Born free: 40 years after independence in Zimbabwe

They call those of us born in Zimbabwe and after 1980 “bornfrees”. We are the “lucky” generations, the generations that do not know the heartbreak and terror of war, generations that know nothing about the indignity and injustice of racism, nothing about the brutality of domination and white supremacism and the helplessness of poverty. We know nothing about suffering, we were born free.

I spent the last hours of the day before Zimbabwe’s lockdown at a grinding mill. We had been searching for mealie meal for days to no avail so when we discovered two buckets of maize in my mother’s storeroom from a long forgotten harvest, there were cheers in the house. I half lifted, half dragged my sack of maize to the end of the queue at the mill and awaited my turn. By the time I got my sack with two buckets worth of mealie meal I literally looked as white as a ghost from all the maize dust. Much to my followers’ amusement, I posted the pictures on Twitter but many said they were sad a “bornfree” was facing the same struggles they used to face before Independence. 

Zimbabwe has been facing mealie meal shortages for months and is on the brink of a “man-made starvation”.

Many “bornfrees” in Zimbabwe still live with their parents. Forty-year-old men and women who should by now have built their own homes are stuck at home because we cannot afford to move out. Most Zimbabweans are either unemployed, underemployed or living from hand to mouth. The Government is the biggest employer and pays an average of ZW$2,500/month (USD$70).

“Peaceful elections are not necessarily good elections as elections are stolen even when nobody is beaten.”

I myself have been on the housing list at my local town council for almost 20 years. In all these years housing stands have been allocated to thousands of people using a patronage system that rewards loyalty to the ruling party. All of our resident minister’s children have housing stands, all the MPs children have housing stands. 

I have been up in arms about this to no avail, the answer is always the same, try again next time. I was born in this town in 1984, I went to school here and I now live here with my own children, albeit in my parents’ house – on what grounds do I not get first preference when housing stands come out?

I also applied for a farm after the land reform programme. It has been another two decades

Reasons behind the second Chimurenga

Our struggle for Independence was called the second Chimurenga. In his book ‘Kingdom Power Glory: Mugabe, ZANU and the Quest for Supremacy 1960-1987’, Stuart Doran writes “The movement continued to attract a mass following despite physical danger, the introduction of unprecedented repressive legislation and, in December 1961, the banning of the party itself. If anything, the nationalist cause drew strength in proportion to government attempts to subdue it.” What we were fighting for was simple:

  1. End to white minority rule
  2. Democracy and electoral reform: one man one vote
  3. Equality: access to land and other economic resources
  4. End to the arrest and detention of nationalist leaders and the banning of opposition parties

The Rhodesians tried everything they could to retain power, but in the end, people power proved mightier than all their arms and artillery. In December 1979, Rhodesia and ZANU and ZAPU met in Lancaster and negotiated a peace deal, with the Lancaster House agreement marking the end of white minority rule. 

We got our “Black Government”, the first goal of the war had successfully been achieved. But what about the other goals?

Democracy and electoral reforms: one man, one vote

In July 2018, Zimbabweans voted in what seemed like our first “peaceful” elections in a long time. The main opposition, the MDC alliance, had been fighting for electoral reforms and access to the voters roll to no avail. They argued that without reforms, any result from the election would be flawed

In his lecture, ‘Governance, Leadership, Civil Society and the Private sector: An African perspective’, Mo Ibrahim explains how peaceful elections do not necessarily mean that you have a democratic society. “It depends on what happens before the election – do people have the right to campaign, to assemble? Do they have access to media? What about the electoral registry, is it clean?” He says peaceful elections are not necessarily good elections as elections are stolen even when nobody is beaten. 

The election went on without reforms but no election violence was recorded so SADC and other bodies quickly declared the election free and fair. Two days after the polls were closed, protestors went into the streets demanding the release of results. ZANU-PF President Emmerson Mnangagwa, to everyone’s dismay, responded by sending soldiers to open fire indiscriminately on the protesters, leading to six deaths and several injuries. Nobody has been held responsible for these 1 August massacres.

