In 1980, after a protracted war of liberation, a nation was born in the southern part of the African continent. It was christened Zimbabwe as a nod to a glorious African past when, many centuries past and with no cement, a great people built dzimba-dza-mabwe — houses of stones — some of which survive.
In this new house of stone, the people selected Robert Gabriel Mugabe as the prime minister and, in a winner-take-all system, he and his fellow party members immediately worked to quash the opposition and the people in their stronghold.
The leader of the opposition, one Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo, escaped possible arrest and torture by jumping the border in drag to a neighbouring country. Many people, including his supporters, in his strongholds of Matabeleland and Midlands were not so lucky.
The Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace recounts some of the horrors in a book, Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe: A Report on the Disturbances in Matabeleland and the Midlands, 1980-1988.
Pregnant women had children ripped from their stomachs, men were buried alive and, because there was a drought at that time, many died from a lack of relief aid that most people in other parts of the country were getting. The government was not feeding “dissidents”.
A former mayor of a major town, Patrick Kombayi, broke away from the governing party and, with a new breakaway party, tried to run for Parliament. He was shot and suffered serious injuries.
A story is recounted in the book of how the writers offered to guide an international broadcaster from a former colonial overlord to ground zero to report on the atrocities. But the broadcaster made excuses and wrote a nice fluffy piece on Zim-ba-bwi instead.
The Lancaster House conference had ensured that the colonial overlords’ interests and those of their kith and kin were safe. What were some black deaths and injuries? Really, they had to leave the natives to govern themselves.
To the former colonial masters then, all was well.
So, too, in the neighbouring countries. There was a bigger enemy to worry about. Apartheid South Africa. And the dissident groups they were sponsoring. Who was to say that these people in Matabeleland were not funded by South Africa’s National Party, just like Unita in Angola, Renamo in Mozambique and all those enemies of liberation who were setting off bombs in Botswana, Lesotho, Zimbabwe and other the frontline states?
The citizens in the house of stone were also satisfied with what was happening. Universal education and universal healthcare had become policy. Where there were no schools, schools were built. Teacher training colleges were funded. Where there were no clinics and hospitals, these were also built. Nursing training colleges were funded.
Anyone, whether a pupil in a village, mission school, township school, former group A school or private school, had a chance to go to university. It was the grades that mattered. And for those who failed to go to university, there were other avenues of support.
With five O levels, an uncle or aunt who had come from the village to the city would find a job within a month or two in a factory. Because the factories were functioning. Back then, political leaders’ children and their relatives used to go to government schools. Because they too believed in the system that they were working under. They too believed that their children were equal to the children of other citizens and did not need to be educated outside the country.
Those who tried to talk about what was happening in Matabeleland were accused of being too political and feared being labelled as sympathetic to dissidents. Much later, in much the same way as one hears from a section of white South Africa, these citizens would claim ignorance. “We had no idea that was what was happening in Matabeleland and in Midlands.”
Maybe they did not know. Maybe they did not want to know.
But, in 1988, a vehicle scandal involving ministers was exposed by journalist Geoff Nyarota in The Chronicle. Suddenly these heroes were no heroes. Back then, they still seemed to worry about what people thought. Embarrassed about disrespecting the povo, whom they served, some resigned and one person committed suicide. This, coupled with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund structural adjustment programmes, saw the house of stone begin to shake ever so slightly. It was the beginning of their robbery, which came with impunity.
Citizens were told to tighten their belts while the political class loosened theirs because their stomachs had become too large. They were no longer political leaders but were now robber barons.
They co-opted their former service-oriented police, whose motto, For Law, for Country and for the People, was forgotten as they became instruments in repressing dissent. The police’s new motto could very well have been For Breaking the Law, for Destroying the Country and for Protecting the Robbers.
The political robbers reminded the people how they had brought them independence. The povo were free from the yoke of the colonialists — was that not most important? Even as they ate, they asked the masses why they needed food when they were free. Teachers stopped going to schools. Why be there to teach hungry children lacking concentration?
That was when the children came to school. Sometimes parents found it more useful for their children to stay away from school and instead pick up scrap metal or collect firewood to sell. Had they not seen their nieces and nephews with degrees cross borders and become domestic workers in South Africa?
Nurses and doctors stopped going to hospitals. Why watch people dying when there is no medication? Health professionals and teachers waited for what little money they got and saved up for months, so that they could cross the border and buy goods they would be able to trade.
Then the nation became aware of newly discovered diamond wealth. They dared hope that things would be better. But no. Even with that new-found wealth, those in power robbed and told the citizens: “We don’t know where we put the $15-billion from the diamond trade.” This on top of all their other robberies.
In the house of stone, the political robber barons’ children died of recreational drug overdoses at schools out of the country — because they had stopped having faith in the school systems that they demanded the citizens believe in. Their children gave birth in foreign countries because they could not put their health in the hands of the health system they themselves managed.
The citizens of the house of stone used to laugh at their neighbours in Zambia and Mozambique. Whenever their currency was slightly devalued, they would be heard saying: “If we keep on with this trajectory, we are going to become another Zambia”, in the same way as some in a certain Southern African country say: “We are going to become another Zimbabwe.”
Whether it’s killing citizens or robbing them, sometimes one man and his family can seriously destroy a country. Maybe we should speak up more often and louder, not just when it affects us personally.
Zukiswa Wanner is a South African author based in Kenya