, even though things are far from easy or back to any definition of ‘normal.’  Everybody grumbles about how high the cost of living still is, but unlike before, prices are stable and in many cases even declining, and goods are widely available, which is a very different scenario from early 2007!

I found widespread relief at the existence of the inclusive government of the major political parties, and I thought that most people were generally much less passionately partisan than I remembered. I also think cynicism about all politicians was higher and more widespread than before, which may be a good sign!

The last ten years or so have been a lost decade for Zimbabwe in many ways. And there is no guarantee that the beginnings of stabilization that are being experienced will take hold or that the country will organize itself to get close to meeting its great potential. The possibility of the political parties going back to the bitter fighting that has contributed so greatly to Zimbabwe’s misery remains very real. But when I left Harare in early September after a month at home, for the first time in many years I felt the stirrings of hope about the country’s prospects.

Posted in business, Economy, People | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Zimbabwe’s continuing land contestation and the symbolisms of ex-farmer Roy Bennett’s legal troubles

Posted by CM on February 15, 2009

So Roy Bennet, MDC ‘treasurer general’ and deputy agriculture minister-designate in the new unity government has been arrested. First a standing treason charge that kept him in exile in South Africa for three years was revived. Many Zimbabwe opposition politicians over the years have dubiously been charged with treason, with the charges almost always then failing to stand up in court.

Then awkwardly, the treason charge was suddenly dropped and replaced with a charge of ‘terrorism.’ Whatever the charges preferred against Bennett, it remains to be seen what sort of evidence will be presented. But it is widely considered that the charges are false and little more than harassment...read full article

 

Posted in Agriculture, People | 1 Comment »

High court judge fights president’s wife for farm!

Posted by CM on February 4, 2009

Oh boy, if this reportedly brewing legal confrontation is ever allowed to see the light of day, it will surely be an epic battle.

Ruthless dictator’s wife sees a farm she likes, makes the usual moves on it (she has done this before), reportedly eying it for her son. Slight complication: farm owner is not someone who can be characterised in the racial-ideological terms of the times, but is actually a judge of the high court appointed to it by the marauding woman’s own husband, the country’s sitting despot!

Here is the story so far:

HARARE, Zimbabwe (CNN) — A Zimbabwe High Court judge is trying to take the country’s first lady to court, accusing her of using political muscle to wrest from him a farm he was given during the land seizures.

The matter has not been given a date, however, amid reports that other judges have been refusing to hear it.

High Court Judge Ben Hlatshwayo is suing a company owned by Grace Mugabe, wife of President Robert Mugabe, for grabbing Gwina Farm in Banket, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) northwest of Harare. The farm is near Mugabe’s rural home.

The judge said he acquired the farm in December 2002 as part of President Mugabe’s controversial land grabs, in which Mugabe took land from white commercial farmers and distributed it to black Zimbabweans.

In an affidavit, filed at the High Court in Harare, the judge said the “unlawful conduct” by Grace Mugabe’s company, Gushungo Holdings, amounted to spoilation — or taking of the farm by force.

He said emissaries of the first lady have been visiting the farm frequently and issuing instructions to workers, according to court documents.

“There is clearly no lawful basis for such interference, which conduct, by its very nature, amounts to spoliation,” Hlatshwayo wrote in the papers.

Lands and Resettlement Minister Didymus Mutasa said the judge had been given alternative land as compensation for the farm that Grace Mugabe wants to have. Mutasa opposes the judge’s affidavit.

Hlatshwayo said he had been operating his farm in “quiet, undisturbed, peaceful possession, occupation and production” since it was allocated to him.

(http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/africa/02/04/zimbabwe.mugabe/index.html)

Oh boy, oh boy, what a can of worms we are opening up here! Phew, where  does one even start?!

The woman has notoriously muscled other people off their farm before. This latest move would confirm her as a “multiple farm owner,” which her husband has repeatedly said was un-acceptable greed and which he has claimed his widely-condemned land reform effort was partly meant to correct. Hypocrisy!

Is this the state of land tenure in Zimbabwe today? Can some person see a piece of land s/he likes, walk over to it, order the occupier off and take it over on a whim because she is the spouse of the president or some other official? Is this how things now officially “work” in Zimbabwe in regards to land tenure? Is this a sign of the ‘achievements’ of the land ‘revolution?’

Why should anyone, Zimbabwean or foreigner, make any serious investment in farming (or really anything else) with this shocking example of insecurity of land tenure?

As for the judge in question here, he got his farm in similar circumstances to those under which he risks losing it, an almost poetic kind of justice. He can justly claim that in his case the previous white owner lost it (and he gained it) under a broad, deliberate and now legalised government thrust to settle Zimbabwe’s long-festering ‘land question,’ but for a high court judge, that seems a rather thin argument.

Zimbabwe’s judges are considered hopelessly compromised by the system of patronage Mugabe has perfected in his time in power. A the economy has contracted and become more dysfunctional every year, being a member of the favoured elite has been an important survival strategy. One is entitled to perks one would simply not be able to otherwise access or afford:free or subsidised fuel, a fine house, one or more new vehicles every few years and for the super-elite, a farm to play around with during one’s spare time.

But there is a cost for being in this elite circle: You do as you are told and you don’t make waves. You also understand that you are not ‘entitled’ to anything. Everything you have is by the favour and generosity of His Excellency.

So when H.E. wants you to move to make way for his wife, you don’t ask questions, you move. And you especially don’t attempt to fight her in the courts! Are you crazy?

All these years the Mugabe-appointed judges have been accused of being thoroughly compromised by the many ‘perks’ that have come their way, such as farms.  And indeed, there have been very few politically-sensitive cases which have not been ruled in the government’s favour in recent years, if they come to court at all (delaying the hearing of sensitive and unwinnable cases forever being another oft-used tactic.)

And this judge seriously expects that his colleagues in such a judiciary would ever contemplate touching this red-hot case with a ten foot pole, let alone rule in his favour? Dream on!

Now that the bare facts have come to light, with the about-to-be dispossessed judge clearly and unwisely showing his unhappiness at what is about to happen, his misery is just about to begin. His first mistake was not to immediately surrender the farm to Grace, grinning broadly and sheepishly volunteering, “Abuse me any way you want madame.” This is what he would have been expected to do, and I have no doubt that most of his colleagues are shaking their heads in disbelief at how he has refused to play by the un-written but clearly understood rules of patronage. After all in this case he was offered the consolation price of another (read  “much less attractive”) farm! It wasn’t as if he was going to be put out on the street.

Now that he has made the mistake of crossing this line by merely expressing unhappiness about his pending dispossession, I predict the poor judge is doomed. Can he keep his job? No; more fundamentally and importantly, can the poor chap survive, can he live?

Stay tuned for the next commentary on this exciting developing story of what happens when a monster starts to feed on itself.

Posted in People, Politics | 1 Comment »

Levy Mwanawasa, R.I.P.

Posted by CM on August 20, 2008

By the low standards of rulership we have unfortunately had to get accustomed to in Africa, Zambia’s just-deceased president Levy Mwanawasa was a cut above the norm.

Whatever his faults, he seemed a genuine ‘man of the people’ in a way we no longer even expect anymore. He was down to earth, he spoke plainly, one could imagine sharing a drink and jokes with him in a way it is difficult to do with most of the continent’s stiff, self-important despots.

