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Eric Bloch Column

Seeing ourselves as others see us

east-language: JA”>ACCOMPANYING a group of businessmen to the Victoria Falls last week to attend the re-opening of the Elephant Hills Hotel, which was gutted by fire two years ago, I went across the border for a brief visit to Livingstone. In some significant respects those few hours were an eye-opener as to Zimbabwean realities, and of the image Zimbabwe has developed not only internationally, but even amongst the populace of the country’s immediate neighbours.

The optical awakening commenced at the Zambian border post. Seated in our tour bus we awaited our tour guide to return, having effected clearance of all nine passengers in less than five minutes! Can Zimbabwe claim the same efficient receptiveness to its tourists? During those few minutes a newspaper vendor, hawking a Zambian newspaper, approached the bus in an endeavour to obtain some customer. None of us had any Zambian (or other foreign currency), but one of the businessmen asked the vendor whether he would accept payment in Zimbabwean dollars.

With some hesitation, he agreed, requesting $500 for a 2 000 Zambian Kwacha newspaper. The businessman expressed surprise at the exchange rate, only to be informed by the vendor that he was being very generous. He claimed that the rate had fallen from K2,5: Z$1 to K3: Z$1, but that he was prepared to accept the discounted sum of $500 out of compassion for Zimbabweans, because “Zimbabwe is finished and Zambia is ticking!” (The immediate reaction was a twofold recollection of the sayings: “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings comes truth”, and “Many a true word spoken in jest”).

We then proceeded to Livingstone. There was not one pothole on the main road to the town, or on any of the roads in the town. The streets were impeccably clean. There were many signs of recent property and business developments. There were no queues at filling stations which were rapidly fulfilling all needs of their motoring customers. There were also no queues at ATMs (there is no shortage of bank notes!); nor were there queues outside bakeries for bread, or at supermarkets for maize meal, sugar and the like.

The small, international airport, extended and refurbished in 2001, was pristine in appearance, and those working there were glowing with pride and enthusiasm, and helpful in the extreme.

The Zambian economy, debilitated by mismanagement over many years, is not yet fully recovered, but the moves towards recovery were very apparent and pronounced and in discussing the changes with Zambians, they attributed the changes to progressive economic deregulation and liberalisation, constructive action between public and private sectors, and co-operative interactions between Zambia and the international community. The contrasts to the Zimbabwean environment were expressively marked.

Then, whilst flying home from Victoria Falls to Bulawayo, I read a recent issue of the world-renowned magazine Newsweek. That issue carried a very extensive focus upon the world’s tourist industries, and included a commentary that: “Serious risk lovers can visit Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe’s country used to be regarded as a model for African economic management, as well as one of the continent’s safest and most stunning safari destinations. For the past three years, Mugabe’s desperate efforts to keep power have skidded the country into chaos, hunger and near civil war … Lines at filling stations can sometimes last for days — and that’s a mere nuisance by Zimbabwean standards. As the collapse of Zimbabwe’s tourism industry has compounded its economic crisis, street crime has worsened.

“A 27-year old Australian tourist was stabbed to death at Victoria Falls in January. Outside the cities, travellers are advised to avoid driving at night when armed thugs like to set up roadblocks and collect ‘tolls’. At the same time, it’s best to steer clear of Mugabe’s security forces; they frequently detain travellers on flimsy charges, suspecting them of being spies or foreign journalists.

“Security forces at a checkpoint recently shot a foreigner who was not carrying proper identity papers. And it’s also best to save your camera for the wildlife. Photographing some official buildings (the president’s house, for example) is a crime punishable by two years in prison. Two Canadians were detained in February because one, a commercial photographer, was spotted photographing a billboard.”

Such a commentary (and it is one of many that appear in the international press and in other media with great regularity) casts Zimbabwe in an exceptionally bad light, deters tourism and other economic interactions with Zimbabwe, and repercusses very negatively upon Zimbabwe and its people.

The president and his vociferous Minister of Fiction, Fable and Myth repeatedly castigate the world’s media, alleging that they resort to demonic machinations of character-destruction. Both the president and his minister contend that the appalling image that Zimbabwe has abroad is due to the journalists of the world, aided and abetted by the allegedly equally evil heads of government of first world countries bent upon either the destruction of Zimbabwe and its political leadership, or upon “recolonising” Zimbabwe.

It cannot be denied that Zimbabwe’s image internationally is extremely poor. It also cannot be denied that awareness of that image has been disseminated widely by the media. But what Zimbabwe’s government fails to recognise, or conveniently disregards, is that even if on occasion that media is biased and one-sided, presenting a distortion of the “facts on the ground”, in practice it is Zimbabwe that is providing the journalists with the facts upon which they develop and build their reports and their opinions.

Whilst a craving for sensationalism motivates many reporters to focus only upon exceptions, and especially so when such exceptions are contrary to globally accepted norms, nevertheless Zimbabwe provides them with endless material upon which to found their commentaries. (And it is not unique to the international media to distort and misrepresent — that happens almost daily in most of the state-controlled media in Zimbabwe!).

The Zimbabwean government needs to learn that just as one cannot make bread without flour, so those who are purveyors of a negative image of Zimbabwe need the foundations upon which to ascribe that image. And Zimbabwe readily provides them.

It continuously fails to do that which is necessary to revitalise the economy. Instead, it pretends to do so, and then blames others for economic failure. It pretends that law and order prevails, but the instances of breaches of fundamental human rights, abuse of legislation and of legislative power, discrimination according to actual or perceived political allegiances, the disgraceful conditions of prisons, and countless other occurrences, evidence irrefutably a very considerable break down of law and order and of good governance.

If the Zimbabwean economy is ever to recover, having virile agricultural, mining, industrial, commercial, tourism and service sectors, government needs to don a new pair of glasses. It must cease usage of those which show only that which government wishes to see, and distorts all else, and instead must begin to see Zimbabwe as others do. It must cure itself of its myopic blindness to realities, and instead develop a clear vision of incontrovertible facts. It must cease to self-justify, and to blame all upon others.

Once it does so, Zimbabweans can become a united people, a nation of equal opportunity, and a country with an economy of real substance. It has the underlying asset base for such an economy. What it does not have is the will to use that asset base effectively and fairly. Until that will develops, with Zimbabweans seeing themselves “as others see us”, and doing something to arrest and reverse all that others see as is negative, the economy must destruct ever further, and poverty unavoidably intensify.

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