Philip Barclay and Grace Mutandwa

Zimbabwe

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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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Monday 16 February, 2009

We will rise and be great again - insha'Allah

The mood was electrifying. The setting was Harare's Glamis stadium, once popular in the early 80s for horse riding/jumping shows. Crowds had started gathering in the early hours of Wednesday 11 February to witness Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), leader Morgan Richard Tsvangirai's inauguration speech.

On the other side of the capital at the residence of the state president, a smaller group of prominent people and diplomats was also gathering for the swearing in ceremony, that was initially slated for 11am but only happened much later. This was a by invitation only ceremony.

I watched the proceedings from the office television set. Both Tsvangirai and Mugabe looked tense and like they had been dragged screaming and kicking to the ceremony. The MDC leader took his oaths of office followed by the leader of the other faction of the  MDC, Arthur Mutambara who smiled and looked more at home with Mugabe as they bantered amicably. Next was Tsvangirai's deputy Thokozani Khupe who has now become one of the two deputy prime ministers.

The ceremony was dry and lacked the excitement expected at such occasions. For the first time in many years, western diplomats normally shunned and vilified were invited to state house. This was indeed turning out to be an important day - a day on the political calendar remembered as the day South Africa's Nelson Mandela was freed from prison over a decade ago.

Back at the stadium crowds continued pouring in. Accompanied by colleagues, I went to join the crowds and witness the closest Zimbabwe could hope to get to a "Barack Obama" moment.

By mid-day it was getting hot and sticky but more and more people were determined to bear witness to the new political dispensation. They thronged the stadium, stood  or sat patiently while others danced to the blaring music.

Even when it started raining, they waited patiently for their leader. A few colourful umbrellas popped open and those without shared with fellow supporters. Others just remained standing or sitting in the downpour.

Sitting in the shade I was amazed at their resilience. Still the music continued and the dancing carried on. I have not seen so many happy faces in one place for a very long time. It was moving. Black and white people sat and chatted animatedlywith a touching comaraderie.

When MDC secretary general Tendai Biti (tipped to be next finance minister) arrived at  the stadium, the crowd erupted, waving their hands they chanted Gono, Gono, in reference to the central bank governor, whom people blame for the country's economic malaise andexpect MDC to get rid of. The party spokesman, the youthful Nelson Chamisa also sent the supporters wild.

The arrival of the man himself, Tsvangirai was a moment to behold. The crowd that had earlier endured the heat and later the rain was ecstatic. Emotions ran high. Journalists normally unseen in this country where journalism was almost barred, scrambled to take a peak and photographers jostled to get the best picture.

And when he stood to speak, Tsvangirai was a far cry from the man who took the first steps towards change in September 1999. He was confident and spoke eloquently about the challenges ahead.

"To my fellow African leaders, there can be no turning back on the political agreement, which each party has signed, knowing this is not a perfect agreement, buta workable one, an agreement that, if implemented with good faith, will deliver a peaceful way forward - towards a stable economy, new constitution and free and fair elections," he told the crowd.

As prime minister, he promised to help restore the rule of law, respect of human rights. In the heat of the moment  apart from promising an independent media, the new prime minister promised Zimbabwe's workforce foreign currency denominated salaries.

Politicians have a tendency to get carried away. Unless Tsvangirai is privy tosomething we are not aware of, I am quite convinced in this instance he got drunk on the adoration of his supporters and promised an undeliverable. Unless he has his own foreign currency printing press, I do not know where he will get the money.

He raised people's hopes and my sincere hope is that he will deliver for his own sake and more importantly for the sake of all Zimbabweans who stood by the MDC through thick and thin. Political prisoners still locked behind bars will also hold him to his promise. Wherever this new road takes him, may the force be with him.

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Thursday 05 February, 2009

Hopes and fears

“I’m just anxious to see whether it works. Though with a lot of mistrust and suspicion it’s going to be tricky. There will be trial and error.”

That’s my Zimbabwean bank manager’s view of the new unity Government that will probably be formed next week.

My tennis partner lives in Glenview where water and electricity are more rare than the kind of snow London’s getting at the moment. He feels something similar, “We’ve got to give it a go. Any change is better than no change.”

It’s hard to be scientific in a country without opinion polls, but I reckon that most Zimbabweans feel a similar weary, limited optimism that Morgan Tsvangirai and Robert Mugabe have decided to establish a joint Government.