Morgan Tsvangirai was quick to do the right thing and issue a statement of condolence immediately after news of Mwanawasa’s death. There is a level on which this is not surprising given the late president’s expressed sympathy for how Zimbabwe’s opposition has been abused by Mugabe, and Mwanawasa’s abortive attempts to help to mediate the political impasse in his neighbouring country, incurring Mugabe’s wrath in the process. Mwanawasa’s description of Zimbabwe as “a sinking ship” would not have endeared him to Mugabe, and there were the usual hints of his (Mwanawasa) being in the employ of a Western conspiracy against the ‘revolution’ in Zimbabwe.

Despite what must have been bad blood between Mugabe and Mwanawasa, it is still shocking that Zimbabwe’s despot has not had the good grace to personally express his condolences to the people of Zambia on Mwanawasa’s death. It is not good enough for the first and so far  (more than 24 hours after the announcement of the death) only statement from the Zimbabwean government to be one by the minister of information somewhat unconvincingly calling it, “a real tragedy for the entire continent.’ Surely such a sentiment needed to come from the head of state, no matter how disputed Mugabe’s holding of that title currently is.

Sikhanyiso Ndlovu’s statement that, “Mugabe will issue a statement later Tuesday after a weekly cabinet meeting” only worsened the impression of callous indifference by Zimbabwe’s despot at the passing of a colleague who rightly was alarmed at the events in his neighbour to the south. It gave the impression of a Mugabe who was ‘too busy’ to immediately say something about the death, which is absurd. To add to the boorishness of the behaviour, no such statement was forthcoming “later Tuesday” from Mugabe

Mugabe probably did not have warm feelings towards Mwanawasa. Indeed, there was not even a perfunctory statement from him wishing the ailing Mwanawasa a speedy recovery after his recent stroke in Egypt. So perhaps it is entirely consistent of Mugabe to not now cry crocodile tears for a man he did not forgive for daring to criticise him, no matter how gently and obliquely. But Mugabe’s behaviour shows his smallness, his pettiness. It would have cost him nothing to say something, and would have shown him to be capable of rising above his personal feelings on the occasion of the death of a neighbouring head of state. More shame on Mugabe, although he seems incapable of feeling any.

African  presidents have often justifiably been accused of corrupting the essence of democracy in various ways. It is therefore ironic when those who most frequently point this finger then go on to write, “Mwanawasa did not groom a successor.” In a democracy individuals should come and go without the system collapsing. No matter how good somebody is, when he or she goes, no matter how unexpectedly, the laid down process of succession should be able to produce a successor from among the political ranks.

That is what is going to happen in Zambia as various politicians fight it out for the top job in the elelction to be held in the next 90 days, as is stipulated by the country’s constitution in the event of a sudden vacancy of the office of president such as has just happened. And that is how it should be.

Amongst MWanawasa’s achievements are being cited his fight against corruption, including calling his mentor and predecessor Frederick Chiluba to account fr his thieving ways in a manner that is quite unprecedented. He got debt relief which allowed Zambia to use more of itsforex earnings on “development” than on paying off debts. He managed to keep good relations with both the West and China at a time when some Westerners alarmed at the loss of influence over “their” Africans seem to suggest Africa must choose one ‘side’ or the other.

But as some astute African observers have pointed out, for some in the West, and particularly Britain, all of Mwanawasa’s achievements on behalf of his own country pale in comparison to his role as the good African who criticised the bad African Mugabe!

That obsession with categorising Africans on the basis of such crude boxes not only cheapens Mwanawasa’s legacy, it is an attitude that also illustrates why despite the aid and attention lately lavished on Africa by the West, much of Africa is so disillusioned by the whole tone of its relationship with that West. In Africa, the West seems to have very little idea how to win friends and influence people. Perhaps this is partly why they are being beaten at their own game by the Chinese.

Mwanawasa represented the beginnings of southern Africa’s move away from being beholden to liberation-era ‘founding fathers,’ as if we were slaves who owed something to new masters.

Levy Mwanawasa, may you rest in peace.

Posted in People | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Rat meat was sign of crisis in Zimbabwe, dog meat in Uganda isn’t

Posted by CM on August 5, 2008

Disgraced former CNN journalist, the bombastic Jeff Koinange, caused an uproar amongst Zimbabweans worldwide when he reported in December 2006 that because of The Zimbabwe Crisis, they were resorting to eating rat meat instead of preferred beef or chicken.

There was a torrent of indignant protest. Many denied that this is a normal or widespread practice, and it was pointed out that in Zimbabwe eating rat meat would have a strong cultural taboo attached to it. Some conceded that mice, not rats, were a delicacy in some local communities and that this was no different from other ‘strange’ culinary habits, such as the French love of snails or the proclivity for dog or snake meat in parts of Asia. This was all lost in the heat of the acrimony, however, the implication being the sensitive Zimbabweans were simply in denial about the level of deprivation in their country.

In any case, the attempt to differentiate makonzo, rats, from the more benignly-considered mbeva, mice, would probably not have impressed CNN. The essential point of the article was that the oppressed Zimbabweans had been so reduced in material status by Mugabe, The Latest Great Western Satan, that they had to scrounge around for rodents for meat protein, whether that was mouse or rat.

Many Zimbabweans considered the story as typical of the distortions to be expected of Western media such as the banned-from-Zimbabwe-CNN. Some speculated that the story was the US network’s way of getting back at the Mugabe government in particular, and the country in general, in retaliation for its banning.

The BBC has a story about the furore in Uganda over two men who were caught selling dog meat as goat flesh. The article says,

Dog meat is not eaten in Uganda and the subject has dominated radio discussion programmes.

Hundreds of people went to the police station where the suspects were being held to express their anger, Uganda’s state-run New Vision paper reports.

One of the suspects told the paper he had not intended to sell the meat. “This is my home dog which I have been rearing. I killed it on demand of my spirits who directed me to offer its body parts to them,” he was quoted as saying.

The men were caught with the carcass of the dog, which had had its head and tail cut off.

It is possible that the Ugandan men (or the ‘spirits’ one of them alleges ordered the dog meat) in question here simply preferred dog-meat to more conventional types. Maybe eating the dog was a fall-back position to his not being able to afford more conventional meats. Maybe a lot of different things, all of which could have also applied to the Zimbabwean Koinange found frying rodent meat, which the then CNN correspondent portrayed as a now common practice that was a sign of the economic times in Zimbabwe.

The point? The remarkable spin a lot of the ‘international media’ puts on everyday events in Zimbabwe whose explanation is not necessarily any different from similar events in any other part of the world.

Posted in People | 1 Comment »

Christina Lamb “explains” Africa to her British readers

Posted by CM on March 23, 2008

by Chido Makunike

Christina Lamb, a British journalist, has carved out a niche for herself as some sort of “Zimbabwe expert,”  supposedly brilliantly able to explain the intricacies of “the Zimbabwe crisis” to her fellow Britons and Westerners.

It has not been hard for her to do, as Western readers seem to like to have puzzling-to-them Africa “explained” to them by one of their own, rather than actually listen to what the Africans have to say about their own reality.

Lamb cemented her image as Africa-expert/explainer-to-the-British with her book ‘Zimbabwe, House of Stone.’ The publisher’s online blurb describes it as a “powerful narrative (which ) traces the brutal Rhodesian civil war and the hope then despair of the Mugabe years, through the lives of two people she met who find themselves on opposing sides.” It chronicles the perspectives of a white farmer besieged by war veterans at the height of the farm takeovers in 2002, as well as that of one of his African employees.

I may come back to the book another time, but for now, Ms. Lamb has written an article for the Sunday Times (UK) about Mike Campbell, a white farmer who has been fighting attempts by the Mugabe regime to take over and evict him from his Zimbabwean farm at the SADC Tribunal, based in Namibia. The tribunal was set up in April 2007 as part of  a peer review mechanism within SADC. It aims to ensure that the objectives of the SADC Treaty to which Zimbabwe is a signatory, such as human rights and property rights, are upheld.

