Privileged people don’t need politics
It’s a Friday night, the first one after Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa is announced as Zimbabwe’s second democratically elected president. I am in the capital, Harare, where I have come to meet a friend for a late lunch and a strong drink after enduring one of the hardest weeks Zimbabwe has ever lived through.
As afternoon gives way to night, our pub of choice, Jam Tree, gets fuller and noisier. The place is populated by all races of people who are holding loud, animated and, dare I say, jovial discussions. I struggle to understand how people can be in such a celebratory mood when just two days before, soldiers bore down on the city with the force of an army at war.
Were these people trying to erase the shocking images of blood seeping into the streets of the city? The blood of, for example, 52-year-old Sylvia Matambo, who was shot in the back by the very soldiers who freed Zimbabwe from the tyranny of Robert Mugabe’s regime.
Later, as I lay awake in the wee hours of the morning still haunted by the violence and death of election week, a realisation came to me: privileged people don’t need politics to work. For some, it’s actually better if it doesn’t.
Since Zimbabwe’s downward economic spiral began in the late 1990s, as a result of failed structural adjustment programmes coupled with an increasingly corrupt and repressive government, privileged people have managed to find a way to circumvent the ongoing social and economic breakdown. Educated and highly skilled professionals have left in their hundreds of thousands, some just in time to avoid experiencing the economic devastation that saw shelves devoid of food and fuel tanks permanently on empty.
Although much has been said about a brain drain and the loss of the skilled labour force that fuelled many of Zimbabwe’s industries, there is little discussion about the class of Zimbabweans whose wealth and access to political networks means they don’t have to leave the country.
There are a significant number of Zimbabweans who have remained wealthy despite the shifts in the country. Others have become richer as they exploited gaps in the market to bring a range of products into the country.
So, for these previous and emerging elite, it doesn’t matter that public health facilities have become so underfunded that patients have to show up with their own needles and medical paraphernalia or die. They get admitted into one of the many private hospitals.
It doesn’t matter that government schools are paying teachers so poorly that, at times, they can barely afford the taxi fare to get to class. Their children can attend one of the many elite schools that still boast the best learning facilities and educators.
No water from the now defunct municipality, or electricity from the national supply authority? Just drill a borehole at a cost of a couple of thousand dollars and install solar panels to electrify your entire home.
And, when you get tired of the chaos, take a sojourn in the well-functioning South Africa or go abroad.
The privileged have become so adept at insulating themselves from the harsh realities of a nation in economic, social and political crisis that they are truly living in a country of their own making.
But for the poorest people, it matters profoundly who holds political power. Mai Munya, the domestic worker who has cleaned and cared for my aunt’s family in Harare for seven years, arrived at work after presidential results were read with the heaviness of loss evident in her lowly hung shoulders.
I ask her how she feels about the future of Zimbabwe, and she says that it will probably be more of the same. Cash shortages and no jobs. Limited access to education and poor health. As her eyes water, she adds that it means her 22-year-old son will probably remain a cook at one of the fast-food chains, despite his having obtained stellar results for his high school final exams. There is no free tertiary education in Zimbabwe.
Like many of the poorest Zimbabweans, Mai Munya has made the link between good governance and its responsibility to develop functioning public infrastructure and provide access to critical public services. There was no good governance under Mugabe’s 38-year rule, and she feels this will continue under the new dispensation.
Mai Munya and her son are stuck in Zimbabwe. As a result of my educational privilege, I am able to leave and study further at the London School of Economics starting this September. But, like Mai Munya, I have little hope that I will return to a Zimbabwe that affords us all equal opportunities to work, to learn and to thrive. I hope I am wrong.
Tanya Charles is a 2018/2019 Atlantic fellow for social and economic equity at the London School of Economics and Political Science’s International Inequalities Institute. These are her own views