If all goes to plan Tsvangirai will be sworn in as Prime Minister next week. Whatever the future holds it’s amazing that a man who was a miner for ten years in the provincial town of Gutu is now going to lead the country. And it is satisfying to see some justice done – Tsvangirai came first in Zimbabwe’s Presidential election last March, so it’s right that he takes office.

There are reasons to be sceptical about the Government’s prospects. Just two years ago government agents detained and tortured Morgan Tsvangirai, breaking his skull. A dozen members of the MDC are in prison now, apparently just because of their political allegiance. It’s hard to see Tsvangirai trusting Mugabe any time soon.  

The power sharing arrangements themselves look a bit ramshackle. Mugabe and Tsvangirai will each hold senior executive office. Each of their parties will supply a dozen ministers. Each will chair a national-decision making body. It looks very much like two Governments operating side-by-side. The question will be what happens when these two Governments don’t agree? 

But the greatest hurdle the new administration will face is the appalling situation Zimbabwe finds itself in. The economy is broken beyond local repair. The Finance Minister has admitted the currency is worthless. Basic systems - education, health, transport, electricity, water supply – are things of the past for most Zimbabweans. It would be hard for any team of politicians to address these problems, but infinitely harder for a divided and experimental Government.
 
So there are troubles ahead, but for now there’s a little hope to help people face the new day. My own hope is that Zimbabwe’s leaders can live up to their people’s expectations.

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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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Monday 07 April, 2008

Pisa in Bikisa

The light from the candle on the trestle table catches Tobias’ face, casting Rembrandtesque upward shadows from his features. A big-eared bug lights on his shoulder, but Tobias is concentrating so deeply on the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission manual that he doesn’t notice the creature, which appears to be peering down to study the impenetrably bureaucratic guidance too.

Tobias inhales.

“Now we can open the seals on the ballot boxes. But first I must warn our foreign observer from the British Embassy that once I break these seals you cannot leave until the counting is fully complete.”

I nod. Some fiddling with keys and sealing wax; and suddenly a pile of ballot papers pours onto the table. Slumbering polling officers spring to life and grab ballots chaotically, shouting out and flinging papers at each other:

“ZANU-PF!”

“Makoni!”

“Tsvangirai!”

Tobias tries to referee the frenzy and finally persuades his colleagues to collaborate in producing three piles, one for each of Zimbabwe’s presidential candidates. I am so captivated I find I’m holding my breath. The piles take shape. One is just a few papers; the second is a decent pile, about as tall as a doughnut. The third is a tottering, towering Pisa of papers.

I am in a tiny place called Bikisa, deep in rural Masvingo, where Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party has won every election that has ever been held. (Ian Smith did not believe in elections for black folk). So my assumption is that the big pile is Mugabe’s.

But I am wrong. The presiding officer asks for the votes to be counted. The smallest pile is Simba Makoni’s – 11 votes. The middling pile is Mugabe’s – 44 votes. Amazingly, incredibly, the Pisa-pile belongs to Morgan Tsvangirai. The polling officer gets tongue-tied at ‘one hundred and twenty-seven’ and loses count. She sighs desperately and starts again. 167. Tsvangirai has won with about three-quarters of the vote.

I force myself to keep breathing steadily; fainting at this point would not become an officer of Her Majesty’s Government. Though I suppose I could plead hunger. Anticipating that I would be locked into the count for hours, my bag is full of chocolate and other essential rations, but I feel too self-conscious to stuff my face while this little piece of history is happening right in front of me.

Bikisa, of course, is only one of 9,400 polling stations. So my result is just one small head of mealie in a very big field. But it’s suggestive, and as I travel round other polling stations and speak to British Embassy and DFID colleagues in remote parts of every province, it’s the same story. Tsvangirai has done well and his Movement for Democratic Change has made gains in areas where its activists used to be beaten for wearing a party t-shirt.

Tobias, like a million other Zimbabweans is a decent and principled professional, who has done his job scrupulously and well. This election may be fiddled, but not by him. By the time he releases me it’s the early hours of Sunday morning. The Milky Way stretches over me. Weakened by lack of chocolate I am overcome by whimsy – I see a starry pathway to infinity paved with hope and new possibility. Definitely time to take a breath and eat some chocolate. Not, sadly, a Milky Way.

A policeman sidles up and whispers in my ear:

“Mr Philip, we are so pleased you are here, but do you really think there is hope?”

Tonight the answer is yes. Tomorrow, who knows? Will they ever dare to release these results? How does a country that has only ever transitioned by violence accept peaceful change? Next week’s questions. Now to bed.

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