It is easy to complain about governments, and important to hold them to account when they so often fall short. Yet in the western world we take for granted our structures and systems; however disappointing our leaders, they function within the framework provided for them.
Not so in Zimbabwe. Without firsthand experience it is difficult to imagine living in a place where no organisation, law, person or system can be relied upon. Where, at the worst moments, people were tortured or killed for little or no reason. Where the capital city has no piped water. Where the ground beneath you shifts at the whim of a tyrant.
Currently there is a major cash shortage. It is possible, in theory, to withdraw $100 per day but you may queue for an hour only to find the bank has run out. People exchange information: Barclays apparently has cash today, or if you go early in the morning there are less queues at FNB. As many people are paid in cash and don’t have bank accounts, and many shops don’t take credit card, this shortage causes obvious problems. Another result is the huge increase in police roadblocks handing out fines for dubious transgressions. Government officials, including police, weren’t paid last month. They must make up the difference somehow.
Shades of the ‘Zim dollar days’ when hyper-inflation dragged the country into bankruptcy, have people scared. Nobody wants to return to carrying ‘bricks’ of cash which become worthless overnight. Or buying a weekly cardboard box from the corner shop without knowing the contents, because with the shelves bare anything is welcome. At the moment, though, it seems to be the opposite of those days: enough supplies but no cash.
Mugabe is paranoid (with good reason). Watching him drive through town is a spectacle. Two police motorbikes go ahead to clear the road; traffic lights and rules are void, the only necessity is to pull over immediately. Failure to do so results in arrest, at best. Then comes the cavalcade, at speed. Two police cars are followed by five black cars, identical to conceal which carries Mugabe. Then come two army vehicles, each with six soldiers covering all angles with automatic rifles. Finally more police cars and an ambulance.
It is illegal to drive past his official residence (which he doesn’t live in) between 6am and 6pm. Armed guards closely guard it, and his actual residence, and react first and ask questions later.
It must be tiring to be so worried. Yet he endures, out-staying his welcome beyond any expectation. When elections were outrageously rigged people relied on his advanced age to put an end to his regime. It hasn’t yet. A mean old bully, always watching over his shoulder, for he has hurt almost all of his country’s people, he clings to his power. His private plane is on standby in case he needs to make an escape. A few weeks ago fear drove his wife to an impromptu trip to Singapore.
For there are stirrings that have him rightly concerned. Zimbabweans don’t have a history of protesting against injustice. Perhaps finally that is changing. Evan Marwarire has started a movement, #thisflag. Dedicated, articulate in English and Shona, consistent in his message; is he the person to lead Zimbabwe’s revolution? His commitment cannot be questioned. After organising several successful ‘stayaways’, and thwarting a kidnap attempt, he was arrested and charged with causing unrest and inciting violence (despite one of his key, often repeated messages being non-violence). On arriving at court he found that his charges had been increased to that of treason.
But #thisflag had already garnered some international attention and Mugabe’s games couldn’t hold sway. Zimbabweans of all colours and backgrounds held vigil outside the court in an unprecedented unity, singing out decades of grief and frustration. One hundred human rights lawyers offered to collectively represent Evan. The charges were hurriedly dropped and Evan departed for South Africa for his own safety. From there he continues to campaign and his following is growing. There have been gatherings in solidarity around the world.
More recently the war vets have announced the end of their support. They are one of the few segments of society who have benefited from, or supported, Mugabe’s actions in the past. Now that they feel the discomfort outside of his small favoured circle, they quickly voiced their disapproval. Hypocritical perhaps, but one more straw on that camel’s back. Is this the time Zimbabwe is finally going to stand up and say, with one breath, ‘enough is enough’? If they do, Mugabe’s sandcastle will crumble quickly. The main concern then would be who would take his place.
Despite all of this, the media has something wrong: Zimbabwe isn’t dangerous for tourists. Even in the worst times foreigners were not targeted. And visiting Zimbabwe doesn’t mean supporting Mugabe. On the contrary, by spending wisely support can be given to local businesses which desperately need it. This country is has many splendours: it’s land, wildlife to rival Kenya but with a fraction of the traffic, and it’s people. Who, despite hardships that would have many on their knees, unfailingly just “make a plan” and carry on. They are ready to share this exquisite place with anybody who wants to ignore the fear-mongering and explore for themselves.