Living on the edge

Living on the edge

Exploited and marginalised by the communities around them, Zimbabwe’s San fight an uphill battle for survival

In May 2013, Zimbabwe’s former president, Robert Mugabe, caused controversy when he said the country’s San community, commonly known as Bushmen, had “a culture which (wa)s very resistant to change”. The Bushmen, he claimed, just wanted “look after cattle and be in the bush”.

Mugabe was speaking at the memorial service of former vice president John Nkomo, whose rural home, Tsholotsho, is in Matabeleland North, where a significant number of the San reside. Adding fuel to the fire, he said the San were “resisting education and efforts to make them more civilised”.

His comments were criticised by Zimbabweans, who maintain that the San community there is marginalised, disempowered and vulnerable. A visit to the San community’s Mgodimasili village, a settlement where about 200 people live, reveals that the community’s living conditions still lag behind those of other Zimbabwean communities and ethnic groups.

Villages exist on what they can get doing menial domestic jobs. Photo: Owen Gagare

The bulk of the San community in the village live in dilapidated thatch mud huts. They survive mostly on menial domestic jobs such as herding cattle, for which they are often paid very little, or only “in kind” with food. Most members of the community also do not have any identification papers. Yet only a few kilometres away the neighbouring village of Tjitatjawa – dominated by Ndebele speaking people – boasts neat houses with corrugated iron roofs. The unequal living conditions of the two communities could not be more stark, despite their close proximity.

In an age when most Zimbabweans are hooked on e-technologies, many members of the San community still cannot read or write. Some, especially the young, don’t know their own language, Tshwao, having been forced to adopt the languages of neighbouring communities. For thousands of years the San survived by hunting and gathering, but in the 1920s their lifestyle was disrupted when they were forced to move from their original territory in Hwange to make way for the Hwange National Park.

Their chances of survival have been limited by lack of education. Formal education is a new phenomenon among the Zimbabwe San. At present, some 248 San children attend Early Childhood Development classes up to Grade 2. This was not the San’s choice, villagers say, but due to government neglect. Siwatshi Moyo, a member of the San community, says that most community members are unemployed, and cannot afford to send their children to school.

“Most of us have no means to earn money,” he told Africa in Fact. “We cannot afford to pay fees, and that is why our kids spend the whole day roaming around doing nothing. The desire to send children to school is there but we do not have the ability.” He added that without education, most members of the community were caught in a cycle of poverty.

Madlela Maphosa, the village headman, said he wanted the government to build a school specifically for the San community in Tsholothso and ensure that enrolment was free. Many people from the community would be keen to take up such an opportunity. “The government can also provide us with jobs like building bridges and dams so that we can have money to pay fees.”

Mbuso Fuzwayo, a programme coordinator with Ibhetshu LikaZulu, a Bulawayo-based civic group, also believes that the government should offer the San free education. “The government should have a deliberate focus of trying to modernise the San; one way is to offer them free education,” Fuzwayo said. She added that the deficit in their socio-economic status was due to the San being “a smaller group of people in a bigger group of people (in) Matabeleland who have been marginalised”.

This year, the government opened a new primary school in Mgodimasili to cater for the San community. Previously, San schoolchildren had to travel more than 10 km to get to the only primary schools in the area, Butababili and Skente. But though there is now a school closer by, for many the problem of fees remains.

In February this year, Matabeleland North acting Provincial Education Director Jabulani Mpofu told public media that getting the community to pay fees was a challenge. Given the widespread reluctance to pay school fees, the government would have to consider an “advocacy” programme, he said. Many residents thought it “unnecessary” to pay fees, he told the media. “We need more stakeholders to assist us in such an advocacy programme.”

Mpofu was referring to stakeholders such as non-governmental organisations. Plan International Zimbabwe, an international NGO with regional and country offices, including Zimbabwe, helped to fund the construction of the school.

Davy Ndlovu, project manager with Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust, an independent organisation that conducts research on San culture, said the new school was “a vital step” in educating and empowering the San community in Tsholotsho. But, he added, other ways of funding schooling for the community would be necessary.

Mgodimasili village headman Madlela Maphosa Photo: Owen Gagare

“Most of the (community) are indeed vulnerable and cannot afford to pay fees,” he told Africa in Fact, “but at the same time, the school needs money to run effectively.” A statistical study conducted by the trust in 2013 revealed that a total of 96 San children were in school in the district. About 90% were in grades between 0 and 3, while about 10% of them proceeded as far as Grade 5. No San child had reached Grade 7, all of them having dropped out between Grades 3 and 5. According to the study, their reasons for dropping out of school included an inability to pay fees, a lack of food at home (which forced them to join their parents in hunting for food), lack of proper clothing, bullying and intimidation.

