Mgcini Nyoni is a playwright, theatre director, screenwriter, thinker, blogger and poet based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. He is also the founder and creative director of Poetry Bulawayo.

Teaser: 

Mgcini Nyoni is a playwright, theatre director, screenwriter, thinker, blogger and poet based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. He is also the founder and creative director of Poetry Bulawayo.

We deserve the chance to be the best we can be

African schoolchildrenWhen I first went to teach at Dinyane High School in Tsholotsho, in Matabeleland, northern Zimbabwe (the same school where Professor Jonathan Moyo almost succeeded in pulling a dramatic coup on Robert Mugabe) I was told by teachers who had been at the school for some years ‘not to bother’. I was told not strain myself trying to make the pupils achieve good grades because they were not interested anyway. I was told all they were interested in was going to South Africa; school for them was just a pastime.

At the time, my inner reaction was that no society is composed of entirely useless people, so I set out to do my best with the pupils. I proved a point or two during the three years I was there: from taking the drama group to the national finals and the netball team to the provincial finals to raising the biology pass rate from a very bad zero to a respectable 40 per cent within one year. But I did not see the bigger picture.

Over the years, as I become and more involved in activism, I have realized that humans have one important right that is constantly abused: all humans deserve the right to be in an environment that allows them to become the best that they can be. In all fairness not everyone can become a millionaire and not everyone wishes to be one, but everyone needs to be afforded a chance to test out their full potential. The current crop of leadership – especially in Africa – has dismally failed to provide the majority of people with the basic tools that can give them a fighting chance in the bad, cruel world. The attitude of the teachers at Dinyane High was a disturbing reflection of the attitude of our leadership: after putting people in an environment that does not give them a chance to escape the clutches of poverty, you turn around and mock them!

Things like affordable and accessible education and healthcare quickly come to mind. What percentage of the African population has access to sporting and recreational facilities? What percentage has access to computers and internet connectivity – things that will allow them to compete on an equal footing with the rest of the world? The constant excuse given by African leaders is that they do have the resources to develop their countries. Really? The number of African leaders who are millionaires – billionaires, even – is shocking. Why is it that African leaders don’t see anything wrong with amassing great wealth when the people are wallowing in poverty?

In an article in the Zimbabwe Independent (23 November), Moses Matenga reports on a rally held by Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai in his home town of Buhera:

‘MDC-T leaders rolled into Buhera in top-of-the-range vehicles and swanky attire and villagers could not help but notice how times have changed.

he affluence gap between the visibly well-off senior MDC-T officials and poor masses was glaring at the rally. On the sidelines of the gathering, some villagers noted the rapid transformation of the MDC-T leaders from their humble days in 2000 when they started off to now after amassing wealth.

The vast difference between the villagers, desperately eking out a hand-to-mouth existence, and the lavish lifestyles of top MDC-T officials and ministers who rolled into Tsvangirai’s home area of Humanikwa village – about 200km away from their posh houses in Harare – in top-of-the-range vehicles and swanky attire, was all too visible.

he poverty-stricken rustic folk, some of whom travelled on foot for long distances to attend the rally for victims of political violence at the hands of Zanu PF, looked at the luxurious cars, ranging from the latest Mercedes Benz, Range Rovers and Land Rovers to Land Cruisers and Prados, with envy and resentment – as proved by their furtive chats in hushed tones among each other.’

Surely if the ‘people’s’ leadership can afford vehicles worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, they can afford a few thousand for some income-generating projects that can fish a huge chunk of the starving villages out of poverty? But have they thought to take a brief break from their main preoccupation of amassing wealth to think of the people and how they can be helped? No.

I recently had an interesting debate with staunch supporters of the MDC-T party about Morgan Tsvangirai’s apparent wealth. All they had to say was that Robert Mugabe’s people are also doing it. I guess if the current government is doing it; it is okay for the official opposition to do it; even if it’s wrong. So what is the point of voting out the current government if the only change we are going to see is in name only? It’s high time this cycle of looting and self-enrichment stopped.

Photo of African schoolchildren by Heath Windcliff under a CC Licence 

The grass is not greener in South Africa

South Africa shackI am not South African and I have only stayed in South Africa for a few months, but I know a lot about the country and am interested in what goes on there. There are several reasons for this, but the main one is that it is portrayed as the Canaan of Africa. South Africa is supposed to be the model African country. When Zimbabwe’s economy crumbled, South Africa became a source of hope for millions of Zimbabweans who risked limb and life illegally crossing the border. Most who crossed into South Africa will tell you a different story now they are there, though: the grass is definitely not greener on the other side.

