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the silence: Oppression, fear and courage in Zimbabwe
March 29, 2013
There are at least two things to know about Zimbabweans. The first
is that they have an immoderate attachment to their land, and no
wonder. Anyone who has seen the spring-red blush of musasa woodland
at the beginning of the rains, or felt the crackle-hot wind of a
lowveld summer afternoon, or absorbed the scents of sweet potato
and marigold as dusk settles over the bush will know that theirs
is a soul-snagging land. Of course such an attachment to land comes
at a price. For it, and over it, there will be wars and revolutions,
and the inevitable loss of land by the vanquished or the politically
unlucky will be so unendurable that the unmoored people will end
up true ghosts, souls in search of soil.
The second thing
to know about Zimbabweans is that they are a small but persistently
noisy nation of storytellers and musicmakers. The Bhundu Boys were
pop diva Madonna’s supporting act at Wembley Stadium in London
in 1987. Thomas Mapfumo, the Lion of Zimbabwe, created a genre of
protest music-chimurenga (uprising). Africa’s most prestigious
literary award, the Caine Prize, has twice gone to Zimbabweans in
its 13-year history (Brian Chikwava in 2004, NoViolet Bulawayo in
2011). Charles Mungoshi won two Pen International awards in 1976,
and Dambudzo Marechera won the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1979. Doris
Lessing, who spent her formative years in the country, won the Nobel
Prize in literature.
I am not now Zimbabwean,
but for several years in the 1970s my British-born parents owned
a farm on the eastern edge of what was then the rogue state of Rhodesia.
They fought - my father as a conscripted soldier, my mother as a
police volunteer - to keep the country white-run and avowedly out
of the hands of communists. By any calculation, it was a questionable
cause: Ian Smith, Rhodesia’s prime minister, campaigned in
1965 on a slogan of “A whiter, brighter Rhodesia,” and
for the next decade and a half a decreasing minority of whites (just
over 200,000 in the early ’60s to about 150,000 in 1980) tried
to hold on to power in a country populated by a black majority that
grew from about 3.5 million to more than 7 million during that period.
By late 1979 liberation
forces were coming into Rhodesia from camps in neighboring Mozambique
and Zambia faster than government troops could kill them. A peace
was negotiated. The following February general elections were held
and won by the Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front
(ZANU-PF). Its leader became Zimbabwe’s first prime minister.
Robert Gabriel Mugabe exuded an air of conciliatory magnanimity.
My mother wasn’t buying it. My parents moved north to Malawi.
Working along fault lines
well established by the white minority government before him - which
is to say, ethnic, racial, and political - Mugabe went about further
dividing his nation and securing absolute power for himself.
There are two main ethnic
groups in Zimbabwe: the majority Shona and the minority Ndebele.
Mugabe is Shona. In 1983 Mugabe deployed his North Korean-trained
Five Brigade into the west of the country to preempt any Ndebele
political opposition. Over the following five years, an estimated
20,000 Ndebele were massacred. “He understood and manipulated
our weaknesses very well,” Wilfred Mhanda, a former ZANU-PF
liberation commander who fought along with Mugabe, told me. “There
is nothing more deadly than someone so profoundly insecure mimicking
the aggression of his oppressors and becoming an oppressor in turn.”
Mugabe tolerated corruption
in his cabinet, as long as it came with loyalty to him. The country’s
economy was collapsing, and by the mid-1990s there were fuel shortages,
civil servants were striking, and liberation war veterans began
to demand the compensation they had been promised at independence.
Then, in 1998, Mugabe sent troops into the Democratic Republic of
the Congo to prop up the teetering regime of Laurent Kabila, at
an eventual cost equivalent to a million U.S. dollars a day. Zimbabwe’s
economic fate was sealed.
for Democratic Change (MDC) was launched in 1999, headed by a former
labor union leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. Mugabe countered the new
political outspokenness this came with and the increasing dissatisfaction
among his own supporters by allowing them to appropriate white-owned
commercial farms without compensation. In 2000, with Mugabe’s
explicit blessing, unemployed ZANU-PF supporters led by war veterans
armed with axes and machetes invaded the farms, shouting, “Hondo!
War!” Domestic food supplies plummeted. In 2005, after the
MDC won several parliamentary seats, Mugabe retaliated with Operation
Murambatsvina (Operation Clear the Filth). Across the country
market stalls and homes belonging to the urban poor, who constituted
much of ZANU-PF’s opposition, were razed. An estimated 700,000
people lost their homes or livelihoods, and more than 2 million
were driven further into poverty.
Then, in a first
round of elections held in 2008, Mugabe’s ZANU-PF finally
lost to Tsvangirai’s MDC. Calling for a runoff election,
supporters and officials of ZANU-PF went on a vicious state-sponsored
rampage. Hundreds of MDC supporters were killed
and thousands injured, hundreds of women and girls were raped,
and tens of thousands of people became internal refugees. “If
you wanted to commit suicide in 2008, you just wore an MDC T-shirt,”
I was told. By November of that year, Steve Hanke, an economics
professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, had calculated
Zimbabwe’s monthly inflation rate at 79.6 billion percent,
second only to Hungary’s in 1946.
