Philip Barclay and Grace Mutandwa


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Monday 16 March, 2009

Out of tragedy emerges national hope

In 1999 when I interviewed Susan Tsvangirai for a profile for a weekly independent paper, I was struck by how warm and easy to talk to she was.

Her husband, Morgan had just announced the formation of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). All the urban areas had been lit up in new hope, hope for a freer and democratic Zimbabwe. There was a possibility that she could become the country's next first lady and we were all curious about her.

I went to their humble home then in Harare's middle density suburb of Ashdown Park. She exuded motherly charm, had an enchanting smile and spoke lovingly of her children and husband. She was acutely aware of the fact that their lives would never be the same again because they would now be viewed as enemies of the ruling party and government.

When on Friday the 6th of March I heard she had died, I was shocked and for a very long time sat in a numbed state.

After that interview in 1999, I had seen and spoken to Susan on several occasions. Every time I saw her I came away thinking how lucky Morgan and his children were to havethis diamond in their lives. Even when her husband was being tried for treason or had been beaten up for standing up to the government, Susan had remained Morgan's greatest supporter and his rock of Gibraltar.

Even in death Susan proved beyond doubt that she was a remarkable woman. Thousands of people thronged her memorial service in Harare and a day later her burial ceremony at her husband's country home in Buhera. Susan was a humble and strong African woman who had a very strong sense of wrong and right. She was blessed with empathy, a value that is increasingly missing in some of our leaders.

Zimbabweans from all walks of life trudged on foot, some travelled on the back of old lorries, the latest vehicle models or on buses new and old. Diplomats came, so did cabinet ministers from Southern Africa, the civil society and the churches. The ceremony in Buhera was a celebration of the life of a woman described by leader of the smaller formation of the MDC, Arthur Mutambara, as the people's heroine and the mother of the nation.

A minister from Botswana speaking on behalf of her president, said this was not a moment for tears but one for strength. In a strong emotion filled voice, she said Susan's death should not be in vain but should be the foundation upon which reconciliation,economic and political recovery should be built.

The previous day at the church ceremony President Robert Mugabe had surprised many when he spoke like a father grieving with the whole nation.

Maybe out of this tragedy Zimbabwe will rise and be great again. Maybe the motherly spirit of Susan Tsvangirai will prove that with love and tolerance Zimbabweans have a future. Out of this tragedy that brought together people of different political persuasions, one could not help but sense an emergence of hope.

Susan's dedication to freedom and justice and a Zimbabwe that we can all be proud of, reflect the aspirations of all Zimbabweans.

She was not just the wife of a politician but a mother, sister, friend and activist who sacrificed her freedom by remaining at the side of a man once reviled by the ZANU PF government.

May the spirit of the mother of the nation rest in peace.

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Wednesday 04 February, 2009

Can you really trust this change?

Last Friday, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Morgan Tsvangirai confirmed that he would be joining the ruling ZANU PF and the other smaller faction of the MDC in forming a government of "sorts".

When Tsvangirai emerged from his press conference, he was greeted by multitudes of expectant supporters. They all wanted to know if he would take a chance on Robert Mugabe. And  indeed, he confirmed he would.

There was wild excitement and of course with it reasonable and unreasonable expectations of what the MDC can do to bring about much needed change to Zimbabwe.

I am a cynical person so I am not holding my breath. But there are several people around me who believe now that Tsvangirai has agreed to board the shacky inclusive government train, all is going to be fine.

The cholera epidemic is unrelenting. It has now affected 65,000 and left 3,295 dead. Hunger is still stalking us at an unimaginable speed.

People abducted and being tried for banditry are still firmly locked up. There is no guarantee that those who oppose the government will not be hunted down and punished as has become the norm.

There are immediate things that do not need a bag of money that these political leaders could immediately work on. They do not need money to release thepolical prisoners and abductees. They could also immediately scratch oppressive laws such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) and the Public Order Security Act (POSA).

Those in charge of the State media could get reporters working for them to start using language that promotes peace and stop denigrating the very same people the government seems keen to include in running the country. Those things do not require bucketfuls of money.

With unemployment now said to be around 94%, anyone who wants to make a difference to Zimbabwe has to start thinking very fast about how to create jobs,ensure education is affordable and rebuild the broken down infrastructure.

Inflation has not stopped soaring since Tsvangirai's agreeing to come on board In fact it continues to soar into figures we have never heard before in the history of numbers.

Everything is now sold in foreign currency. People who only six months agolived very well of US$100 sent by relatives in the diaspora, now struggle to makeends meet. Zimbabweans have managed to devalue the American and British pound so much that now a US$100 does not go very far. Food is over-priced so are rentalsand school fees.

