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WANTED: Zenga Zenga in Zimbabwe

When Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai recently announced Zimbabwe’s parliamentary elections scheduled for 2011 would be postponed to 2012 or even 2013, many Zimbabweans must have breathed a deep sigh of relief. Relieved because the bloodshed which accompanies every election would be put off for a bit longer. And the rapidly mounting number of political activists and ordinary civilians arrested, tortured or denied medical treatment while in custody, as part of the state’s crackdown on dissent, might gradually slow down. Treason has become the charge de jour for any hint of dissent in the banana republic. Offences range from the benign to the absurd like posting a comment on Facebook or, as veteran activist Munyaradzi Gwisai did, for organising a screening of the Egyptian Revolution. Even, Sabbath prayers for peace are gassed into thin air.

While for outsiders from more liberal countries, Zimbabwe might sound like human rights hell on earth, it isn’t. Honest. Look, it doesn’t even make a “top ten hells on earth” list.

And for the average Zimbabwean, the spectre of treason is part of the everyday. It rumbles in the background while the business of living from hand to mouth takes precedence. Decades of censorship, the lack of strong civil society institutions and political apathy has been key in creating the huge gulf between the discourse of human rights and the discourses of the everyday and economic survival.

In this world, to speak of human rights, is sometimes a luxury and sometimes rights are a dirty word. Years of one-party rule have created the apt conditions for rights and freedoms to be traded off for the stability and security of the many, while some of the outspoken few, are booked and charged.

Stories of villagers being terrorised by soldiers patrolling the diamond fields of Marange in eastern Zimbabwe are enough to scare off any revolutionaries dreaming of a Chimurenga-style uprising. But it’s not only the very real obstacles of violent repression that could prevent Zimbabweans from fully catching the protest fever currently doing the rounds on the continent and the Middle East. The nation suffers from a grave illness: apathy.

It’s difficult to cite books or social scientists diagnosing this to be the Zimbabwean condition but personal lived experience suggests this is the case. To an extent, academics like Brian Kagoro and Glen Mpani, who have explored the reasons for Zimbabwean passivity and indifference, confirm this. In their respective works, both researchers argue that the post-colonial condition of political apathy has its roots in decades of living under a one-party state. The multiple interlocking burdens of living under an increasingly authoritarian, economically regressive regime have resulted in a population which “normalises the abnormal” as a coping strategy. In other words, it’s become so normal to hear of opposition members being beaten and jailed that it’s hard to be concerned. Indifference makes it easier to be dismissive and say “it doesn’t happen everywhere”. Because of this standard response, its sometimes difficult for the “law-abiding” rich and poor to connect their economic woes to the absurd imprisonment and torture of someone or the shortage of medicines and medical expertise in hospitals.

This nationwide disorder combined with the terminal impotence of an ever fractious and frenzied opposition, which co-habits in a coalition government with Zanu, creates the perfect setting for pantomime-style elections to be held in 2012/3. Or, when time or health gets the better of soon-to-be ninety Mugabe. Then our Comrade President shall declare the dates when violence and impotence take to the stage and battle it out in winner-takes-all parliamentary elections.

When Mugabe declared “we will not brook any dictation from any source. We are a sovereign country. Even our neighbours cannot dictate to us. We will resist that” in response to SADC’s calls for an end to state-sanctioned aggression, he was right. Only that “We” is the sovereign people of Zimbabwe, not “We” the sovereign party of dictation, Zanu, which is sometimes mistaken as a synonym for Zimbabwe. So the correct statement should be: “We, the people will not brook any dictation from any source. We are a sovereign nation. Even our leaders cannot dictate to us. We will resist that.”

If any lessons are to be learnt from the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions by Zimbabweans, it is that dictators can be overthrown by the people; security and stability be damned. But before any fantasies of popular uprising or ousting Zanu by the ballot can be organised by serious activists and non one-hit wonder online revolutionaries or used as campaign rhetoric by a formidable opposition party (yet to be seen) Zimbabwe needs a zenga zenga revolution, to remix Gaddafi’s words.

A revolution of conscience in every city, every street, every house, every village and every hut. Zenga zenga; every nook and cranny must be cleansed of the viral strains of apathy that allow evil to flourish and culminate in an inability to equate human rights with the right to pursue prosperity and live in a relatively stable country. If Zimbabweans truly want a change in the status quo or “no other but Zanu, but without the violence” as some desire, then it begins with this critical mass realisation. Legitimate desires for stability and prosperity can never justify indifference towards the unjust persecution of another Zimbabwean. Just as the apolitical urban middle and working classes deserve to live in peace, so too do the villagers of Marange. As do praying parishioners. And White Zimbabwean, Zimbabwean Indian and Nigerian traders and business owners harassed in the name of indigenisation. As Zimbabwe continues to discover the highs and lows of 31 years of independence, may the spirits of past liberators bless her with the realisation that indifference to the suffering of others can be cured at the church of born-again humanitarians by St Conscience, the Empathic One.


  • Tendai Marima is a blogger and doctoral scholar at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her research interests include African literature, global feminist theory and issues concerning contemporary Black presence in Europe. Follow her on twitter @KonWomyn