To avoid worse
bloodletting and even more unimaginable economic collapse, Tsvangirai
withdrew from the race, and Mugabe declared himself the winner.
Thabo Mbeki, then president of South Africa and a bafflingly uncritical
Mugabe supporter, persuaded the two men to negotiate a power-sharing
agreement. Mugabe retained control of the mines, the army, and
the police and intelligence services - in other words, everything
that ensured his continued dominance. Tsvangirai inherited the ministries
of finance, education, health, environment - in other words, everything
that ensured he couldn’t run away with power.
A tenuous purgatory
of waiting ensued - waiting for Mugabe’s grip on power to
ease, waiting for Mugabe to die (he was born in 1924). But in spite
of rumored puffy ankles - cancer was one of the whispered speculations
- Mugabe appeared as robust as ever. In 2010 Foreign Policy magazine
named Mugabe the second worst dictator in the world, after North
Korea’s late leader Kim Jong Il. In 2012 the Washington, D.C.-based
nonprofit organization the Fund for Peace ranked Zimbabwe fifth
in its annual Failed States Index.
Still, when I arrived in the country in mid-October 2012, things
in the capital, Harare, seemed to be business as usual. An influx
of diamond money - the 2006 discovery of diamonds in the east of
the country has been called the biggest find of its kind - had lent
a Botoxed sheen to the place: adoption of the U.S. dollar had simplified
trade, new cars were on the roads, shops were full of South African
imports, mansions mushroomed behind massive walls in the suburbs
beyond State House.
But beneath the impression
of regularity, disquiet remained. Ahead of tentatively scheduled
elections in July 2013, ZANU-PF youth gangs were stirring in densely
populated market centers; on international television ZANU-PF officials
were blatantly threatening that they would not support a Tsvangirai
win. At the same time headlines reported Tsvangirai’s domestic
intrigues, culminating in his recent marriage to Elizabeth Macheka,
daughter of a ZANU-PF central committee guru. His position as a
robust alternative to Mugabe seemed in question.
Meanwhile personnel from
the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) were reportedly monitoring
citizens’ activities everywhere. “Yes, there are people
who say I should watch out,” Tafadzwa Muzondo, a 33-year-old
Zimbabwean playwright told me. “But I have to do my duty.
I am a citizen first. I am an artist second. And isn’t it
better to say at the end of your life that you tried to make a difference?”
Muzondo had suggested we meet behind the National Gallery in the
Harare Gardens. It was a steamy morning, and thunderstorms threatened,
but we stayed out in the open, the better to spot any government-sponsored
eavesdroppers, although I didn’t see how a dried-up patch
of lawn was going to do much to protect us against the CIO. But
Muzondo had written a play that had provoked the government, and
he was talking to a foreign writer, and to do either of those things
in this place and at this time was to court trouble.
A concerned person can’t
help but keep track: In the decade from 2001 to 2011 official oppression
has forced at least 49 Zimbabwean journalists into exile, the fifth
worst record in the world. Within Zimbabwe’s borders, scores
of national and a few international human-rights activists, writers,
and photographers have been intimidated or arrested, and one local
cameraman, suspected of passing photographs of a beaten-up Morgan
Tsvangirai to foreign media, was murdered in 2007. Since 2000 Tsvangirai
has been arrested numerous times and once nearly beaten to death
by Mugabe’s henchmen. In theory, freedom of speech is protected.
In practice, a series of imaginatively broad laws attempt to ensure
silence. Regardless of when or how Mugabe leaves power, it’s
going to take his country a long time to recover from him.
“How do we intend
to solve our violent history if we can’t talk about it?”
Muzondo asked. “You combine my poverty with my fear, with
my silence - life is not worth living. They might as well just do
mass killing.” Zimbabweans are in the fearful position of
watching themselves become the unspoken, the unheard - the mute,
whose stories will be told only by foreign correspondents and Western
aid workers. Once boasting the highest literacy rate in Africa -
more than 90 percent - some predict that Zimbabwe’s literacy
rate will fall to 75 percent by 2020.
“We know this.
Without our voice, we have no choice,” Muzondo said. “Without
choice, where are we? We’re forever stuck in violence.”
But Zimbabwean writers,
artists, and playwrights haven’t given up yet. Robust, sometimes
mordantly funny, politically controversial novels, art exhibitions,
and plays appear faster than CIO agents can object to them. In the
past eight years Muzondo has written half a dozen plays dealing
with pressing social and political issues. His latest - No Voice,
No Choice - was banned in August 2012 after an enthusiastically
received run around the country. “People were coming up to
us afterwards and saying, ‘We were scared of what would happen
to us if someone noticed us watching your play, but then we noticed
you were not scared of performing it. We felt more courageous because
of your bravery.’”
