African viewpoint: Zimbabwe's ghosts and intrigues

Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai (archive shot)

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, film-maker and columnist Farai Sevenzo returns to his home country, Zimbabwe, to find that both President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai are under intense scrutiny.

Zimbabwe has been in the grip of a spectacular heatwave, which has had the bell-shaped jacaranda blooms on Harare's expansive avenues wilting and popping on the burning tarmac in the more than 30C heat.

After a long absence, I took a road trip from neighbouring South Africa and found Zimbabwe not as broken as it once seemed.

But, of course, I am not an impartial observer in search of news - the single malt tastes better in the dust of my townships and my thoughts are as far removed from dead dictators as it is possible for them to be, despite the clamouring newspaper fliers displaying the bloodied body of a departed colonel on every street corner.

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Travelling to the capital by road, it becomes plainly obvious that the American dollar is king”

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But sooner or later the conversations turn to politics and it is common now, as we look at the fallen dictators of 2011, to discuss the fate of those rulers who have passed more than two decades at the helm - Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang Nguema, Angola's Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, Uganda's Yoweri Museveni, Cameroon's Paul Biya and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe - even though the Arab Spring is so very far away from us.

Zimbabwe, though, is a nation forever in political intrigue - while bloody skirmishes between rival political parties continue to make the news, does Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai actually run anything?

When will elections be held to put an end to the farce of the marriage of convenience between his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party and Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party?

'Gods of Commerce'

And will Zanu-PF's candidate be the same man as at every vote since 1980 and is that man sick or is he just old?

In reality, the people are in the grip of the relentless heat and the American greenback, with Zimbabwe having abandoned her own currency, which had once given rise to the collectible Z$100 trillion note, after the coalition government was formed in 2009.

A beggar at a restaurant in Zimbabwe (archive shot) Only some are benefiting from Zimbabwe's wealth

Travelling from the Limpopo to the capital by road, it becomes plainly obvious that the American dollar is king - you buy your sim card with it, your airtime, your bottle of water, your newspaper, your tomatoes, your bunch of bananas and at some stage you begin to wonder if everyone's notes are kept in the bottom of their shoes - so tattered and illegible has this symbol of capitalism become in the hands of every vendor.

But approach Harare and you can believe that there are more Mercedes Benzes than donkeys in this city. In fact, the total absence of donkeys becomes all too apparent.

New roads are under construction, the restaurants are full and the windfall of the nation's diamond money sparkles in the four-wheel-drive vehicles dodging pot-holes and the outrageous designs for new homes in suburbs.

In the airport on the way out, the executive lounge is full of South African, Bulgarian, Latvian, English, American and Chinese businessmen and women.

There is a feeling here that the Gods of Commerce, rather like Zimbabwe's eternal potential, and the diamonds sprouting in the east, attract more friends than critical journalists.

Africa's longest-serving rulers

  • Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang Nguema (32 years)
  • Angola's Jose Eduardo Dos Santos (32 years)
  • Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe (31 years)
  • Cameroon's Paul Biya (29 years)
  • Uganda's Yoweri Museveni (25 years)
  • Swaziland's King Mswati III (25 years)

Is it possible, though, to measure a nation's wealth in the shiny cars, shiny suits and filling restaurants?

If anything, the visible presence of such wealth points to a widening gap between those that have and the rest.

The lady picking up rubbish on my street on behalf of Harare City Council tells me her niece has been kicked out of school because the $15 (about £9) school fees for the term have not been paid.

The sick are confronted with the rising costs of medical care and medicines, the youth hang around washing people's cars to make that illusive buck and the borders still strain to the movements of those in search of greener pastures.

And then there is the nation's political health - how to measure that?

'Supernatural justice'

Nearly three years of a government of national unity has blunted the opposition's edge - the MDC has seamlessly become part of the ruling class, in their official vehicles and trappings of power.

And the conundrum for Zanu-PF, as we have learned in a year of Wikileaks revelations, is what act should follow the "Father of the Nation" - that is, if he or some higher power deems his own performance to be finally over?

