The decade-long crisis in Zimbabwe has affected the psyche and social fabric of the nation. There were senseless and callous murderous acts that today dominate the news headlines and community talks. From Beitbridge to Victoria Falls, Gokwe to Zaka, stories abound about rampant killings and general decay in morality. Not only have these been normalised but it appears as if there are no reprisals for most of the perpetrators. What kind of a nation would develop or even heal if it does not build a sound value-laden and cohesive society?
What I am about to describe is not scientific, nor is it based on academic research. This is based primarily on my observations in Bulawayo last week. What I saw and heard struck me to initiate a discussion on the meaning of human life and the general state of morality in the country. I strongly believe that the crisis has left moral scars and created traumas in certain sections of society. How these traumas and scars are dealt with will determine whether the country will reclaim its soul or not.
Not so long ago we were worried about the political and economic downturn — Zimbabwe suffered both economic and democratic recessions. What we underestimated was the social fabric’s ability to glue everyone together. A society without values or glue to hold it together is a society spiralling towards Armageddon.
The problem with writing a piece like this is that there is a tendency to be personal. The good thing though is that one attaches oneself emotionally or otherwise to the script.
As background information to the reader: I have not been to Zimbabwe in at least two years but am in constant contact with my family and friends. Although I had a sense of what was happening on the ground, I could not claim authority on daily events particularly on non-political and economic matters such as the socio-psychological and cultural practices. I am referring to issues of social cohesion, co-existence and general respect for human life. These are matters that one cannot proffer an opinion without empathising.
The morning breeze cut across my face as I filled up gas in preparation to make that long drive to Bulawayo from Johannesburg. The roads were quiet, no traffic and luckily very few traffic police. I was so thrilled that finally I was going to Bulawayo, my home town. I missed the pubs, restaurants, narrow streets, especially their “give way” signs and of course the usual welcome buzz words “usiphatheleni?” (what did you bring?). I missed going to the Selbourne bar to meet with friends after work to indulge not just in drinks but in matters that affected our lives. There you would meet some of the city’s intellectuals — most, self-appointed.
In this reminiscence mood I began my journey to Bulawayo. The aim was to look for a “helper”. I still cannot explain to friends why I drove more than 800km to look for a helper although I can explain it to myself.
A lot has changed since the last time I was in Bulawayo. Although the infrastructure is still somewhat intact, fault-lines and cracks are easily detectable. The roads in particular are in a bad condition. A noticeable change was the lack of queues, either for fuel, food or at the banks. To some this is a sign of the normalisation of the economic situation. There is food on the shelves, fuel in most filling stations and generally a feeling that the political situation is stabilising. However I am one of those who are still sceptical of the machinations of the current administration.
I still doubt that it is structured to bring about a lasting and sustainable solution to Zimbabwe’s multifaceted challenges. It was crafted on the basis of political power distribution. True there is a move towards normalizing the political environment and economic performance but let’s not be fooled, we are far from where we were in 1999 or 2000. In that sense we cannot say we have made strides because we are still in the negative. Until we reach the level of performance we were in 1999 or so when things went into overdrive, we cannot begin celebrating.
Now, the main reason for writing this piece is that I encountered very disappointing moments in Bulawayo. The first concerned a young man I used to know very well. The very day I arrived, I was told he was about to be laid to rest. Apparently he was last seen in the company of some men who were dragging him amid serious beatings. No one stopped to help, life continued as always, each worrying about his or her own condition. The young man was one of the poorest in the city, which I can testify. So robbery cannot be the main motive for his murder. There were other motives and I hope the police’s investigation will bring closure to this case.
The second moment concerns a story I was told at this young man’s funeral. Listening to an account of how this young man’s life was taken away there was a sudden shift to another gruelling story. The deceased’s neighbour had just skipped the country to South Africa that morning. The reason: he had caught an old woman stealing his sweet potatoes in the fields the previous week. The man decided to take the law into his own hands — or those of his family. He took the woman to his house, beat her up for several hours, she died a few days later. My reaction: can someone be killed for stealing sweet potatoes? Has a sweet potato suddenly become more valuable than human life?
I talked to a few folks in Zimbabwe about this and their response was that this is normal now. People just kill each other for petty things. This shocked me because this is not the character of Zimbabweans I used to know. People were killed but the law would take its course and as far back as I can remember no one was killed in the manner described above and for such reasons. In addition to the law of the land there were other communal mechanisms meant to deal with cases such as theft.
This got me thinking. The political crisis and its concomitant consequences on the economy and general decay of the social fabric have changed fundamentally the psyche and morals, including the morale of most people. With the new set-up, we are likely to underestimate the impact the crisis has had on the social fabric. The attention is likely to be given primarily to the economic and political situation at the expense of the need to heal the nation.
I’m glad that the new administration has recognised the need to address this by appointing three ministers to the Organ on National Healing and Reconciliation. According to the Civil Society Monitoring Mechanism, these ministers, except for John Nkomo from Zanu-PF, have at least consulted with civil society and their various formations on the way forward regarding national healing.
This is a positive step but more needs to be done. The same attention given to the political and economic spheres should be extended to issues of social cohesion and national healing. Until the society is united under common values and aspirations the efforts towards integration and economic development will be foundationless. This means we need to pay particular attention to issues of transitional justice, equality, return to a human rights culture, training the security sector in ethics, morality and human rights among other social building programmes.
We cannot have a society that tolerates and normalises the killing of other human beings on the basis of stealing things like sweet potatoes. What happened to the rule of law and the general respect accorded to human life. It can’t be that easy to take someone’s life.
Something fundamentally wrong has happened and we need to reclaim the soul and dignity of Zimbabweans. This is a tall order but it can be done — starting with building a cohesive society underpinned by respect for human life, sound values and glued together by a common destiny.