Recent events have rubbished the perfect image of South Africa. All of South Africa’s problems seem to emanate from the huge gap between the rich and the poor, a division which is mostly along racial lines: whites are rich and blacks are poor. According to the South African Institute of Race Relations, the white per capita income is nearly eight times higher than that of blacks.

The rich black people are too few to be of any help in trying to bridge the wealth gap; they are mostly politicians or those connected to politicians. The results of a nationwide census earlier this year were released recently and it was announced with a sense of shock that the financial divide between black and white is huge. In reality this is hardly a huge reveal: everyone has always known it. The nationwide strikes in the mining sector, the transport sector and so on tell the story of an angry black majority. The strikes tell the story of a black majority buried so deep in the vicious cycle of poverty that they don’t see a way out; they are prepared to die while demanding that they receive remuneration that will allow them to live in dignity. And they have been dying.

The gunning down of 34 miners by police at Marikana in August tells the story of a government that is clueless as to how to solve their people’s problems. It reminds me of the words of Kenyan poet Tim Mwaura, ‘...filling the gap between the rich and the poor with bodies of the poor...’

South Africa needs transformation and it needs radical transformation. Addressing young people at a youth leadership summit in Harare, Zimbabwe, recently, the Zimbabwean Minister of Indigenization and Economic Empowerment, Saviour Kasukuwere, said: ‘a revolution cannot be led by sane people.’ South Africa needs leadership that will realize that the ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ formula of land redistribution does not exactly work in a country that has millions living in shanty towns. South Africa cannot and should not, however, take notes from Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe on how to carry out land reform. As much as land reform was necessary in Zimbabwe, the methodology used was way too chaotic; its purpose was to enrich a few top dogs. South Africa needs transformation and soon, but is the South African model of black empowerment too polite and full of loopholes to do any good?

South Africans are disillusioned because the end of apartheid was, perhaps, an end in name only. Most black South Africans have seen no real benefits since the end of apartheid some 20 years ago. While we might all celebrate that the South African rugby and cricket teams are in the top five globally – the South African cricket team is currently ranked first – these money-spinning sports are dominated by whites. Surely blacks can run with an oval ball and swing a cricket bat – if they are given the opportunity to do so – a means, perhaps, to fish their families out of poverty.

Have the politicians forgotten why so many died at the hands of the apartheid army and police? Did Mandela and others spend all those years in prison for nothing? If something had been done as soon as a black government got into power, we would now have cricket and rugby teams in which half the players were black. Who can blame South African workers if they carry spears and knobkerries and declare war on a capitalist and racist system that has condemned them to shack-dwelling in their own country?

Photo: meshugas under a CC Licence

Do we really have to go with Tsvangirai?

I travel a lot. Inevitably, I stay in hotels a lot and I almost always realize, about a week into my stay, that I did not pack enough pairs of socks. I don’t like using the laundry service that the hotel provides: I am independent like that. I don’t allow the hotel porter to carry my luggage either. I love my independent streak, and I am reluctant to exploit those less fortunate than me. During my teaching days I never let the pupils carry my books or my chair. But my independent streak does sometimes lead to me not having clean socks.

With seven pairs of dirty socks and an important seminar to go to, I have to resort to what I call ‘bachelor syndrome’: of all of the dirty socks, which pair is the least dirty? That is the pair I will wear.

Morgan Tsvangirai‘Bachelor syndrome’ is what [Prime Minister] Morgan Tsvangirai has driven Zimbabweans to. A lot of people I have talked to will say: ‘We know Tsvangirai has got his problems and weaknesses, but rather him than retaining Mugabe.’ I agree that we can’t give Robert Mugabe another term in office. He did his bit between 1980 and 1990. There was a lot of growth with equity then, and much building of schools and infrastructure. But there is a reason why politicians are supposed to be given a maximum of 10 years in office. Politicians are humans; after five years they begin to descend into a mode of relaxation and a habit of being self-serving. It’s up to the electorate to vote out politicians after five years – or after 10 years if they are really exceptional.