Six months ago I knew people who received a small stipend from relatives abroad,and they used it to buy food, pay school fees, cover transport and pay rent or rates.This is because the exchange rate had broken through the roof and US$30 was enough to cover monthly requirements.

Today nobody wants the Zimbabwean dollar. The only place to use it is when paying utility bills because the government controlled the organisations in charge of utilities. Even here the money is accepted grudgingly. It is a currency that has not only lost its value but its respect as well.

You can not even tip with Zimbabwean dollars. And I do not see anyone tippingin foreign currency either. Maybe people should now start moving around with bags ofsweets as a thank you token. a five Rand coin (US$0,50) is the amount one needs for a single journey on public transport, so paying that as a tip is certaily out of the question.

But of course the Central Bank governor, Gedion Gono, believes we still have need for the local currency. He sees it as a symbol of our nationalism and sovereignty, ironic really, considering he has also allowed the country to adopt several strong currencies that actually have a purchasing value.

A few days ago in a monetary policy statement, Gono revalued the Zimbabwean dollar by removing 12 zeroes. A Z$100 trillion note, which was the highest note in circulation, is now Z$100. We have also now been told that Z$20 trillion (now Z$20) is now equivalent to US$1 and Z$2 trillion (Z$2) is now the same value as one South African Rand.

In the same breath he also reeled off names of the various sectors of the economy including state enterprises that can now do business in both Zimbabwean dollars or British, American or South African currencies. All business is now conducted in foreigncurrency and no sane person with goods or services for sale will accept money that losesits value before it leaves the pocket.

The governor also invited international investors to invest in Zimbabwe. Only those with very short memories will take up this offer, especially after what happened towhite commercial farmers in 2000. Zimbabwe has failed to honour bilateral property agreements. Investors want property rights guaranteed, respected and they want to be sure their investment is secure.

The day Tsvangirai gets sworn in, investors want to be assured they can work with Zimbabwe again, my maid expects an immediate transformation of her standard of living, my unemployed cousins want jobs and the homeless want homes. All Zimbabweans also want the security of knowing that they can go to bed without fear of being attacked or abducted by the very people who should protect them.

Morgan Tsvangirai is going into a marriage that already has gaping cracks. He isjoining a terribly troubled union. There is no trust and there is no respect. It is an association that needs a lot of divine intervention and several relationship managers for it to work. And the  people on the streets expect no less than a huge miracle. Anyone who wants this job has to have their head examined.

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Friday 22 August, 2008

A country that works

This week I am working from our offices at the High Commission in Pretoria, South Africa – job shadowing. I am working with Russ Dixon and his team.

Just one day in the Pretoria office gives you an idea of just how hard these guys work. The amount of work they do and the number of programmes they whizz through in a day make you realise just how much work we in Harare would be able to do if we were working in a normal environment. South Africa is a country that works. The guys in the Pretoria office have an inspiring fire in their bellies. They have such an overwhelming sense of enthusiasm, it is contagious.

I will admit that I am quite envious of the fact that my colleagues can actually sit down and plan various projects and programmes, set up meetings that bear fruit and confidently speak of what they would like to do in the new year. Coming from Harare, Zimbabwe, I cannot very well say I can confidently say what our public diplomacy strategy will focus on and I cannot even realistically promise that our key objectives will be achieved. I sound despondent but the reality is that my colleagues here are in an enabling environment and I am coming from a place where tomorrow is definitely not promised!

We do a lot of good work in Harare but this week has made me realise just how much more we could achieve if the political situation normalised. We could do more were the environment less hostile. The Zimbabwe story is a major story down here. The difference is that there are so many papers writing about it and all in a very different way – it is just so refreshing even though some of the papers get it wrong. There is a media diversity that makes me envious. Here is a country that has its own political problems but has seen the benefit of different views. Community radio stations are in abundance. They are at least not seen as enemies of the state. Yes, the South African government has many complaints about the media but it is mature enough to realise that with democracy comes the responsibility of ensuring that the various freedoms are respected and upheld. Journalists do not live in fear of being abducted or brutalised. Zimbabwe could learn so much from countries that allow free speech. It might even start developing in the right direction. In the early 80s, I and I am sure several other Zimbabweans took so many things for granted. We lived our lives in a vacuum and allowed so many things to go wrong. We let go of our freedoms and rights and when we started realising our mistake, it was too late. We ceded power to people we trusted to look after our welfare. We went to sleep and forgot that good governance, democracy and human rights are precious commodities that need to be kept under close and constant guard. What we did can happen to any nation that relaxes and forgets or ignores the fact that absolute power corrupts absolutely and that leaders are people who need to be constantly made to account for their actions.