I have a lot of trouble with Ms. Lamb’s writings on Zimbabwe, as I do with those of many other British writers. She tries, particularly in her book, to be careful to treat the racial and historical aspects of what has brought Zimbabwe’s to its present pass with objectivity. But to me, her understandable sympathies for the white farmers and revulsion for Robert Mugabe stick out like a sore thumb that makes much of her work, including the present article, an expose of white feeling about Zimbabwe/Africa as much as it claims to be just attempting to tell us about the genesis of “the problem.”

There is no sin in this. Similarly, much of black/African sentiment to “the Zimbabwe issue” is also informed by racial/political feelings that go deep into the past.

Coming back to Lamb, the kinship that she so clearly displays with the white farmers makes her, for me, an opinionist more than a journalist just relating what is going on. For many blacks all over the world the symbolism that “Zimbabwe” represents is far more complicated than just the issues of economic decline or political repression. Likewise for some white people, especially of British extraction, “Zimbabwe” has another set of racial, political and historical symbolisms. The contrasting symbolisms are not monolithic for either group, and obviously there are some white and black people who see and interpret the wide array of symbolisms “Zimbabwe” represents in similar ways.

I have long maintained that writers like Lamb and much of the British media have become so emotional about “Zimbabwe” that much of their reportage is more post-colonial catharsis than it is just reporting about a country in deep distress. This is not only because of the colonial link between Britain and Zimbabwe, but because of the presence of a continuing, though now very small, white “community” there, and also because of how Mugabe has so consistently, mercilessly hurled British “sins” in their faces.

Mugabe has long sunk into an ugly despot, but a lot of what he says about Britain and its colonial role resonates with Africans everywhere. It just as strongly discomforts the British. All this influences the many disparate and inflamed emotions over the symbolic “Zimbabwe.”

For supporters of Zimbabwe, particularly for many Africans/blacks outside Zimbabwe, this means a “Mugabe is right” posture that transcends the mess he has caused to become of the country he rules. To others, and I would argue that people like Lamb fall into this group, the sting of Mugabe’s utterances, coupled with his repression and the economic ruin he has visited on Zimbabwe, gives them a way to subtly make statements about deeply held negative feelings about Africa and the Africans under the guise of “we are so concerned for their oppression and penury.”

In the short Sunday Times article  in question (Zimbabwe: white farmer Mike Campbell mounts last stand over land grab), Lamb paints Campbell in heroic terms while the Africans, not just Mugabe, are the traditional bad guys in a quite classic way that has become typical of much of the British press.

This is not at all to say that Campbell has not been subjected to shabby, unjust treatment by a Mugabe regime that selectively, cynically interprets and applies its own laws to ride roughshod over anyone standing in its way.

In going so over the top in portraying Campbell as a “white knight” and the natives as evil, shifty characters of low moral worth (obviously Lamb does not say so; this is my own interpretation based on reading her book, whose style is very much reflected in this latest Sunday Times article by her), she simplifies and distorts the complicated reality of the long black-white conflict of Rhodesia and Zimbabwe. She does so in a way I suspect is appealing to much of her readership. But what this pleasingly skewed reportage does is also to leave them with a distorted, limited understanding of the complicated, still evolving African reaction to the whole experience of British colonialism.

Lamb tells us of the trauma of the farm invasions of the early 2000s by the experiences of the Campbell’s horse, Ginger, who was so frightened that “she has followed Campbell’s wife Angela everywhere since she was attacked by Mugabe’s war veterans. ”

I am not in a position to doubt the trauma that Lamb says Ginger suffered at the hands of the purpoted war veterans, nor is it my point to want to do so. My point is that we are being set up by Lamb to understand just what nasty, nefarious characters these war veterans must have been. Imagine ow evil must be a group of people who would so scare the wits out of a nice, sensitive horse sweetly named “Ginger!” It is quite clear that what we are being told at some level is a group of cruel, vicious natives with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. “No wonder the country is such a mess,” is just one of the messages behind the words, unintentionally or otherwise.

This possibly subliminal, un-nuanced but not at all uncommon portrayal of the African is a far more powerful message than the mere recitation of facts. Just as Africans like me recoil at this historical Western stereotyping of our humanity by the likes of Lamb and The Times, The Telegraph and publications of that ilk, I am sure there are many Westerners to whom this stereotypical “reporting” appeals because that is how they see Africa and the Africans. On a certain level Lamb is merely providing modern-day fodder for what the West believes it “knows” about Africa and the African.

But if it is a comforting re-assertion of Western stereotypes, it leaves the really inquisitive non-African reader non the wiser about the complicated, sometimes contradictory reality of African feeling towards the continent’s experiences with the West. It leaves the target audience perhaps somewhat smug about their prejudices towards “those puzzling natives” but with their understanding of them no deeper, and perhaps more twisted and confused than before.

We are told about the skull of a young giraffe that caught its head in a snare. Campbell’s “British son in law Ben Freeth” explains how the skull grew around the wire, eventually cutting into the brain and killing the giraffe. “To me, this symbolises what has happened over the last eight years here – the slow strangulation of everything,” Lamb quotes Freeth as saying. The mention of Freeth’s being a Briton automatically makes the British/Western reader sympathise with whatever the writer is going to relate about his experiences in deep, dark Africa at the hands of the natives. And hearing the “reasoned” voice of a Briton lends an extra authenticity to whatever he says, and to Lamb’s account to her British readers, unlike the utterances of those unreliable, irrational , possibly even pro-Mugabe natives!

I do not disagree with Freeth’s poetically presented description of what Mugabe has wrought in Zimbabwe. What causes me discomfort and suspicion is how that is consistently used to cast pre-land upheavals Zimbabwe as an idyllic country of blameless, hard working white heroes like the Campbells. Again, this is not to question that they are hard working or perhaps even heroic in one way or another. I don’t know them. It is, instead, to say that British writers like Lamb ever so subtly juxtapose positive and negative racial stereotypes in such a way that the whole weight of a long complicated history of inter-racial mistrust and violence that explains the group feelings of whites and blacks about themselves and each other is dispensed with.

To the non-Zimbabwean, non-African reader of narratives like Lamb’s, the stage has been set for them to see the symbolic “Zimbabwe” in its complexity reduced to good, hard working and peaceful white versus shifty, lazy, violent native, a massive distortion of the historical record. Once this mental, psychological stage has been set, the native just can’t win, and all the subsequent details of whatever the particular article is about merely confirms what a loser that native is. And Mugabe serves as the perfect villain to confirm this because of his excesses, not just against the whites, but even against the very people he claims to love so much that he wants to “empower.”

Particularly for observers like Lamb, it becomes very difficult to separate antipathy towards Mugabe from the appeal of much of his message to many Africans. That appeal is only strengthened by the slant of the writings of people like Lamb. Instead of explaining “Mugabe may be a cruel despot but this is why parts of his message have such appeal to many Africans,” Lamb and much of the British press have conveniently simplified things to “Mugabe is a cruel despot so everything associated with official Zimbabwe is bad/negative/wrong/invalid.” They go further to then paint his opponents, and particularly the white farmers, as the therefore all-good opposite of Mugabe.

Certainly neat and simple, but also wrong and misleading. Lamb’s Western readers do not know enough about the history, the present it has wrought or the resulting African sentiment to see and question her on the simplicity of her accounts. And as said before, they are not inclined to doubt the depth and veracity of her accounts when they serve to entrench long-held Western stereotypes about the African.

