Harare revisited

2013-07-16 00:00

THE last time I visited Harare was in 1992. That was 21 years after moving there to teach comparative religion at the former University of Rhodesia. Now, 42 years after that first experience of our northern neighbour, and half as many years after the 1992 trip, what did I find?

Most surprising, perhaps, because most unexpected, was a splendidly thriving arts scene, at least in Harare.

Our visit coincided with a gala musical night as part of Hifa —the Harare International Festival of the Arts. It was held in the open in a park-like area behind the Monomotapa Hotel and was genuinely international and hugely enjoyable, despite the chilly night air.

In the affluent Harare suburb of Borrowdale, shops brim with imported luxury goods, being paid for with U.S. dollars (and sometimes with rands).

Roads in Harare are often alive with very expensive new cars and SUVs, mostly driven by youngish, very well-dressed, black Zimbabweans.

Evidence of a small elite of rich people, including some of the remaining 30 000 whites, is there for all to see, but this is a tiny ship on a sea of unemployed and poor people.

Despite a rosy account of Zimbabwean agriculture featured in The Witness and on SATV recently, there was some disturbing evidence of serious agricultural decline, following what President Robert Mugabe has called the “land grab”, which began about a decade ago.

We passed three massive and reportedly idle grain elevators on rich farm land, and only one or two big, thriving maize farms along the road from Harare to Makuti, a distance of some 250 km.

Also striking were the endless small patches of maize in people’s gardens and on adjacent roadside strips of land. Would there be so many of them if there was maize aplenty in the shops, one wondered.

We also had direct evidence of the appallingly callous and cruel way the land grab was carried out from some people who had lost farms.

Beyond doubt, there is an urgent need for us in South Africa to find a fairer and wiser way than Zimbabwe’s to solve our own land question, better also than what we’ve done so far.

After independence in 1980, we were told, school attendance would be free in state schools. This has stopped and fees must be paid, despite massive unemployment.

One mid-morning, while exploring old suburban haunts, we spotted a small group of school children in their neat uniforms, wandering along the street.

We asked them why they weren’t at school and we were told that as they couldn’t pay the fees, they’d been sent home.

Reportedly, this is not uncommon. In a country rich in mineral wealth, this seems to me to be a crime against the young.

There are now so many new buildings on the somewhat unkempt campus of the University of Zimbabwe that I had some trouble finding the old arts block where I had my office and lecture rooms.

Chatting students thronged the place and we wondered where many of them would find employment.

I was delighted to see a visual aid I’d used over 40 years ago —a relief map of the geography of ancient Israel — still on the wall of our old seminar room.

Along the nearby corridor every door was protected by heavy steel security grills and pad-locks, presumably against theft. Clearly there is little demand for the geography of ancient Israel.

On the plus side, it was wonderful to experience again the friendly, helpful manner of ordinary folk, most of them Shona speakers.

And the countryside north-west of Harare, with its undulating grasslands and lovely abundance of indigenous trees, remains beguiling, as does Lake Kariba, where the fishing was a lot better than on our previous visit. I even caught a tiger fish, all of 10 centimetres long.

• Martin Prozesky is an emeritus professor of the UKZN and independent ethics trainer.

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