Yes, my colleagues in Pretoria buzz around and get things done. This used to happen in the early years of our independence in Zimbabwe. Development and humanitarian agencies worked efficiently because the country’s wheels were firmly on and were well greased. I feel really energised and there are many lessons I will take from Pretoria but will I still have a country to apply what I have learnt to? The decline in Zimbabwe continues.

As to the negotiations between ZANU PF and the two formations of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC)- we are told by the leaders that people want a deal now. Really? Has anyone cared to check exactly what kind of deal the people want? Power is good but real power should always be vested in the people. Real power should be drawn from the people. Many people are already on one meal a day but I am sure even as the days get bleaker no one wants a deal that will be meaningless. We all want our country to work again and it can work again. There was a lot of goodwill at independence in 1980 and that goodwill is still out there. We just have to do the right thing as a country.

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Friday 01 August, 2008

Economic reform is in the eye of the beholder

A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) has been signed by the leaders of Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU PF and the two formations of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

The politicians are talking, the economy continues to decline at an unimaginable speed and hunger is stalking the nation. On the surface all seems to be quite normal. People who still have jobs are still going to work. Students who can, are going to school or college, while vendors continue to make a quick buck from selling food in short supply at parallel market rates.

Our money has gained so many zeros, I am amazed anyone can still make sense of it. I salute my colleagues in the accounts section and those who work on our electronic accounting system to effect various purchases and payments day-in-day-out. How they can whizz around the zeros is a miracle.

This weekend I bought an imported bottle of red wine at Z$8.5 trillion, which in real money is about US$71 if you use last week's cash rate of $120 billion to the greenback. I also bought several 500ml bottles of mineral water there were no bigger bottles) at Z$1.2 trillion each.

We have had no water for more than a week. There was a time when we took having access to water for granted. Not anymore. I have become quite skilled at bathing myself in miniscule amounts of water. There is water in Zimbabwe but at times there either an inadequate supply of water treatment drugs or there is no power to pump water into our homes.

Negotiations under the MOU for a political settlement started a week ago but we have only now just learnt they have either been abandoned or adjourned, depending on who is speaking. I and colleagues I have spoken to are skeptical about the outcome of the talks. I guess we are realists.

While we wonder what our political future is going to be, the Reserve Bank Governor of Zimbabwe, Gideon Gono, has just announced that we are dropping 10 zeros from our currency!

Most Zimbabweans, even vendors, had become multi-billionnaires and now they will find their money has been re-denominated. It should make sense,but it does not. The coins that had been abandoned years ago, are once again legal tender. We will now have a $500 note which in real terms is 5 000 000 000 000 (five trillion). This will be the highest new note in circulation. A twenty-five cent coin will be part of the new currency. I am not so sure what it's real value will be.

You want to go shopping after this announcement - I can assure you, it is a mind boggling experience. There is not much to buy from shops anyway. In any case whatever money you have, loses value well before you set off for the shops. Our daily bank withdrawal limit was $100 000 000 000 ($100 Billion) which was just enough for a one way trip to work. From the beginning of August it has been set at $200 which is actually $2 trillion of the old money. You need three trips to the bank to access the equivalent of the highest note (500) now in circulation.

We are going to have to re-configure our lives. Public transport providers will have to re-work their fares and prices in shops will also have to shuffle around this new currency. We are even going to have a $10 coin and $10 note! And we have been told that we can do the switch over from old to new currency at "our own pace" until the end of the year. How very generous! I suppose this means all our problems are solved.

Unless the political situation in Zimbabwe is resolved, all these constant currency reforms will never work. They will remain temporary measures that only serve to prolong the suffering of Zimbabweans. Soon after the Governor of the Reserve Bank announced the new monetary reforms, President Robert Mugabe, who attended the presentation for the first time chided those who want him to step down. He also denounced his usual imagined detractors the leaders of America and Britain. To him it does not matter that Tony Blair no longer leads the British Government. He is still seen as a threat and behind the regime change agenda and so he also got a special mention (attack).

If Mugabe still sees himself as the main and indispensable part of the equation in a new Zimbabwe, what are the so called talks about then? Is he really serious about wanting an end to the political and economic turmoil? The opposition Movement for Democratic Change will either stand their ground and refuse to play the underdog, because they won the first round of the presidential and parliamentary elections, or accept being swallowed like what happened to the former ZAPU, led by the late nationalist Joshua Nkomo.

