The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a stark reminder that advances in access to education in recent decades should not be taken for granted. Children have suffered severely from global lockdowns that have prevented access to schooling and, in many cases, severely compromised their nutrition.
Schoolchildren cross a flooded river. Photo: Hopewell Chin’ono
In Zimbabwe, we have seen how COVID-19 has had a disproportionately negative impact upon the rural learners, who constitute at least 70% of the country’s school enrolment. The rural learners often do not have the same level of access to the internet and kinds of education technologies and learning tools available to their more well-connected urban peers.
The 2020 Grade 7 results confirm this. As important as COVID-19 safety measures are, the Zimbabwean government’s 2021 ‘back to school’ plan and conversations about the COVID-19 response must go beyond the ‘handwashing, sanitizing and social distancing’ emphasis, by recognising and addressing the major deficiencies and inequalities within Zimbabwe’s education sector which the pandemic has laid bare.
This is a sector which, in the 90s, had a formidable reputation, with one of the best literacy rates in Africa despite pre and post war governance challenges. There is an opportunity for the Zimbabwean government to utilise new technologies to fundamentally change how rural education is provided, while also addressing the longstanding issues of teacher remuneration and other key challenges within the sector.
Lessons from the dismal Grade 7 results.
The 2020 Grade 7 Examinations results, recently released by the Zimbabwe School Examinations Council (ZIMSEC), reflected a dismal pass rate of 37.11% from an equally low 46.9% in the previous year. Of the 327 559 candidates who sat for the examinations, the highest number of those who passed were in urban based, largely private schools in the metro provinces of Bulawayo and Harare. In some of Zimbabwe’s rural provinces, several schools recorded zero percent pass rate. Further analysis of the results revealed that in Lupane and other parts of the country, some Grade 7 candidates are illiterate.
Although the COVID-19 lockdowns’ almost year-long school closures posed major disruptions to learning, these results reflect a decades-long downward trend which bucks against the global trend of a massive increase, on average, of access to schooling across the developing world over the last few decades. Zimbabwe’s downward trend is rooted in systematic neglect, especially of rural learners, that foreshadows the failure of the country’s public education system.
Four decades after the attainment of independence, the fact that learners are emerging illiterate, after at least seven years of primary school education anywhere in Zimbabwe, is scandalous. As noted by the Borgen Project, ‘The ability to read and write is one of the few skills with the power to completely change a person’s life. Literacy is vital to education and employment, as well as being incredibly beneficial in everyday life.’ The cases of illiteracy not only reflect the cost of bad governance but simmering inequalities that have been ignored. A significant section of the population has been and continues to be left behind. The country’s leadership needs to urgently exercise political astuteness and action sustainable solutions that set Zimbabwe’s education on a path towards the full realisation of Sustainable Development Goal 4, which seeks to ‘ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning.’
Refocusing the debate
Some of the interpretations of the dismal Grade 7 results spoke volumes about the incapacity of the country’s leadership (or lack thereof) in advancing solutionist thinking. There is need to refocus the debate from the deep political polarization in the country. Cain Mathema, the Minister of primary and secondary education, foreclosed constructive solution-driven conversations, dismissing the results as a reflection of the negative impact of western imposed sanctions. Further to this, the ZIMSEC board chairperson, Professor Eddy Mwenje, reductively attributed this clearly decades long downward trend to COVID-19 induced setbacks. As COVID-19 has become a characteristic alibi in the face of its incompetence, the government continues to bury its head in the sand, overlooking the need for further investigations into why, for example, some candidates did not turn up for examinations, even in certain urban areas. Some rural students failed to make it for their examinations due to poor community infrastructure in the face of disasters such as floods.
Decades of lack of political will have led to budget mis-prioritisations that have brought the public education sector in its entirety to its knees. This was greatly to the detriment of learners from socio-economically vulnerable households, which are essentially the majority.
Firstly, Zimbabwe has tangible lessons to draw from the Senator David Coltart-led Ministry of Education’s transformative milestones of the inclusive government era. This era reveals much about the crucial role of political leadership in delivering equality of access and education for all. Despite a dire economic context during that period, the sector recorded notable improvements, including enhanced teacher welfare and a drastic improvement in the textbook to learner ratio, from 1: 15 to 1 : 1 for a minimum of six subjects.