The violence that marred the nation following the 2008 elections was the talk of the streets yet again last week when a young man, murdered by Zanu-PF loyalists in 2009, was finally buried.

For two years, his body lay in the Gokwe District Hospital mortuary in north-west Zimbabwe.

People displaced by violence in Zimbabwe in 2008 Violence displaced thousands during the 2008 poll

Strange, indeed, were the events surrounding Moses Chokuda's non-burial.

The parents of the deceased refused to bury him until the known culprits had been brought to book.

It is said that for two years the dead man appeared before his murderers, herding their cattle in plain sight.

Then a sham trial delivered an acquittal for the accused, among whom was the son of a Zanu-PF governor, and the presiding magistrate lost his mind and was to be found on the streets of the town muttering insanities.

"He is fighting his own war," said the dead man's father.

The police tried to force a burial by attempting to carry the body to the graveyard, but up to 10 policemen could not lift the metal coffin and were reported to have been sprayed with fresh blood from the corpse.

Finally, the governor paid compensation to the bereaved family of some $12,000 plus 20 head of cattle and a burial was finally approved.

This supernatural justice has got tongues wagging - in the absence of justice it seems that the dead are speaking up for themselves.

But then again Harare is full of strange tales.

Take the case of the syndicate of women who police allege have been raping men in order to use their semen in rituals said to bring about untold wealth. Or that of the man who took home a nightclub prostitute who then shape-shifted into a donkey.

Latest reports are that man and ass are now very much in love.

So, that is where the donkeys have gone.

If you would like to comment on Farai Sevenzo's column, please do so below.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I wonder if any experts can say what Robert Mugabe's name means? Does "Mugabe" mean something in the local language?

    On the other hand, he's chosen to keep his first name "Robert" which is a good English name and proves he secretly wants to be British.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    vodeep (11)

    "As for the man and the donkey, wouldn’t class it as Harare as it took place 230 miles to the south. The male rape [...] was 130 miles away."

    If you read the article, you'll see the STORY was heard in Harare ("Harare is full of strange tales") but it doesn't say the EVENTS happened in Harare.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    @ Colchie
    Having spent 3 trips, totalling over 22 weeks in Zimbabwe this year, Harare is very safe, I’m white and have found it amazingly friendly, now I know why they call it Sunshine City, not just the weather but all the smiles you meet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Found this a satirical article on the subject of Harare, yes there is plenty of nice cars, but they have nothing to do with diamonds. As for the man and the donkey, wouldn’t class it as Harare as it took place 230 miles to the south. The male rape ( assault as the law in Zimbabwe does not recognize male rape perpetrated by females) was 130 miles away.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    The situation in Zimbabwe, like any country, is multi-layered and always more complex than the media depicts. This article is an honourable exception.

    @NuntuAppi Ours is a country of rumour, myth and superstition, and for me the story of the late Moses Chokuda is a parable for the state of the nation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    What started out as an informative then-and-now comparison deteriorated into a ramble about superstitious tales doing the circuit. Not worthy of the seriousness of the subject.

    @ Batanai M - There are still people in Zim who have the little problem of wrong colour – they’re called whites. Former injustices don't excuse the government’s mismanagement of the one-time bread basket of Africa

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    @ Kevin Harris I grew up in Rhodesia and lived in Zimbabwe for 22 years after independance. I am white and we lived a priveledged life as Rhodesians because of the colour of our skin It was wrong and immoral. I feel guilty about this and feel I still owe an apology to black Zimbabweans. I wish it wasn't so but sadly skin colour is still an issue, I hope future generations to do things differently.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    This article falls short of the truth on ground. I was in Zimbabwe about 3months ago and was shocked, gone are the skinny women, in are the chubby fat women with new and expensive haristyles.
    My aunt who works for the City Council apparently earns about $400 a month and how this woman this guy met would not be able to pay school fees of $15 bothers me, unless she is irresponsible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    @Kevin Harris

    I am sure Rhodesia was beautiful for you, it was hell to most of us! You know, perhaps because we had the little problem of "wrong color"!


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