This account of one of my many visits to Zimbabwe, which I recently rediscovered, was published in the East Cape Weekend on August 18 2001, under the headline "Stoic, friendly people survive amid the chaos". So what has really changed under Mnangagwa's government, 18 years later?
The valley sweeps down from high forested mountain-sides to a flat but narrow floor which leaks into Mozambique. It carries all the scars and memories of its history. Ancient burial-caves keep respectful Shona peoples warily out of the forests; there are leached-out lime-pits and gold workings. There are steeply twisting roads, power-lines, barbed fences, coffee and nut plantations. Along the border rakes the still visible scar of the minefield, relic of the Rhodesian war, the “second Chimurenga”. Twenty years on, mines still explode occasionally, some poor baboon dies. Human smugglers have long since carved clear paths across the fields.
Across the border is the site of one of the dust-ups between the first British invaders and the Portuguese in the 1890s. Local black people were simply overridden in those wars. Now they – or the Mugabe government – are out to “get their own back” – a “third Chimurenga”, some have called the latest land-grab.
It is mid-2001. I walk down the valley road familiar from many visits. Geography dictates that this is a tight-knit community, though really a multinational one: there’s a Swede, and a Jamaican, whites of British and Afrikaans descent, Shona landowners from both sides of the all-but-irrelevant border, an Ndebele lawyer. There are farm workers, a doctor, crafts-people, retired folk, a couple of store-keepers, a hotelier. Their properties are small or steeply inaccessible. It’s not in the front-line of the violence racking Zimbabwe’s big commercial farms. But it’s still under siege, a fragile haven threatened in many less obvious ways – a microcosm, in fact, of the way the majority of Zimbabweans are living right now.
As I walk down the road, ragged Mozambicans greet me in hesitant Portuguese. One reeks of fish, dried and humped up from the coast, to be swapped for mealie-meal. Another is loaded with clothing: in the flea-markets you can buy, very cheaply, heavy duvet jackets, inappropriately supplied by Canadian relief organisations to Mozambican refugees; they end up worn by rich Zimbabwean students at South African universities. On the red clay banks of the road, old election slogans are carved and still visible, all Zanu-PF. The opposition MDC have confined themselves to spray-painting on the backs of road-signs. The region voted solidly MDC a year ago: some blame this for the fuel shortage, the government deliberately starving opposition strongholds.
I notice, bizarrely, that the cats’-eyes on this mist-bedevilled road have all been dug up. The story emerges that it’s not the eyes the thieves are after, but the aluminium mountings. They’re melted down – for coffin handles.
“Aids,” says K (names and details have been changed to protect identities). “It’s taken sixteen of my workers in the last year.” K runs a small factory on the border. Because it’s a lucrative little export business he has been able to wangle enough fuel to run his trucks – just. But you can see the strain in his florid, intense face.
“It’s getting harder and harder. No forex. Bad fuel situation. Producers can’t get their stuff to me. No spares, theft from the factory on the rise. I had to fire my building foreman for smuggling my cement across the border. That’s where the real building is happening. But these people are desperate. Never mind the whites, most of us can get out if we have to. But my workers can’t. Prices are rocketing. I pay twice the minimum wage, but I’ve had to stop subsidizing their kids’ schooling, so many just aren’t going any more. It’s a disaster for their generation. Mugabe doesn’t see what he’s doing. If he wants us to go back to the 17th Century, he should get out of his f…ing Rolls Royce and his f…ing Armani suits and go back to the 17th century himself.”
“Mugabe knows exactly what he’s doing,” asserts D, a retired Scot who keeps himself and a couple of workers alive by supplying vegetables to the valley hotel. “He’s bloody clever the way he keeps himself in power. He knows how to manipulate his people – with this”, he says raising a fat Scots fist.
D is leaving in two weeks’ time, going back to Scotland. He’s one of those tough engineers who’ve been through the gamut of African states of independence: Kenya, Malawi, Zambia, finally Zimbabwe. But he’s had enough. The hotel is cutting back, tourism has crashed.
“I can’t make ends meet. Before, I could still earn more than I can on British pension. Not now. And I had this,” he sweeps his hand across the vista of forested mountainside. “Fantastic climate, fine people, never had trouble with my workers in 22 years. Even now they don’t agree with Mugabe’s nonsense. Mugabe knows it; he’s deliberately unleashed anarchy. He’ll declare a State of Emergency and rule by decree. And he wants us whiteys out. You, too.” He points meaningfully, sadly, at my chest.
Mugabe has more than succeeded: From 180 000 whites in 1981 the white population is down to about 50 000 now – about one half of one percent of Zimbabwe’s total.
F fulminates: “We’re such a tiny minority, it’s ridiculous. Mugabe can’t even begin to seriously believe we’re a threat to him. It’s not about us at all. He’s scared he’s going to get the chop because of what he did in Matabeleland. He checks out [ex-Yugoslavian leader Slobodan] Milosevic and so on, and thinks, I’m going to die in the saddle, or else.”
F is particularly incensed because he’s a third-generation Zimbabwean, albeit white. He’s almost a caricature, comb in sock, bush hat, an attitude towards blacks that hasn’t changed since the ‘60s: “We always knew they’d bugger it up. But I can’t go anywhere else. This is my country. I’ve given it all I’ve got.”
In fact, he is going elsewhere – he’s moving his small irrigation firm to Mozambique, where he’s welcomed with open arms. Too many farmers have stopped ordering equipment - but just across the border it’s full steam ahead. I suggest to him it’s a little premature to bail out, even now.