“The San in Zimbabwe have been neglected for a very long time,” Ndlovu said. “In Zimbabwe we have just two San community members who have completed their advanced levels. In other countries in the region, such as Botswana and Namibia, you find some members of the San community with masters degrees or doctorates, while here just five have managed to complete their ordinary levels.”

Most dropped out of school at primary school level, and most members of the San community say they have never attended school. Nkosiphakade Sibanda, a young San woman who I encountered carrying kindling, had only gone as far as Grade 2.

Members of the San community believe their neighbours are taking advantage of their abject poverty and hunger to exploit them. In many cases, San cattle herders are paid less than 100 South African rand per month.

“Those people (from neighbouring villages) cheat us. They treat us as slaves. It’s sometimes better to beg for food,” Artwell Moyo, a villager said. According to Maphosa, the village head, many of the San people’s problems are due to the fact that they have no one to represent them and protect their interests. “We are orphans,” he said.

Ndlovu agreed that communities neighbouring the San often took advantage of their softness to exploit them. “There are cases where members of the community have herded cattle for up to five years without being paid, on the understanding that they will be given a cow at the end of the period. But when the time arrives, the person chooses to disregard the agreement,” Ndlovu told Africa in Fact. “In most cases the San just walk away because they are not quarrelsome people.”

The 2013 Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust report, My Culture, My Pride: Reclaiming the Tjwa Cultural Identity, reveals that many San youths in Tsholotsho district also feel that they must hide their identity and gain acceptance as Ndebele or Kalanga (like the Ndebele, a group originally from South Africa). “This self-denial is a culmination of identity loss and is due to discrimination by their Ndebele and Kalanga neighbours, who also dominate local community leadership positions,” the report reads in part.

Most present-day San members speak Kalanga and Ndebele. A few older San still remember the Tshwao language but do not use it in their day-to-day interactions. Schools use Ndebele as the vernacular language of instruction and examination. Ndebele is the dominant vernacular in the district.

Although the new school in Tsholotsho is a step towards the San community’s empowerment, one gets the feeling they have a long way to go before they are truly empowered. Without education, the community’s cycle of poverty is likely to persist. At the same time, their language, Tshwao, is threatened with extinction. NGOs such as Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust are compiling records and writing books in an attempt to preserve the language. But the community will likely need government support for its language, too. 

OWEN GARARE is news editor at the business weekly Zimbabwe Independent. He has previously worked for two national daily newspapers, NewsDay and the Chronicle. He is based in Harare.
An African superhero shakes up the status quo

An African superhero shakes up the status quo

A scene from the film Black Panther © Marvel Studios 2018


In February of this year, following an insurgency mounted from a nation called Wakanda, a young king forcibly took over Africa. At the time, no one seemed to mind: backed up by a dazzlingly capable all-female Republican Guard, riding wave after wave of Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer-worthy hip hop, T’Challa – or, as he is more widely known, Black Panther – was both soulful and handsome, intelligent and urbane, tough and tender.

As is usually the case in these matters, his reign was controversial from the start. Following his murdered father to the throne, whom exactly did T’Challa represent? Was he the avatar of a new form of black consciousness that saw itself not just equal to, but better than, the boilerplate whiteness that has defined the notion of “civilisation” for so long?

Was he the vanguard of a new, youthful Africa hoping to redefine the notion of home as something other than the pit of misery and despair depicted by Western media? Or was he simply the product of the Marvel cinematic universe – a $17 billion Hollywood behemoth that dominates the cultural discourse with its engorged biceps and fancy leotards. That is, was he a means of selling fast-food burgers to mid-western families with no interest in black liberation?

T’Challa himself didn’t seem to know the answer to these questions, locked as he was in a blockbuster that quickly broke global box office records. Until that point, the consensus in Hollywood was that black movies didn’t sell abroad. This one has sold pretty well: to date, it’s grossed over $1.3 billion worldwide. The film’s director, Ryan Coogler, is black; the cinematographer, Rachel Morrison, doesn’t bear a Y chromosome – almost unheard of in big-budget filmmaking.

Indeed, outside of the white dudes who signed the cheques, and in the context of America First, Me Too, Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, and the mainstreaming of the Ku Klux Klan, Black Panther suggested what the world would look like if our entertainment was created by those who have long been considered “outsiders”. The film hit with the force of a vibranium-powered guided missile, and it was difficult not to consider its reception transformative for the American entertainment industry.

