In a pious moment, Thabo Mbeki, then president and engaged in “quiet diplomacy” in conflict-torn Zimbabwe, said it was up to the people of Zimbabwe to decide on their government and their future. This laudable sentiment was not his alone and was taken up by others and repeated at each stage of Zimbabwe’s decline from breadbasket to basket case.
Of course, Mbeki’s democratic piety was undermined by bias in his diplomacy – he was ostensibly a neutral broker between the ruling party, Zanu-PF, and the chief opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change. But he was also the man who drove the decision to sit on the damning Khampepe Report into the rigging of the 2002 Zimbabwean elections.
Further compromised elections followed the 2008 poll, in which Mugabe came closest to losing power. Mbeki suppressed a report by two South African judges, whom he had sent to evaluate the situation in Zimbabwe, when they reported that, in their view, the conditions for a free and fair election no longer existed there. The South African government then endorsed yet another dodgy election in the country just north of ours.
The people of Zimbabwe tried to remove Mugabe and Zanu-PF by means of the ballot box and found they could not. So it would not be surprising to find that Zimbabweans have lost faith in the apparent democratic process and have decided to find other methods to make their feelings known.
This is what has happened over the past few weeks. Stayaways emptied the streets for days. The immediate causes were the nonpayment of civil servants, the doomed plan to reintroduce the almost-worthless Zimbabwean dollar as the country’s currency and the state’s block on imports. As we report this week, the import restrictions are laughable when border officials are motivated more by bribery than by allegiance to regulations. But that situation is both a sign of the Zimbabwean government’s desperation and the fact that this manoeuvre is unlikely to help the country.
What is most inspiring about the present events in Zimbabwe, however, is that the people are expressing their views about their government and the way it behaves. They have cast off their fear of Mugabe’s heavies for long enough at least to attempt to speak truth to power.
The most memorable image to come out of Zimbabwe recently is that of Pastor Evan Mawarire, a Zimbabwean flag across his shoulders, giving vent to his frustration with Zanu-PF and Mugabe. Mawarire’s outcry sparked the current wave of protest.
But the operative symbol in that image is not Mawarire. It is the flag. #ThisFlag, the rubric Mawarire used to describe his protest, is now all over the media and is the name of this month’s demonstration of people’s power. It is a significant departure from the “Big Man” politics of Zimbabwe and other African countries.
The people are no longer waiting for another big personality to come and save them from the last saviour – now a destructive force. It is a moment of hope to see Zimbabweans turning to each other in their battle to rescue their nation.