“It’s an insurance policy, okay. And why not? There’s no paperwork, there’s petrol for Africa, the roads are better, people are planting. But I’m telling you, there’s a hundred families already over there, waiting to come back the moment Bob’s gone. Lots of people here are saying it can’t get any worse. But look at Angola, Uganda, look at Mozams ten years ago. It can get a helluva lot worse.”
V puts her head in her hands. She’s maybe 50, but still looks like a hippie. Her long hair trails in the coffee she’s served herself in her coffee-shop on the valley road.
“I can last maybe another year,” she says. “Then I’m broke. You’re my first visitor in a week. It takes one murder in the international press, and we small fry are sunk.”
She’s a one-time political science major who now also runs a small pottery, employing a dozen women. She can’t sell much locally, but finds ways of getting stuff overseas, squirreling away smidgens of forex.
“Even two years ago I wouldn’t have thought of operating this way. But Mugabe is making criminals of all of us. And just to think, back in the ‘70s when I was a student in London, I helped raise funds for Zanu-PF. I got arrested in Trafalgar Square for baring my boobs in an anti-Smith demonstration! You can understand it in a way. Now whites feel exactly the way the Africans felt for so long – no help to be expected from the police, the courts; that desperate helplessness. What the whites were doing back then was evil, but what Mugabe is doing now is also evil. Funny how Smith and Mugabe both believe in a British-led international conspiracy against them. Like they’re twins. You know, I think Mugabe’s mind is the most colonized mind in the country. He can only think in terms of racial binaries – and that’s a form of thinking that colonialism invented.”
M owns a meagre 30-hectare farm. “The bank owns me!” he laughs, “but Mugabe doesn’t realise that if he sinks agriculture, he sinks the banks.”
You can’t imagine anywhere less suitable for the resettlement project. Twenty of his 30 hectares are forest and rock rising at 45o. But M’s property has been designated by the government for compulsory acquisition; three times he’s fought it, been de-listed. Next list, he’s back on. In September 2000 a bunch of people moved on to a strip of land, partly on his property, partly on the next, all previously cleared grazing land.
“That’s old Z’s place; he’s an African and he got designated, too! It’s chaos. And are they war vets? Landless peasants? No, they’re the army. They got a tractor from the Districts Development Fund (paid for by taxpayers). Men in uniform – with jobs already – were ordered to dig. One of them came up to the house, and said ‘teach us to grow flowers’.” I said, “First, you buy seedlings, and shadecloth, and the drip irrigation system. To buy that, first you go to the bank and borrow Z$500 000 (R55 500)”. That’s the last I heard of that”, he chuckles. “But there they are, ploughing up my doorstep, practically. They’ll get one crop of mealies, maybe two, then they’ll have to go somewhere else. What a waste!”
He gestures at an area of land on the opposite slope. “Look at that – unutilized, riddled with wattle and gums. It desperately needs clearing. But do they take that? No, they want the cleared land. Lazy sh…” he mutters darkly then muses, “It’s funny, they’re all gung-ho to get rid of us foreign people, but they don’t give a stuff about the foreign trees. But it’s the trees that will do the most damage in the long run.”
Humour isn’t dead. There’s a story about a pantomime they wanted to stage: “No Whites and the Seven War-Vets.”
Back on the road, I meet a soldier. He’s young, unarmed, and a little tipsy. He greets me effusively.
”I saw some other soldiers working the lands there,” I tell him.
He grins, “Yah! Those are our lands, we have taken back the land.”
“Do you stay there now?”
“Ah no, I stay in town, at the barracks.”
“Are you a war veteran?”
He straightens up. “Yah!”
“How old are you?”
He thinks. “Twenty.”
“So you were born in 1980, the same year as Independence?”
“1981,” he corrects me sternly.
“Ah, same as me,” I joke; he points at my greying hairs and laughs uproariously.
At the little farm store, I find some youngsters playing soccer with a bundle of plastic bags tied together. Apart from the game, and the backdrop of msasa trees, I could be in Harlem: the baseball caps, the dreads, the numbered T-shirts and ‘Harvard’ sweater, even the rapper-jive walk and gestures of the hands. What has happened to their Shona-ness? I think. Mugabe can fulminate all he likes about great Western conspiracies, but it’s these subtler trends that will long outlast his brief regime.
At first I think I am at the wrong house, or perhaps the Swede has been bought out by this elegant, articulate and attentive Shona man who rises from a deskful of papers. But no, he is the house-keeper; the Swede is in Sweden. And what about the upcoming Presidential elections?
“Mugabe will not lose,” he says mournfully. “He has the police, the army. Even the judiciary now.
The opposition are not together, they are naïve. So how can he lose? It’s terrible, what is happening. People are beginning to starve. So eventually he will lose. It will come round again, behind him, like a jackal, chup!” And he laughs hugely. These people laugh so much. Then he frowns and adds, “I don’t think he understands morality.”
I ask him why he isn’t doing something more in line with his intellect, teaching or something. “Oh no, I am happy with the quiet life; I just get on with things, I think a lot. But maybe this is the problem with us Shona people; we have to be pushed very hard before we get angry. But we can get angry. As the white people discovered.”
And he gives me a straight, amused look. “Meanwhile, we just try to live with what we have.” There are amazing smells coming from the kitchen. I look at my watch. “I won’t delay your lunch.”
“Oh,” he waves self-effacingly. “I’m just trying out a Thai vegetarian recipe. Will you join me?”