Zim war vets battle despair

2010-04-16 09:35

A dusty road leads to the village of Wedza, where veterans of

Zimbabwe’s liberation war eke out a meagre living on their farm cooperative,

which after a promising start now brings only despair.

Thirty years after defeating Southern Rhodesia’s white racist

regime, this handful of proud men, all mutilated during combat, seem about to

lose their new battle.

Weeds have taken over the empty pig pen, the water pump was stolen,

the flour mill’s motor makes a dodgy noise, and drought is scorching their


It was a long and painful path to ruin after the joyous liberation

from Britain in 1980.

“When we came back from the war, we were happy to be in a free

country. We had freed ourselves,” said the group’s president Melusi Makwelo, who

lost his left leg in a bombing.

“The war was about independence so we wanted to be independent, to

work for ourselves,” he said. “We named our cooperative Vukuzenzele” – meaning

“wake up and help yourself” in the minority Ndebele language.

At the time, the world toasted the Lancaster House Agreement signed

in December 1979, which created a transition to black majority rule while

protecting the white minority’s interests.

“In 1980 the world was happy about the settlement. There was a lot

of support for the ex-combatants,” said Eckem Moyo, a 57-year-old veteran.

The co-op started with 12 square kilometres of land donated by

former Rhodesian prime minister Garfield Todd, who had led a progressive

government in the 1950s.

Money from Britain, New Zealand, Germany and others flowed into

grants for the vets to build housing and to buy cattle and seed.

Zimbabwe’s new government was less enthusiastic about Vukuzenzele.

Its 50 members fought for the mainly Ndebele forces led by Joshua Nkomo.

But Nkomo lost the first elections to Robert Mugabe, who headed a

movement dominated by the ethnic Shona majority.

A few years later, Mugabe launched the Gukurahundi campaign. Its

name means “the wind that sweeps away the rubbish”, and Mugabe’s rubbish was the

Ndebele minority.

Between 1984 and 1987, about 20 000 people were killed in massacres

by security forces, when Nkomo agreed to a Unity Accord that folded his

followers into Mugabe’s party, which became the Zimbabwe African National

Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF).

Within the cooperative, one faction joined Zanu-PF, but Makwelo

still speaks cautiously about the Gukurahundi.

“There were disturbances,” he said. “We were not very much


The decision to back Mugabe did bring rewards: new money to build a

hospital, staffed with government medics and drugs.

They prospered until 2000, when Mugabe launched a violent campaign

of land reforms and his supporters staged deadly electoral attacks that turned

Zimbabwe into an international pariah.

The violence was spearheaded by self-styled “war veterans”, many of

them far too young to have seen combat. Their actions tarred the reputation of

these real war vets, and donations dried up.

Meanwhile, the farm sector collapsed and dragged the rest of the

economy down with it.

The only animal feed supplier near Wedza shut down, inflation

skyrocketed, and cash became scarce. In 2001, Vukuzenzele gave up the pigs.

Three years later, they gave up the chickens.

“I thought that, as a free people, things would be available in the

right manner,” Moyo said. “I thought the government would be able to provide

everything needed in the country... I thought we would prosper.”

Their only income now is from rent on their housing, the flour

mill, and remittances from their children who have fled overseas.

“The cooperative is broke,” its secretary Rebecca Songo said. “We

are broke.”

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