But the dreams of the emerging nation were short-lived. “We have abundant mineral, agricultural and human resources to exploit and develop, for which we need perfect peace. Given such peace, our endeavours to transform our society and raise our standard of living are bound to succeed.” (Robert Mugabe on the eve of independence in Zimbabwe, 17 April 1980).
In 1980, as Prime Minister Mugabe noted in his speech to the blossoming nation, Zimbabwe was a land of great prosperity, especially compared to its neighbours.
It was a country of proud industry and giant agricultural outputs.
Its education system was renowned as the best in Africa. It was a time of great joy and optimism, with the promise of equality, freedom and an end to mass poverty finally within reach.
Thirty years later, the situation, in contrast, is stark. Inflation stood at 231 million percent when it stopped being measured in late 2008.
The Zimbabwe dollar was suspended four months later and goods are now being sold in foreign currency.
This means that those without access to hard currency are unable to afford many basic items such as fuel and medicines. Unemployment stands at 94%. The education system, once such a source of pride, has all but collapsed.
Between 1990 and 2008, average life expectancy fell from 61 to 44. Infant mortality climbed from 53 to 81 per 1 000 births in the same period.
One-third of all Zimbabwean children suffer from stunting due to under-nourishment. Among its other work, Trócaire is providing life-saving food packs including maize and beans every month for 2 000 vulnerable families and daily meals for over 24 000 hungry schoolchildren and orphans.
People in the rural areas are suffering through what has become known as “the hungry season” — the period between harvests when food stocks run dry.
It is estimated that almost three million people are dependent on food aid right now. This is more than a fifth of the population in a country once known as the breadbasket of Africa. Last year the country suffered one of the worst cholera epidemics Africa has ever known, infecting over 90 000 people all over the country and killing more than 4 000 by March.
2009. As the sanitation system has almost completely collapsed and the country’s health structures are struggle, disease remains a serious concern.
After what seemed like years of watching Zimbabwe descend further into the abyss (with the violent elections of spring 2008 a particular lowlight), last February Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) finally consummated a power-sharing agreement that could see fresh elections within two years.
The formation of this government was welcomed with relief by many Zimbabweans and the international community at large, including Trócaire, which has worked in Zimbabwe for almost 40 years. Some work of the administration has been encouraging, although it is almost entirely overshadowed by Mugabe’s continual undermining of the executive power of Tsvangirai, the prime minister.
For its part, the MDC has failed to stem the human rights abuses perpetrated by state agents, nor has it managed to curtail the gross corruption which further undermines the economic recovery of Zimbabwe.
Sadly, election violence and gross human rights abuses have been hallmarks of Zimbabwean elections since independence. With growing indications that fresh elections will be held in 2011, there are reports of a resurgence of politically motivated violence throughout the country. Trócaire is working with people around the country to help break this cycle of violence and destruction.
This work is critically important right now.
Recently, young women in a community in the rural area of Masvingo in southern Zimbabwe told Trócaire staff that they believed they should be able to “live in peace in our communities”. This basic human right, this true independence, is what Trócaire and our local partners are trying to defend and protect.
We have had successes and we have seen people continue to suffer. But as the high turnout for the 2008 elections showed, the people of Zimbabwe will not give in to tyranny and oppression. The road ahead is fraught with risk for Zimbabweans but there is also hope for a better future.
There is a vibrancy and energy in Zimbabwe today which is best seen in the light of its activists — those who have consistently stood up for what is right in the face of oppression.
One of the best known is Jestina Mukoko, director of the Zimbabwe Peace Project. Trócaire has funded her work for many years and we are proud to know her.
In December 2008 she was abducted in front of her child by government agents, held in an undisclosed location for three weeks and eventually put in front of a court charged with crimes such as treason.
Her crime? Documenting human rights abuses that occurred in the aftermath of that year’s sham election.
Last month Mukoko was awarded an International Women of Courage award by Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama in Washington. In her acceptance speech, Mukoko said: “We do not want to be passive bystanders, and it is such recognition that ensures that we do not tire until we reach the finish line and pass the baton to the next generation”.
In Mukoko, and others like her, we see the hope of a new Zimbabwe.
Justin Kilcullen is director of Trócaire.