Notes from a ten-day visit in August, 2002
By S. Bruce Schearer
Though the plane was full, I felt a little apprehensive as we left Johannesburg for Bulawayo, the pretty regional city in Zimbabwe's Matebeleland to which I had last traveled three years ago. By all accounts, the situation there was desperate and potentially explosive.
But now, standing next to Cecil Rhodes' majestic final resting place atop a giant boulder in Matopos National Park (recently designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations), the Zimbabwe familiar to me from past visits seemed unchanged. Clusters of tourist families, white and black, were inspecting the monuments and taking in the spectacular vista, the crafts stand below was fully stocked with wares and the country folk who labored long hours carving and weaving them were installed in their usual spot under the adjacent trees, the uniformed toll collectors were in place at the park entrance and the cave painting sites, and my Zimbabwean companion and I were enjoying our Sunday outing with the customary discussion of the country's development problems.
Seventy kilometers down the road, life in Bulawayo also seemed largely unchanged -- restaurants were bustling, streets and markets jammed with people, the local stationery and copy shop busy with a steady flow of customers and phone calls. The Robert Sibson Hall of Music had nearly sold out its seats to tonight's concert and Wednesday's was completely booked.
"No," my friend said, "although politics has changed quite a lot, life has not changed much." "What about the food shortages?" -- a question I asked of many poor rural farmers as well as townspeople during my first few days there until I could see firsthand for myself. "Well," he replied, "the rains were very poor again this year, so people in some areas didn't grow much, but hopefully the rains will be good as we head into the summer. There is plenty of food in the shops and markets, but with few crops to sell the poor farmers can't afford it, so the government and international groups are distributing corn meal and cooking oil to tide them over until the next harvest. In town, supplies of sugar did come close to running out, but now they are back."
So on the surface, while there are some shortages, life goes on largely as always has. My visit made evident the extent to which overseas press reports have exaggerated Zimbabwe's deterioration. One South African told me to bring my own supply of toilet paper, and though I discounted this advice, I did find myself giving away the extra biscuits, peanuts and tea bags I had foolishly squeezed into my luggage.
But echoing my companion, politics has changed a lot. So has the economy. The mayor of Victoria Falls gave me the good news as we stood behind a line of tourists to view the great cataract: tourism is on the rise again. Guests crowded the poolsides of the three gorgeous hotels I visited, and the tiny downtown was congested with foreign shoppers. The bad news is that the country is running perilously low on foreign exchange, the value of the Zimbabwean dollar continues to plummet, making imported goods increasingly unattainable, while inflation within the country is driving up prices nearly 10% each month, putting even local goods out of reach of the vast number of people who live on less than US$ 100 per year.
As I drove my land cruiser down a remote country road, I stopped to offer a ride to a woman walking towards the small town 20 kilometers ahead carrying a large bundle on her head. "Oh yes," she said, a big sunny smile lighting her face at her good luck to get a ride, "I'm going back to my home in town. Thank you so much." "What are you carrying?" "It's clothes," she replied, opening the bag to show me worn garments that looked like they had survived 25 years of hard labor -- much like the ones she was wearing herself. "I sell them, it's my business. I used to buy them in South Africa, but now they cost too much, so I can't do my business very much."
I asked her if she had heard of the mircocredit program run by ORAP which would loan her money for her business, and she told me she had but that the loans were only given to groups of women, and she worked by herself. Since I had just visited ORAP's microcredit office the day before, I knew what she was saying was true. "If they would give me a loan I would take it, because people in town need clothes and I could sell them." "How much would you borrow?" "About Z$ 25,000," she replied -- roughly 400 South African Rand (US$40) at the 'parallel market' exchange rate I calculated.
Mother Africa, the amazing women of the continent who sustain and carry life forward against all adversities (with the too-often denigrated strength of Africa's men behind them) -- even with no money she had managed to collect a bag of old clothes miles up the road and walk back home with it. When we arrived in town and she got down from the car, her face again lighted with her wonderful smile as she thanked me for the ride. As I drove away, I handed her my left-over Rand from South Africa, enough to restart her business.
