Reputations precede arrivals, Bulawayo's already etched in my mind, as I stepped off the weary, white, out of whack bus onto Bulawayo terra firma. It was at this city's Queens Sports Club where a poignant series of events in 2003 came to a culmination, and made a statement to the world about oppression in Zimbabwe.
The event was the Cricket World Cup, and white Zimbabwean player Andy Flower and black Zimbabwean player Henry Olonga had set the scene two weeks prior in Harare, where they both wore black arm bands in Zimbabwe's opening match against Namibia to, as they proclaimed to the press "mourn the death of democracy in Zimbabwe".
Minister of Information Jonathan Moyo morphed into Minister of Insults by calling Olonga an "Uncle Tom" with "a black skin and a white mask", while dismissing Olonga as a Zambian. Somehow this "fact" had eluded the authorities into allowing him to play nearly 80 international matches for Zimbabwe up to this point.
To prove that democracy and freedom of speech had not died, the police dutifully arrested scores of people making political statements across Zimbabwe's three games in Bulawayo against the Netherlands, Australia, and Pakistan. Many detainees were beaten and held in prison for days. After the tournament a warrant was issued for Olonga's arrest for treason. Olonga and Flower (the latter Zimbabwe's most successful player) exiled themselves in England, deciding that Zimbabwean "democracy" was not for them. Their international careers were over.
My most explicit plan for Bulawayo was to undertake a colonial-era journey on a colonial-era train to the colonially named Victoria Falls, that evening. First though, I felt compelled to verify all I could of Zimbabwe's image as received overseas. I vowed to keep my eyes and ears engaged as I marched around town looking for evidence; evidence of life under Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's enduring president of three decades and counting.
Just a few months before my arrival, newspapers had reported serious food shortages in Zimbabwe. I found a local supermarket and was pleased and relieved to see food on the shelves, despite a limited range. One could buy biscuits, as long as they were lemon crisp. One could buy cooking oil, one type, one size covering a whole aisle. Repeat for other foodstuffs.
Selections easy, I grabbed a packet of lemon crisp biscuits for the evening's train trip. I decided against quipping to the cashier "Oh, they're my favourite. How did you know?". The people's resilience through the country's prolonged hardship is admirable. This shop reminded me of the shortages decades earlier in the Soviet Union, though there were no queues here. I just wondered if average people had enough money for the products.
Politics and Robert Mugabe
My second concern was the political situation. Reputations in this case were coloured by Western nations' travel bans and freezing of assets that applied to Robert Mugabe and many of his Zanu-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front) government ministers.
I ambled towards the train station. Vendors lined the street, their merchandise neatly placed on the footpath, or directly on the street - shoes, mobile phone parts, fresh fruit and vegetables, and newspapers.
Prior to my arrival, there had been much talk in the overseas media about Robert Mugabe's crackdown on press freedom. I was therefore very surprised to see a newspaper openly for sale on the street that talked about government corruption. I immediately bought a copy. As can be seen in the photo below, the newspaper was called News Day, with a front page article titled "Mutasa Threatens Cops with Arrest", detailing allegations that Didymus Mutasa, the then Minister of State for Presidential Affairs, had instructed police not to go to the aid of white farmers when the latter were under attack from vigilantes invading their farms. The article from July 6th, 2010 can still be found online:
According to Reuters, Newsday was the first independent daily newspaper to be publishing in years, with printing having begun just two days before my arrival. This was surely a positive result of Mugabe's Zanu-PF party being forced into a power sharing agreement with the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party in 2009.
The article touches on a major issue that Mugabe has used divisively to garner support. With around five thousand white farms covering the majority of the country's arable land at independence, Mugabe encouraged landless blacks to take back this land. Rectifying the white seizure of land during colonial times has been used as the justification. Many white farmers have been murdered, while others have fled. Little thought seems to have gone into the stability of the nation, and those claiming farms have often been unable to run them. In actuality, many of the farms have had a nepotistic distribution to Zanu-PF politicians and their friends.
The farms are commonly stripped of assets and become unproductive, which neither properly addresses inequality nor food security. Zimbabwe has gone from a major food exporter to being unable to feed itself and having to rely on food imports. As I write in late 2015, Zanu-PF is appealing to the United Nations for food aid. The country had undergone dry climactic conditions leading up to this appeal, but there is an undeniable link between evicting or scaring away those that produce the majority of the nation's food, and food shortages.
Continue Reading: Part 2 of 2 link below