SCORES of thousands of Zimbabweans will tomorrow converge at the 65 000-seater National Sports Stadium in Harare which will be the centre-piece of countrywide celebrations of the nation’s 34 years of Independence.
However, the pomp and fanfare, if one may optimistically call it that, masks growing disenchantment among the general populace with President Robert Mugabe’s 34-year rule and his Zanu PF party, which has largely failed to live up to its populist promises dating back to 1980.
Instead, the majority of Zimbabweans subsist in abject poverty while unemployment levels have soared to over 80% and the country, in the 1980s and 1990s regarded as the breadbasket of southern Africa, is now a “basket case” heavily dependent on imports and humanitarian aid.
To be sure, the current economic climate characterised by increasing levels of poverty and the emergence of a new generation that never experienced the ravages of the liberation struggle, have dampened the spirit of independence.
Which is why the crowds that will throng the National Sports Stadium and other centres have more to do with, among other factors, buses hired to ferry people to and from the venue, the forced closure of markets and shops to which most owe their living and high-profile cup match, than Independence Day zeal.
The economic outlook remains bleak as the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth for 2013 was estimated at just 3%, representing a dramatic plunge from 10,5% in 2012.
Treasury has attributed the declining revenues to company closures, the under-performance of the mining sector on the back of fluctuating mineral prices on the international market and a shorter working period due to the annual shutdown which extended into part of January.
As usual, government would have people believe the economic morass has little or nothing to do with suicidal economic policies, rampant corruption and the recycling of what has become to be called “deadwood” in cabinet.
This year, more than two million people are in need of food aid and the education system, once touted as the best in Africa, is collapsing as 50% of Zimbabwe’s children graduating from primary school fail to proceed to secondary school.
Gone, too, is the exuberance which used to characterise Independence Day celebrations during the early heady days because of too much sloganeering and promises that are never delivered.
In the country’s second largest city, Bulawayo, years ago, thousands of people would voluntarily beat a path to Babourfields Stadium for the festivities that included parachute displays, traditional songs and dances and dog displays by the police, Air Force and Zimbabwe National Army.
The passion in people was evident for all to see.
Although there is no denying the importance of the day and the huge sacrifices made during the liberation struggle, the big question is whether the sense of pride in this day can be re-ignited in the present generation of Zimbabweans for whom life is an daily struggle.
University of Zimbabwe political scientist Eldred Masunungure said Independence celebrations will only be meaningful once again to millions of young Zimbabweans born after 1980 if it translates into concrete improvements in their economic welfare.
“Right now we have so many people born after Independence and this generation does not have emotional attachment to the day. They would probably value the day a lot more if it translated to meaningful improvements to their welfare,” said Masunungure.
Some are quick to point out Independence Day long ceased to be a national event, but more of a Zanu PF celebration.
Mugabe’s stranglehold on power is certainly a major factor in dampening the spirit of independence, moreso given the fact that in recent years it has led to increased isolation of the country from traditional Western economic partners with dire consequences to the economy.
The sanctions have become a major weapon in the party’s armoury of excuses, but ongoing revelations of endemic corruption in parastatals, state enterprises and local authorities have more or less trumped the sanctions alibi.
At 90, Mugabe is no longer the 56-year-old energetic, charismatic leader who electrified crowds at Rufaro Stadium with moving speeches about racial reconciliation and his vision for Zimbabwe, promising among many other things universal health and education for all by 2000.
However, over the years, corruption has deeply tainted his leadership.
Former chairperson of the parastatals commission Ibbo Mandaza last month pointed out Mugabe had presided over the systematic subversion of state institutions, thus weakening and contributing to the pervasive culture of state corruption which he is now too old to control.
“But as is natural as he got older, he has commensurately lacked the capacity of oversight. To put it very bluntly, we have a head of state that is too old to be doing this kind of function and is therefore unable to do it,” Mandaza said.
“In my days (as chairperson of the parastatals commission), the president (Mugabe) would go through every board, every appointment of the chief executive officers as he did with respect to the appointment of ministers.”
You would imagine then Mugabe has started the process of packing his bags to eventually make way for a younger leader. Not a chance! In fact, two weeks ago he claimed he still had some unfinished business, whose exact nature remains a mystery.
Consequently, the lack of leadership renewal in Zanu PF has contributed to policy failures which have impoverished Zimbabweans.
One would have expected Mugabe to take a leaf from his fellow liberation war leaders from other African countries who passed on power voluntarily. Tanzania’s founding leader Julius Nyerere handed over the reins to Ali Hassan Mwinyi way back in 1985.
After Mwinyi, Tanzanians have had Benjamin Mkapa and now Jakaya Kikwete. Zambia has had Kenneth Kaunda, Frederick Chiluba, Rupiah Banda, Levy Mwanawasa and now Michael Sata.
Since 1994, South Africa has had Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma who will be entering his final term should his African National Congress win this year’s elections.
Mugabe seems oblivious of all these changes taking place around him, but in a sobering admission in a birthday interview last year, Mugabe revealed he felt lonely among the new crop of African leaders.
And even if they wanted to voluntarily attend Independence celebrations, many Zimbabweans are repelled by the increasing politicisation or “Zanunisation” of Independence Day celebrations, as is the case with the Heroes Day commemorations.
From the preparation stages, Zanu PF party officials in rural areas are in the habit of forcing people to make monetary and other contributions towards the celebrations.
Political analyst Alexander Rusero said Zanu PF has convoluted the meaning of Independence with itself and in the process, has “Zanunised” a national event.
“To the party’s way of thinking, Zanu PF and Zimbabwe are synonymous. They are inter-changeable and the notion of patriotism means subscribing to Zanu PF and its ideals. This is how they have been authoring the liberation history of this country and it would be foolish for anyone to think that they will be willing to change their script,” said Rusero.
According to Bulawayo-based analyst Godwin Phiri, Zimbabweans still attach great significance to Independence Day “despite the myriad of challenges they are facing”, but was quick to add that many more people would attend the public events if Zanu PF did not turn it into an exclusive affair for the party.
“Zimbabweans still value Independence Day despite the myriad of challenges they are facing,” said Phiri, “However, many may not be attending the commemorations because they are not impressed by what they perceive to be a political party affair.”