African protests at reportage like Lamb’s can easily be dismissed as the normal complaining of the natives, who are to be studied but cannot be relied on to express their own narratives or explanations. That is best done by Western “Africa experts” like Lamb.

Lamb tells us how Campbell “admits he would not be able to carry on without the support of his family and their strong Christian faith.” No doubt true, and very touching. Call me overly cynical, but here is invoked the Western imagery of the decent, brave and “civilising” missionary out to do good amongst the unruly natives. The subliminal message here goes far deeper than that of a journalist who is merely telling her readers about a farmer attempting to legally defend his interests against a repressive regime.

What these consistent subliminal messages from much of the British media about “the Zimbabwe crisis” serve to do is make me immediately suspicious of their accounts, fairly or unfairly.

The most absurd example of “white-good, African-bad” subliminal messaging in Lamb’s article? The almost comical, “The war vets who took over  Bruce’s (Campbell’s son) farm brought cerebral malaria into the valley, killing 11 workers.”

How on earth could Lamb epidemiologically back up such a claim? And if she can, such an assertion would surely demand that she cite some sort of proof of it. But no, it is not necessary: having already been conditioned to understand what nasty characters the war veterans are, we are not expected to be surprised by or question how these bad guys could be proven to be the source of the malaria that killed the workers of the hero of the piece! Besides, being agents of the hated Mugabe, obviously the war veterans would have been quite up to “bringing” the cerebral malaria that not only wiped out a chunk of Campbell’s work force, but that also “killed Bruce’s wife Heidi (who) was four months pregnant with twins, leaving him a single parent to their five-year-old daughter. ”

Now of course the deaths were tragic, whatever the source of the cerebral malaria. My point here is that Lamb has long gone beyond merely telling the story of Campbell’s court challenge of the attempts to expropriate his farm. Ms. Lamb is in completely different territory now, where she is subliminally (consciously or otherwise on her part) telling the reader other racial narratives.

None of this necessarily suggests that Lamb is a cynical writer with some purposefully diabolical anti-African agenda. It is merely to suggest that in staring into the pool of “the Zimbabwe story,” she is no longer an objective observer/explainer. She has been sucked into the pool and reports from a jaundiced viewpoint, based perhaps  on her own background, just as many defenders of Mugabe view and report the story from other non-objective viewpoints.

Lamb’s work represents tragically horrible stereotypes that distort all the characters of “the Zimbabwe crisis,” both the natives as well as the white farmers whose understandable sympathy for informs so much of her work. Rather than making Zimbabwe any clearer to her readers, she instead caricatures its people and their tortured history and present.

Posted in Agriculture, Economy, People, Politics | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Gideon Gono’s star starting to fade

Posted by CM on December 30, 2007

by Chido Makunike

The last few weeks have not been good for Gideon Gono, governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.

Gono featuredly prominently at the ZANU-PF congress at which President Mugabe somehow arranged yet another ruling party endorsement as its sole candidate in the elections scheduled for March 2008. We saw images of Gono grinning broadly, seemingly basking in the glow of Mugabe’s approval. He got tongues wagging with a tough speech in which he accused un-named high ranking government officials of being behind many of the nefarious “black market” activities that led to phenomena like the current perplexing shortage of Zim dollar currency notes.

Gono has never made secret of his personal closeness to Mugabe, which reports have traced to his being the president’s banker, dating from the days when Gono was chief executive of the Commercial Bank of Zimbabwe. Gono parlayed his revival of that once floundering bank back into solvency into a reputation as a “turn around expert.” It is that image he carefully cultivated over some years that eventually landed him the RBZ top job with much fanfare in 2003.

His closeness to Mugabe made him automatically an object of suspicion to many. But others hoped that he could use it to make Mugabe “see sense” about measures needed to right the economy’s many wrongs in a way the president light not have been prepared to do with previous economic advisors.

There was a circus around Gono’s taking on the job of central banker. The media was roped into hailing him as a conquering hero who had come to slay the dragon of high inflation, the country’s then first experience of local currency shortages and all manner of other economic ills.

If the media seemed to adore him, he clearly loved the media attention just as much. His “monetary review statements” were broadcast live, and his every word was treated as gospel. In the Gono-euphoria that erupted, cautions that the country’s deepening economic problems could not be separated from governance, political and diplomatic issues were swept aside. Gono promised to “turn around” the economy in short order, confidently making inflation-lowering and other targets which the country has come nowhere near to achieving, and vowing “failure is not an option.”

Four years after all the hype surrounding his appointment and all the high hopes in his tenure by many, the December 23 2007 main headline in the Zimbabwe Standard was a harsh summation of how far Gono has fallen in public esteem. It screamed, “Gono labelled ‘No. 1 saboteur.’

Citing the thousands of Zimbabweans who had to spend the end of year holiday season in long queues for cash from their bank accounts, the story quoted Elton Mangoma, an opposition party official, as saying, “Gono is clearly the biggest saboteur of Zimbabwe’s economy. He is simply playing politics with a serious national crisis that needs immediate attention from a central bank governor who takes the people’s suffering seriously.”

The MDC, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and economists, all said the cash crisis was ample evidence that the RBZ had failed in its mandate to provide liquidity, the story continued. The critics said it was “very cruel” of Gono to plunge the ordinary people into the crisis in a miscalculated move “to fix” people whose identity he knew.

Critics said blaming cash barons was a diversionary tactic designed to mask the incompetence of the central bank. “There is no money from the so-called barons because if the money was there, the parallel market would be booming,” said Dr Daniel Ndlela, head of an economic consultancy firm. “This fellow (Gono) is not only heartless, but he does not understand who he is punishing. The people in the queues are not barons.”

The Standard’s story continued:

Mangoma added: “The people are not failing to access their cash because of the cash barons but because of Gono’s policies which have eroded people’s confidence in the banking system in this country. No reasonable person would put their money into a bank when they know they will fail to access it the following day.”

Ndlela said Zimbabweans could be in for more suffering “as long as we have a poet” for a central banker. “He has totally failed. If he had a bit of professionalism and dignity he should have resigned a long time ago,” he said.

This is unprecedented harsh public criticism for Gono. Until recently, he had somehow been able to straddle the awkward twin roles of being an intimate insider of a floundering, unpopular government and yet also able to cast himself as a “man of the people” folk hero. That bubble seems to have burst in a way that some cynics may say was inevitable.

Defending himself in The Herald in an interview which was gently but still unusually critical in the tone of the questions asked by the state’s primary propaganda newspaper, Gono said “The cash shortages that we see are a mere symptom of much deeper and greater fundamental misalignments in our economy than the ability or inability of the central bank to provide adequate cash.” In this regard, it was unfortunate that all the blame had been heaped on RBZ, the newspaper quoted Gono as saying.

Went on Gono in the interview, “We are back to economic fundamentals which we must tackle head on… It’s about sanctions whose debilitating effects on the economy and on the ordinary lives of our people must be a matter for which we must all speak with one voice as Zimbabweans to see that these sanctions are lifted. It’s about the productivity of … every form of economic activity in the country. We must raise the bar of productivity to underpin our commercial transactions.”

“It’s also about economic and pricing distortions, which we must deal with decisively. It’s about economic patriotism. It’s about discipline. It’s about building a corrupt-free economy. It’s about international relations. So don’t take a simplistic view of the queues and simplistically place 100 percent responsibility on the central bank or the Governor, however easily tempting or fashionable it might be.”

“That’s my interpretation of the cash queue. In the absence of a disciplined approach to our economic affairs, to corruption, hard work and economic patriotism, the winter of discontent with cash queues will not go away. “

Everything Gono says here is true, of course. But it was all just as true four years ago when he somewhat over-confidently boasted “failure is not an option” amidst warnings that the country’s problems were deeper than could be addressed by monetary measures. For instance, the lifting of sanctions and issues of international relations are beyond the purview of Gono and the RBZ. Yet they are critical components to Zimbabwe’s economic fortunes, and to Gono’s own success as RBZ governor.