So we don’t want to retain Robert Mugabe, but do we really have to go with Morgan Tsvangirai? Isn’t it time to go out and buy a new pair of socks instead of making do with the pair of socks which is less dirty than the others? It‘s easy for the electorate to think they owe Morgan Tsvangirai something, given that he has been battling Robert Mugabe for more than a decade. But that debt has already been paid: hasn’t he moved into a multi-million dollar mansion? Hasn’t he had his fun, reportedly going all over the place collecting concubines? Power has already corrupted him; whatever sympathies we have for him are now misplaced. It is time we thought of Zimbabwe. Morgan Tsvangirai should be subjected to serious scrutiny because we don’t want a change of government just in name.

So Robert Mugabe is not an option at the next presidential election, and Morgan Tsvangirai has had his time in the sun and his hands in the cookie jar. What are our options? In the previous election Dr Simba Makoni was dismissed as a ZANU PF ploy to divide the opposition vote. But deep down a lot of Zimbabweans knew that he was good for Zimbabwe and, given a chance, would do a good job. Even with the ZANU PF tag tainting him, Dr Makoni still got a reasonable share of the vote. He is still a viable option and could do well were he to occupy the presidency. The man’s silence is disappointing though. Honestly, how can we consider him as a potential president if he won’t bother standing up to be counted? Are we to believe that he really was a ZANU PF diversion project? Stand up, Dr Makoni, and give the people of Zimbabwe an alternative!

If Zimbabweans can rise above tribal politics, professor Welshman Ncube is another option. He is a man who could steer the Zimbabwean ship away from the gorge towards which it is headed. His nationwide rallies show us he is serious; we should support him. Tsvangirai is not the only option. Surely his arrogance in living a ridiculously luxurious lifestyle before the struggle is over, and letting 29 MDC-T (Movement for Democratic Change Tsvangirai) activists languish in remand prison for over a year, shows us he has arrived at his intended destination and we will have to continue our journey to Canaan on our own. We have to move away from our personality-cult tendencies and subject all available presidential candidates to a rigorous test based on their ability to run Zimbabwe, rather than reacting to our hatred for Robert Mugabe. Will we have to dig around in the dirty socks cabinet, or can we find a new pair?

Photo: Nick-Clegg under a CC Licence

Liberators, step aside! Let the administrators in

A few weeks ago, Jacob Zuma, President of the Republic of South Africa, appointed Mangwashi Victoria Phiyega as the country’s police commissioner. She is a former social worker with a corporate background and diploma from the University of Wales.

She is the first female police commissioner, and there has been a lot of heated debate around her appointment. But the public debate has not been centred around the fact that she is a woman (those debates are conducted in private and in beer halls). No, the issue that has constantly come up is her lack of real policing experience. The question that people have been asking themselves is: can someone who does not know what actually goes on in the field lead the police force?

The police commissioner’s job is, however, mainly administrative, so it is worth considering what qualifications one needs to ascend to that office. And this leads me to a further question: who are the best people to put into office to do a mainly administrative job?

The lack of a proper answer to this question – in the few instances that it has been raised – has led to many of Africa’s problems. Should a soldier be put into office? (I am using soldier in the broadest sense of the word, to include the uniformed forces, freedom fighters, stone-throwers in demonstrations and all sorts of ‘revolutionaries’. ) A colleague once remarked that in the US you must have a million dollars in your bank account to run for presidency, while in Africa you only have to be brave. But should we put ‘brave’ people into office? I don’t believe so. After all, we have too many examples of cases were heroes who ‘liberated’ people eventually became villains.

Take the example of Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans fought a long war of liberation with Ian Smith’s Rhodesian forces. At the end of it, Robert Mugabe ascended to power, but the agreement at the time prevented him and his government from correcting the injustices that blacks had gone to war for to begin with: issues of land were not properly dealt with, and there was no proper national healing. Mugabe had been imprisoned by the Ian Smith government; he had been tortured, and he had seen thousands of Zimbabweans being massacred. Was Robert Mugabe supposed to assume the leadership of the country? Was he supposed to go into office to do an administrative job and make decisions not poisoned by bitterness and vindictiveness? I don’t think so. He was a soldier and is still a soldier and he should have handed over power to an administrative person in 1980.

