While Zimbabwe was on fire, president Emmerson Mnangagwa was abroad telling the world it was open for business. The irony of preaching openness whilst the entire country was cut off from the whole world, is striking, writes Redi Tlhabi.
I know a young Zimbabwean mother who works in Johannesburg. It is a tough and thankless job, cleaning a fancy gym; wiping the sweat from the exercise equipment, making sure every client has a fresh and crisp towel and that the floors, toilets and showers are pristine.
I cannot say she loves her job. It is what it is. It puts food on the table and ensures that her children, who are being cared for by a relative back home, lack for nothing. But for her to achieve this most basic human endeavour, she has to live and work in South Africa – an often unwelcoming country.
She puts up with the xenophobic, racist slurs; the condescending stereotypes, the disrespect, from young and old. She is uprooted and lives with the chilly winds of displacement. Her host country uses bureaucracy, documentation and inefficiency to punish her and remind her that she does not belong.
By making her wait and wait and wait for processing, her status is akin to that of a stateless person. But this young mother battles through it because that is what she has to do. Her country, Zimbabwe, has nothing to offer.
But three weeks ago, it offered her violence. Like many migrant labourers, she trekked home to prepare her children for the start of the new school year. She was proud because although she had not seen them for a year, she had a lot to show for her absence. Her labour had produced new, crisp school uniforms, stationery, toys, litres of cooking oil, jumbo packs of snacks, maizemeal, flower, rice, beans.
She was proud. But all of this is now a distant memory. What she remembers are soldiers shooting dead a young man, right next to her. She remembers being pulled out of a moving car and being prevented from accessing public transport to return to work.
The children could not attend school as soldiers shut them down, whilst brandishing machine guns that she had only ever seen on television. Weapons of war, aimed at innocent citizens who were tired, weary and fearful of the impact of a 150% fuel price increase. Their lives are already fragile and burdensome. The increase was their undoing.
Any reasonable citizen would be angry at this steep increase, whatever the justification and rationale for it. But that is not what the paternalistic state expected. It wanted total obedience and acquiescence. It wanted total acceptance of its decisions, and not once felt the need to negotiate and cajole. The people had to trust the government and relent.
When it could not achieve this, it exacted acceptance of this unfair increase by using brutal force; arresting and in some cases, murdering citizens. It did so behind closed doors. It shut down social media and imposed a blackout on the flow of information. The state did not want the world to witness its shameful acts.
Why shut down communication channels if all you are doing is within the confines of the law and the frameworks of decency and fairness? It justifies this brutality by claiming opposition elements are destabilising the country and fuelling violence. The opposition does not command the army and has no authority to control borders, shut down schools and mow people to the ground.
The army is still preventing people from moving freely. A government that has nothing to offer its people, is jeopardising the livelihoods of its citizens, knowing very well that it cannot absorb them into its non-existent labour market and lifeless economy.
While the country was on fire, the president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, was abroad telling the world that Zimbabwe is open for business. The irony of preaching a message of openness whilst the entire country was cut off from the whole world, is striking!
Mnangagwa eventually returned home, but it was too late, the crisis had long fermented and the dead were buried, struck by the bullets of his army. He promised to crack down on wanton violence, blaming everybody; citizens, opposition parties, community leaders, religious leaders, the youth, the army. This of course ensures that nobody actually takes accountability, nobody gets punished because all are responsible. A state of paralysis ensues.
After blaming the entire citizenry, he added, "It is a betrayal of the new Zimbabwe." The "new Zimbabwe" looks very much like the Zimbabwe that was ruled and ruined by Robert Mugabe, with Mnangagwa by his side.
The African Union has predictably shown no leadership, issuing lame platitudes. South Africa, whilst it cannot dictate to a sovereign country, can speak out and demand a respect for human rights, free speech and an end to violence. South Africa should have demanded that the Zimbabwean army vacate the border and allow the free movement of people, some of whom merely wanted to return to work. South Africa should have cared enough to reach out and hear the voices of ordinary people.
The young mother slept in the bush for two days, with no food and water. She chose the bush, because it was safer than her home. Mnangagwa's army was knocking door to door, rounding up young people, accusing them of stirring up the violence.
A government that fears its youth and shuts down social media because it does not like the resounding message, is not a government of the people.
Mnangagwa tweeted, "Chaos and insubordination will not be tolerated." The people have been warned.
- Redi Tlhabi is an award-winning author, journalist and talkshow host.
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