All these points had been repeatedly made by many long before Gono came onto the scene as central banker. Some who had made similar points to those Gono is now making were accused of being traitors to the country and forced to resign their positions for publicly stating unpalatable truths. The hope had been that Gono’s reputation as a “favoured son” who enjoyed the particular attention of Mugabe’s ear would give him more leverage than others before him had.

While Gono has clearly been the most powerful central banker yet, with unprecedented latitude to try all sorts of economic experiments, he has met the ultimate brick wall: that there will be no solution to the country’s hyper-inflation or its cash, fuel and other shortages without going back to production, diplomatic, political and other basics which the ruling authorities have shown no inclination to do over the years.

In a way Gono is a victim of his own initial hype and over-promising of what he could achieve in the prevailing political environment. In taking the RBZ job, he gambled that he could influence Mugabe and the politicians to take measures they had resisted before, or alternatively, that he could use his wide-ranging powers to bring about economic improvements even without reform of the rest of the system of governance. The increasing criticism from all sectors of the media and the public suggests many people believe that he has lost his gamble.

Without giving details, in the Herald interview he promises to solve the immediate cash problems in the next several days. But this would seem to contradict his point in the same interview about how the cash queues will not go away without the country addressing a comprehensive raft of other issues than just how much currency the RBZ releases into circulation. Certainly his credibility is at its lowest ebb, even if he still enjoys the fickle Mugabe’s support, which I am not sure anyone knows for certain.

So what next for Gono?

Hyperinflation and the Zim dollar’s depreciation continue unabated, so two major reasons for the current cash shortage will still be in place no matter what he does to assuage the public’s anger about the shortages. The low farming/industrial productivity and international diplomatic isolation issues will likely continue for all sorts of reasons that are way beyond Gono’s ability to do anything about.

With his repeated “failure is not an option” mantra, resignation is not an easy option. I wonder if it is even an option available to him at all. In return for his unprecedented power, prominence and latitude of action as RBZ governor, he may have had to make personal concessions which may not make it possible for him to walk away unless Mugabe now wishes him to go. He may be too deep into the system as the author of many unorthodox interventions to attempt to stop the economy’s slide in the last four years that being seen to abandon the Mugabe ship would not be looked at kindly at all!

Could Mugabe, on reading the public mood of rising disaffection with Gono, be ready to sack him, in a way giving Gono the easiest way out of a continually sinking ship?

This is not unthinkable for a crafty Mugabe who is a master at finding and nailing scapegoats for problems that are ultimately his responsibility. But it is probably unlikely.

Whatever his faults, Gono has indeed worked very hard at a series of unconventional interventions to try to tame Zimbabwe’s economic melt down. Gono has also very carefully always made a sometimes almost slavish loyalty to Mugabe clear.

Unless Mugabe is now ready to go “conventional” in regards to economic management and international relations, he needs someone like Gono who is tireless at trying unconventional measures, no matter how half-baked some of them may be. In an economic environment even worse than when Gono became RBZ governor, it is hard to imagine Mugabe finding anyone as bold and hard-working at trying new things as Gono has proven himself to be. A more conventional economist at the RBZ would recommend to Mugabe the same conventional political and economic measures that Mugabe has found so unpalatable over the years.

Gono will therefore likely continue at the helm of the RBZ and the economy beyond his current term, but with no more illusions on anyone’s part of a dramatic “economic turnaround” on the horizon. Out of frustration at having failed to achieve it, as well as having lost the public and media adulation he wants enjoyed, he may become an increasingly bitter and capricious economic tsar. In the manner of his boss Mugabe in the political sphere, Gono may continue to be “in power” to issue warnings, threats and decrees to various sectors of the economy, but make little difference to the country’s economic slide.

Gono as RBZ governor rose to dizzy heights in public affection on the alluring but dangerous, fleeting back of a masterfully conducted public relations campaign and charm offensive. The only way to have kept that unrealistic momentum was for him to have then produced the kind of economic results which were not possible under an environment in which his boss continued to make statements and decisions that neutralised Gono’s efforts.

Those decisions are often influenced more by short-term populism and patronage considerations than what is in the best interests of the country. And so farms and implements are given to the political elite than to those best able to use them, with the attendant results on productivity, and ultimately, on inflation and the value of the Zim dollar. It is a waste of time to deal with the economic symptoms without addressing the political root causes.

Ditto for the current cash crisis. It is a waste of time to scapegoat a “cash baroness” who is simply a messenger of well connected and protected political players who are the real black marketeers. Gono says he knows most of them, but appears not to want to rock the political boat by naming them. That may be understandable, but the point is that being politically hamstrung like this makes nonsense of his economic efforts, dooming them to failure. Apart from nailing even the highly placed politicians and others who are “fueling” the black market, there is also the fact that only measures that make such a black market un-necessary will eliminate the problem, even if those measures go against Mugabe’s own brand of ideological orthodoxy.

Gono continues to run from pillar to post, trying this and that cosmetic measure to deal with the symptoms of deeper problems he increasingly shows signs of accepting are beyond the ambit of the RBZ to address. The carefully scripted story of his dramatic professional and public-image rise make for gripping melodrama, but his current floundering is also sadly predictable and depressing given the unchangingly negative political environment in which he chose to try to make a lasting positive impact as RBZ governor.

                               
 

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Naming and shaming Zimbabwe’s alleged top crooks

Posted by CM on December 19, 2007

The Zimbabwe Today blog has an interesting story titled “Zim Mafia.”

Excerpts:

Most of us here in Zimbabwe live in, or on the verge of, bitter poverty. But there are … those who don’t struggle … who glide over our potholes in Mercedes comfort, who live in elegant homes tended by armies of servants, who feed themselves from well-stocked freezers, and who comfort themselves in times of stress by reciting the numbers of their Swiss bank accounts.

… the Zim Mafia… are members of a special clique – all of them politicians and officials from our ruling Zanu-PF party – who take advantage of their positions of power to rake in millions of US dollars.

The article then proceeds with a ” far-from-comprehensive run-down on the graft, corruption, double-dealing and sheer theft that is the mark of our rulers…”

A lot of the personalities named have featured prominently in allegations of all sorts of business deals that are said to be shady. The majority of Zimbabweans, disillusioned and depressed about affairs in their country, will have no trouble believing the allegations made. Beyond that it is very difficult to tell the veracity or otherwise of the allegations, though they make for salacious reading.

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Zimbabwean writer wins 2007 Excellence in New Communications Award

Posted by CM on December 3, 2007

Chido Makunike, an online writer and Web entrepreneur from Zimbabwe working in Senegal, has been awarded the 2007 Excellence in New Communications Award by the Society for New Communications Research (SNCR.)

Makunike won the award for innovative use of Information Communications Technology (ICT) and the World Wide Web. He is the creator and administrator of two online publications, the African Agriculture Blog and the Trade Africa Blog. Each features regularly updated news, perspectives and analysis aggregated from across Africa on agricultural and trade issues respectively.

The Society for New Communications Research is a nonprofit global think tank dedicated to the study of new media and emerging trends in communications. It is based in Palo Alto, California. The SNCR Awards of Excellence in New Communications recognize innovative individuals, corporations and media outlets that are pioneering the use of ICT, mobile media, online communities, virtual worlds and collaborative technologies.