The letter from the national
authorities banning the play was Orwellian in its nonsensical doublespeak:
“Please be advised that the Board of Censors read your Play
Script and observed that the play is about discouraging youths participating
in political violence … The play is inciteful and against
the spirit of national healing.” I turned the letter over,
as if shaking up its words would make it more coherent, to say nothing
of rectifying the unintentional pun (inciteful/insightful). “Someone
felt uncomfortable with the truth,” Muzondo said. “But
that truth is this: We’re all in this together. Neighbors
have assaulted neighbors. Now we have to sit down together and face
what it is we’ve done to one another. The government doesn’t
want us to have that conversation. But what if we did?”
This was never part of
the political calculation. Eventually Zimbabweans might be brought
together by their common bond of suffering and begin to insist on
their own liberation. In fact, Mugabe seems to have deliberately
turned so many ordinary Zimbabweans - soldiers and police officers,
obviously, but also schoolboys ordered out of their classrooms to
rape and torture - into perpetrators that there is now widespread
fear a change of government might bring with it recrimination. “Victims
of the political violence are afraid it will resurface with every
election; perpetrators of the political violence are afraid it will
end,” Rutendo Munengami, an advocate for victims of rape,
told me. “Everyone knows who the culprits are; they are our
neighbors and officials. They are not hard to find. Those people
are afraid of a government who will call them to account.”
I met Munengami and fellow
activist Margaret Mazvarira in the garden of a quiet Harare restaurant
a few mornings after my meeting with Muzondo. The sun appeared to
take up the whole sky, and musasa tree pods cracked, showering seeds
on the barely rain-softened earth. The two women spoke over each
other, finishing each other’s sentences, confirming the connecting
braid of shared experience between them.
In the early hours of
June 3, 2003, Munengami - whose husband was then an MDC councillor
- was torn from her bed, her nursing nine-month-old son still in
her arms. While soldiers looked on, Munengami told me, she was raped
by a prominent ZANU-PF minister. Afterward, the minister drove her
to a police station in Harare, where she and her son were dangled
over a pit of acid while the soldiers decided whether or not to
kill her. “They wanted to throw the baby to the ground,”
Munengami said. “They shouted, ‘He will be the same
as the father. He will want to give the country to the white man.’”
Mazvarira was abducted
in 2000 from her home in Chivhu, a small town south of Harare, and
raped by two ZANU-PF CIO officers after her 17-year-old daughter,
an MDC organizer, was killed by a petrol bomb. Mazvarira contracted
HIV from the assault. “They told me, ‘You and your daughter
are Tsvangirai’s bitches.’” When Mazvarira went
to the police station to report the attack, the officer in charge
refused to hear her case. “The police are only ZANU-PF,”
The two women are not
placid about what happened to them, but what converted them from
victims into activists is that they were never able to hold their
attackers to account. “The government won’t help us.
No one can help us. It is up to us, ourselves, now. That is where
we are.” In 2009 Munengami launched Doors of Hope, a nonprofit
organization that supports and speaks for victims of politically
motivated rape. Doors of Hope now has 375 members from all over
the country. “We are standing for women,” Munengami
said. “Those so-called war vets raped so many women during
the liberation struggle, but they don’t want to talk about
it. So we are going to talk about it. Whether it’s 1975, or
now, we don’t want this to continue. We have had enough. We
are sick and tired of being quiet. Where has silence got us?”
In a nearby jacaranda
tree, the call of a cape turtle dove echoed Zimbabwe’s eternal
lament, “My mother is dead, my father is dead, all my relatives
are dead.” From my recent travels across the country, I knew
that organizations like Doors of Hope existed all over Zimbabwe.
I had spoken to the director of Radio Dialogue, a small station
in Bulawayo that had circumvented a ban on independent broadcasting
by distributing cassettes and CDs to minibus drivers. I had spoken
to survivors of political torture who had organized healing circles
with their erstwhile attackers and were now running a nonprofit,
Tree of Life, which had gone into scores of communities throughout
the country holding workshops to help both victims and perpetrators
recover from past political violence. I had spoken to the editors
of Weaver Press in Harare, which still published brave, politically
sensitive books, and I had picked up copies of poetry published
by amaBooks in Bulawayo. I had spoken to artists and writers and
doctors who were challenging the inevitability of a silent, violent
“I am like that
tree,” Mazvarira said suddenly, pointing toward the jacaranda.
“I’ve had my branches cut, but I am not dead. I am attached
to this soil, and it feeds my roots.” She pushed her plate
away. “Today I got to tell my story. I was heard. That is
my rain.” She leaned forward with a smile of the kind that
can come only when there is still hope in a nearly hopeless place.
“So please tell your world not to turn the page on us yet.
Tell them to keep hearing us. We are still speaking.
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