The silence of their friends

Last week was a tough one for our neighbours in the north and, if there’s any smoke of truth in some of the social media posts I have been seeing, it’s about to get worse.

On Saturday January 12 at 9pm, Zimbabwe’s president Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa addressed the nation. At a time when the economic crisis in Zimbabwe mirrors that of 2008, ED, as he is commonly known, announced that the price of petrol would rise from $1.24 a litre to $3.31 (about R46) and diesel from $1.36 a litre to $3.11 (about R43.21).

READ MORE: Anger as Mnangagwa raises petrol prices in Zimbabwe

This comes at a time when countries in the region, including Malawi, whose fuel passes through Zimbabwe, are lowering the price of fuel.

ED’s announcement gave a whole new meaning to the term gaslighting. A day after this disturbing news, he flew out of the country because, seemingly, it was much more important to attract external investors than to deal with citizens’ concerns. The president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, Peter Mutasa, announced a three-day stayaway for the 15% of Zimbabwean citizens still in formal employment.

Day one of the stayaway began with some people insisting that they were not staying away and sent their bundles of joy to school. By late afternoon, there were reports of children left alone at schools, people chased out of offices and teachers who made it to school being beaten by soldiers.

Supermarkets that chose to open were looted. Someone on the ground reported a nine-year-old child at a supermarket saying to his friend with glee: “At least now I can finally have exercise books at school.”

READ MORE: Five dead, dozens injured as protests prompt brutal crackdown in Zimbabwe

A life was lost and there were reports of more shooting by police. One of the more was a policeman killed by citizens.

On Tuesday, news trickled in of men in uniform and masks who went door to door in the townships, beating up men and boys in each household and, sometimes, arresting them.

And so, as I checked on friends here in Nairobi to see whether they were safe in the aftermath of the terror attack, I also worried about friends and family in Zimbabwe and called — the internet had been shut off — to find out whether their sons were alive, unbeaten and unarrested. I was not the only one who worried.

Zimbabweans in the diaspora wrote emails and called the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the World Economic Forum in Davos, where ED was completing his international tour, which had started in Russia and to include visits to three other former Soviet countries. Their two demands were that the Zimbabwean government #SwitchBackonZW and for the international organisations to put pressure on ED to return to Zimbabwe and deal with the problems on the ground.

The Zimbabweans in Gauteng went a step further. After a statement by the South African government, which almost echoed former president Thabo Mbeki’s “no crisis in Zimbabwe”, Zimbabweans decided to march from the Union Buildings to the Zimbabwean Embassy in Eastwood, Pretoria.

READ MORE: Ramaphosa cannot stay silent on Zimbabwe

Instead of supporting this protest, some of my fellow South Africans on social media commented: “We have our own problems. Why don’t you take a bus and go and demonstrate in your own country against your own government?”

What such statements ignored are two salient points: South Africa is the biggest economy in the Southern African Development Community and, as long as there is unrest in Zimbabwe — or in any country in the region, South Africa will be the first place people will go to. A stable Zimbabwe is not just a good thing for Zimbabwe, it’s good for South Africa and the rest of the region.

Second, it is human nature for people to escape to a place where they feel safer. Despite our atrocious treatment of our neighbours, South Africa is that place, just as Botswana, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Mozambique, Lesotho, Zambia and Tanzania were for South African exiles during apartheid.

As Zimbabwe braces for more protests, we would do well to ask our government and SADC to do whatever they can to ensure that Zimbabwe is stable. Speaking up and asking our government to hold the Zimbabwean government accountable is not only the decent and human thing to do, it also means less pressure on our economy.

Let history not judge us harshly as the friends who were silent while Zimbabwe burnt.

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Zukiswa Wanner
Zukiswa Wanner
Zukiswa Wanner (born 1976) is a South African journalist and novelist, born in Zambia and now based in Kenya. Since 2006, when she published her first book, her novels have been shortlisted for awards including the South African Literary Awards (SALA) and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.
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