Further to this, Zimbabwe’s ministries of education should deliberately draw lessons from world-acclaimed public education programmes like Singapore’s, which is credited for achieving ‘excellence without wide differences between children from wealthy and disadvantaged families’. This is key to bridging the widening rural-urban learner inequalities within the country. The current Ministry of Education can engage the Government of Singapore on the possibility of bilateral skills and knowledge transfer through capacity building for the country’s education sector.
Photo: Hopewell Chin’ono
The government should also review ongoing and previously implemented projects that are a potential launchpad for rural education technological advancement, such as the Presidential Schools Computerisation Programme, launched in the year 2000, the Rural Electrification Programme(REP), launched in 2002, as well as the Presidential Computerisation and E-Learning Programmes.
Lastly, there are opportunities and lessons from the Strive Masiyiwa inspired and led USD $100 million funded Re-Imagine Rural Zimbabwe/Africa programme that promotes entrepreneurs with solutions to improve rural Zimbabwe/Africa, that could possibly be implemented today.
The Grade 7 results therefore reflect a microcosm of the structural challenges and deepening inequality in the access to this all important public good. Rural learners are lagging behind. Guided by the United Nations, one of the important next steps is for the government to take the lead in advancing funding while at the same time embarking on other creative approaches (e.g. Private Public Partnerships and well managed Community Share Ownership Trusts) to adequately fund this technologically driven future of rural education. Further to this, the government should scale up some of its notable successes, and learn from global best practices to address discriminatory policies and social practices, to ensure that no one remains behind. It is time the government considers rural technological advancement and, more specifically, internet connectivity as a foundational right, a precursor to enabling SDG4.
COVID-19 has only laid bare the unique pre-existent challenges that the country’s socio-economically marginalised rural communities face. The solution must begin with a move away from the partisan, ill-focused rhetoric by policy makers, to constructive engagements aimed at addressing the discrimination and inequality faced by the rural learner and teacher. Securing and directing adequate funding to the education sector to largely address the remuneration and working conditions of teachers is critical. However, the most urgent call in addressing the inequality gap for the rural learner is addressing the infrastructural, technology and connectivity gap, to enable rural learners some kind of soft landing onto this technology driven education era.
The government, particularly the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, must re-focus the debate and re-orientate funding priorities. As already noted, related projects have been embarked on before. There can no longer be full enabling or realisation of the right to education that does not take into account enabling internet connectivity.
Zimbabwe’s constitution is clear regarding citizens’ fundamental rights and freedoms, as well as the need to create strong institutions to guard against corruption. However, 40 years after the attainment of independence, citizen efforts at safeguarding the constitution remain a challenge.
Today, Zimbabwe again finds itself at a tipping point amidst a deepening political and economic crisis. However, this is not the first time the regime has been faced by a crisis of this nature. There have been several occasions since independence where the country has seemed to be on the brink of economic or political collapse. It is therefore useful to ask why, despite so many ‘near-tipping points’ over the past two decades, Zimbabwe has essentially not tipped over? What has sustained autocracy?
40 years after the attainment of independence, citizen efforts at safeguarding the constitution remain a challenge.
Robert Mugabe’s administration set the precedent of amending the constitution whenever it was considered an obstruction to the unbridled exercise of executive power.
Autocratic legitimation in Zimbabwe has been achieved from various angles. Firstly, the anti-colonialism liberation struggle narrative has been a major component of autocratic legitimation. This liberation war narrative, which usually fails to acknowledge instances of gross human rights violations carried out by liberation movements against their enemies, has largely been used to accord primacy to the military (Joint Operations Command) and the liberation struggle aristocrats. It has also been used to erode civilian authority, reducing citizens’ right to demand accountability to ‘a third party, suspect regime change agenda’. This liberation war pact is one of the factors that has disabled SADC, comprised of other states whose governing parties were formed as liberation movements, from taking decisive action against Zimbabwe in spite of a clear record of human rights abuses.
Today, Zimbabwe again finds itself at a tipping point amidst a deepening political and economic crisis.
Duskalkis and Gerschewski, whose work has focused on understanding autocratic rule, argue that ‘autocratic governments make claims about why they are entitled to rule. Some autocracies are more talkative than others, but all regimes say something about why they deserve power.’ This has been the case advanced by Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF party. Born of the liberation movement and in spite of post-independence malfeasance that has crippled the nation in delivering on sustainable development priorities, it still advances a right-to-rule agenda. It does this by monopolising the definition of what it means to be a patriot and how Zimbabwe’s sovereignty should be asserted.