Largely forgotten in all this was what actual Africans thought about their new king. Weaponised rhinos notwithstanding, the continent seemed like more of an afterthought – or a catch-all for an encompassing, global blackness. Which begs a slew of questions. How widely was the film viewed in Africa? Who watched it? What of the African diaspora, where dozens of the continent’s brightest young people enliven Western culture as novelists, musicians, filmmakers and academics? And, perhaps most importantly, what does “African” even mean in 2018, as the continent gets younger, busier, more urbanised, more wired?

In the golden age of digital piracy, it’s impossible to know how many Africans have watched Black Panther since its release – its box office figures, while record-setting, don’t tell us much about its actual impact. Which makes it difficult to get a sense of how the idea of Wakanda – a stand alone, proudly independent technotopia – might inform new concepts of what Africa can mean, can produce, can become.

As it happens, the film dropped during the reign of Trump, a political phenomenon that represents the near total capture of the US by a narrow oligarchy (the parallels with Mobuto Sese Seko’s Zaire are glaring, if not flattering). But while America Africanises, Africa atomises. No African nation presents a definitive case study for what “Africa” is supposed to look like, if there ever was.

Black Panther characters (left ) Okoye (Danai Gurira), Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and Ayo (Florence Kasumba). © Marvel Studios 2018

So why not Wakanda?

It would be nice, but it’s difficult to see how this concept-as-place could gain any purchase at so strange a point in liberated Africa’s historical trajectory. The continent’s most entrenched and lauded strongman is busy turning his capital city, Kigali, into a model of Wakandan innovation. Or is it the other way around? Angola lost its own strongman last year; within a matter of months João Lourenço had wiped away the Eduardo Dos Santos regime’s more corrupt cronies, including ranking members of the former president’s clan. Kenya found itself engaged in an absurd election campaign, during which the reigning members of the oligarchy – Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga – locked horns, the latter refusing to give way after the results favoured the incumbent.

In other developments, Ian Khama, dynastic leader of Botswana, stepped away with barely a nudge; his successor, Mokgweetsi Masisi, is a technocrat and long-serving cabinet minister. In Ethiopia, after the Tigrayan prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, voluntarily left office, he was succeeded by Abiy Ahmed, an Oromo, who is tasked with ending centuries of enmity between the country’s ethnic constituencies.

And in South Africa, after what seemed like an endless and unwinnable battle, Jacob Zuma’s faction was defeated at the African National Congress’s electoral conference; a short time later, Cyril Ramaphosa—a vastly wealthy, vastly cosmopolitan centrist—became president of the country.

These are just a few of the political transitions that have occurred on our continent during the past year (George Weah becoming president of Liberia? Robert Mugabe’s fall in Zimbabwe, anyone?). For the most part, stodgy old-school elites have been replaced with Davos-steeped technocrats. New blood has without question resulted in new energy: South Africa, Angola, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe are undergoing serious makeovers. But it cannot be said that all of these men – and they are all men – are particularly young. I put their average age at around 60. Nor can it be said that they are ideologically diverse, or economically imaginative.

And here’s where the parallels with Wakanda come perversely full circle. The central conflict in the film is between T’Challa and his long-lost cousin, who calls himself Erik Killmonger. The latter grew up in inner-city Oklahoma, his life defined by American racism. Without giving too much away, Killmonger returns to Wakanda with the intention of seizing the throne, and using the kingdom’s killer tech to prosecute a war against the empires of the West, with the aim of vanquishing them in the interests of true liberation.

A poster for the film Black Panther © Marvel Studios 2018

It’s been noted by many commentators that while Killmonger is the film’s ostensible villain, there’s a case to be made that he’s the actual hero. A genuine revolutionary, Killmonger wants global racial freedom, and he’s willing to pay the price in blood. T’Challa refuses to be party to a revolution, however bloody, and regardless of the outcome.

For the most part, Africa’s new leaders are all T’Challas – they’re about as revolutionary as a dishrag, and acceptable to bland Western mainstream audiences. These are men who have consumed their fair share of World Economic Forum crustless sandwiches, and they are here to institute government by best practices. Does this mean they can help ameliorate their countries’ many problems? Can they institute fairness and equality and leadership for all?

Perhaps. But Ramaphosa, Ahmed, Masisi, Mnangagwa weren’t voted into power by a popular majority – they were installed in their positions of leadership either by their parties or their parliaments. Meanwhile, the Angolan and Kenyan elections were seriously contested.

This means that, much like T’Challa, they aren’t properly democrats, but a mix of old school and new school, political creatures that share a surprising number of attributes for a continent as large as this one. “Wakanda Forever!” goes the battle cry.

But this latest wave of change will likely not be as durable as that unless it receives some endorsement from the people. Which means, these days, and more and more: Africa’s young people. And increasingly, too, they aren’t likely to be the cheerleaders of an older generation.