Equality: access to land and other economic resources

In spite of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Zimbabwe’s Vice President Constantino Chiwenga flew to China in March because that is where he receives his healthcare. Zimbabwean leaders do not use Zimbabwean hospitals. When then Vice President Mnangagwa was suspected to have been a victim of poisoning at a rally in 2017, he was airlifted to South Africa for treatment. When Vice President Kembo Mohadi fell ill in 2019, he too was flown to South Africa. This is the legacy left by Robert Mugabe who himself eventually died at a hospital in Singapore.

Whether they do not use local hospitals because all our hospitals and clinics are ramshackle and underequipped, or the hospitals are that way because the people mandated to provide healthcare do not themselves use/need them, is a chicken and egg issue. When UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson contracted COVID-19, many Zimbabweans were shocked to hear he was being treated at a public hospital. 

“When UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson contracted COVID-19, many Zimbabweans were shocked to hear he was being treated at a public hospital.”

In 2019, doctors went on a four months long strike demanding not just better salaries but equipment for hospitals. The “Black Government” responded by abducting the leader of the Doctors union, Peter Magombeyi for five days in a bid to intimidate doctors into ending the strike. It did not work and Government resorted to firing the doctors en masse. 

They refused to acknowledge the doctors’ grievances so the hospitals remained unequipped and dysfunctional. Unbeknownst to us all, the landfall of COVID-19 was just months away.

At the time of writing, there have been 24 confirmed cases in Zimbabwe. The first case, pro-government journalist Zororo Makamba, lost his life at Harare’s Wilkins isolation centre. His case revealed the extent to which the government and our hospitals are unprepared to handle the outbreak

Just like during the Rhodesian era, the resources of the nation are yet again benefiting just a minority of the population. Through corruption ZANU-PF leaders have amassed personal wealth at the expense of public goods to the point where our health and education sectors are crumbling. Their children go to private schools, foreign universities and they go abroad for medical care. 

Opening the electoral space

Sadly, black majority rule did not bring with it the freedom to oppose the ruling party either.

When Matebeleland resoundingly voted for ZAPU in the 1980 elections the “Black Government” responded by arresting ZAPU leaders and murdering 20,000 of their supporters in a genocide known as Gukurahundi

Such torture and murder of opposition supporters have continued over the years.  Just last year, a comedian, Samantha Kurera was abducted by suspected state agents and tortured for producing skits considered to be anti-government. 

Indeed, opposition politics is still as criminalised as it was under white minority rule.

Dashed hopes and transitional justice

It is quite clear that the second Chimurenga failed to attain liberation as it had been sold to the masses. The “Black Government” has become that which they claimed to be fighting – the oppressor. We thought they were fighting injustice, oppression and repression but they were fighting to take over those systems of oppression and use them to dominate us.

“What does it mean to be independent? Bornfree? Free from what? Free to do what?”

For Zimbabwe to be truly free, we must demolish the systems of governance that have been used as tools of oppression by both the white and black governments. In 1980, our leaders adopted a military, police force and judiciary that had always served to enforce oppression and repression.

After the 2017 coup, Emmerson Mnangagwa adopted the same instruments from Mugabe and did nothing to reform them.

Leadership change alone without a change in systems of governance has proven time and again to be of no benefit to the masses, to democracy. For Zimbabweans to be truly liberated, our systems and institutions have to be rebuilt and aligned to our constitution. We must reform the judiciary and give them their constitutional right to serve as an independent body, without any interference from government. We also need to reform our military and police services. There must be an effort to achieve justice for past crimes. There has to be an end to the impunity.

Zimbabwe turns 40 on 18 April. Growing up, Independence Day was a major deal. With age though, I find myself disoriented and struggling to comprehend what exactly there is to celebrate. What does it mean to be independent? Bornfree? 

Free of what? Free from what? Free to do what? 

(Main image: Children pass infront of a wall with a mural of the Robert Mugabe, a day after his death on 7 September 2019 in Harare, Zimbabwe. Mugabe died on Friday 6 September. He was 95. He was declared a national hero by the long-serving aide, current President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who succeeded him after a coup in 2017 – Tafadzwa Ufumeli/Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.

17 April 2020