On 18 April Zimbabwe celebrated her 40th Independence Anniversary. The occasion was largely overshadowed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the ostensibly unending economic turmoil, yet not lessened in its significance. As the old adage goes, ‘life begins at 40’. And depending on who you ask, the significance of this important milestone has different meanings to different people.
Triumph, hope and promise
Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980 after 90 years of British colonial rule that ended after nearly 14 years of the liberation struggle. The war ended with the signing of the Lancaster House Agreement that ushered in a new constitutional and democratic order in the form of a government of national unity. The triumph of political liberation was celebrated at home and afar – a memorable event where the legendary Jamaican reggae maestro Robert Nester ‘Bob’ Marley ever performed in Africa. It marked a collective milestone against colonialism in Africa and gave so much hope to Namibian and South African liberation movements to keep the fire burning against the apartheid minority regime.
Internally, independence brought in a moment for a new start on a pedestal espousing democratic rule and racial equality that promised stability and economic prosperity. So promising was Zimbabwe that it is said the then President of Tanzania Julius Nyerere reminded the incoming leader Robert Mugabe that he was inheriting ‘the jewel of Africa’ that should be kept shinning. This is because, despite the vagaries of war, its relatively advanced economic infrastructure was still intact compared to what other countries inherited when they gained independence such that Zimbabwe was starting from a position of privilege.
Mugabe’s early pronouncements invoked a lot of hope and promise too. By preaching national unity, reconciliation and well-articulated development plans that promised everything by the year 2000, Zimbabwe was what Africa was waiting for, and what other countries still under bondage could dream of.
A history of violence and human rights violations
As leading Zimbabwean scholar Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni posits, the evolution from a colony to a sovereign nation, and from a promising transitional state into unprecedented crises is largely a catalogue of violence, its memory and impunity. 40 years later, Zimbabweans hang their heads in shame for the atrocities that have been experienced by citizens in a supposedly ‘free’ country. The Gukurahundi atrocities against the minority Ndebele tribe in the first decade of independence in which an estimated 20 thousand civilians were killed remains a blight on the nation’s conscience. In 2005 Operation Murambatsvina decimated livelihoods and displaced more than 700 thousand people, according to the United Nations. Gross human rights violations against known or suspected members of opposition political formations in particular, and on anyone expressing dissent generally, have continued to characterise political life in Zimbabwe. In the past four decades cases of murders, disappearances, abductions, rape, torture and other degrading and inhuman treatment have been reported too regularly, and the justice system has not cushioned the citizens from such horrendous experiences in a way that ensures justice for victims while assuring non-recurrence. Elections in Zimbabwe are not yet healthy political contests that a functioning democracy should exhibit. If one is to judge by what Mugabe did to fellow liberator Joshua Nkomo and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the First Republic, with similar traits being witnessed in current President Mnangagwa’s relations with main opposition leader Nelson Chamisa in the Second Republic, then it is safe to conclude that there is democratic recidivism 40 years after independence.
An economic calamity still unfolding
If there is a sector which rapidly degenerated to jaw-dropping levels, then it is the economy. At independence Zimbabwe had a functioning economy characterised by strong production and manufacturing industries, buoyed by agriculture and mining that were complemented by tourism and other service sectors. A plethora of both man-made and natural calamities have combined to reduce the country that once earned the title of ‘breadbasket’ of the region into a basket case. Wrong economic policies often taken to spruce up political fortunes by the elite have largely contributed to the decimation of the once vibrant economy, while systemic corruption makes it difficult to resuscitate it from its current comatose. It is now 20 years since Zimbabwe embarked on its well-intentioned by poorly executed fast-track land reform programme that punctuated the late Robert Mugabe’s legacy, but there is so little to celebrate for it.
Keeping the dream is alive
Zimbabwe is fortunate to be such a resource-rich country with a relatively small and young population. Some form of agricultural activity can thrive in the whole country, so the potential for food security is vast. That is a rare privilege. It is endowed with many minerals, some still being discovered. And has one of the best climates in the world. Above all, its greatest resource is its people – very educated and hardworking. Many of them are in the Diaspora. All these resources, natural and human, should be harnessed and utilised to help rebuild the country and keep the dreams of 40 years ago alive.
In 2013 Zimbabwe overwhelmingly adopted a new constitution. It is a good constitution that, if adhered to, revives the independence dream in a big measure. It also created a National Peace and Reconciliation Commission mandated to correct the wrongs of the past and build social cohesion for a peaceful and prosperous future. For the past 4 years, IJR has contributed to building the capacity of the Commission to fulfil its constitutional mandate. Our vision to build fair, democratic and inclusive societies resonates well with the dreams of Zimbabweans. If Zimbabwe thrives, the whole of Southern Africa flourishes. It is therefore imperative to keep the dream alive.
Dr Webster Zambara – Senior Project Leader of Peacebuilding Interventions
Picture credit: EPA-EFE/AARON UFUMELI