HomeOpinionBook Review: Zimbabwe: Years Of Hope And Despair

Book Review: Zimbabwe: Years Of Hope And Despair

EXPLAINING Britain’s silence on Zimbabwe’s Gukurahundi atrocities Sir Martin Ewans, their then representative here, said:  “It wasn’t pleasant and people were being killed but … I don’t think anything was to be gained by protesting to (Robert) Mugabe about it … I think the advice was to steer clear of it in the interests of doing our best positively to help Zimbabwe build itself up as a nation.” 

This stance continued throughout the 1980s when, to quote Philip Barclay’s book, Zimbabwe’s first Prime Minister was “collecting, centralising and concentrating power”, adjusting the constitution to transform himself into an executive president, and demonstrating a capacity “for savage social engineering”. 
Imagine, therefore, the shock in Harare when the cosy relationship with Britain’s Conservatives terminated with the 1997 election of Tony Blair’s New Labour government  which, while  emphasising development and Africa, demanded a matching emphasis on good governance by would-be recipients of British aid. 
Posted to the British Embassy here as a political officer from 2006 to 2009, Barclay fell in love with Zimbabwe, taking to heart its “hope and despair”.  Thankfully his ultimate boss, Foreign Secretary David Miliband, broke with Britain’s tradition of secrecy and encouraged blogs for employees to publish personal views on the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office website.  Hence the creation of this immensely important record  in which, against the delineated background of economic and social collapse, Barclay examines the roles played by South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki, Sadc, the AU and others in forcing Zimbabwe into a “global political agreement”.
Vital in enabling the gathering of all this information was Barclay’s accreditation as an observer right to the ballot boxes during the March 29 2008 elections, and the June “run-off”.  He initially concentrated on the Gutu, Zaka, Bikita and Chivi constituencies and then recorded the subsequent weeks of horrendous, punitive attacks on people in Masvingo and Manicaland.  Although these elections saw mass exclusions of Zimbabweans from voting procedures (apart from the disenfranchised millions in the diaspora, an estimated 20% of those who actually got to the polls to vote were turned away) determination for change was in the air and the eventual results caused panic in government. 
Barclay’s thesis is that then a shocked Mugabe “wobbled” and wanted to retire quietly abroad.  “Money would not be a problem.”  But escape was not permitted as his continued presence was required to protect his security chiefs in the Joint Operations Command (JOC).  Amongst these, more vulnerable than he to prosecution, were “Major-General Paradzai Zimondi, who has turned a term in Zimbabwe’s prison into a death sentence, allowing 20% of prisoners to starve and rot each year; Air Marshal Perence Shiri who led the 5th Brigade’s Gukurahundi purges ….”, and all the others  involved in the land occupations which resulted in “around 400 000 avoidable, premature deaths  …  an estimated 40%” of the afflicted 1,5 million workers and dependents driven off the  commercial farms.  
The recounting of votes started “to buy a dying regime time to plan”, to force a presidential runoff between Morgan Tsvangirai and Mugabe in June and to ensure “a radically morefavourable electoral climate –– one in which people were afraid to vote against Mugabe.”   Barclay reports that the JOC thus activated Zanu PF’s youth militias by channelling money, vehicles and weapons to them with the required help of Gideon Gono and his Reserve Bank.
“Most of Zanu PF’s wet work in 2008 was carried out by youth militias … mind-controlled children have shown the greatest capacity for subhuman cruelty.   Grown-ups are required to manage logistics, deliver materials and insert incendiary propaganda into damaged minds.  But when it comes to the intimate work of torturing to death… crazed, indoctrinated teenagers have an unparalled talent.”   In later months, of course, nemesis caught up and, stripped of their “state-funded beer and marijuana,” they “felt the vengeance of their victims rising from shallow graves, saw the hatred on the faces of their former friends and family and knew that they were going to pay some day for what they had done.”
Having given the JOC over a month to restrategise, George Chiweshe’s Electoral Commission announced the presidential percentage results as being Tsvangirai 47,9;  Mugabe 43,2;  Simba Makoni 8,3 thus requiring the bloody run-off from which Tsvangirai withdrew.
“Tsvangirai’s enormous popularity ultimately had to be admitted and his bid for power could no longer be denied.  Though the cruel old men fought, and fight still, the historic courage Zimbabweans had shown on March 29 marked the beginning of their end”.
Perhaps, we can hope. But what is certain is that this beautifully written history meticulously exposes, and in good time too, precisely from what and from who Zimbabwe’s voters will need protection before and during any future election.


By Judith Todd

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