The same goes for most of the cabinet then and now: most were educated, but the important credential was liberation war experience. Like many African countries, Zimbabwe at independence was run by people who were angry. People who were bitter and had a lot of unresolved grievances – and rightly so. Our liberators should have stepped aside; they could then have been honoured as war veterans. Administrators, not soldiers, should have gone into office. Mugabe should have sat back and relaxed.

Had he done so, he wouldn’t have presided over the slaughter of 20,000 people in Matabeleland and Midlands in the early 1980s. He wouldn’t have thought it okay for ‘war veterans’ to murder white commercial farmers in the name of land redistribution.

We should never put soldiers into office; honestly, how many Nelson Mandelas do we think we have? How many people can come out of a bitter war of liberation and say ‘let’s work together’ and really mean it?

The presidency of a country is an administrative job. If you hear Zimbabwean Prime Minister Tsvangirai and his supporters saying Tsvangirai should become the country’s president because he was beaten up by the police, then you know the vicious cycle is continuing. We need to put a stop to it. We do not want a situation where most public offices are occupied by stone-throwers who feel they are owed something and who will loot state resources and behave like they own the world. We should put an end to the situation whereby bravery is the sole qualification one needs to ascend to power.

Photo of African soldier by hdptcar under a CC Licence

Zimbabwe: the curse of fabrication and exaggeration

I once heard of a European photographer who came all the way to Zimbabwe to take some photographs of all the carnage here. Perhaps he hoped to win an award for taking photographs of Africans killing each other. Perhaps he thought he would see streets strewn with dead and dying people: people dying of hunger and disease. Who could blame him for thinking that Zimbabwe was on fire? That’s what the stories say which the world gets to see.

He was deeply disappointed when he stepped off the plane: no sign of trouble. He saw a lot of shiny cars, clean streets and what seemed like happy people. I say ‘what seemed like a happy people’ because Zimbabweans in general have been a frustrated people for over a decade and the people of Matabeleland have been bitter since the country’s ‘independence’. The photographer went to the rural areas and again he was disappointed when he realized that he wasn’t going to get the photographs he had come all the way from Europe to get. In a foolish act of desperation, he paid for a grass thatch hut and then paid some men to set it alight. He went back to Europe with photographs of ruling party supporters setting the houses of opposition members alight. Not that those scenes have not been witnessed in Zimbabwe, but he wasn’t there when it happened and it doesn’t happen as often as people the world over think.

There is a lot of corruption in Zimbabwe. There is a lot of politically motivated violence in Zimbabwe, and thousands have been killed and thousands more maimed. But the question that has to be asked is, is it as bad as we put it out to be? There is a lot of exaggeration and a lot of fabrication even. Those who carry out this fabrication and exaggeration argue that the international community will only intervene if there is a certain amount of blood and death – so an alarmingly exaggerated picture of Zimbabwe is painted to try and get the international community’s attention. Like a child who gets slightly injured whilst playing and screams loudly until the mother’s attention is attracted.

The problem with this approach is that the perpetrators of human rights abuses sometimes prove that there was some fabrication or exaggeration. They will tell anyone who will listen: ‘You see, all that is said about us is lies. Zimbabwe is a democratic and peaceful country.’

Far from it; Zimbabwe is not a democratic and peaceful country. But then people’s limbs were not chopped off during the last election, despite what those who have never seen even a political slap reported from within Zimbabwe. The short sleeve, long sleeve story was copied from Sierra Leone and other countries where it did happen. It is alleged that machete-bearing rebels would ask their victims if they wanted their arms cut at the wrist (long sleeve) or at the elbow (short sleeve). But that didn’t happen in Zimbabwe.

A lot of people have won awards for writing on the Zimbabwean situation; protest plays have been written from which people have made a lot of money. A lot of people have sought asylum in a lot of countries, but mainly Britain. One girl in Britain went as far as saying she did not want to go back to Zimbabwe because she would be put before a firing squad when they tried to deport her. Maybe that happens in North Korea; certainly not in Zimbabwe. Those who have sought asylum have done so because of the gross human rights violations in Zimbabwe, yet for over a decade, Zimbabweans have not achieved the one objective they have so ‘passionately’ devoted their time and energy to: removing Robert Gabriel Mugabe from power and restoring Zimbabwe to a democracy.