Life has always been rock-scrabble harsh in these rural areas of Matebeleland, and it has become even harsher now. Fewer and fewer parents can afford the modest fees to send their children to school and fewer and fewer schools are able to operate. Health services and medical supplies, limited before, now are disappearing. Development projects have come to a halt as the US and European foreign aid agencies have withdrawn to punish President Mugabe. Cemeteries are expanding everywhere as the AIDS epidemic takes its increasing toll, largely unchecked. In these rural areas, the small but vital cash income from South African or, further west, Namibian tourists driving through on their way to Hwange game park or Matopos has dried up since the elections.
Yet the resiliency of these subsistence farmers is amazing. Living off the few goats and cattle they raise on nearly barren land and the small output of maize, tomatoes and squash from plots they irrigate with cans of water carried long distances by the women and children, they continue to raise their voices in daily song, charm their visitors with good-humored joking, break into dance at the slightest provocation, and bond together in their own microsavings groups and self-help microenterprises to bring a little cash income to their families and communities. All this at a time when villages are losing as many as one-third of their young people to AIDS and those remaining assume as their natural responsibility the care of the sick and dying and upbringing of the growing numbers of orphans in their homes.
Eleven years ago a courageous young N'debele woman from Bulawayo named Sithembiso Nyoni identified deeply with the spirit of these rural communities and their struggle, and she assembled a group of rural school teachers and village leaders to create a self-help movement. Today ORAP (Organisation of Rural Associations for Progress) is one of the largest non-political people's movements in the world. Its base is tens of thousands of dues-paying member families who join ORAP for the common purpose of empowering themselves, fighting poverty, conserving their natural resources, developing their youth, and making their communities more sustainable. Members come together to conduct self-help projects in crop and livestock production, small-scale enterprises, education, health and water.
The purpose of my visit to Zimbabwe was to facilitate a planning workshop of 40 of ORAP's founders, community leaders and key staff to strengthen the movement in this time of great hardship. The tremendous strength of common purpose they displayed and the deep values of self-reliance and self-help they demonstrated symbolize Zimbabwe's hope for a better future. In eight days of intensive work beginning each day with traditional songs and a morning prayer, they affirmed and restated their founding values, clarified their structure and mutual areas of responsibility, took critical decisions about future staffing, launched a new membership drive, and created a member-generated savings fund ( qogelele) to serve as a source of small grants for ORAP community development projects in the future. At the close, they passed a basket amongst themselves for contributions to launch the new qogelele fund.
The fund will be administered by a separate organization, the Community Development Foundation of the Western Region of Zimbabwe, a successful five-year old independent grantmaking foundation established by several nonprofit groups and ORAP with the assistance of The Synergos Institute. Using the qogelele contributions from ORAP members -- ORAP's goal is to raise Z$50 from each rural member family this year -- supplemented with funds raised from northern church groups and foreign aid agencies and from private corporations and business leaders in Zimbabwe, the Foundation will invite rural communities to apply for small grants to support their local initiatives.
But these hopeful developments and indeed all hope for Zimbabwe's future are menaced by the growing cleavages within the country and with the outside world. Zimbabwe's terrible politics exploit this polarization, but politics is neither the cause nor the method that will unlock the pathway to a brighter future.
Deep chasms divide the country and its relations abroad. Millions of extremely poor indigenous subsistence farmers are polarized against several thousand white farmers with large post-colonial holdings of the nation's best land. The post-independence black Zimbabwean population is increasingly polarized against the post-Rhodesian white population. Tensions are apparent between the Shona with their near-monopoly of power in the country and the N'debele people who are unhappy about the extremely disadvantaged circumstances of Matebeleland and the Midlands. The vociferously hostile international community has set itself against a Zimbabwe characterized (caricatured, really) as a "bad" state. These are the divides that must be bridged if Zimbabwe is to avoid slipping further into disarray and conflict.
