Marching bands, long speeches and colourful acrobatic displays marked Zimbabwe’s 37th independence celebrations held around the country on Tuesday. People filled up White City Stadium in the second-biggest city of Bulawayo, just as they do every year, to watch politicians wax lyrical about the nation’s hard-won freedom while the majority of the umbrella-less crowd burns in the hot noon sun.
Naturally the end of white minority rule will always be reason to cheer, especially here, the last African country to be freed from British colonial rule. Like most born-frees, I’m thankful I never had the displeasure of living under white rule, but growing up under a black regime that has its own record of post-war horrors and crises has shown that freedom is not a simple story of black triumph over white oppression. Unlike South Africa, another April freedom child, Zimbabwe’s land and economy now largely lie in black hands, but whether state or private actors, the wealthy are a well-connected elite and the masses surviving on less than $2/day are yet to attain their economic freedom.
In his 37th uhuru speech and those read on his behalf by officials around the country, President Robert Mugabe spoke optimistically about translating the gains of liberation into economic empowerment. One of the last hurdles, he said, was reorganising the mining sector and transferring majority ownership as under a 2008 law, large companies must be 51% owned by black Zimbabweans. In a speech, reform of the mining industry sounds wonderful, but in reality, the memories of Zimbabwe’s chaotic fast-track land reform program of the 2000s are still too raw to take Mugabe’s proposal as a good-hearted nationalist’s gesture towards the people’s full liberation.
But still, some believe this economic uhuru shall come to pass. And until then, the people shall eat the fruits of the land.
Unlike last year’s independence dinner on April 17, when the food ran out and sadza, the maize meal staple dish, and boiled cabbage were the only things left, this year’s freedom ball seemed better financed. So was independence day lunch it seems – buffalo and elephant meat were on the menu.
The department of parks and wildlife donated the game meat because, much to the ire of animal rights activists around the world, elephants and buffaloes are eaten at some special gatherings in Zimbabwe. Traditionally game is considered a delicacy among communities in the drier, less fertile Matabeleland regions in the southern and western parts of the country. However, as a non-meat eater it’s hard to see animals as food so I wouldn’t know if elephant tastes like spam or stewed biltong as they say.
After 37 years it’s neither here nor there what’s on the menu on April 18, though. What matters is the people with empty stomachs and pockets struggling through every other day while corrupt liberators eat from the trough. Zimbabwe still has a long way to go before achieving the resource transformation Mugabe imagines, but knowing his Chimurenga way, an independence speech on economic reform under the theme “Ease of Doing Business” is really just sparring for another tug of war between the patriots and the capitalists that could leave many (economic) civilian casualties, if and when it comes to pass.