While it cannot be denied that there are gross human rights violations in Zimbabwe, we have to examine whether our strategy of exaggerating and fabricating in order to attract the world’s attention has let us down and perhaps put us in a worse situation than we should really be in. Have we, as Zimbabweans, relied too heavily upon international intervention that might never come, instead of thinking of solutions we can implement on our own?

Have Zimbabweans been suffering for too long that standing tall and telling lies about one’s own country with a straight face has become a stroll in the park? I think it is high time Zimbabweans took back their country, embraced it with pride and realized that no US fighter jets are going to come and bomb Mugabe out of power. Our destiny is in our hands, and the sooner we realize it, the better. Fabricating and exaggerating has not helped us thus far, and nor will it. Or maybe some view the millions of money ‘donated’ to Zimbabweans in the name of removing Mugabe as progress. I don’t.

Photo: Zooey under a CC Licence

Zimbabwe: it’s a man’s world

We have a lot of programmes in Zimbabwe that are meant to ‘empower’ girls and women. A friend of mine recently argued that we should not have such programmes. He was of the opinion that girls – especially those in school – have not really been affected by gender imbalances and that providing such programmes was not good for them since they basically told them that they are inferior and need a helping hand up the ladder.

Personally, my problem with such programmes is rather different: that the motive behind them is not actually to ‘empower’ women and girls. Rather, it is easier to access funding when you are running a programme specifically for women and girls.

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The abuse of girls’ and women’s basic human rights continues in Zimbabwe. A few weeks ago, three women were arrested and charged with rape – raping men, that is. It is alleged they gave a lift to a man, drugged him and then raped him. They were arrested because some used condoms were found in their car. I wonder if such flimsy ‘evidence’ would be used to arrest men?

What disturbed me most was not the alleged rape, nor the subsequent arrests. What disturbed me was the reaction of the men who were watching when the women were dragged into court: a mob stood there, waiting to deliver ‘instant justice’ to the alleged rapists. If Zimbabwean men are so ‘righteous’, why is Zimbabwe in such a mess? Haven’t we stood by and watched as a few individuals loot state resources? Haven’t we watched as a few individuals kill our fellow countrymen over mundane differences like which political party to support? Haven’t the same individuals bribed young men with cases of beer to rape our women and burn our homes? Yet somehow we are ‘brave’ enough to stand up and show our fake ‘manhood’ in clear cases of abuse against girls’ and women’s human rights.

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I witnessed another incident when I was in the capital Harare recently for a workshop. I was staying with my young brother, who is a police officer at Chikurubi maximum-security prison. Every day I had to travel there from the city centre during rush hour; the congestion of Harare can be unsettling at times. On one of these trips I witnessed something outrageous at Copa Cabana taxi rank.

I had heard stories of guys tearing clothes off women and assaulting them for wearing miniskirts, but I had never actually witnessed it. But as I was waiting patiently for my turn to board the commuter omnibus, I saw a mass of people moving towards us, with much whistling and shouting. At first I thought that perhaps someone had been caught in the act of pick-pocketing. Alas, it was a young woman being subjected to ‘instant justice’ for daring to put on a miniskirt.

‘This is why there are a lot of rape cases. What are men supposed to do when they see such a thing?’ one man stupidly ventured. Really? And here was I thinking that women and girls were being ridiculous for thinking it is their fault when they get raped. I can imagine a man standing over a rape victim and saying: ‘Why did you have to put on a miniskirt? Now look what you have made me do; I have raped you.’

We live in a society that thinks it’s manly to routinely abuse women and girls. When I was a teacher I often saw male teachers sexually abusing schoolgirls and seriously victimizing those who dared stand up against it. We have to wise up: abusing the rights of women and girls is not manly at all.

Wanted: products not made in China

Made in China labelA few weeks ago, I installed a new electric stove in my home. Following the manufacturer’s specifications, I bought some electric cables that had been imported from China and installed the stove. I studied physics up to tertiary level, so I knew what I was doing. After a few days, there was a short circuit: the cable had melted and the wires inside were now exposed, despite the fact that the cable was not directly exposed to heat. I went out again and this time I was looking for a cable specifically NOT MADE IN CHINA. I found one made in Africa and it has been working perfectly ever since.