The cost of losing is high in all these win-or-lose configurations. Each party is committed to winning; almost no one is looking for common ground. Almost everyone is vilifying the other side, violating Nelson Mandela's fundamental rule of honoring at least the potential of decency in your enemy if you hope to ever find a way of living together. Avoiding "rivers of blood" was not easy in South Africa, but the black African majority found the common ground within its own community and with the diverse white and colored communities to construct a vibrant and hopeful new nation.
Now is the time for the international community to stop punishing the country as a whole through increasingly punitive policies and, instead, get behind those Zimbabwean leaders, black and white, Shona and N'debele, ZANU-PF and MDC, big landowners and land-poor villagers who can build common ground for Zimbabwe's future.
Of course, disarray and conflict sell more newspapers and make for better political speeches than common ground and negotiated solutions. The global press, for example, reports only the violence and unlawful abuses associated with "the take-over of the white farmers' land". These have been horrifying, indeed, and need to be both widely reported and condemned. But why is there no mention of the lawful processes that are in place to finally achieve land reform more than 20 years after independence against the continuing rigid opposition of the white farmers whose colonial forebears unjustly displaced the indigenous owners? Clearly Mugabe's dreadful hardball tactics and efforts to circumvent the law are unacceptable, but the fact that the legal system continues to function, that the majority of white farmers are engaged in court action to protect their interests, and that negotiated settlements are under discussion also merits reporting.
An episode illustrating both the tensions and the balances occurred during the campaigning for the national elections last March. Some of Mugabe's war veteran supporters -- the group who were responsible for the killing of eleven white farmers and the beating of others -- arrived at a white-owned farm to mobilize the black workers there to vote for Mugabe. The workers told the veterans they could not vote because the white farmer had confiscated all of their identity cards. When the veterans confronted the white farmer and his wife, they refused to return the cards, angry words ensued, and the couple jumped in their car and drove to the nearby home of one of Mugabe's ministers of government to ask for protection. The minister calmed them down, told the guards at the gate to turn away the pursuing war veterans, and called the local police. When the police arrived and heard the story, they chastised the couple for taking their workers' identity cards (an illegal act in a country where everyone is required to have their cards in their possession at all times), and drove back to their farm with them to oversee the return of the cards. The war veterans then returned to continue their election campaigning peacefully.
Today, the majority of the large farms have been legally claimed by the government, and legal proceedings are underway to determine the process and terms of the government's acquisition of the land. Mugabe's government has simultaneously -- without waiting for the lawful proper resolution of the legal proceedings, which are likely to take years to conclude -- launched a nation-wide resettlement program that encourages poor villagers to move onto land owned by white farmers and begin farming this season so that the country's food supplies will be restored. Many of the poor farmers are moving out of their villages to the new settlements.
The ordinary women and men of Zimbabwe who are working so hard to build a better future deserve better policies from the West. The place to start is with land reform. Even as the hard-ball tactics continue on both sides, the possibility of a negotiated win-win outcome exists.
The two main obstacles to land reform are uncertainty that the government can or will pay a fair market price for the land it takes and the lack of a fair and clearly defined process to enable those white farmers who want to stay on as citizens of Zimbabwe to do so. Here is where the international community can convert its current win-lose political approach to a leadership role. If the major foreign aid programs, including but not limited to the British, came forward with funds to support Zimbabwe's land reform program in a manner that fostered the building of common ground in the country while fully recognizing the government's legitimacy to lawfully redistribute land in the national interest, not only could this divisive problem be solved but the doors to collaboration to heal the other major divides could be opened as well.
Skies over not just Zimbabwe but all of Africa would brighten immeasurably.
S. Bruce Schearer is President of the Synergos Institute.
August 19, 2002