In a statement, the SNCR said Makunike was one of “five outstanding individuals” whose work will be honoured on December 5th at the 2nd Annual “Excellence in New Communications Awards” Gala at the Colonnade Hotel in Boston, Mass. Other award winners are Francois Gossieaux and Hylton Joliffe of MarketHum and sister company Corante; corporate blogging pioneer Mike Dillon, general counsel and executive vice president of Sun Microsystems Inc.; educator and new media researcher Dr. Craig E. Carroll of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina.

Responding to news of the award, Makunike said, “I am greatly honoured to receive this recognition for my work from the SNCR. I thank those who nominated me for the award, and the SNCR for selecting me. A constant rock of love and support has been my family in Zimbabwe. I will also always be grateful for the wonderful hospitality of my host country Senegal, and the support of countless new colleagues and friends here to make the work that has resulted in this award possible.”

Makunike continued, “Africa is often thought to have been left behind by the digital technology revolution. But this award shows that from within Africa, it is possible to harness the tremendous new opportunities it presents to produce targeted media products equal in quality to any in the rest of the world. The agriculture and trade websites have been created not just as sources of information on African agriculture and trade issues, but more importantly, to facilitate business within the continent, as well as between Africa and the rest of the world. I believe the SNCR Excellence in New Communications Award will significantly give a boost to these efforts. I also hope that it will give encouragement to many others in Africa to use the power of the Web as a far-reaching, cost-effective business and developmental tool.”

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On the passing of Ian Smith and Africa’s post-independence challenges

Posted by CM on November 25, 2007

Not at all surprisingly, a central theme of the many features on Ian Smith’s death has been comparisons between his time in power and the situation today under Robert Mugabe.

A New York Times report said, “Zimbabwe’s troubles only fed Mr. Smith’s unwavering white supremacist views, his unshakable belief that Africa without white rule would not work.”

Black Africans, Mr. Smith said, were not ready for self-government. He and his followers justified their repression by saying they were “resisting the chaos” of newly formed black nations.No African rule in my lifetime,” he said. “The white man is master of Rhodesia. He has built it, and he intends to keep it.”

Mr. Smith never apologized for leading the country into war and never came to terms with what he depicted as inevitable decline under black majority rule. “We gave Rhodesia 15 wonderful years extra.” he said in 1983. If he had not declared unilateral independence in 1965, he said, “then this sort of scene would have come earlier.”

Indeed, as Zimbabwe slid into corruption and decline under Mr. Mugabe, Mr. Smith sensed events had vindicated his refusal to dilute white dominance. “There are millions of black people who say things were better when I was in control,” he said in 2004. “I have challenged Mugabe to walk down the street with me and see who has most support. I have much better relations with black people than he does.”

And on Altermedia, which features “World wide news for people of European descent,” there is Zimbabwe: Racist whites wanted back in charge.

Excerpts:

…many ordinary black Zimbabweans wish that they could get back the white racist government that oppressed them in the 1970’s. “Life was easier then, and at least you could get food and a job,” said Solomon Dube.

Makupila Muzamba said that hunger today is worse than ever before in his seven decades or so, and said: “I want the white man’s government to come back. … Even if whites were oppressing us, we could get jobs and things were cheap compared to today.”

Firstly, it is an indication of how what is considered politically correct has so radically changed in recent years that the New York Times can lead a story with a reference to Smith’s “unshakable belief that Africa without white rule would not work.

There was a time when this would have been placed in a different, more subtle context than to appear to almost give open credence to such revisionism. That it is no longer considered controversial to start a story with a quote that will get lots of people upset is a sign of the attitudes emanating from the public and not so public discussions taking place about the general state of Africa.

On one hand this shows a welcome new open-ness about honestly tackling the issue of why Africa continues to fail to work for the general benefit of its people. On the other hand, an unspoken/unwritten but very much lurking addition to the line used by the Times’ summation of Smith’s philosophy about African majority rule is the implication that Africa “has not worked” principally because whites are no longer in charge.

Most people have their minds already made up about this thorny question. To those who think like Smith, it is obvious: Africa “does not work” because Africans now run the show! Nor is this thinking limited to African-despising racists, as quotes attributed to some Zimbabweans in despair about the country’s present condition show.

On the other side are the many who would give a litany of all the reasons they attribute to Africa “not working”: colonialism and its lingering effects, previous and present exploitation and so on. They rail in outrage at Smith’s bold assertion, now increasingly implied in many other circles, that the central problem is a basic deficiency in African ability and character.

Whatever one’s opinion, this has become a hot discussion topic because Africa has not lived up to the high hopes of majority rule. Those hopes, the time span given to them and what was required to bring them to fruition may have been unrealistic, but they are still the parameters by which African and non-African alike judge the continent’s performance in the post-independence era.

The doubts about basic African ability expressed by the likes of Smith, and by some Africans disillusioned with the post-independence era, will not go away until Africa steps up to the plate by providing its own models of successful countries. No amount of justification about the reasons for Africa’s state will do as much, or as effectively, to counter the thinking expressed by Smith than having many such models of African success.

This success need not be defined by Smith’s idea of workability. If there was broad agreement that Zimbabwe was clearly working today for the benefit of the majority of its people, rather than a small elite, it would not matter if it resembled or met the “standards” of Rhodesia. But what is more important and tragic is that by most indices of well-being, Zimbabwe is not functioning to the benefit of the ordinary people by what should be its own standards, let alone those of bygone Rhodesia.

The likes of Smith, as well as those who bitterly oppose his views, tend to focus on the visceral racial elements that excite a lot of emotion on all sides, but contribute nothing to solving Africa’s very real problems.

In examining “what has gone wrong,” particularly in a country with the promise of Zimbabwe, the fault is usually put on factors such as corruption and mismanagement, with those of Smith’s ilk going on to claim that these qualities are endemic to African character, and that therefore post-majority rule decline is inevitable. More recently the reasons for the country’s failure to thrive have been placed on everything from occasional drought to the current official mantra, “illegal Western sanctions.”

What is not discussed often enough is whether the many examples of post – majority rule decline were not also largely because the models that most African governments have tried to follow were simply inappropriate, and needed more and better kinds of modification than any country has so far successfully done. Trying to answer this question must surely be part of Africa’s learning from mistakes to try to find new ways forward.

Rhodesian society and economy were not just a result of the technocratic application of laws, technologies, rules and procedures to be merely copied by a new set of post-independence administrators. These were in turn merely the manifestations of a Western-based, Rhodesian-modified cultural framework built up over decades. That cultural framework is a whole mix of group influences that go much deeper than can be reduced to its elements, such as “how to run Rhodesian farming or industry.” So even if the desire had been to essentially continue “Rhodesia” under the name of Zimbabwe, with just white to black personnel changes, it could not have simply been a matter of things working as before by applying those same laws, technologies, rules and procedures. Just the fact that the personnel applying them came from a different social and cultural orientation would have made the result different, even if many other things ostensibly remained the same.

In the current realm of how the world is dominantly structured, there are many basic rules of how to successfully run a country that no nation can avoid mastering. But we have also seen that successful emerging countries are those that are able to find the right mix between learning and adhering to what have become the “rules” of the dominant world economic paradigm, and modifying them to their particular situations.

In Zimbabwe, and arguably in much of Africa, our early post-majority pride was not in finding our own successful middle ground between these “universal” rules and our unique situations, but in being seen to be copying the dominant reigning system “as is.” According to this model, the success of Zimbabwe was to be judged by how well we simply copied and continued Rhodesian systems of administration, technology, farming or whatever, but particularly of consumption. To people like Smith, as well as to many Africans in the early excitement of independence, this was a large part of what “maintaining standards” was all about.

