For those readers whose diet only consists of Western media such as CNN, BBC and the many others of that ilk, the answer to the question probably seems so obvious even posing it must seem strange to them. The likely clear-cut answer for them is ‘of course Zimbabwe is not a free country. That’s where the president has ruled for decades and steals elections to continue to do so, where opposition political officials are beaten up and presecuted, where white farmers with title deeds are chased of their farms with no legal recourse, etc, etc…’
Indeed, all these are very much part of the reality of present-day Zimbabwe. But it would be a mistake to believe that these sad examples give a clear answer to the free/unfree question. And of course who is to define what ‘free’ means anyway? It depends on the definer.
So, for example, fto the white Zimbabwean who has had his farm taken away and can do nothing about it, of course Zimbabwe is not free. But a black Zimbabwean who risks being unfairly targeted for his political affiliation today but who has property and prospects he didn’t before and who believes he suffered more and in different ways under the racially-based ‘unfreedom’ of Rhodesia, the answer may be different or more complicated.
This is a recurring theme of this blog: there are very few things about The Zimbabwe Crisis that are as clear-cut, simple and straightforward as is suggested by the dominant media.
Property rights are considered a key cornerstone of ‘the rule of law,’ a key definer of ‘freedom’ according to the dominant definitions of whether a country is considered free or not. If you are a white farm-owner in Zimbabwe, you have plenty of reason to be worried about how much you can count on your ability to exert property rights. And for the foreseeable future, no one of any colour can be too sure that their tenure on any farmland in Zimbabwe is secure. So with regards to security of farmland, no one can feel too ‘free in Zimbabwe at the moment, even the recently resettled who must worry about the possibility of being displaced on some politician’s whim.
Yet in the urban areas and in regards to residential or non-farm commercial land, the title deed is as established and respected as proof of ownership as anywhere else in the world.
The state media is not only astonishingly dull, narrow and boring for a country of Zimbabwe’s ‘sophistication,’ it is so insecure that you will simply never read or hear any (mainly political) views that differ from the thinking of the dominant clique of ZANU-PF, the effective ruling party. In this regard Zimbabwe may not be very different from many other countries that nevertheless do not share its bad boy image. Ah, so clear proof that Zimbabwe is not free then?
Not so simple. Many private newspapers have been shut down over the years over silly pretexts, and the ruling authorities are so insecure about their popularity that private radio or TV stations that have become the routine norm in many other much poorer countries are not allowed. And as I found out during my recent month at home, the internet is scandalously hard to access because of the very poor connectivity, slow speeds and high costs that have resulted from the country’s isolation and lack of competition/capitalization of the sector.
Yet there is a small ultra-critical private media that exists. Critical newspapers from South Africa and beyond are freely on sale on the streets of Harare. Some argue that this is allowed because the authorities know that on the basis of cost and circulation, the penetration of these alternative media is very low and therefore of little threat to them, while allowing them to say, ‘See, we allow opposing views, we are not a dictatorship.’
And of course, in terms of the make up of its parliament, Zimbabwe can claim to be a democracy like relatively few others in Africa or beyond. Opposition parties have always been allowed, albeit thwarted in every way possible by means mostly foul, and now the previously all-dominant ZANU-PF must share fully half the elected parliamentary seats with the two MDC factions. Debate in parliament is robust, and heckling of the state president is not unknown, something for which swift death would ensue in many countries in the world.
So the free/unfree question cannot be answered in any simple and straightforward, obvious way.
Interestingly, some of the ways in which I most felt an oppressive atmosphere were often not in the typical or expected ones of fearing to express a critical political opinion or for one’s personal safety. It was instead in how every quasi-state authority seemed to disproportionately communicate in terms of threats, ‘directives’ and warnings to the public they ostensibly exist to serve.
The cash-strapped water, electricity, municipal, revenue and other authorities seemed to be in a competition to see which one could take out the most intimidating media advertisements to warn of the consequences of not paying up. There was not just an air of desperation about the ads, they seemed unusually menacing, disrespectful and contemptuous of the public in a way I could not remember having experienced so strongly in Zimbabwe before, nor anywhere else.
Police roadblocks seem excessively common in Zimbabwe, with some officers very showily armed. But they are not ‘political’ roadblocks so there is no fear of them on that basis. As in many countries, the police manning them seem more concerned about finding excuses to fine motorists for one thing or another, naturally preferably ‘off the record,’ than they are about anything else. And these common and frequent roadblocks may very well act as a deterrent to some crimes, or help to remove a certain percentage of unroadworthy vehicles from the country’s increasingly dangerous roads.
So it is not in a personal or political freedom sense that I found the many roadblocks disconcerting. But disconcerting I certainly did find them. I found it hard to dismiss that sense of a softly menacing presence that could easily turn on a citizen on the flimsiest excuse. My sense was far from, “Phew, I’m so glad I’m a law-abiding citizen with nothing to fear from the police/army and I’m so happy and relieved they are out in full force on the roads to protect me.”
It was not obvious that the very heavy police and military presence was to protect citizens rather than to intimidate and control them.
So is Zimbabwe a free or an unfree society? The most accurate answer I can give is that it is both, and not at all necessarily in the ways that one might expect.