Secondly, autocratic legitimation in Zimbabwe has been achieved through the direct undermining or failure to uphold the rule of law by government. However, it has also at times been achieved by simply eroding any substantive content of the law. As academic Alex Magaisa writes, ‘even the worst dictatorships can claim to be compliant’, and rule of law must not be confused with democracy or good law. A legal system should also make substantive efforts to advance social justice and promote good governance.
This liberation war pact is one of the factors that has disabled SADC, comprised of other states whose governing parties were formed as liberation movements, from taking decisive action against Zimbabwe in spite of a clear record of human rights abuses.
The highly contested 2013 constitution was a citizen undertaking towards these substantive aspects of law that sought, among other issues, to curtail executive power. However, the November 2017 coup-ordained Emmerson Mnangagwa administration has only reversed the substantive gains intended by this constitution, and gone on to deepen autocratic control under the guise of Covid-19 regulation.
The autocratic hold of the Mnangagwa administration is not the result of a weak citizenry. The dangers of speaking out in Zimbabwe are well documented. The abductions, arrests and inhumane treatment of MDC Alliance MP Joanna Mamombe, Hopewell Chin’ono and Jacob Ngarivhume among others all bear testimony to the dangers of speaking out. Nonetheless, Zimbabwe’s citizens have engaged in valiant acts to safeguard their constitution throughout the country’s post-independence history.
Some autocracies are more talkative than others, but all regimes say something about why they deserve power.
In 2000, citizens called for a repeal of the Lancaster House constitution, culminating in a constitutional referendum. Thirteen years later, citizens participated in the COPAC facilitated constitution making process that led, in the year 2013, to the present constitution. The citizens’ ardent calls for the then President Mugabe’s ouster in November 2017 was reflective of this quest for a return to constitutionalism.
However, the political elite preyed upon this through Operation Restore Legacy, a coup that was deceptively packaged as an urgent need to restore political order and deliver on the long elusive economic stability. Three years on, the November 2017 guard is engaged in a well calculated mission to entirely wipe out whatever remnants there may still be of citizen space for participation, and demanding leadership accountability.
Zimbabwe’s citizens have engaged in valiant acts to safeguard their constitution throughout the country’s post-independence history.
Thirdly, autocratic legitimation has been achieved through coercion and politicisation of the police and judiciary. The Presidential prerogative to appoint judges has enabled the appointment of partisan individuals who operate not in service to the citizens but to their appointing master. The recent outcry by judges against Justice Luke Malaba’s interference in their passing of judgements confirms this capture of the judiciary. Further to this, the latest development in the President’s reversal of the salary and benefits suspension conditions on Justice Ndewere’s case confirms that the judiciary has departed from its constitutional mandate. The Supreme court judgement that has served in the decimation of the leading opposition MDC Alliance party in ZANU-PF’s quest to create a de facto one-party state is another case in point.
Capturing the judiciary has also allowed for rampant corruption and created what North et al have termed a ‘limited access order’ where leaders “grant political elites privileged control over parts of the economy, each getting some share of the rents”. Political elites involved in recent scandals include the President’s own son Collins Mnangagwa and former Minister of Health Obadiah Moyo – both implicated in the Covidgate scandal, as well as Henrietta Rushwaya, recently arrested for attempting to smuggle 6kgs of gold to Dubai, to name a few.
Thirdly, autocratic legitimation has been achieved through coercion and politicisation of the police and judiciary.
In some of these cases, the police and the courts have ensured selective application of the law, preforming what has come to be termed a ‘catch and release’ approach of these elites while detaining the whistle blowers.
The decimation of these institutions to partisan entities leaves citizens with nowhere to seek redress in the context of violence and corruption with impunity. The violence, marked by arbitrary arrests, often accompanied by degrading inhuman treatment, abductions, forced disappearances’ and extra judicial killings, are all measures designed to curtail citizen agency. In the absence of a total repeal of the current system, there is not yet an end in sight. As Nick Cheeseman observes, ‘the more coercion they use, the less willing they are to step down and face possible prosecution for the abuses they committed in office.’