Our government here in Zimbabwe, and many governments in Africa, have failed to protect us from an influx of imported goods that affect our local industry and render a lot of people jobless. They have also failed to protect us from sub-standard goods that are not worth the money we spend on them. China has taken advantage of our fragile economy to abuse us: the majority of people in Zimbabwe do not have much disposable income, and Chinese goods are priced lower than locally manufactured goods. To a person living in near poverty, it might seem reasonable to buy the Chinese goods, but it’s only a lucky few who get to use them for more than a week. We have Chinese shops on every street selling sub-standard goods. The only purchases it’s not worth complaining about are children’s toys – no-one expects them to last. But my argument is not that China generally manufactures sub-standard products. No. It is that they bring sub-standards goods to Africa, and that is a blatant abuse of our human rights.

China has found a weak spot in the armour of African leaders. Turn a blind eye to our deplorable human rights records, our leaders say, ignore corruption and the looting of state resources, and we will give you free rein in our countries.

It is a government’s duty to provide for and protect its people. In democratic countries, if a government fails to do that, it is voted out of power. In countries were democracy is frowned upon, the people have to resort to uprisings. And in countries were the people have been beaten into docility? Many autocratic countries do not see any requirement to ‘protect’ its citizens beyond building very big and expensive armouries and, once in a while, killing a number of citizens to ‘protect’ them from imperialists who want to re-colonize them.

I recently saw some goods made in Zimbabwe bearing the sticker: NOT MADE IN CHINA. This is a direct response to an influx of sub-standard Chinese goods that have flooded our market and effectively destroyed our economy and made us poorer in the process. There was much anger in South Africa in 2010 when ANC MP Shiaan-Bin Huang’s company Ascendo Industrial was awarded the contract to manufacture two million figurines of Zakumi (the World Cup 2010 mascot). Ascendo outsourced the work to a Chinese company, Shanghai Fashion Plastic Products and Gifts. Cosatu, a South African trade union federation, was not happy about this – particularly given the recession and government’s promise to pay attention to local job creation.

But according to an article in the Sunday Times, more than 500 Chinese workers were each paid just $3 a day to make the Zakumi toy figures, which went on to retail for approximately $48. How can local manufacturers compete with that? The government has to protect them. Yet with the blessing of our ‘government’, the Chinese are systematically destroying our jobs and robbing us of the little money we have in exchange for shoddy goods.

Photo: twicepix under a CC Licence

Rape at the border: how immigration officials are abusing women in Zimbabwe

As we were growing up, we used to hear a story about Nigerian immigration that best illustrated corruption in Africa: it was said when travelling into Nigeria, you had to pay a bribe to the immigration officials even if all your papers were in order. If you neglected to pay the mandatory bribe, the official would return your passport to you and say a page was missing from your passport.

Welcome to Zimbabwe road signWe always thought this was just a crazy story. Our country, Zimbabwe, was still okay back then – or so we thought. We have all come to realize that Zimbabwe was never okay: even as we celebrated ‘independence’ in 1980, things were already going wrong. It was also said that if you threw a stone on the streets of Lagos, you were likely to hit a person with a university degree. But it seems all that education has not helped. The same goes for Zimbabwe. It was once said that Zimbabwe had the second-highest literacy rates in Africa, and we wonder why all that ‘education’ has not saved the country from near-collapse. But that’s not the point I am trying to make.

I remembered the Nigerian tale when I travelled to Botswana recently. The borders have become congested since Zimbabwe’s economy crumbled and everyone turned to the informal sector for survival. One such informal venture is the cross-border trade, mainly done by women. As I was patiently waiting for my turn at the border, I noticed that at regular intervals a woman would walk up to the immigration officer’s desk and, after conversing a bit, the woman would walk away frustrated and go to a different desk, where she would be totally ignored. This would leave her with no choice but to go back to the first official, who would get up and leave his post, and the woman would be forced to follow.

Let me break off to give a bit of background: as I was growing up, many years before we started noticing that there were many things wrong with our country, it was not necessary for women to subject themselves to humiliating situations like the one I witnessed at the border, because men were mostly the breadwinners and women only played supporting roles. With the crumbling of our economy, the once lucrative jobs many men boasted of became useless pastimes, and the little reward from such jobs could not be withdrawn from the banks. So the women stood up and became breadwinners, and they had to do whatever it took to fend for the family.

I watched as the woman followed the immigration officer and I concluded that it was a simple case of money changing hands. Maybe the woman’s passport is not in order, I reasoned. This cycle of events repeated itself two more times before someone behind me remarked that they would never allow their wives to do cross border business.