I am a cynic when it comes to politics so I do not see a happy ending to the talks the MOU gave birth to. It will all end in tears. We have representatives of the two formations of the MDC and ZANU PF talking in a secret venue in Pretoria, South Africa. On the other hand state radio, television and the papers seem to be still running a campaign of sorts for President Mugabe. A month after the June 27 presidential run-off war music is still being played on national radio. Do they know something we don't?

President Mugabe's wife, Grace, has become almost the main political face of ZANU PF. The state media feature her dishing out food handouts and telling people about the "virtues" of ZANU PF. Is she campaigning for her husband or is she building the foundations of her own political career? It might spice up the already hot political scene if it turns out she is aiming for the top job. She has been opening state funded "People's Shops" where goods are sold at way below their true value. She has also been dishing out free food hampers that contain a 2,5kg of sugar, 1kg salt, 2,5kg flour, a 750ml bottle of cooking oil, bath soap, 100ml of toothpaste, vaseline (a paraffin based petroleum body jelly) and a 500g laundry powder soap. When sold in the people's shops, the same hamper costs a paltry $105 billion. That amount cannot buy a loaf of bread.

All these foods are imported under the Government's Basic Commodity Supply Side Intervention (BACOSSI) programme which is bankrolled by the central bank. Our manufacturing industry continues to suffer a severe decline in output. Agriculture is almost non-existent. There is no new tangible investment inspite of all the stories we read in the state media about countries in the Far East expressing interest.

Mad does not even start to describe the everyday decisions of some of our political leaders. It is surreal. The fact that we have been able to survive this madness for seven years must mean we are all well and truly CERTIFIABLE.

There is a sense of pending doom. A sense of something being plotted. President Mugabe is still thanking Zimbabweans for voting for him "overwhelmingly" in advertisements in the state media. This is despite the fact that he won in a one-man race. We still hear advertisements promising us "100% empowerment, and total independence" but all we feel is total impoverishment and a sense of foreboding. And of course, Mugabe believes we have a "real" democracy, but then again, democracy is in the eye of the beholder!

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Friday 18 July, 2008

Legacy and Long-legged Birds

Sorry there have been no posts recently from me, I’m just back from the most welcome holiday of my life.

My previous blogs have reflected Zimbabwe’s plunge from hope in March to despair and fear today. The feeling on Harare’s streets is that – yet again – the people have been denied the leader they voted for and that – yet again – the world doesn’t care. Some countries’ choice to prevent the UN Security Council from taking action last week has convinced Zimbabweans that they are on their own, facing a lethal and cruel Government with no interests beyond clinging onto power.

Despair and fear infects us working at the British Embassy too. Living through such a period is taking chunks out of us. In June we held our annual reception to celebrate the Queen’s Birthday, and give some aid and comfort to our community and friends here. Some of the guests could not attend, as they were being held as political prisoners. Others have been savagely beaten since the party. It hurts to see such cruelty close up.

Every day we see the latest victims of torture and murder – sometimes photos, sometimes face-to-face. The latest man to die horribly is a driver called Gift Mutsvungunu, whose ‘crime’ was to move the furniture of a previous murder victim. Gift was abducted. His eyes were gouged out and he was burned. Only then was he killed. His torture was sub-human. It’s only motive was the sadistic fury of ZANU-PF’s revenge on the MDC for its 29 March election victory. It is shredding us inside to see such horrors, particularly when all we can do is document what we see and hope for eventual justice. 

And we feel that our little bubble of diplomatic safety is contracting. The state-sponsored papers are loaded with hatred every day. We are accused of causing the crisis, of ordering the MDC to commit murder, of racism. When we venture out of the Embassy, we are treated as suspicious people. We are questioned and sometimes even threatened. We feel reasonably confident that the police will do us no harm. But we see ZANU-PF militias on the streets – young thugs pumped up with alcohol and drugs and indoctrinated to believe that whites are the enemy. How stable are these people?

There are rewards of course – like reading that the Prime Minister used the very latest – and particularly shocking – information, supplied by ourselves, to argue for action at the G8 summit. But real results are scarce, and after a few months of Zimbabwe in a tail-spin, we all need a break to stop our heads dropping. For me that meant a couple of weeks of safari and beach in Tanzania.

One of many sad thoughts I had about Zimbabwe while on holiday is that it can be misused as a piece of evidence to confirm the racist and incorrect prejudice some still hold that black Africans cannot govern themselves, without dictatorship, genocide, starvation or economic collapse. At the time of the Gleneagles’ summit in 2005, ‘the year of Africa’, when we were full of hope for the continent’s future, figures like Idi Amin belonged to another century. Now we have Zimbabwe, a Uganda for the 21st century. The cynicism about Africa that Zimbabwe is generating is just another piece of ZANU-PF’s rich legacy to the world. 