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Sikhululekile Mashingaidze currently serves as Senior Researcher in the Human Security and Climate Change (HSCC) project at Good Governance Africa. Being engaged as a part-time enumerator for Mass Public Opinion Institute’s diversity of research projects during her undergraduate years ushered her into and nurtured her passion for the governance field. She has worked with Habakkuk Trust, Centre for Conflict Resolution(CCR-Kenya), Mercy Corps Zimbabwe and Action Aid International Zimbabwe, respectively. This has, over the years, enriched her grassroots and national level governance projects’ implementation and management experience. Her academic research interests are in the field of genocide studies with a commitment to deepen her understanding of girls and women’s experiences, their agency in reconstituting everyday life and their inclusion in peace-building and transitional justice processes.
The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, which has also closed the stock exchange over forex concerns, has hit people already losing livelihood options during the Covid-19 lockdown hard
A man shows a wad of the new Zimbabwean ten-dollar notes received from an ATM outside a bank in Harare on May 20, 2020. The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe introduced this higher denomination bank note into circulation together with the Zimbabwean two-dollar and Zimbabwean five-dollar notes to ease perennial shortages of cash experienced in the country. Photo JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP
The Zimbabwean government has, for a prolonged period, been engaged in a losing battle to stem illegal foreign exchange market activities. As has been the fashion, the regime has blamed runaway inflation and spiraling price increases on nefarious activities by “market saboteurs”.
Among these innumerable efforts, in the first week of June, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) threatened to embark on an unusual exercise. It sought to pursue illegal foreign currency dealers via the surveillance of WhatsApp groups through its financial intelligence unit, in collaboration with the police, banks, mobile-money service providers and relevant regulatory agencies. It threatened to bar and freeze suspects’ mobile numbers and accounts. This proved impossible.
On June 23, the RBZ then introduced a foreign exchange auction system (FEAS), which resulted in a move from a fixed exchange rate on the interbank market, which had, since March, been pegged at one US dollar to 25 Zimbabwe dollars (ZWL). After the introduction of the FEAS, the US dollar is now officially trading at 57 ZWL, against a black-market rate of between 80 and 100 ZWL.
On June 26, three days after the introduction of the FEAS, the permanent secretary in the ministry of information and publicity, Nick Mangwana, announced a ban, with immediate effect, on all mobile-money transactions (MMTs) and trading on the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange (ZSE). These drastic measures were described as making way for “intrusive investigations” into illegal dealings linked to the foreign currency black market, in which EcoCash is cited as the “centre pivot”.
In terms of market share, EcoCash, a subsidiary of Econet, accounts for about 97% of Zimbabwe’s mobile-money services. In addressing a crucial gap in Zimbabwe’s cash crisis, MMT services have, nonetheless, made the country’s economy vulnerable to a multiplicity of illicit foreign currency activities.
That said, the RBZ must not lose sight of its contributory role to this crisis through its (mis)management of the nation’s banking system that led to the liquidity crisis in the first place. This birthed and nurtured the mobile-money system that has since spiraled off its radar and, hence, out of its control.
Like any other stock exchange, the ZSE serves as a critical link for investors in the country. The loudest, yet most unfortunate, message from the temporary ban on its trading is that Zimbabwe is not only closed for business but also has no regard for investors’ property rights. Indeed, typical of the proverbial “burning down the house to kill a rat” or “throwing the baby out with the bath water”, this drastic measure is not good for investor confidence.
Further to this looming ZSE national catastrophe, the repercussions of which are yet to fully play out, is the plight of citizens already burdened by a loss of livelihood options during this indefinitely extended Covid-19 lockdown, that is most concerning. After the shock announcement of a blanket suspension of mobile-money services, the RBZ emerged, seemingly to avert a crisis, and reviewed the ban. This reviewed statement indicated that the ban is on MMT agents and merchant mobile-money account holders, while individual transactions up to a maximum of 5,000 ZWL are permitted.
Despite this reversal of the blanket ban and the assurance given by RBZ, Mangwana’s utterance has led to anxiety and a loss of confidence, with some street vendors and supermarkets already declining mobile-money payments.
For citizens battling a worsening economic crisis under the lockdown, this unfortunate development further impoverishes people, most of whom are Econet subscribers, who constitute an unbanked population that has found relief in transacting through mobile-money services.
For the few that are banked, the protracted liquidity crisis has seen citizens brave endless days and nights in long, winding queues in an effort to secure limited withdrawals each week. It is not unusual to leave the bank empty-handed even after dedicating oneself to these queues.