‘Why?” I enquired.

‘Have you noticed that it’s only women who have to follow the officials outside? The men just pay the bride right at the desk.’

What he was implying was horrifying, but another man joined our conservation and described all the sordid details. What happened was that as people got off the bus from or to Zimbabwe, immigration and customs officials would point out to each other the women they wanted to have sex with – and they made sure they achieved this. The officials have almost godly powers when it comes to cross-border business: It is up to them who crosses into Botswana and who doesn’t. It is up to them who pays duty on goods being imported and who doesn’t.

In exchange for sex, passports or emergency travel documents are not scrutinized. In exchange for sex, women are given blank and stamped declaration forms and they can import as much as they want without paying import duty. It might be argued that it’s not rape and women who are not interested in selling their bodies can walk away. But it’s not as simple as that: the rent has not been paid, the children’s school fees have not been paid and there is no food back home. A few minutes of sex can make it all go away. Is it consensual sex? I say it’s rape. Just like the boss who says ‘if you don’t have sex with me, I will fire you’ when he is fully aware that the woman desperately needs the job.

The immigration and customs officials boast about this – ‘no woman says no to me’, you will hear them say; that’s how everyone ends up knowing this kind of thing happens. You will not hear it from the women. They suffer in silence.

Photo by Open Democracy under a CC Licence

Stop using white history as a smokescreen


The African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa celebrated a hundred years since its formation on the 8 of January 2012. An estimated 100 million rands was spend during the celebrations. Many questioned this kind of expenditure in a country with a very high unemployment rate, an alarming crime rate and a critical shortage of housing. But the amount of money spent by the ANC for its centenary celebrations is not what I am concerned about; after all, even larger sums have been spend on even more ridiculous causes all over the world.

What concerns me is the constant talk of the wrongs, the evil that the white perpetuated on the black community during the apartheid era. There was a musical that featured all the great artists of South Africa and it chronicled the history of the ANC and the history of the ANC means talking about the evil Boers. Didn’t South Africa have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission where people admitted to their apartheid era crimes and were forgiven?

I wonder how the white community felt during the celebrations. Were they squirming in their seats and praying for the whole thing to come to an end quickly? Granted, they are guilty of every bit of evil they are accused of, but the bottom line is that they were forgiven. Can’t we embrace the true meaning of forgiveness? Surely it is not possible to build a united, successful nation if we are constantly saying, ‘Do you remember what you did? Do you remember all the people you killed?’ All it boils down to is that ‘we are watching you, we haven’t forgotten and one day you will pay for your crimes’.

According to the ANC: ‘The centenary is at first and foremost a milestone achievement of the ANC, as a liberation movement. It seeks to celebrate our proud traditions, values and principles that earned our movement an indelible place in the hearts, psyche and soul of both our people and the people of the world. It reflects the ANC in all its facets and dimensions, for example, mass mobilization, the underground; armed struggle and international solidarity.’

Really? Isn’t it time to move on? Surely all this talk about the atrocities that were done in the past is not good for the development of a country. It has been talked about enough, let’s move on. All over Africa ruthless dictators harp on about the evil that the white man committed. All this is meant to blind us to the obvious shortcomings of our liberators. It is meant to blind us to their terrible human rights record.

Heidi Holland, the author of several books including Dinner with Mugabe and Mandela’s ANC, in an interview on Morning Live on South African Broadcasting Corporation 2 (SABC 2) says the struggle heroes are not as selfless as they would want us to believe. It was not only about liberating a people for them, but also about getting into power. About enjoying the luxuries that being in power bring about. Are they perhaps not sure about their standing that they have to constantly remind us of how evil the white man was? An ‘if it wasn’t for us, you would be in chains’ kind of syndrome.

A case in point is how Zimbabwe’s ZANU PF hogs a lot of airtime on national television and radio to remind the citizens of the evils of Ian Smith’s regime and how ‘they’ liberated Zimbabwe and that Zimbabwe will never be a colony again. When the people of Matabeleland try to speak of the Gukurahundi genocide, they are thrown into jail. It is when that happens that you realize that it’s not about the truth, but about consolidating power.

