Zimbabweans have voted in presidential elections. Good luck to them.
Ten years ago, I was living in Zimbabwe, working for the charity SOS. I lived in Chiwaridzo, a township attached to the town of Bindura, a mining town and capital of the Mashonaland Central province. Its one of the northern provinces currently being described as ‘Mugabe’ country, and he has been holding rallies in the area in the run up to today’s vote. About an hour from Harare, Bindura sits at the top of the Mazowe Valley, one of the most fertile parts of the country.
The period 1997/98 was a very interesting time to be in Zimbabwe. In retrospect, it was the turning point in the country’s fortunes and its international reputation. At the start of my time there, the economy was in rude health, with the exchange rate sitting at about seventeen Zim dollars to the pound.
The new British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, met Robert Mugabe. A photo of the two men appeared on the front page of the Herald, Zimbabwe’s state-owned newspaper. (I remember it well, because the obnoxious white farmer who showed me the photo pointed out how both men were sitting with their legs crossed. “What a couple of poofters,” he said, and I was too young and nervous to challenge this casual prejudice).
So when people say that Mugabe has spent the last 28 years ruining his country, remember that only a decade ago he was a leader of good international standing. He was not an international pariah in 1998, nor was he in the business of demonizing the British in the manner he does today.
I remember the jolts to the economy. We were shocked to hear on the grapevine that a large American firm had pulled its operations in the country. We weren’t quite sure why, but it was enough to temporarily send the exchange rate to a mind-blowing 40 Zim dollars to the pound. We all wished we had known about it at the time, and had been able to change a few pounds at that rate. But after that the rate began to casually slip, and when I left in August ’98 a rate of ZW$40 to the pound seemed normal.
I recall Mugabe sending troops to the Congo. Nelson Mandela was still president of South Africa, and he suggested that not everyone in the South African Development Community thought that was a good idea. Mugabe told Mandela to “shut up.” This news was reported on Zimbabwe Radio 3, The Voice of the Nation. The drum beats that introduced the news were always followed by the same head-line: “Comrade Mugabe says…”
The TV news reports were no less biased. The food protests, riots and strikes began in 1998, but there were scant reports of them on television. After one big bout of disruption, we saw nothing on the nightly news. However, ZTV always carried a package of international news from CNN, and on this particular evening the disturbances in Harare and Mutare made the international report. Halfway through the unstable footage of riots and beatings, the feed was cut off, and replaced with a card depicting the channel’s logo. After a couple of minutes the picture was restored, and we happily continued to watch the news reports from elsewhere in the world. The protests and strikes had been organized by a union leader named Morgan Tsvangirai.
Most of all, though, I remember the fear in the eyes of my friends. A tall and overweight colleague of mine named Sammy had huge scars down her ears. I never had the courage to ask her how she got them, but another co-worker, Sithabile, told me the story. Apparently, the “men in green” had come to their village, and decided that they would make the overweight Sammy more beautiful by giving her pierced ears. So they cut her with a machete. When I asked Sithabile to tell me more about these “men in green” she told me a little about the gukurahundi, the ethnic cleansing of the minority Ndebele tribe by Mugabe’s notorious Fifth Brigade in the early 1980s. She said she remembered the soliders coming into her village and marching her uncle and cousins away into the bush… and then hearing bangs. “I still dream about those bangs,” she said.
I got drunk one night a party held by some teachers from the local school. Someone was leaving, or maybe it was someone’s birthday. For giggles, we stole the monstrous portrait of President Mugabe that hung in the staff room, and removed it to our flat. It was a shock the next morning to find Bob staring at me when I woke up. His eyes seem to follow you around the room. When a friend came to visit later that day, he was panicked. “Take it back, I tell you!” he shouted, and refused to come in. It was as if our flat had been cursed. The following day we had to reverse steal the portrait, sneaking it back into the school and onto the wall before anyone else noticed.
There are plenty of tyrants, dictators and one-party systems on the planet. But I’ve only lived under one such menace myself, the regime of Robert Mugabe. It is only the effects of his mismanagement that I have witnessed on a daily basis. Its only the fear of Mugabe that I have seen up close, killing the hope of the people and stunting the country. For that reason, he has a special place outside my heart.