WHENEVER we Zimbabweans in Lilongwe get together, we invariably end up talking about home. I assume that is the case with Zimbabweans in other parts of the world.
People share experiences about how Malawians talk about our predicament with glee. It has to be remembered that during the federation Malawi was a dormitory for cheap labour for our farms and mines. We derided them as “Manyasarandi” – a term derived from Nyasaland, Malawi’s name during the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. We talk of the shame of being fed by the 14th poorest country on the planet and how we ended up in this mess.
What fascinates me about these discussions is they always end with several of my compatriots proclaiming “Smith was a much better than Mugabe”. Those prepared to say this usually do so in the company of a few trusted friends. I always laugh at how their voices are lowered to mere whispers once they start mimicking that line. Whenever I challenge them to vocalise these sentiments in the presence of all and sundry I always get told; “It’s not done.”
I first heard the line “Smith aive nani” meaning (Smith was much better) being said publicly many years ago. Ironically it was said by an ex-combatant of the war of liberation. The occasion was the burial of some national hero. As usual, President Mugabe presented his lengthy diatribe against “enemies of the state”. Then from the blue, this war vet whose name I forget shouted on top of his voice, “Aiwawo, kutaura zvisina maturo. Smith aive nani” literally meaning “All you said was just nonsense. Smith was much better.”
Needless to say the gentleman was hastily shunted away by the police and taken to the cells. It was later reported that, having been kept in police custody without charge for a couple of weeks, the offender was released because after a thorough perusal of our statute books, they could not find the appropriate offence under which to charge him. However, in order to plug that loophole a law was put together which now makes it an offence to bring the person of the head of state into disrepute, read, he cannot be criticised in words deemed insulting.
The next time I heard similar sentiments being expressed was in January of 2007. My two siblings and I visited a homestead which lies at the border with what used to be Jock Kay’s farm. Sadly, the proud new owners now grow grass where world class tobacco used to be grown. The roads that used to be maintained by the farming community were so bad that it took us three times longer than it used to complete the journey.
After the usual routine of enquiring after each other’s health, my sister’s father in law, humorous as ever, whispered in my ear, “Regai ndikutaurirei chokwadi maiguru vaDudley, Smith aive nani. Ini kubva ndichiberekwa ndanga ndisati ndamboita Christmas isina chingwa. Zvakatouya naivo vaMugabe”. This means “To be honest with you, Dudley’s aunt, Smith was much better. Never before had we ever celebrated Christmas without bread. Mugabe started all this”.
When I burst out laughing, the old man urgently begged me not to repeat what he had said because those around could not be trusted not to report him to the “war vets”. He said one could be killed for expressing those sorts of sentiments.
Here is the crux of the matter. Where other democracies are at liberty to critique their leadership, in Zimbabwe, merely voicing the opinion that the white prime minister was better than his successor can result in death. How did we become so barbaric?
I will give my views of Ian Smith first. An unrepentant white supremacist right up to his death, he plunged Zimbabwe into an unnecessary civil war which resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of lives. Egotistic as ever, at independence he chose to continue at the helm of white leadership even though it would have been in the interest of his constituency to be led by someone capable of reconciling with blacks. Having proclaimed over and over again that blacks would not rule “in a thousand years”, he was determined more than ever to prove that the new political leadership would fail dismally.
Having excluded blacks from fully participating in the affairs of the country and thereby denying them the desperately needed experience, he knew that failure was a real possibility and he had no intention of being a magnanimous leader. Mugabe expressed his disappointment over the white vote for Smith in the 1985 elections, (even though he had, in all fairness, bended backwards to accommodate them) by sacking Dennis Norman as Agriculture Minister.
This is where I see similarities between Mugabe and Smith. Just as egotistic as Smith, he viewed the white vote as a personal rejection by whites of his hand of reconciliation. He sought revenge by sacking a man who had proved that his interests lay in serving Zimbabwe. When after a decade of fairly good performance Mugabe realised that things were starting to go downhill, he like Ian Smith, still chose to continue running the country.
It also has to be pointed out that Mugabe, from the onset, never acted as a national leader. We had a foretaste of things to come when in 1980, when after being confronted by Lord Soames regarding the fact that his supporters were denying PF-Zapu supporters the right to campaign in rural Masvingo, he unashamedly retorted that it was the right thing to do because that was his “back yard”. He argued Joshua Nkomo was at liberty to campaign in Matabeleland.
It therefore has to be said neither Mugabe nor Smith was a national leader in the true sense of the word. Smith catered for the interests of the white community while Mugabe was quite happy, even at independence, to seek the legitimacy of only a segment of the population. The only difference is that while Smith never hid his disdain for the black population, Mugabe sought to portray himself as someone who cared for all his people. Yet, even when fighting broke out between former ZANLA (Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army) and former ZIPRA (Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army) forces, at Entumbane in late 1980, Mugabe failed to display the national leadership that was expected of him.
The similarities of the two men do not end there. Both resorted to the use of repressive legislation to remain in power. Where it was expected that Mugabe would dismantle the battery of repressive legislation that Smith used to suppress the rise of Black Nationalism, Mugabe kept the laws firmly in place, using them against the very people he had promised liberty. Sadly, such legislation as AIPPA (the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act) is even more repressive than Smith’s media laws. The Citizenship Act is primitive and an embarrassment to those who have sought to portray Mugabe as a Pan-Africanist.