Thirty two years after the independence of Zimbabwe, white people are still not considered citizens of Zimbabwe even if they carry Zimbabwean passports and most were born in Zimbabwe. There are a lot of white people who are second, even third generation Zimbabweans who can lose their property overnight without compensation at the whim of our so-called liberators. This circle is not going to stop until we stop this habit of always reminding ourselves of how evil the white man was. What’s the use of burying hatchet if we are going to put a market on the site?

Making a difference

I have a German friend who doesn’t like Switzerland much; she doesn’t like their neutrality: ‘The world is not a nice place and no one can afford to be neutral,’ she has said often enough with frenzied passion. During both World War One and World War Two, Switzerland managed to keep a stance of armed neutrality, and was not involved militarily. However, because Switzerland was centrally located, neutral, and generally undamaged, the war allowed the growth of the Swiss banking industry. At the moment the Swiss banking system is considered a safe place for illgotten and illegal money. A lot of African dictators hide money they loot from their countries in Swiss bank accounts: so much for neutrality!

I do not believe in neutrality either and have sometimes been radical, to the detriment of my wellbeing and security. The same German friend of mine, in apparent contradiction of herself has often asked me, ‘Do you have to be so radical?’ I have had moments to ponder this, and while examining the ‘it begins with you’ theory have actually realized that small good acts and efforts will add up to something. Starting at the grassroots is actually a viable option.

I remember when I was teacher in Tsholotsho (a district in Matebeland North 98 kilometres northwest of Bulawayo – the second city of Zimbabwe – as the bird flies). Tsholotsho is a dry place; agriculture without some form of irrigation system is a waste of time. They try to farm maize without much success. Sorghum, millet and watermelons give modest returns that seem hardly worth the effort.

There are no rivers in Tsholotsho, or at least in the part of Tsholotsho I am familiar with, just insignificant streams that dry up a few hours after an occasional downpour. The muddy dams last only a few weeks of the ‘rainy’ season, which begin in November and, with luck, end in March. At the school where I taught, the rain – or lack of it – was often the chief topic of conversation. Locals coming to pump for water for their livestock at the school’s borehole well into the night is a familiar sight.

All in all, the wall of pessimism that greeted me there before I unpacked my bags was understandable. But I could not accept the pessimism I encountered towards education. Most boys ran away from school, went to South Africa and came back as drivers with money in their pockets, so it was hard to convince learners that education was important. The teachers were even worse, and I was told not to bother doing much work because the learners were bound to fail anyway.

I might be a pessimist in many aspects of my life, but believing that a whole community of people is mediocre is ridiculous. I dived into my work and before long this rubbed off on the learners, who put in more than average effort, with no threat of being caned, as was the norm.

My biology class of 16-18 year-olds – mostly boys – achieved a 25 per cent pass rate, up from a very bad zero. We had weekend lessons and extra homework, all this in a jolly mood. We visited the school garden where agriculture learners grew spinach and tomatoes to see which crop had a nitrogen, potassium or phosphorus deficiency. We discussed the state of their livestock – we didn’t have a fancy laboratory.

School in CAR

School time. Photo by Pierre Holtz | OCHA | www.hdptcar.net under a CC Licence.

I took over the netball team from a bunch of female teachers who sat in the shade during practice and let the girls coach themselves. I was different: I ran with the girls and never sat down during training sessions. I also took over the drama club. The netball team did not lose a single match on their way to the district finals. The drama club waltzed its way to the national finals of a drama competition. We performed one of my own plays, The Chronicles of Dr Phiri, which attracted mutters of being ‘too political’. This was before political thought and life became the high-risk business it now is in Zimbabwe.
At times I felt overwhelmed. At times I thought I could not do much alone. The school head loved my efforts, but some of the more senior teachers hated me – good work makes shoddy work appear even shoddier.

As writer Martin Porter explains: ‘Perpetrators, collaborators, bystanders, victims: we can be clear about three of these categories. The bystander, however, is the fulcrum. If there are enough notable exceptions, then protest reaches a critical mass. We don’t usually think of history as being shaped by silence, but, as English philosopher Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph [of evil] is for good men to do nothing”.’

I have heard a lot of people say they are not political, because in very repressive countries like Zimbabwe, taking a stance often leads to imprisonment or torture. But it doesn’t always have to be a direct stand against politicians. For example, I find it very hard to put rubbish anywhere but the bin...

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