Apart from the often prohibitive costs associated with opening and maintaining a bank account, MMTs have offered a lifeline amid Zimbabwe’s protracted liquidity crisis. The Covid-19 context has also increased the demand for mobile-money services. This is because in light of the increasing levels of police abuse and brutality, they are a safer option in the current context in which citizen mobility, even for access to essential services, is restricted.
MMT services have also fulfilled transacting needs within an already failing banking sector, which, due to Covid-19 social-distancing regulations, has been operating below capacity. The digitalised transacting on mobile-money platforms offered by EcoCash, OneMoney, MyCash and Telecash have come to the rescue of consumers.
Last Friday’s announcement is evidence of a huge climbdown by the RBZ. Mangwana retweeted the climbdown with no hint of irony. This announcement has the potential to decimate what is left of Zimbabwe’s meagre economy and points to a governance system that has failed to subordinate itself to the rule of law.
The government should manage its communications system and segment information outflows so that announcements are delivered by the appropriate authorities, in this case the RBZ and the US Securities Exchange Commission (SEC). Since this is not the first example of such a case in Zimbabwe, until such time as public officials are brought to publicly account for their utterances, with consequences, not much reform can be expected in this regard.
As observed by telecommunications expert Dennis Magaya, the government’s failure to contain illegal foreign currency activities confirms a “widening gap” between a fast-changing digital world and Zimbabwe’s current monetary policy framework. This should be subject to regular review, in line with prevailing digital advances, to ensure that while monetary operations are not beyond its purview, they remain investor- and citizen-friendly.
A long-term solution to Zimbabwe’s liquidity crisis, which inevitably fuels the illegal foreign currency exchange market, must be found. Beyond the concerns of manipulation and illegality and hyperinflation as a result of money supply mismanagement, the latest crackdown compounds already immeasurable suffering for the majority of Zimbabwe’s citizens.
This article first appeared on Business Day here
The Robert Mugabe-led government’s response to the Willowgate scandal in Zimbabwe will go down in history as a missed opportunity for setting a precedent of combatting malfeasance. Although there had been earlier corruption scandals, like the Paweni grain supply scandal in the early 1980s, Willowgate is one of the country’s biggest “grand corruption” scandals, with some of its surviving beneficiaries, like Fredrick Shava and Jacob Mudenda, still enjoying the fruits of a culture of clientelism in the form of plum diplomatic assignments and continued service in public offices.
Malfeasance has become endemic in post-colonial Zimbabwe, as evidenced by other scandals dotted between Willowgate and Covidgate (also known as Draxgate, the 2020 COVID-19 medical supplies corruption scandal). There is a structural corruption continuum that has reinforced each president’s hold on power and enabled political elites’ personal enrichment. The evident absence of political will by the two respective presidents to acknowledge and support legitimate anti-corruption citizen initiatives reveals their compromised standing in this regard.
Firstly, President Robert Mugabe consciously and conveniently ignored Willowgate. This scandal occurred only four years after President Robert Mugabe launched the ZANU-PF Leadership Code that he ostensibly instituted to combat corruption after the Paweni grain scandal. The main consequence of him and his ruling coalition’s response to the Willowgate scandal has been the entrenchment, over at least three decades, of a culture of corruption in general, but also malfeasance with impunity. As indicated by the graphic below, the perception of corruption in the very institutions that are meant to uphold the rule of law and minimise malfeasance is widespread among citizens:
Source: Afrobarometer data; graphics by Monique Bennett ©
Mwatwara and Mujere’s analysis of grand corruption in Zimbabwe echoes these sentiments, noting that “in post-colonial Zimbabwe, the scourge has worsened because of the culture of impunity that the current government has established, especially in cases where politicians are involved”. Public resources meant to support critical services in various sectors such as public health and education continue to be misappropriated and plundered without any political will to deter, punish or even recover and restore them to their rightful use of improving services and developing public infrastructure.
The prevalence of malfeasance in the health ministry at such a critical juncture – when the world’s resources are being channelled towards strengthening healthcare systems in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic – has proven beyond reasonable doubt that ordinary citizens bear the greatest brunt of high-level corruption. The 2018 Ibrahim Index of African Governance (IIAG) notes: “This commitment to saving livelihoods cannot be separated from the political commitment to transparency and accountability towards eradicating endemic corruption for such measures to be affected and effective. Alas, in countries like Zimbabwe and South Africa, clientelism continues to mar such commitment through corruption scandals involving senior government officials and their families.”