Interestingly, it was only after independence that we had students getting seriously injured or even killed during the course of demonstrations. I sadly remember how one student, Batanai Hadzizi, died at the hands of the riot police in April 2001 during a demonstration at the University of Zimbabwe. Mugabe, as Chancellor, did not express regret at the unnecessary demise of such a young life whose only crime was to behave like students do around the globe – demonstrate as a way of expressing dissatisfaction.
While white Rhodesians from all walks of life were extremely proud to send their offspring to study at the University College of Rhodesia, neither our President the chancellor of state universities, nor any members of his government are proud enough of the University of Zimbabwe and the host of other institutions of higher learning that they established after independence. These are the same people who never get tired of telling us that they are supremely patriotic.
The other thing that I find interesting when comparing Mugabe and Smith is how they viewed state resources. Mugabe, after winning the elections in 1980, invited Smith for a meeting at his house in Mount Pleasant. It is quite revealing that Smith drove himself to meet the Prime Minister designate in a Peugeot 404. Prime Minister Mugabe, while he started with more modest types of Mercedes Benzes, has since graduated to one of the most expensive models, always escorted by one of the longest motorcades of any head of state on the planet.
I believe it is also necessary to look at the sort of country that one of the protagonists handed over to his successor and the sort that the current protagonist is likely to handover.
Ian Smith bequeathed to Robert Mugabe a nation divided along racial lines. I deeply resent the fact that Rhodesia classified me as a second class citizen. The country’s resources were disproportionately allocated, to the extent where the whites had the best and more of everything. It hurt terribly for those in employment to be paid only a fraction of what whites earned for similar jobs.
It however has to be acknowledged that the country’s institutions and infrastructure were in top notch condition. I recall how during the mid-eighties my niece’s school organised a trip that took her and her class mates to Victoria Falls. The headmaster made an impromptu decision to take the children across the border into Zambia. They went up to the town of Livingstone. Upon their return, my niece talked about the many pot holes that they had seen in Livingstone as one of the highlights of her trip. They were a novelty because she had never seen them in Zimbabwe.
Our public transport was virtually unmatched on our continent. The then United Omnibus Company’s buses ran on a reliable time table. At independence Mugabe figured that since the bus company was owned by government, it meant Zanu-PF did not have to pay for services provided. All they needed was to announce that their supporters could be picked “at the usual pick up points” and the company was obliged to do it for free. In place of buses we now have a fleet of far from road-worthy private owned mini buses. Public transport is now in such a dire state that many workers only get home towards mid-night. The National Railways of Zimbabwe is a shadow of its former self.
Metered taxes were available all over town at affordable prices while Air Zimbabwe had a fleet of nearly two dozen planes. We were also viewed as a country with very minimal corruption. Power cuts were virtually unknown. How did we end up having our airport built for us by a company which lost the tender and at twice the cost that had been quoted by the winning company? Theirs was going to be twice as big.
Short of an unprecedented and miraculous recovery, Mugabe is going to bequeath to his successor a wreck of a country, not only divided along racial and ethnic lines, but sadly, a politically polarised one too. The gap between the poor and the rich has widened many times over. Mugabe made cholera a reality and the worst such epidemic on the African continent in 15 years. This in a country whose children only used to learn about it at school less than a decade ago!
Painful as it is, and much as I resent both Ian Smith and Robert Mugabe for what they did to our country, I have to admit that Robert Mugabe, the man who sacrificed so much for the liberation of Zimbabwe, has proved to be a worse ruler than Smith. The suffering that he has wrought on his people has proved to be much worse than under white rule. That is the very unfortunate truth. He promised liberty and prosperity and nearly three decades later delivered repression and abject poverty. Please, dear reader, do not expect me to accept repression and deprivation just because the man in charge is black. I do not believe that racial discrimination is necessarily worse than that based on ethnicity or party affiliation. All forms of discrimination are evil.
If you were a white Rhodesian and opposed to Smith’s policies, he could cause you a lot of discomfort and the worst that could happen to you was deportation. If you are black and opposed to Mugabe’s policies, you could end up permanently disabled, lose your property or even your life. If you are white, the probability of getting killed for opposing Mugabe is actually lower than if you are black. That is the irony.
Ian Smith bequeathed a country, which though dependent on South Africa for vital trade routes and raw materials, was an industrial giant in its own right. Mugabe is going to deliver a de-industrialised country which has effectively become South Africa’s bantustan. Our people now work in South Africa and other countries in their millions and send money home to enable relatives to buy South African goods that fill our supermarkets.
That is an unforgivable injustice to future generations.
It is tempting to want to blame sanctions for our predicament. The truth however shows that our country started its downward descent in the early nineties. Our power infrastructure started showing signs of distress way back then due to poor maintenance and lack of investment in the energy sector. The plunder of the War Victims Compensation Fund, the DRC adventure, the huge and unbudgeted pay outs to war vets, unbridled greed and corruption and the chaotic land reform exercise amongst many other blunders have no link whatsoever to ZIDERA or the travel bans.
And now the Marange diamond fields saga! It is time to be self-critical.