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[email protected]: They thought nobody could be worse than Mugabe

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By Brezh Malaba

ON 15 April, just three days before Zimbabwe’s 41st Independence anniversary, President Emmerson Mnangagwa dispatched a tweet whose central message is a stark summary of the current state of the nation.

“Zimbabweans, our roads are in a state of emergency. It pains me to see so many potholes on our once great highways. We must act urgently,” he wrote on the social media platform, sparking animated debate across the country.

That same day, Mnangagwa had triggered exasperated sighs when he proudly cut the ribbon while officiating at the commissioning of a small single-lane bridge on a rural road.

The ruling Zanu PF circulated a congratulatory message hailing the bridge as a major achievement (see picture). Some commentators dismissed it as a celebration of mediocrity.

The bridge fiasco is symbolic of Mnangagwa’s glaring shortcomings. As leader, he was, in a sense, supposed to be the “bridge” between the discredited old order of Robert Mugabe and a new democratic prosperity.

A month ago, cabinet issued a statement declaring the country’s terribly potholed roads as a national emergency. Roads are not the only infrastructure that has spectacularly fallen apart in a nation lauded at Independence in 1980 as “the jewel of Africa” by the revered Tanzanian pan-Africanist Julius Mwalimu Nyerere.

Four decades ago, Zimbabwe had the continent’s most developed economy outside South Africa. Today, the country has become the biggest producer of economic refugees in southern Africa.

Alex Magaisa, a Zimbabwean law lecturer at the University of Kent in Britain, says young people have lost hope.

“So dire are the circumstances in which the country is currently located and so bleak does the future look that the biggest dream for most young Zimbabweans is to leave the country and join millions of fellow citizens who have departed over the last two decades,” he observes.

As economic hardships worsen, it has become common to hear frustrated citizens arguing that the quality of life during racist Rhodesia was far much better than what people are experiencing now.

Magaisa, who was an adviser to the then prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai from 2009 to 2013, says the socio-economic decay in Zimbabwe is so unsettling that people are now quick to remark that the freedom fighters “died for nothing”.

“It is, indeed, a measure of the fall of a country that many people now openly question the very purpose of independence, for which so much was sacrificed. This is disappointing, not because the people are wrong, but because the leadership has betrayed the promise of independence and desecrated the memory of all those who died for the cause.”

Eldred Masunungure, a professor of political science at the University of Zimbabwe, says there has been a marked decline in democratic indicators since President Mnangagwa rose to power on the back of a military coup in 2017.

Political analysts say it is a grotesque irony that Mugabe, whose iron-clad rule lasted 37 years, is now considered by many as a better leader than Mnangagwa.

When Mugabe was toppled, delighted citizens erupted in euphoric scenes, hugging soldiers and taking selfies while triumphantly sitting on army tanks. They did not particularly care who would replace the ousted strongman; the mantra back then was: “Surely, nobody can be worse than Mugabe!”

Many of those who celebrated Mugabe’s dramatic ouster have since admitted their naivety.

On 1 August 2018, barely a year after taking power, Mnangagwa’s government deployed soldiers who shot dead six unarmed civilians in central Harare. They were protesting a delay in the release of presidential election results.

When the massacre unfolded, the capital city was teeming with foreign journalists and election observers. The shootings were beamed to a stunned global audience. Mnangagwa had failed a major test; the fancy mask of the “Second Republic” had fallen.

There were further killings in January 2019. Over the years, human rights groups have reported an escalation in cases of extrajudicial killings, state-sponsored abductions and torture. Pro-democracy campaigners, opposition activists and journalists have been arrested.

Tafadzwa Mugwadi, the ruling Zanu PF’s director of information, recently made a startling revelation: He expressed confidence that Zimbabwe would soon become a one-party state.

And in a sign of the times, on the eve of Independence Day, Home Affairs minister Kazembe Kazembe threatened to take tough action against opposition MDC-Alliance activists he accused of planning an “illegal demonstration” over the Independence holiday.

The minister claimed the activists were holding secret meetings to plot the demonstrations, dubbed “The Winter Jest”.

The official countdown to Zimbabwe’s 41st Independence anniversary has been remarkably subdued and somewhat funereal in tone.

This is the second Independence Day to be commemorated since Covid-19 first erupted and changed the world.

State media has valiantly tried to hype up what ought to be the most auspicious occasion on the national calendar, but the “[email protected]” campaign has been a hard sell, by all objective measures.

There have been feeble attempts at sloganeering. A fortnight ago, President Mnangagwa sent out a message on social media, asserting:

“Zimbabwe has lagged behind in many areas as a result of isolation for the past 16 to 18 years. Now we are saying to the world, Zimbabwe is open for business.”

The government has found it difficult to convince citizens that Western sanctions, imposed at the turn of the millennium, are to blame for the tattered economy.

The country’s median age is 18 years, meaning most Zimbabweans were born after Independence in 1980. As q result, they have no personal recollection of colonial oppression and are inclined to attribute their poverty to Zanu PF incompetence and corruption.

The opposition says although Zimbabwe is indeed lagging behind other countries, the reason cited by Mnangagwa for this tragic state of affairs is false and misleading.

Zimbabwe has lagged behind not just for “16 to 18 years”, but has completely regressed to quality-of-life standards last witnessed in the 1950s. In other words, most of the so-called gains of Independence have been reversed.

Recently, the United Nations warned that 38 000 children are suffering from acute malnutrition and at risk of starvation. The UN says 7.9 million citizens — about half the entire population — urgently needs humanitarian rescue. This includes 4.1 million children.

One of the most intriguing questions in Zimbabwe’s public discourse is: Who is benefitting from the country’s massive gold, platinum, diamonds, chrome and nickel earnings? The southern African nation is a world leader in the mining of all these minerals.

Human rights defenders say when more than half the population of the country is so impoverished that the only lifeline is a packet of food donated by “imperialists”, then the government is guilty of criminal neglect.

Nobody was surprised when angry and frustrated civil servants declared that, with effect from 12 April, they would report for duty on only two days per week. They say this incapacitation has been caused by worthless salaries.

In 2018, civil servants were earning, on average, US$500 while shop-floor workers in the private sector were getting US$300. Today, the employees are receiving salaries as low as U$50.

For many, Zanu PF’s corruption-induced poverty has turned Independence Day into an occasion for national mourning.

Tonderai Moyo (35), a Harare resident who holds a university degree in environmental science, narrated the difficulties he has encountered in a dysfunctional economy.

“Life is tough. There are no jobs. The few jobs available are paying very low salaries. Our suffering has become worse during Covid,” he said. He described the responsibility of fending for his three children and wife as “extremely painful”.

For a few months last year, the government disbursed a ZW$300 (US$3) monthly Covid-19 allowance to extremely poor families. But the amount was a pittance, considering that the government’s statistical office reported in March 2021 that the monthly “food poverty line” for one person stands at US$40.

This week, the World Bank reported that 1.5 million Zimbabweans in urban areas have been plunged into penury by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Urban households suffered most economically. Ninety percent of non-farm businesses, which skewed toward urban areas, indicated that they faced a drop in revenue or did not receive any revenue at all,” said the bank. For most Zimbabweans, Independence Day is a painful reminder of lost opportunities.

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