Although the Zimbabwean Constitution provides for mechanisms to ensure the integrity and accountability of public officials, the investigations, prosecutions and sanctions of such identified cases has largely remained cosmetic. The government’s response has instead been an onslaught against citizen expression and media freedom. Three decades on, the response is still designed to protect the offender and disable, censor and even punish the whistle-blower. The sense of de javu in Geoff Nyarota’s dismissal from being editor of The Chronicle after exposing Willowgate and Hopewell Chin’ono’s arrest on 20 of July 2020 for engaging in an unwavering social media anti-corruption campaign, is crushing.
In a bid to ignore the corruption scandal, Hopewell Chin’ono’s arrest was framed conveniently as “inciting public violence” and not as exposing malfeasance. Although he was eventually granted bail after 44 days in pre-trial detention at the notorious Chikurubi prison, the stringent bail conditions that curtail his freedom of movement and bar him from using Twitter are testimony to the risks that accompany investigative journalism and the anti-corruption crusade. Further to this, Hopewell’s case points to how this endemic corruption has eroded, in its wake, the independence of the country’s judiciary.
To ensure the protection of public officials, there is a clear plot to control the operations of the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission, whose chairperson, Justice Loice Matanda Moyo, is wife to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and November 2017 coup announcer Sibusiso Moyo. It is a clear case of a conflict of interest.
Further to this, there is now a structural threat to the freedom of the judiciary in Chief Justice Malaba’s memorandum directing that all judgments are to be “seen and approved by the head of court division” before being issued. While this was strongly contested, the directive’s threat to the independence of the judiciary is evident in the delays and uncertainties that characterised Hopewell Chin’ono’s case. He was not only denied bail three times but was deprived even of his right to fair legal representation. The targeted personal attacks on his lead lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, her intimidation and subsequent barring from representing him, all point to the multi-sectoral cost of malfeasance in Zimbabwe. It has not only eroded the country’s economy but tragically, the independence of institutions that are meant to protect the citizens.
However, the Zimbabwean case confirms that despite the supreme law of the land having clearly defined provisions for combating corruption, this is insufficient. Much more needs to be done, as noted by the IIAG, to combat “the culture of clientelism that has bred continued disinvestment in infrastructure on the African continent”. Transparency International’s Delia Ferreira Rubio observes a correlation between high levels of corruption and weak rule of law, curtailed access to information and reduced citizen participation. Corruption is a threat to citizens’ fundamental rights and freedoms. Transparency International calls for strategies that will nip corruption in the bud, such as putting in place legal frameworks and institutions that reduce impunity for the corrupt and enlarging space for civil society voices as well as entrenching integrity and values through education.
As Zimbabwean citizens continue to dispute the legitimacy of the current government, it is worth imagining a different future, a future in which adequately punitive and judiciously executed consequences (that serve as a sufficient deterrent to corruption) are instituted. The Zimbabwean fight against malfeasance must indeed go beyond the verbal remonstrations characteristic of both eras, and the “catch and release” approach that has largely been a feature of the Mnangagwa regime.
This article originally appeared in Business Day.
Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced during a press briefing, that his government has postponed independence day celebrations and discouraged locals from travelling to all affected countries, even though the country has no detected cases so far of the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Harare on March 17, 2020. (Photo by Jekesai NJIKIZANA / AFP)
Amid a spiralling economic and political crisis, President Emmerson Mnangagwa addressed the people of Zimbabwe on Tuesday 4 August. His speech, although sudden – four days after his government’s violent clampdown on the July 31 citizen protests – was highly anticipated. There may have been a desperate hope in some sections of the bruised citizenry that the president would, perhaps in the remotest of ways, acknowledge their suffering and hint at atoning for the state’s brutality. However, the ‘crocodile’ neither acknowledged the legitimacy of the widespread grievances against his leadership nor took any responsibility for bringing the country to this precipice. Instead, President Mnangagwa argued that his administration “has been undermined by the divisive politics of the opposition, sanctions, cyclones, droughts and now COVID19”, and blamed widespread protests on “a few rogue Zimbabweans acting in league with foreign detractors.” The President’s speech exposed a tone deaf and intransigent government at war with its long-suffering citizens.