If I was having any doubts, Tanzania showed me that the stereotype of the corrupt African is not just unfortunate,  but also untrue. I met diverse people who didn’t agree about everything, but managed to disagree without killing each other. People were united in the desire to create a more happy and prosperous country. The economy is doing well, people speak without fear and I saw plenty of evidence of the tolerant government that Zimbabwe lacks.

While I was in Tanzania, its Human Rights’ Commission published details of violations in the last year and urged the Government to address the problem. The newspapers discussed a recent building collapse and criticised the Government for not regulating construction. Continuing tensions between the mainland and the Zanzibar archipelago were openly reported and discussed. I’m not an expert on Tanzania, but it looks like a great country, honest about its problems and trying to do better. I hope the UK looks as open, friendly and tolerant to foreign visitors.

And in case you think I spent all my time reading newspapers, let me tell you that I sat in the Serengeti watching lions gnawing wildebeest, pondered whether that bright-eyed, long-legged bird at Ngorongoro was the black-winged or Senegalese variety of plover; and relaxed on the beach, letting the Indian Ocean splash over my toes. All washed down with crates of ‘Kilimanjaro’ beer to keep my belly in shape – heaven!     

Please keep Zimbabwe in your thoughts, as its terribly put-upon people consider their options at the start of another five-year Presidency. Zimbabweans showed enormous courage on 29 March, but others have not matched that courage and the future is now grim.

And please also don’t give up on Africa, most of which is peaceful and beautiful.  And if you’re looking for a holiday – try Tanzania!

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Tuesday 10 June, 2008

Horror in Zaka

No jokes in this piece, sadly. It’s just too grim.

I am making yet another election monitoring trip in Masvingo this week, along with our Human Rights Officer. It’s the eighth trip the British Embassy has made to the province since February in an effort to know first-hand what is going on. People are starting to recognise us.

The call comes through while we are in Bikita, watching a group of officials and stony-eyed youths in ZANU-PF regalia giving maize meal to party supporters. The Government has annihilated agriculture and has now forbidden UN agencies and NGOs from distributing food. So unless you promise ZANU-PF that you’re going to vote for Robert Mugabe on 27 June, you starve.  

The call says that there has been a bomb attack in Zaka and that people are dead. We aren’t planning to go to Zaka, but it’s only 20 miles away, 15 minutes the way Elvis drives, so we go.

First stop the police station.  A smooth plod denies any knowledge of a fatal attack in Zaka. He’s really good and we actually believe him. But I should have smelled a rat when he showed no interest in investigating my report, but lots of interest in who had called me with the tip-off.

On to the MDC office where we’ve been told the bombing took place. I have to get Elvis to pull over so I can admire the view behind a tree and, as we are parked, a police Landover, going fast, overtakes us. By the time we reach the MDC office, two policemen are standing some distance from it, instructing us to leave the area.

I must admit I lose my temper a little. I ask the more senior policeman why he is obstructing international observers going about their proper business. I ask him if he had arrested anyone for murder. I ask him if he, in fact, knows exactly who has done this.

The policeman says he had orders to obey. I ask him if he’s heard of the international tribunals where war criminals are put on trial, and the Nuremberg defence. I do appreciate that all this is going too far, but honestly, the indifference of this man to every aspect of a horrifying mass murder, other than covering it up, is too much to tolerate.

While our unsatisfactory conversation is going on, we manage to get reasonably close to the MDC office. It is entirely burned out. Elvis pulls the car up beside me and says sharply, “it is time to go NOW, this man is losing control”.

As we shoot off, another call. A man injured in the attack has been taken to a hospital in Masvingo. We zoom over there, Elvis-fast, and find the man - bandaged hands and feet and burned hair. His story of what happened is horrible.

Six MDC officials, sleeping in their office, were woken by the arrival of an armed gang at 4am. The armed men forced the officials to lie down and shot three people immediately. (I pray to any available God that they were killed outright). Petrol was poured over them all and they were set alight. The man I am talking to managed to tear off his clothes, beat out the flames burning his body and escape. Two men are dead, their bodies unrecognisably burned, and another suspected dead but his body is missing. Two men have burns over large areas of their bodies. They will be lucky to live.

If you are one of the few people in this world who believe there is not a ghastly crisis in Zimbabwe; if you believe the brazen official lies that the MDC is responsible for the violence; or if you believe that a fair election is possible when opposition party workers are being burned alive, I urge you to reflect on what you have just read, and think again

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