GOOD NEWS FROM ZIMBABWE
I am sure some of you are wondering what good news could be coming out of Zimbabwe right now, considering that experts, commentators and ordinary people in the past months have been saying that both economically, socially and politically, Zimbabwe is worse off (if that is indeed possible?) than during the days of President Mugabe. Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, President Mnangagwa has not managed to turn things around after the 2018 election. His wish to “open up Zimbabwe for business” has not attracted the international investors needed to get the wheels running, so jobs can be offered to the large majority of more rather than less permanently unemployed, not least the youth.
If social and economic improvement for the people of Zimbabwe is not the good news I am thinking about, some readers might be undiplomatic enough to suggest that I am suggesting that the death of President Robert Gabriel Mugabe on 6 September is “good” news. This is of course not the case. I will not speculate about the feelings of Mugabe himself during recent months, when the walls of hospital rooms and the faces of doctors and nurses dominated his daily life; however, it could very well have been the case that Mugabe wanted to leave, after decades at the pinnacle of power; maybe he was finally tired and just wanted to rest peacefully and leave earthly matters to others. If that was the case, he would have been just as human as many I have known.
On the day of Mugabe’s death, I commented on his role during almost five decades both on Danish radio and television. I will have more to say about both Robert Mugabe and Zimbabwe and the various roles some of us have played when I publish my new book (unfortunately only in Danish to start with) next year. But as one of many young Danes being part of the solidarity movement in the 60s and 70s, I also saw Mugabe as a hero back then. We considered others to be heroes as well, men like Herbert Chitepo, Josiah Tongogara and Joshua Nkomo. When I visited Zimbabwe for the first time in 1980, a few weeks after independence, I still considered him a hero and a legitimate leader of his nation. This did not last! When we learned the truth about the “Gukurahundi” unleashed in Matabeleland in the 80s, we started worrying, although we (and the donor community at large) were shamefully quiet. Mugabe’s and ZANU-PF’s response after 2000 to the arrival of the Movement for Democratic Change, the first real threat to the ZANU hegemony, quickly made it clear that Mugabe had no intention of pursuing “democratic socialism” as the road forward. Whatever form of socialism he had in mind, well, it was one that was authoritarian, despotic, dictatorial, corrupt and criminal.
I would like to believe that Mugabe had honest intentions, when he joined the struggle as a young teacher around 1960, inspired by the Pan-Africanism he had learned about in Ghana, where he met his first wife, Sally Mugabe. Like others, we have been told that he sacrificed a lot during the struggle for independence. If this is true, and I am sure it is, at least he spent ten years in prison, he left his people as a tragic figure, and I believe history will judge him harshly for forgetting, bit by bit, what the struggle was all about: the wealth of his people – not the wealth of his own family. All the thundering words about the evils of the West and the Whites will not be able to conceal his own wrongdoing.
When on 6 September I talked to an old friend in Zimbabwe and asked him to explain his reaction and feelings, he simply stated: “I am happy for the old man that he can finally rest peacefully. The rest of us, and the nation, will have to struggle with his legacy for decades to come.” This is indeed true, and it is a prophecy that President Mnangagwa seems to do his best to fulfill.
And old friend of mine from my years with UNDP and the Oslo Governance Centre, Siphosami Malunga, who is now the Executive Director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa. I suggest you read his take on President Mugabe:
This brings me, finally, to what I consider to be good news coming out of Zimbabwe: The rehabilitation of the buildings belonging to the Binga Craft Centre. For those of you not familiar with the geography of Zimbabwe, I suggest you take a look at the map just below this section. You will find the small town of Binga right on the shores of Lake Kariba, which was created during the 1958-1963 period, after the Kariba Dam at the opposite end was built.
During the 90s, Mellemfolkeligt Samvirke [MS] was part of developing the Binga Craft Centre, mobilizing several thousand women weaving beautiful and useful baskets that were exported to many countries (and not only Denmark) and also sold in Zimbabwe, in particular to the many tourists visiting the country back then. The economic crises that peaked around 2008 made it impossible to sell baskets, and after that it has been difficult to bring the Craft Centre back to what it used to be. Around 2010, when MS became a member of the ActionAid alliance, MS could no longer continue to support the Centre, and this of course also contributed to the years of hardship.
Last year, in April 2018, I visited the Binga Craft Centre with my wife Anne, and we also met with the manager, Matabbeki Mudenda, who has been with the Centre for many years – I met him for the first time when I lived in Zimbabwe in the early 90s. Despite the situation being far from financially sustainable, Mr. Mudenda surprised us with his willingness to continue doing his work as the manager under extremely difficult circumstances; and he genuinely believe that it would be possible to re-construct and re-energize the business at the Centre, and in so doing, helping to improve the livelihoods of the many women, who have been involved.
The beautiful buildings belonging to the Centre had also felt the tear and wear of the years, with the roofing falling apart and rain coming in. We talked about the necessity to rehabilitate the buildings as soon as possible, but even the limited sum of money required would be difficult to get, so we left Binga rather pessimistic about the future.
However, Manager Mudenda is not easy to stop. Ever since I returned from the 2018 visit, he has kept me informed about the small movements forward, receiving a small grant here and another there. In early April of this year, he informed me that they had received a grant from the Government of Zimbabwe through the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Gender, Small and Medium Enterprises for the renovation of the buildings. The government took this initiative to revamp craft activities, because this is an effective way of supporting women in Binga, in particular during the severe draught that has hurt Binga seriously. The weaving of baskets would be one of the few immediate livelihood opportunities for most households in the district.
On the day before we learned that Mugabe had died, Mr. Mudenda informed me that the rehabilitation had been finished [see photo above]. I could feel my heart leap and a tear starting its way down my cheek. He also told me that they would now restock the building with baskets and other products from the women. Let us hope that there will be people at home and abroad ready to buy – and this is where President Mnangagwa needs to deliver on his promises! The baskets the women weave are not only very functional (for bread and fruit and much else), but also beautiful to look at, and they are expressions of the particular Tonga culture which is located here on the shores of Lake Kariba. I am proud to have been part of this project, irrespective of the mistakes we also have to take responsibility for (and this will also be part of the book I am working on). Thanks to Mudenda, the Binga Craft Centre flag continues to loom over the town of Binga!