Spotlight on Zimbabwe: What’s Going On?

By Yeshica Weerasekera, Thousand Currents’ former Regional Director for Africa

The Best Way Out is Always Through

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As I enthusiastically prepared to travel to Zimbabwe a few months ago, I thought about its turbulent history. This incredible country faced many challenges in its post-Independence years that followed a brutal war of national liberation, many difficult sacrifices, and the end of White Minority Rule in 1980. While the 1980s and 90s saw steady economic growth coupled with excellent social programs such as in health care and education, the country has been consistently plagued by economic and political difficulties ever since then, denting the euphoric optimism surrounding a hard-fought independence.

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As the gaps between the rich and the poor took hold, social unrest and highly organized strikes by workers, doctors, nurses, and civil servants grew. The time between 2007-2008 became the absolute low point for the country when the real rate of inflation hit sextillion percent and the central bank even issued a 100 billion Zim dollar note! The economy collapsed, leading to empty market shelves and a stream of people leaving the country. All against a backdrop of human rights violations, an aggressive cholera epidemic, brutal election violence and a severe drought that left people barely holding on. In addition, only humanitarian NGOs and funders were allowed to operate with restricted access to communities.

Following a deadlock in the 2008 election, a negotiated Government of National Unity gave Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change the Prime Ministerial role, while the leader since Independence, Robert Mugabe, became President and held onto the most powerful portfolios. Soon after, the currency was dollarized (US) and some calm and stability prevailed. Meanwhile, Mugabe’s ZANU-PF rebuilt its political resilience and took back power in the 2013 Presidential election. Marked tensions, violence and political divisiveness continue to dominate politics, however. So much so, that in the last couple of years, factional infighting within ZANU-PF has led to the revelation of assassination plots and brutal political positioning in order to succeed the 91-year-old Mugabe when he steps down.

Ordinary People & Civil Society

 

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I was eager to learn how ordinary people were coping within this stark context. It was painfully clear that Zimbabwean people continue to face great hardships in both urban and rural contexts. Gains in the social sector since Independence have continuously eroded since the mid-90s. Sadly, while the 1980s and 90s saw record-setting literacy rates of 96%, present-day Zimbabwe is experiencing record-setting unemployment rates of 96%. There is an abundance of natural resource wealth in Zimbabwe, particularly in minerals such as gold, diamonds, platinum and granite. And yet 72% of Zimbabweans are living below the poverty line, as this resource wealth is whisked out of the country by foreign corporations or falls into private domestic pockets.

Everyday existence is challenging, and basics such as water and electricity are scarcely available for many people. Those who have the courage to organize and protest the failure of such basic municipal services are routinely victimized and beaten or thrown in jail. And yet, the courage and determination of Zimbabwean people, as I found out, is absolutely remarkable. With a long history of suffering oppressive conditions, their stoicism, hard work, mental strength, and generosity seem to be the key to their resilience and survival. As such, creativity and innovation with survival strategies is key. Indeed there is no other choice, whatsoever.

I learned more about the vibrant civil society in Zimbabwe as people here have come together to strongly organize for change over the decades. Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are involved with the movement for political democracy, human rights, and protecting the space for civil society. Regrettably, their actions are often seen solely as expressing political opposition, and this has led to restrictions on freedom of expression, public meetings and protests, and even close surveillance.

One bright spot and major step forward for the country is the New Constitution, developed through a national consultative process during the national unity phase, and endorsed by a tremendous 95% of voters in 2013. Many civil society organizations (CSOs) find the new Constitution a hopeful mechanism for holding the government accountable to implement some fairly progressive rights provisions. It was also very encouraging to find that the Women’s Movement is very well organized in Zimbabwe, and played a role with getting strong language on women’s rights and equal treatment, freedom from violence, and rights to socio-economic resources into the new Constitution. This puts women’s rights groups in a strong position to organize with greater credibility and protection by law.

 

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