For the past two decades Zimbabwean citizens have engaged in diverse, valiant efforts to use every legally available avenue to expedite democratic reform. Many Zimbabwean citizens have made heroic efforts to shed light on the gross corruption and mismanagement that has characterised ZANU-PF’s rule and created a staggering man-made disaster. They are currently caught between a regime willing to go to any lengths to crackdown on dissent, the need to navigate the day-to-day difficulties of securing precarious livelihoods, and the fear of contracting COVID-19. In the face of an unrelenting regime and rising from the crushed hopes of 31 July 2020 protests, Zimbabwean citizens have grafted the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter campaign onto ‘the energy and anger of the global’ outcry that #BlackLivesMatter. Can the South African government, whose President has taken an unequivocal stance on #BlackLivesMatter continue on an indeterminate posture on the plight of its neighbour’s black lives? Their economic and political fate, as aptly observed by SAIIA CEO Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, is intertwined with its own and that of the region.
South Africa is ideally placed to push for change in Zimbabwe, with the two countries sharing many social, political, and economic ties. South Africa remains one of the country’s most important trading partners. Zimbabwe imports 40 percent of its total imports and exports 75 percent of its total exports to South Africa. However, despite the countries’ growing stake in each other’s fates, South Africa’s response to the deepening crisis across the Limpopo leaves much to be desired. Zimbabwe is now considered one of the four most food-insecure countries in the world, alongside Yemen, Somalia and South Sudan. More than 60 percent of Zimbabwe’s 15.6 million people are considered food insecure. Around one in three children under 5 years old suffer from stunted growth as a result of chronic malnutrition. The country has the highest inflation rate in the world at around 800 percent, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects economic contraction of 10.4 percent in 2020, following a 12.8 percent contraction in 2019.
The healthcare system has collapsed, and every day Zimbabwean citizens face persistent fuel shortages and rolling blackouts. The number of Zimbabweans using illegal entry points along the Limpopo River to access medical services and basic commodities has dramatically increased in recent weeks, heightening the chances of cross-border transmission of COVID-19 in both directions. As many desperate Zimbabweans will make the dangerous journey south, the South African government is poorly prepared to deal with an escalating migrant crisis. The country is wrestling with its own record unemployment levels. Increasingly, regional integration and the flow of people, commodities, knowledge and information means that insecurity anywhere is a threat to security everywhere, challenging the principle of non-interference which has guided foreign relations between southern African states and become institutionalized in the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Decades of non-interference, liberation politics, and ‘quiet diplomacy’ on behalf of the ANC has simply allowed a political and military elite in Zimbabwe to plunder the country’s resources, undermine democracy, and create an economic crisis with implications for the wider Southern African region.
A more urgent and concrete stance is imperative. It is befitting therefore that after what had seemed like another bout of silence, the Government of South Africa, through the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) ‘noted with concern the reports related to human rights violations in the Republic of #Zimbabwe’. However, from the Mbeki to Zuma administrations, this political gesturing is well-worn. Building on #ZimbabweanLivesMatter, a campaign that has attracted resounding regional and international intervention calls from ordinary citizens, celebrities, politicians, diplomats and multi-lateral institutions alike, it is now ‘easier for SA and the SADC to begin a meaningful engagement with all stakeholders’. But will they? South Africa in particular has an opportunity as a strategic arbiter to harness all these voices across multiple platforms that can begin the work of persuading stakeholders to come to the negotiating table. It is time for the South African government to boldly break out of the ‘liberation war-pact’ cocoon and stand with the citizens of Zimbabwe.
DIRCO’s emphasis on government to government engagement, reported to have been initiated through a telephonic call between Dr. Naledi Pandor and her Zimbabwean counterpart Dr. Sibusiso Moyo, seems to thwart any hopes for including citizen voices. Dr. Pandor’s non-committal reference to ‘South Africa’s readiness to assist if requested’ does not imbue confidence of a radical departure from previous administrations. President Mnangagwa’s 4 August speech and Government Spokesperson Nick Mangwana’s press release (two days later) declaring reports of human rights violations as ‘false’ are not a request for assistance. South Africa now needs to build the diplomatic muscle required to crack through Harare’s hardball defence. Through the #ZimbabweanLivesMatter campaign, the Zimbabwean citizens’ request for assistance has been unambiguously echoed and clearly endorsed regionally and globally. As well noted by the Executive Director of Good Governance Africa, Chris Maroleng, ‘…it is incumbent on…especially…government… in South Africa to stand up and basically call on the government of Zimbabwe to cease and desist from such anti-democratic behaviour.’ South Africa has a unique opportunity to get it right this time. Many are ready to assist.
This article originally appeared in Business Day.