On April 18 2020, Zimbabwe will reach the 40-year milestone. More than half of its population is younger than the country itself. Older men dominate its political system and they are not showing signs of letting up.
Zimbabwe started with great promise, and former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere famously called it the “jewel of Africa”. It was a precious new country. Harare quickly established itself as an intellectual capital and became a meeting point for writers and scholars. And the Zimbabwe International Book Fair was the holy grail for African literature.
The country that emerged in 1980 from the colonial era had had no access to books that offered African history or literature from the continent.
While the rest of the continent was rapidly decolonising, Zimbabwe remained under the chokehold of a stubborn band of white settler renegades led by Ian Smith, who declared unilateral independence and so isolated the country from the rest of the world.
If the black nationalists and intellectuals were not in prison or exile, they were dead, eternally silenced.
After independence there was a need to recover the past, which resulted in a local publishing boom.
Behind the scenes, however, President Robert Mugabe was consolidating power, engineering the massacre of the Ndebele through the Gukurahundi military operation.
His party also annexed Joshua Nkomo’s Zimbabwe African People’s Union to create a one-party state.
A coalition of students, trade unionists and activists formed a formidable opposition movement
in response to the ravages of the structural adjustment programme of the 1990s, which led to the rising cost of health services, retrenchments and exacerbated the brain drain.
Even with Mugabe having permanently left the scene, the country still faces many problems.
The crowds cheered and danced when Emmerson Mnangagwa, with the help of the army, deposed his boss — just as they did when Zimbabwe threw of the shackles of Rhodesia and became independent.
But the new president has failed to turn the economy around.
The country is blighted by unemployment, poor service delivery and there has been an unprecedented crackdown on the opposition.
Though the country’s book industry and related infrastructure have crumbled, a new generation of writers has emerged, reimagining the country and its future.