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Zimbabwe: A nation in need of healing

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.


  • Bhekinkosi Moyo is trained in political science and currently shuttles between Southern Africa and West Africa. He works for TrustAfrica-a Pan African oriented foundation that works to secure the conditions for democratic governance and equitable development. In 2007, he edited a collection of chapters: Africa in Global Power Play. He has just completed editing an 18 country book on DisEnabling the Public Sphere: Civil Society Regulation in Africa.


  1. Alan N Alan N 9 June 2009

    You know thad yet simple truth to this story is a power hungy government which refuses to let go. Get rid of bob and his cronies and see how the country blooms like a Protea after a fire in the bush. The sad thing is the rest of Africa let this mayhem arrise and continue yet still refuse to get involved. What bob and his cronies did to Zim is 110% greater than Smith’s previous regime, at least there was law and order and food to be had, albeit has laws.

  2. The Creator The Creator 9 June 2009

    Very good post in principle; no idea at all how it can be done in practice. Once you destroy a culture of civility it’s hard to reconstruct.

    One forgets that Zimbabwe’s crisis has been going on longer than the liberation war lasted, and has probably affected more people.

  3. Vonney Vonney 9 June 2009

    It is very sad indeed but we hope in good time that Zimbabweans will work together in bringing peace and order. I am glad there seems to be some sort of hope now though.

  4. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 9 June 2009

    Zimbabwe has 2 choices:

    Give back the assets you stole and get the help of the west, or

    Hang on to them and look to Libya, Arabia and/or China to colonise.

    You can’t keep trying to do both.

  5. Lobengula Lobengula 9 June 2009

    “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.”

    What has happened here is what happens when a society allows or encourages the highest levels of government to be taken over by criminals…Mugabe and Zanu-PF…Hitler and the Nazis…Stalin and the Communist Party.

    Mugabe actually showed his true psyche early on when he had his 5th brigade murder tens of thousands of Matabele. He followed that with his racial hatred in the vicious and ongoing land grabs (despite SADC rulings) that have devastated the economy. Please, no garbage about economic sanctions.

    All of that was A-OK with his Zanu-PF support until they started feeling the misery of his tyrannical rule – then he turned on them too.

    Actually, there is no Zimbabwe – just a lawless area run by a warlord and separating South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Mozambique.

  6. Julian Julian 9 June 2009

    Sadly Zim will not recover until at least that maniac Mugabe and his henchmen have left the scene and handed over the levers of power to their democratically elected successors. Mugabe continues to play games with the whole so-called global agreement. He and his cronies retain all the levers of power whilst Tsvingirai and co are left with the almost impossibly onerous task of trying to restore the economy. If they fail, MDC will be blamed and Zanu PF will once again be restored to full power. Tsvingirai, by agreeing to be part of this charade, is seemingly in a no win situation.

  7. Alisdair Budd Alisdair Budd 9 June 2009

    For your info:

    The Organ for National Healing is a pile of cack that was invented in order to give jobs to political cronies (from all parties) as a reward for lyalty, despite the electorate never voting for them.

    Its also illegal by its own rules since the GPA stated that there would only be 31 ministers. The ones in the “National Healing Dept” are unconstitutional.

    PS, the MDC unelected political crony in the Organ of National Healing just gave an interview to the BBC (illegally by Zim law) stating she received daily death treats and believed she was on an assassination list ZANU are preparing:

    As part of the violence and vote rigging that ZANU are already preparing for the next election.

    And personally I beleive the only thing happening in Zim is that it is being slowly colonised by South Africa, since it adopted the Rand.

  8. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 10 June 2009

    THIS takes the cake! In this week’s Mail & Guardian Adekeye Adebajo writes:

    South Africa “would find itself diplomatically isolated, as Mandela did in 1996 after a clash with Nigeria’s dictator…after Abacha hanged Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight fellow environmental activists, “Madiba” sought to rally regional support to sanction Nigeria and ended up being diplomatically shunned…..The Nigerian case determined future South African policy on Zimbabwe”

    “diplomatically isolated ” and “shunned” by whom? The dictators of Africa?

    Now Google “Niger Delta” and “Biafra” where the Christian and animist South (where the oil is) has been subjected to a genocide and to suppression for decades.

    As a South African I am not only happy to be shunned by these people, I am happy if we shun them ourselves. Why would we WANT to be associated with them?

