Zimbabwe may be in political and economic disarray but its people are still standing, and they owe their continued resilience to an unyielding entrepreneurial spirit, writes THEMBA MAZINGWANE.
As a Zimbabwean handyman living in South Africa, I do not need a university degree to know that Zimbabwe continues to descend perilously quickly. Once the breadbasket of the continent, former African war hero Robert Mugabe and his cronies have pillaged the country over the last two decades, leaving a country in economic and political disarray in their wake.
While this state-manufactured dysfunction persists, one of the most bewildering stories in Africa in the last fifteen years has become the perceived silence of Zimbabweans. How can such longstanding despair, desperation, and frustration not manifest itself into a violent uprising for change, as we have seen in Kenya, Burundi, and so many other countries? Why do the Zimbabwean people silently acquiesce in their current economic state? Why are we silent?
The answer is that our strength of persistence has become our greatest weakness.
In 2008, it seemed that change might actually come to Zimbabwe. The first round of elections showed opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai had what seemed like an insurmountable lead. Rumours were that Mugabe considered pulling out. Instead, he reversed course and launched a campaign of violence and intimidation to such an extent that the Tsvangirai dropped out days before the run-off. This election shattered any lingering hope many had for a new Zimbabwe. The result left no doubt about the extremes to which Mugabe and his henchmen were willing to go to to remain in power, and by proxy, worsen the life of the common Zimbabwean.
Seven years later, Zimbabwe is bankrupt and corruption-ridden, with approximately 90% of 15 million people unemployed in the formal economy, desperately poor and only surviving through a remarkable entrepreneurial spirit. I find people who foresee anything other than an even more bleak future for the country remarkably optimistic – if not downright delusional.
I want be hopeful. I want to hope that tomorrow Mugabe will wake up a changed man, realising that he has put Zimbabweans through enough suffering.
I want to hope that miraculously, the whole criminal enterprise that is Mugabe’s Zanu-PF, a power-hungry institution that has spent the last 35 years masquerading as a political party while shamelessly plundering the country, will suffer an epic implosion from within that destroys its political grip.
I want to hope that the government swallows its pride and admits that land reform was a disaster of epic proportions. I want to hope that the opposition parties in Zimbabwe put their created factions aside and work together. I want to hope that one day normalcy will re-appear and our closed industries will reopen, creating much-needed jobs.
But all that hope would be just that – wishful thinking. Just as Mugabe wore down opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, long suffering has worn down Zimbabweans. We have consciously made a decision to focus on keeping ourselves alive, rather than investing our energy into fighting an unconquerable enemy: our government.
Before the 2008 election, politics dominated the Zimbabwean lexicon. It’s what we talked at our homes, on the streets, in bars. But today, we focus on our own lives. Once upon a time, with the country steeped in social and economic problems, we would talk about how to create a better government. Such talk now would be a waste of breath. The 2015 Zimbabwean worries more about making sure they have enough food to feed their families at the end of the day than about the upcoming election. We have lost any zeal for politics. Frankly, it does not solve our immediate needs.
So how have Zimbabweans survived the ever-worsening situation of our country? How have we managed to live through our government’s negligence of its responsibilities and indifference to our plight? How have we managed to survive the frightening bouts of violence that Mugabe’s regime unleashes on us? How have we made it this far in a country whose currency was literally destroyed by world record inflation?
The truth is that we owe our continued resilience to an unyielding entrepreneurial spirit. Human suffering paradoxically awakens dormant creative survival capacities that do not surface in times of ease and luxury. Suffering strips dignity, shatters ego, and allows humans to conduct humiliating work. Suffering drives Zimbabweans with graduate degrees to illegally jump the border into South Africa to work as a gardener or waiter. Suffering turns the majority of a well-educated populace into minibus drivers, foreign currency traders, vendors, or thieves.
Yet, somehow, we survive. Every time that I see images of Sudanese or Somalis waiting for food supplies and humanitarian assistance, I realise how easily that could be the case in Zimbabwe. Instead, we remain self-sufficient. We squeeze water out of stone. I am proud of the way that we have managed to keep our heads up in the face of so much suffering.
Indeed, to be a Zimbabwean in 2015 is to have the capacity to essentially ignore the current government. Any attempt to try to understand or make sense of the madness of the situation is an unnecessary waste of energy that is better spent concentrating on making the best of individual situations.
Over the years, we have chosen to mind our own business rather than confront a merciless regime. This is a reflection of our strength. And it is a reflection of our greatest weakness. Through our sheer determination to shape our own future, we have unwittingly helped a despotic regime thrive.
But I do not think there is an alternative.
Instead, we will continue to survive. And we will continue to hope.