It is probably a place so far removed from your consciousness as to be but a distant memory in the foggy enormity of space. The name may be familiar but the place not. After all, those things and places by which we’re not directly affected are places and things for which we seldom spare much thought– unless the media constantly pummels us with them – and even then, they remain “somewhere out there”.
So if I say “Zimbabwe” to you, I wonder what you think. Some place in Africa? Another African country with a despotic dictator as its leader? A country with ravaging inflation of over 260 000%? A place where unemployment, violence and intimidation are a daily part of life? A place where food and other shortages are commonplace? Maybe, if you follow the news, you’re even aware that Zimbabwe had elections several weeks ago where the leading party was finally overthrown by the opposition, but have refused to go quietly.
Zimbabwe lies on South Africa’s northern border. I’ve never been there but I’m told it is a beautiful place. Its people are warm and friendly, hard-working, optimistic and outgoing. The standard of education is high. The land is richly fertile. It is a country that has always sat quietly in my consciousness. I’ve had friends and colleagues from Zimbabwe. I studied with Zimbabweans – back then most had left the country not confident of its future. How right they were.
Today Zimbabwe is in turmoil, in agonizing death throes as its economy collapses and its people suffer unspeakable horrors. Amnesty International said in a recent report that on the genocide scale, Zimbabwe sits at Level 7. Level 8 is the point after it has all happened. Yet does the world realise or recognize this?
For me, the Zimbabwean crisis has suddenly come so much closer to home. It has done so because I met Angela.
Angela works for me. She’s a refugee from Zimbabwe who is sent once a week by a domestic agency to clean and iron. Angela’s roots, her very being, are tied to Zimbabwe, and all she wants to do is go home. But it’s not safe.
Angela used to make clothes and sell them in a market – until Robert Mugabe had the market burnt down because the people who worked there did not support him or his ruling party. Those who oppose Mugabe have much to fear, and so, Angela and her husband, like two million others, left Zimbabwe and came to South Africa to seek work and safety. She doesn’t like it here because many South Africans, predominantly Xhosa people, don’t like foreigners. They view them as a threat; see them as taking their jobs. And this is partially true; Zimbabweans (and Malawians, Congolese, Rwandans etc) like to work and they work hard and well because they want to improve their lives. But while Angela lives here, her little daughter is still in Zimbabwe, with her Angela’s mother. Or so we hope.
You see, last week Angela came to work and told me that she was desperately worried. Her daughter had not appeared at school the previous day. Her mother’s phone had gone unanswered for days.
“They live,” she told me, her eyes dark with fear and sorrow, “in a rural area. That’s where Mugabe is killing anyone who opposes him. It’s okay in the cities and towns, but in the rural areas, he kills.”
This may sound overly dramatic but let me give you yesterday’s excerpt from a South African newspaper, the Mail & Guardian:
Thousands of people have been beaten, thousands more driven from their homes and about 20 murdered, according to the opposition, in an army-led campaign of violence focused on rural areas where the opposition performed well.
And all this because Mugabe lost the elections held nearly six weeks ago – and Mugabe and his generals refuse to accept this loss. They have, after all, been in power for 28 years. They have plundered Zimbabwe of its value (and sold out what is left to the Chinese). They have set themselves up in palatial homes, drive Hummers, Bentleys and Benz’s. Their wives shop in Paris. They’ve shipped considerable funds offshore. And all this while the economy has crumbled, people have died of AIDS and farmers have had their land taken from them in other campaigns of violence and terror. Eight out of every ten Zimbabweans is without work. For those who do work, they inevitably have to pay, yes, pay, for the privilege of having a job*. Almost every Zimbabwean, Shona and Ndebele alike, lives in uncertainty and fear, because like Slobodan Milosovich, Mugabe’s reign of terror affects all his people (given his efforts to make it a cultural conflict failed). And of course, in the way of all self-justifying dictators, Mugabe and his cronies insist that all these outcomes are a direct result of British colonialism and interference.
And this is the thing; despite it all, Zimbabweans live for the day when it will all be better - and Angela smiles. She doesn’t know if her child and her parents are dead or alive. But she lives in hope. She is beautiful, she is strong, she is extraordinarily courageous. And on top of all the uncertainty with which she lives, here in South Africa she has to face outrageous xenophobia and is taken complete advantage of by the company who employs her. That, however, is another story and right now I’m too angry to tell it.
There is plenty of information on Zimbabwe on the web and in recent press reports. Zimbabweans themselves, willing to take the risk, have their own websites describing the reality. My pal Baino also wrote an excellent post on the topic a week ago – I’d urge you to read it. The world is thankfully, and finally, outraged. But what, I wonder, will it do about Zimbabwe? What, I wonder, is to be done?
* In one instance a report told of a man who worked at a supermarket, whose wife had to go out and beg with the children, so she could give him the money to actually get to work because his meagre salary couldn’t afford it. But, he said, he’d sooner have a job than not, as one day when things came right, that job would be a wonderful asset to him.
Postscript: I'm happy to be able to tell you that Angela's daughter and parents are safe. They had gone to the nearest town for safety's sake but have now returned to their village. We can but hope that they will continue to be safe. I think one of the hardest things for Angela is that she's not seen her daughter for nearly two years.