But there was no reason to expect that “standards” that served a tiny, wealthy minority steeped in a Rhodesian-modified Western cultural framework would work un-adulterated in an African, non-Western social, cultural and political framework that was also required to serve a much larger group of not so wealthy people.

So there was the basic problem of running a new country with a once successful but no longer workable model. To that was added the problems of political cynicism, repression, corruption and all the others that have brought Zimbabwe to its present pass. But even if we were somehow able to miraculously get rid of these maladies today, we would still be faced with the fundamental issue of coming up with a model of successfully running Zimbabwe’s affairs that could not simply be a copy of the one that served Rhodesia’s peculiarities so well.

While a person like Ian Smith could not be expected to spend any time thinking about this, having already dismissed Africans as incapable of self-rule anyway, it is strange that the new African nations themselves paid scant attention to such a critical issue. The tragic result was that for many of the rulers, living in the presidential palace, being ferried to and fro in expensive cars and even the power to rigorously enforce colonial-era symbolisms were sufficient signs of “independence” than whether the country’s systems were benefiting the people or not. It was to put more emphasis on the forms of nationhood, and often embarrassingly inappropriate ones, than on the substance of whether the nation was structured to serve the people’s needs.

Africa’s inability to even seriously pose this question to itself may be a greater failing of the post-independence era than the usually focused-on issues of why pre-independence “standards” have not been maintained. All the effort at initially trying to run Zimbabwe exactly on a once-successful, but no longer applicable Rhodesian model meant little effort beyond the cosmetic was put into conceiving of a fundamentally new model.

As a result, the “standards” that were focused on were the relatively easy ones of consumption patterns. “Doing well” was according to the model of how many more elite Africans had access to the “European lifestyle” in terms of the houses they lived in, the cars they drove, the work perks they enjoyed and so forth.

No attention was paid to whether this could work for Zimbabwe, and at what eventual cost, and whether this shift in the composition of the elite represented enough of a difference to justify what the whole struggle for a new society had been really about. Little attention was paid to the less glamorous, more important concomitant elements of increasing overall national production in order to, for a time, continue to fund an economic model that was simply inherently unsustainable in many ways.

Everybody now blames Zimbabwe’s present state on Mugabe’s populist, self-preserving method of land reform. But even without it, there had to be an eventual crash, perhaps many years later than Mugabe brought on, because of how Zimbabwe largely continued to try to operate on the old Rhodesian model. It might have worked “well” in its time and for its stated narrow Rhodesian purpose (Smith’s clear cut, “The white man is master of Rhodesia and he intends to keep it.”), but it could not work for long without radical modification in Zimbabwe. The new nation was an environment of vastly increased expectations from a much larger number of participants expectant of the “good life” of increased consumerism, but on a stagnant or declining production base.

But “production base” goes far beyond the dry, technical issues that the term may imply. It is not enough for a national unit to merely adhere to basic global rules of production like efficiency, yield, competitiveness, good infrastructure, effective bureaucratic organization and so on. It must do all these things while taking into account its own peculiarities, and their positive or negative influences. Without doing so, then an adopted system of organization that might work very well somewhere else, or in the same place under different conditions, can flop miserably.

By “new model” I do not mean to imply re-inventing the wheel, rejecting Rhodesia’s functionalisms or romanticising pre-colonialism African customs. I simply mean looking for a fresh template of how to run the country that took into account old and new, different and more comprehensive concerns than was necessary in a Rhodesian dispensation that was mainly intended to serve a tiny group. This would have meant a mix of elements that would have very much included the many lessons and successes of Rhodesia, but thoughtfully incorporated in a new social, cultural and political reality. Only then could they have had a chance to work in the in many ways vastly different-from-Rhodesia landscape of Zimbabwe.

This unavoidable, still necessary task is a difficult process partly because it involves moulding the new out of old elements that do not necessarily easily or comfortably fit together. It involves some trial and error. When it doesn’t work very well, it means being ridiculed for trying something new in rejection of an older tried and tested model, even if that model simply could no longer work unchanged in the new situation.

Looked at from this view, the on-going problem with economic transformation in Zimbabwe is not so much the discarding of an old system whose continued existence threatened future stability. The flaw has been to throw out the old without any real holistic vision of a new system. The picture that has emerged is one of haphazard, day to day national management by crisis.

Africa simply has no choice but overcome these difficult, uncomfortable challenges and to create systems that work for it. This is necessary primarily for the benefit and future stability of Africa, but it will also be the only really effective argument against Smith’s “unshakable belief that Africa without white rule would not work.

All the scholarly articles about why Smith is wrong, racist and should have been hung long ago are largely a waste of effort in countering his assertions as long as Africa has so few examples of national organizational models that serve its people well, even if they are quite different from any other models. But the picture now is of a continent that does not effect imported or colonially inherited models well, and has all sorts of reasons for why not, but then also fails to come up with its own successful models, again with a whole litany of excuses for why not.

Actually Mugabe, even if for cynical self-serving reasons, has shown unusual boldness for an African leader in daring to question and upset the old colonial system, and much of the thinking that underpins it. But he has then confused the issue by seeking to simply and ineffectively re-apply most of the elements of the old system to new beneficiaries, rather than to present something well thought out and essentially new! The result has been a throwing out of many of the lingering positives of the Rhodesian system of doing things, but without a better, or even merely minimally functioning, Zimbabwean system in its place.

The current mess could be seen as a golden opportunity to conceive and effect a new system, but too many things have gone too horribly wrong at the same time for that to happen in the short term. And it would need a completely different type of thinking by the group at the helm of the country than is likely among the stuck, unimaginative, panicked and tired old ruling team in place now. Whatever gifts they may have, it is not apparent that they would even be interested in the kind of contemplative work required to conceive a fresh model of a successful Zimbabwe. Threatening, beating, jailing and impoverishing people they may be proven masters at, but deliberately planned nation-building does not appear to be their strong point.

Large parts of Asia continue to seemingly be very effective at finding blends of indigenous /imported, old/new, pre/post-colonial systems to deal with challenges of today in a way few, if any, African countries have put effort into doing.

The effects of the failure to deliberately think about these issues may be most starkly in display in Zimbabwe because of how Mugabe has seen it fit to turn everything upside down with no cohesive alternative plan in place. But it is an Africa-wide phenomenon, particularly evident in countries under-going the most recent and rapid transformation.

For example, in both Namibia and South Africa land reform is also a hot issue, with increasingly Zimbabwe-like complaints that its pace is too slow, although both countries are eager to avoid comparisons with their mutual neighbour’s reform process. But where it has been implemented, in both Namibia and South Africa are disturbing reports of a high incidence of failure: low productivity, abandoned farms, greater poverty after receiving land than before, denuded landscapes from poor land management, etc.

Smith would have had an easy answer to why this is: to him, that is just one would expect when an African takes over, end of story. But those of us who are required to contribute to Africa’s progress must dig deeper to find what is so commonly wrong and try to fix it.

The reasons for so many new farmers’ failure are complex, of course, and many of them are common to emergent farmers under similar circumstances anywhere. But let me just pick one example from Namibia to illustrate my point. Largely desert, the country is more suited to rearing livestock than to cultivation. But the parcels of land that many new farmers are getting are too small for them to sustainably graze enough sheep or cattle to be economically viable. This means even before you factor in issues of management skills, capital, markets, efficiency and prices, many of these new farmers are almost destined to fail.

So why parcel the land into pieces that are too small for commercially viable livestock rearing? Why not encourage and assist these small farmers in other more realistic areas of agriculture, or find a different livestock model more suitable for the new reality?

