HomeOpinionA tale of agony and hope

A tale of agony and hope

By John Robertson

The Battle for Zimbabwe – The Final Countdown By Geoff Hill Published by Zebra Press, Cape Town. Price in Zim: $194 300.

-serif”>READERS on the journey through this agonising story of Zimbabwe’s descent into a totalitarian nightmare would have to be forgiven for losing heart, but an undeniable hint of optimism is captured in this book’s subtitle, The Final Countdown. Whether the countdown has actually started might still be an open question, but as Geoff Hill says, it is important to understand how things developed if we have any hope of creating a better future for all Zimbabweans.

Hill’s book chronicles in graphic detail the conduct of Zimbabwe’s ruling party through the 24 years of its control. More than half the book concentrates on events since 1997 as the party responded to a series of challenges to its authority. The first of these came from war veterans, who caught President Robert Mugabe off guard. Those that followed came from the successes of the first significant opposition party since Independence and from legal challenges to the land acquisition policies that were mounted by commercial farmers.

The War Veterans Association was the driving force behind the move to break up the country’s thriving commercial farms and to allocate small plots of land free to the veterans and to hundreds of thousands of peasants. The initiative they took forced into place the process of evicting thousands of commercial farmers, and when this action was challenged in the courts, a new constitution that was intended to give the ruling party the legal right to capture land was proposed.

When this constitution was defeated in a referendum, the ruling party set in motion a train of events that was designed to prevent new challenges from ever again threatening the domination of the party. Geoff Hill traces a path through the subsequent months and lays bare the raw brutality of a regime that saw no reason to set limits to the methods it could use to subjugate an unarmed population.

When Zanu PF’s constitutional proposals were rejected, the 2000 parliamentary election was a few months away, but the party had time to pass into law the land acquisition clauses that had generated most of the opposition to the proposals.

With active support from the police and the army, war veterans and their supporters were then empowered to forcibly evict farmers and their families, and at the same time urban communities were punished for supporting the opposition party. Effectively, the right to the protection of the law was withdrawn from those perceived to be trying to oppose government decisions.

Zimbabwe is not treated in isolation. Hill weaves into his tapestry the records of many other African countries where brutality and oppression became the authorities’ standard responses to dissent.

Taken together with the harsh dictatorships that emerged almost everywhere in Africa, the result becomes a backdrop against which Zanu PF’s excesses in Zimbabwe start to appear fairly normal. This, suggests Hill, helps to explain why international reactions against Zanu PFs early excesses, particularly the devastating Matabeleland Gukurahundi episode, were muted, if they were discernible at all.

Gukurahundi is estimated to have cost between 10 000 and 30 000 lives as Zanu PF made its concerted attempt to break the spirit of the Ndebele.

Diplomats and foreign governments seemed eager to dismiss the massacre as the price that had to be paid for unity, but the atrocities committed came back into public consciousness when a full report was finally published in 1998, 14 years after the event. Those in charge of the campaign are still in office, as are those who authorised it. Now, Bosnia and Kosovo have caused changes to the concept of accountability and, with Milosevic behind bars, the scene has changed.

From the lack of any reaction to the Gukurahundi episode when it happened, and the unfinished business that it has since become, Hill traces two of the characteristics of Zanu PF rule: first the party’s belief in its absolute impunity, and now that accountability is rearing its head, its determination never to relinquish power.

The first real threat to its political power emerged in the form of the Movement for Democratic Change. When this party won a significant number of seats in the 2000 parliamentary election, Zanu PF’s self-preservation instincts and its violent origins quickly returned to prominence.

Hill offers a condensed, but comprehensive background history of the country in the first 80 pages, and provides a detailed account of the Zanu PF’s talent for violence in the next 200 pages. Stage by stage, each reaction to the mounting challenge to the ruling party’s authority is explained and each new layer of control over the opposition party’s freedom of movement, civil rights and access to publicity is detailed.

Dozens of the attacks on victims of the resulting oppression and intimidation are described in detail and the account is made all the more appalling by the consistent record of success that Mugabe’s supporters have had in running rings around their opponents, detractors and critics.

So profound has been the devastation that if a genuine recovery is to be achieved, many basic institutions will need to be rebuilt. Among other facilities, the public health services have all but collapsed and will need to be restored, commercial agriculture has to be re-established and the seriously damaged education system has to be put back on its feet.

Signposts to where we are now were very much in evidence a few years ago. Hill quotes a 2002 statement from the Minister of Justice, Patrick Chinamasa, in which he claimed that non-governmental organisations were bent on the overthrow of Zanu PF and they were “disguising their activities in semantics such as human rights, democracy and promoting civil society”.

Now, a Bill that will impose stringent controls on all NGOs awaits its passage into law. Soon, fearsome penalties could be inflicted on anyone caught providing for the material, mental, physical or social needs of distressed persons or families or even animals if they haven’t first registered their organisation with government.

Hill covers a range of topics that will bring memories flooding back for many readers. Remember Willowgate? Capital Radio? The war over cellphone licences? The looting of the War Victims Compensation Fund? These and many other events are described and put into their historical context.

Along with encapsulated facts about the country’s early history, the book also deals with events such as the more recent fuel crises, the banknote scarcity, Congo timber concessions and the deeply negative interest rates that allowed government to capture the bulk of the country’s savings. The causes and effects of these and many other crucial issues show the many ways that Zanu PF has tried to profit from their engineered distortions or to deflect the costs onto others.

However, the destruction has also consumed the country’s resources very much more rapidly than its diminishing productive sectors can replace them. Like everything else, the wealth redistribution process has its limits.

Like many Zimbabweans, Hill was intrigued by the mysterious death of Bulawayo war veterans leader, Cain Nkala. He spent more than a year investigating the murder and the book includes a fascinating account of Nkala’s last hours. Eye-witness testimonies have been pieced together with court reports and police evidence and his thoughts on how the murder was committed, and by whom, could shed new light on the case when it is re-opened, as it surely must be.

Hill has produced a record of events that will keep alive the consequences of misrule. Hopefully it will help prevent deviant behaviour from developing elsewhere and also help to bring to book those who can still be held to account.

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