  9. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 10 June 2009

    I see that Adekeye’s article is on the front page (I don’t know why I still buy the M&G?). I could not log in or request an e-mailed password to comment, so you can pass this on:


    Google “Niger Delta” and “Biafra” and see what Nigeria’s dictators have done to the people of the Christian and Animist South (where the oil is).

    Nigeria’s and Zimbabwe’s elites have both committed genocide on their people AND looted their state coffers.

    Why would we WANT to be associated with people like this?

    In fact Biafra has as much right to autonomy as Tibet and we should be supporting BOTH Tibet AND Biafra!

  10. zami nyathi zami nyathi 10 June 2009

    this is very sad.l personally would love to go back home, but to raise my kids in a society described above…is a non starter.zimbabwe is but a sad story that l will live to tell my son one day.

  11. Peter Joffe Peter Joffe 10 June 2009

    Crisis in Zimbabwe? What crisis? SADEC, The ANC, Mkeki and Zuma see no crisis. We are all imagining things. Between 3 to 4 million Zimbabweans are ill informed and have fled the country because they thought there was a crises. The world has gone mad? Zimbabwe is another holocaust whilst Africa does nothing but support the evil men by doing nothing.

  12. Spaghetti Spaghetti 10 June 2009


    You will not even comtemplate the fact that the “assets” you speak of were forcibly taken from native Zimbabweans a scant hundred-odd years ago. To you, (black) Zimbabweans merely stole assets (belonging to white settlers).

    Your jaundiced eye and caustic mouth will not help matters.

    (Black) Zimbabweans have a legitimate right to reclaim assets stolen from them by the settlers. The tragedy is that their government used that grievance (and the people) as cannon fodder in their attempts to cling to power.

  13. ex-Zimbabwe ex-Zimbabwe 10 June 2009

    Thanks for posting, Bhekinkosi. I hope we hear more from you. The breaking of the spirit of the Zimbabwean people is, I agree, the most tragic aspect of what ZANU-PF has done. Tears stand in my eyes when I think of the beauty and peace of M

    But, moving along: what do you think we should do, if anything, about this latest news that the woman seen with Morgan Tsvangirai at our President’s inauguration – a wealthy doctor from the USA – is trying to take a farm in Chegutu? From a farmer born in Zimbabwe who’s been left with a tenth of his original holding even though the other 600 ha or thereabouts is now growing weeds instead of food and export flowers?

    Could this be a reason why Tsvangirai has been so limp in his public statements about farm invasions?

    Here in Cape Town, I’ve met former farm workers who were driven off with violence, so I’m not writing this only out of sympathy for the Cremer family who have been threatened by the usual bunch of useless thugs paid to harass them off their land. How dare a rich doctor from Tennessee do this to a Zimbabwean farmer, and how dare Tsvangirai keep silent?!

    We expect this from Mugabe’s cronies but if the MDC joins in the looting, there really is no hope for any healing, or any foreign funding for that matter.

  14. Balt Verhagen Balt Verhagen 10 June 2009

    The agony of the Zimbabwean people can be observed up close by simply driving past the Central Methodist Church in downtown Johannesburg.

    Bhekinkosi is shocked at the breakdown of social cohesion he sees in his country of origin. Imagine, killing a poor hungry woman for stealing sweet potatoes, and retribution through mob justice. This happened in my native Netherlands 65 years ago. The Nazi occupation had stripped the country bare and led to terrible famine in the cities in the severe winter of 1944. People trudged on foot or by bicycle to the countryside carrying family valuables to barter for some sugar beets. Many collapsed on the way in sub-zero temperatures, were assaulted and some, yes!, murdered for their meagre pickings. Social cohesion was being eroded rapidly. Fortunately, the world had set its face resolutely against the Nazis. Normality soon returned to Dutch society

    Zimbabwe is not so lucky. Its southern neighbour, aided and abetted by its SADC cronies has supported every trick in the book to bolster the repressive and exploitative ZANU in order to break the opposition MDC. It fears what Moeletsi Mbeki once called Africa’s first truly renaissance party, that bravely pursues democracy and development instead of destructive crony nationalism. In spite of election fraud and violence, the MDC has survived, but SADC then locked it into an impossible marriage with Zanu, that might still break it.

    The people will continue to suffer as long as Pretoria lacks the political courage to take a decisive stand.

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