The answers are as complex as the questions, but basically, it comes down to failure to appreciate that the farming model that worked for the white farmer with thousands of hectares of grazing land cannot be applied to a new farmer with a miniscule proportion of it, and with no capital, experience, infrastructure and all kinds of other supports. Also, his whole cultural orientation to keeping cattle may well be vastly different from the white farmer’s.

Simply put, he is being presented with a cultural-economic model of farming that is not suitable for him, and that in all but a few limited situations, no longer fits the new Namibian reality. Part of that new reality is that it is no longer politically tenable for a few farmers to own vast tracts of land, even if some would argue that it makes more macro-economic sense for a few such experienced, “super-productive” people to be allowed to do so.

All these issues have to be taken into account in creating a new model of agriculture for Namibia. My point is that thinking about all the angles of issues like this is key to Africa finding new models that work for it. The off-the-shelf models from the pre-independence era, or from the World Bank, have not worked very well for Africa for many reasons, including the fact that their application has not been properly modified for the new situations in which they are to be applied. The blame for this lies more with the Africans who fail to see the need for these modifications, than it does with those who present such models as they have seen them work elsewhere in very different economic, technological, political and cultural contexts.

It may be understandable, but the practice of eagerly applying various models of organization based more on anxiously wanting to be considered “just as modern as anybody else,” rather than on the basis of modification for suitability, has been disastrous for Africa.

We know all the things about Rhodesia we detested. But even in looking back in nostalgia at the ways in which it was also a highly functional society, it was naive to think Zimbabwe could be a merely modified version of it. When Smith said, “The white man is master of Rhodesia. He has built it, and he intends to keep it” he was talking at a much deeper level than the obvious one of harnessing Rhodesian-modified Western technology and cultural organization, along with African labour and resources, to create an exclusive island of prosperity primarily for a small, identified group of people.

Rhodesia under Smith was unapologetic about the society it sought to be. It was also ruthless in mobilising the available mix of resources required to bring about that vision for its primarily target audience. Zimbabwe never quite went through a similar process of deciding exactly what kind of society it sought to be, how to bring it about, what human and material resources were required to do so, and what factors promoting or impeding that vision had to be dealt with.

Instead, there was the amorphous, general wish for things like “universal health and education” and other desires which it is impossible to fault, but which without a specific model of national organization in mind cannot be achieved or sustained. They can also be mis-directed. For instance, by “more education” do we have in mind more degree holders (“see, we are just as ‘sophisticated’ as you Westerners”) or do we have another vision of universal education more relevant to our needs and current reality?

By “health for all” do we mean the greater availability of pills (“see, we are just as ‘sophisticated’ as you Westerners”) or do we have a definition of health that is more in keeping with not just bodily state, but that encompasses social, cultural and other indicators of well-being; of what it means to be “healthy.”

Because the idea of Rhodesia was largely steeped in Western principles of orientation, “health” would have largely entailed the use of pills and technology, although today even many Westerners are questioning the appropriateness of this orientation. And because the society was geared to primarily serving a small target audience, even if there was spillover to non-target groups, the society could have been organised to ensure any target group member had access to any pill they desired.

But if Zimbabwe had then simply taken on this philosophy of health, how would it meet “the pills/health technology for all requirement” of a vastly expanded target audience? In this example, the real failure may not be so much in not being able to supply pills to everyone who wants them, but in an approach to health that unrealistically, unsustainably emphasises pills over prevention, for example. It is another example of a prescription that might have worked in one particular situation, but can no longer do so in a vastly changed one.

If one extrapolates this practice of trying to force square pegs into round holes without the necessary modifications to all across Africa, then we can see one important reason why Africa never seems to measure up. A part of political maturity must be the ability to say “this particular thing worked very well in the unique environment of/for the requirements of Rhodesia, but in order to get similar benefits in the very different scenario of Zimbabwe, these are the changes we will need to make.” Part of this process could be even to selectively forgo some of those Rhodesia-era “benefits,” on the basis that their costs in the new dispensation out-weigh their advantages.

Perhaps Zimbabwe’s current mess is its own way of dispensing with the old that served another time and purpose well, but is no longer suitable for a new situation with new needs. But apart from all the many indications of early failure, the current mess is at the very least surely an inefficient, expensive way of trying to mould a new model of national organization. What is required of us is the hard job of applying thinking to problems, than the easy one of sloganeering and political intrigue that so much more effort has been expended on in Africa in the last 50 years.

Smith’s criticism that Zimbabwe failed to live up to the “standards” of Rhodesia is not the worst criticism that can be made of the post-independence era. If anything, there are many ways in which in hindsight we should now be embarrassed that we tried to continue the old Rhodesia, just as we should be ashamed that we have failed to maintain so many of its functionalities.

The more serious shortcoming of Zimbabwe, and of Africa, that still needs to be addressed is the failure to articulate a new vision of nationhood that does not ignore any part of our history or world realities, but that is tailored to maximising the opportunities of creating an Africa that serves our interests and works for us.

As regards the lessons of Rhodesia for Zimbabweans, therefore, it is not for us to pine for a bygone reality and national model that could not have worked for us. We can instead take a leaf from Smith’s Rhodesia, on the importance and benefits of carving out our own vision of what would be a successful Zimbabwe, just as he was quite clear and focused on what a successful Rhodesia meant for his target group.

Doing so would not mean all the current problems would disappear or that the conditions for realising that vision would suddenly materialise. But without that clear vision of what kind of society we want to work towards, taking all the many influences on us and present realities into account, we are a rudderless ship. We condemn ourselves to being forever compared unfavourably to a Rhodesia that will never return, but will always haunt us as an oppressive but “successful” past, in contradiction to an “independent” but “failed” present.

The pining of some Zimbabweans for an unsustainable, oppressive but functional Rhodesia is an expression of frustration at not just present hardships, but at the lack of any articulation of a new vision of nationhood that those hardships can be said to be leading us to, and how we hope to get there.

Zimbabweans have previously stoically endured hardship during the war of independence because it was not only clear what was being fought against, but because of a generally shared hope of what life would be like when that fight was won. Today’s Zimbabwean reality is a very far cry from that hoped for vision. And rather than suggestions that this is because we are in a difficult but transitory phase, there are instead too many signs suggesting that we are now completely lost and directionless; the rulers cynically raping the land rather than leading us to anywhere but further decline and hardship.

There is not only the absence of a new hoped for vision by which the present hardship can be explained and endured, but the current rulership simply no longer even has the credibility and moral authority to mobilise the population into working for one.

The pining for Rhodesia by some is simply because it is the country’s “last known working configuration.” It is Africa’s main challenge to find new working configurations for itself, mixes of many of the elements of success others have used to overcome oppression and exploitation, but put together in ways that fit the times and the environment. It is a shocking indictment of us all that no modern African society has yet been up to this challenge.

The reminders on Ian Smith’s death of his view of Africans, and other kinds of racist revisionism increasingly being heard, tell us that this unfinished task will not go away. It will remain until we and the world see Africa overcoming all the many obstacles and excuses to build examples of societies that need not be duplicates of anything else, but that clearly work for the benefit of the mass of people in a way we have not yet seen in modern Africa.

The naked, provocative racism that Smith so proudly and unapologetically wore all his life unfortunately enjoys currency from the poor state of the Zimbabwe that has emerged from his Rhodesia. If Africa is forced by the sting of the attitude of people of the ilk of Smith to think hard about what we have had to endure under both the Smiths and Mugabes, we will eventually develop our own models of success that need no explanation, and that speak for themselves. We would then have salvaged something positive from all the many decades of bitter and on-going lessons that Zimbabwe has to offer about the challenges and pain of transformation.

Chido Makunike

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