At the dawn of the New Zimbabwe, and the death of hope
Words by Zoë Flood and photos by Nichole Sobecki/VII
Within moments of the messages – “He’s gone” – a colleague and I were rushing at speed through the jacaranda-lined Avenues area of Zimbabwe’s capital Harare to get to the city centre.
Or trying to, at least.
Like many cars in Zimbabwe – battered by decades of economic hardship – the ageing flatbed Mazda truck I had borrowed had a clutch issue, so I bunny-hopped us through various sets of non-functioning traffic lights, fellow drivers already tentatively sounding their horns.
Could it actually be true? Could the drama of the past week, and the past 37 years, actually be coming to an end?
As we pulled over next to the armoured fighting vehicle that had been stationed for some days on the city’s main intersection, next to the offices of the presidency and under the towering Reserve Bank building, a few dozen jubilant Zimbabweans had already gathered.
Most were dressed in office wear, their sober ties and briefcases contrasting with their electric moods.
They were soon joined by a man with a neatly printed sign, declaring ‘Thank you ZDF [Zimbabwe Defence Forces] Yours Truly Zimbabwe’, a nod to the ‘military-assisted transition’ that was firmly not a coup.
And soon after that many thousands more in full, ecstatic voice were pouring out onto the streets, as a typically beautiful Harare sunset laid Robert Mugabe’s multi-decade rule – once celebrated, then frightening, tyrannical, and controversial to the end – to rest.
“This is more than I saw for independence,” said a shop owner who had invited us onto his roof above the intersection, gesturing at the vibrating crowds below.
But beneath the celebrations of Zimbabwe’s ‘second independence’ and of being ‘free at last’ – phrases I heard widely that night – and beyond the hangovers and the beer bottles strewn around the wheels of the parked Mazda that I was only able to crunchingly extricate after midnight, the question of ‘What next?’ was already bubbling.
Would the feared securocrat, who had finally managed to engineer his long-standing superior and ally out of the prime position, bring desperately needed change? Would Zimbabwe’s ‘New Dispensation’ be just that?
Five years to the week since happy, hopeful Zimbabweans thronged the country’s streets, the verdict on Mugabe’s prodigal son, and his political assassin, is harsh.
Zimbabwe under Emmerson Mnangagwa – who promised not long after Mugabe’s ouster that the country was “open for business” – remains plagued by an ever-devaluing local currency and the absence of basic, reliable essential services, especially for the poor.
Businesses continue to struggle, with inflation once again hitting record-breaking highs.
Health care workers are leaving the country in droves, incidents of the detention of political opponents are rising – opposition legislator Job Sikhala has been repeatedly denied bail and spent more than 160 days behind bars this year – and press freedom is again under threat.
Whispers of “better under Mugabe” can sometimes be heard as even well-educated professionals are bailed out by relatives and friends in the economically powerful, politically disenfranchised diaspora. Medical emergencies – visible through the endless, desperate fundraisers that often circulate – reveal how close to catastrophe some are forced to live.
But for eight months after Mugabe’s fall, I saw many Zimbabweans allow themselves to believe. To believe that, this time, change was going to come. That the country would re-enter the international community. That investors would pour in, the economy would recover fully, and the doors to opportunity seen in the country in the 1980s and 1990s would once more swing open.
It was a heady time, one that crackled with possibility and, above all, hope.
Citizens who had long steered clear of politics felt inspired to stand for office, while political events were filled with energy. International media reported freely. Businesspeople and former regime opponents tentatively investigated opportunities, while Mnangagwa – as interim president and now-leader of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party – and his representatives did the international rounds.
Some people I spoke to during those months urged caution – especially those who witnessed past ZANU-PF violence first-hand. “I can’t celebrate this, it’s not going to be good,” a local journalist told me the day after Mugabe’s resignation.
When there is no choice, no alternative, hope is a comfort that allows you to keep going. It’s a familiar rush for many in Zimbabwe, one that usually ends with a post-election disappointment. But for those fed up with decades of the status quo, the siren song of hope – combined with the New Dispensation’s promises of change – was impossibly alluring.
Built up in days, that hope came crashing down as quickly. On 1 August 2018, security forces indiscriminately fired upon mostly peaceful demonstrators protesting the delayed release of election results, killing six civilians and injuring dozens. Forty-eight hours later, Mnangagwa was declared winner of the presidential election, sneaking victory in the first round by a razor-thin margin.
Business as usual, Zimbabweans shrugged angrily, going back to theirs.
Zoë Flood and Nichole Sobecki’s reporting in Zimbabwe was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G Buffett Fund For Women Journalists