Black Panther, produced by Marvel Studios, directed by Ryan Coogler and starring Chadwick Boseman, Michale B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o and Martin Freeman.

By mid-June this year, Black Panther had taken over R107 million, with more than 1.4m attendances, at the South African cinema box office. South Africa  joined East and West Africa in claiming the film as the highest-grossing film of all time in these regions.

RICHARD POPLAK is an award-winning journalist, filmmaker and graphic novelist. He is the editor at large for Daily Maverick.
Long sidelined, now centre stage

Long sidelined, now centre stage

Nelson Chamisa Photo: Wikimedia Commons

During Zimbabwe’s last general election in 2013 the 89-year-old candidate Robert Mugabe of Zanu-PF cruised to victory after securing 61.09% of the vote, while his main rival, 60-year-old Morgan Tsvangirai of the MDC-T secured 33.94% of the ballot. The country is scheduled to go to the polls again on July 30 this year, but many things have changed since 2013.

For starters, Mugabe, who had ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist since independence in 1980, was deposed in a military operation largely seen as a coup last November. He will not contest the election. Meanwhile Tsvangirai, his fierce rival, succumbed to colon cancer in a South African hospital in February this year.

Although there are many contenders in the presidential race, most analysts believe the real race is between President Emmerson Mnangagwa (76) of Zanu-PF and his youthful challenger, Nelson Chamisa (40) of the MDC-T. Mnangagwa, who is completing Mugabe’s term, rose to power on the back of the military intervention, and is desperate to earn electoral legitimacy.

One factor will surely play a role in the coming election. In previous elections young people did not play a significant role in polls, but young people have registered in large numbers for this year’s coming election and, given their numbers, they will have the biggest say on who comes to power.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) conducted a registration blitz between August 2017 and February this year, with people between 18 and 40 years constituting no less than 60% of the 5.3 million registered voters. “This means that this is going to be an election for young people,” ZEC chairperson Justice Priscilla Chigumba told parliament in February.

The figures are in stark contrast to previous elections, where voter participation among young people was minimal. A report on an audit of the June 2013 voters’ roll conducted by a local think tank, Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU), shows that almost two million eligible youth under the age of 30 did not register to vote in that election.

“Very few adults aged under 30 are registered,” RAU noted at the time. “This is most marked in the 18-19 age group, where only 8.87% are registered. In numerical terms, this means that a total of 1,920,424 people under the age of 30 ought to be registered as voters, but are not.”

The large turnout during registration for this year’s general election is not a coincidence. Student bodies and youth organisations have been mobilising young people to register and vote, arguing they need to seize the opportunity to determine the country’s destiny.

The election comes at a time when most Zimbabweans are struggling to find employment. Recent years have seen poor government policies causing large-scale company closures, exacerbating a harsh economic climate already battered by the effects of land seizures during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Many young people have been forced to skip the country’s borders for greener pastures. Those that haven’t left, including those with degrees, have resorted to vending in the informal economy or other menial jobs.

To illustrate the point, according to a survey by the Vendors’ Initiative for Social and Economic Transformation (Viset) conducted between February and April 2016, at least 2,187 graduates living in the country’s two largest cities, Harare and Bulawayo, survived on vending. This dire situation goes a long way to explaining the new interest in voting among young people. Student bodies have already begun drumming up support for the main contenders at institutions of higher learning.

“This election is very important for us, because it is about our future,” Ashlegy Pfunye, secretary general of the Zimbabwe National Students Union (Zinasu), told Africa in Fact. “We are the game changers in this election and our voice cannot be ignored. That is why we are encouraging youths and students to not only register but to make sure that they vote.”

Members of the student body were travelling to universities around the country to urge students to register, he said. On social media, the organisation was campaigning with the hashtag #studentsdecide2018. To help students register, Zinasu provided them with transport to registration centres. A “ballot buddies programme” had also been introduced to support these activities with the message that young people need to “find common ground” by registering to vote – and voting.

Young people were mobilising to vote for change through a “generational consensus movement”, Pfunye said. With the retirement age in Zimbabwe now 65, he questioned why young people should vote for a 76-year-old candidate. Both Mnangagwa and Mugabe had been in government since 1980 and the country’s economic doldrums were directly due to the failures of the Zanu-PF government, he added. “We are voting for change, and that means we are voting for Chamisa, whom we believe represents the future.”

Meanwhile, the second-largest students’ body, the Zimbabwe Congress of Students’ Union (Zicosu), is campaigning for Mnangagwa under the #StudentsvoteED2018 hashtag. Members of the union say that the “generational consensus” is “divisive” and that young people should not consider the age of candidates when voting.

“As young people we need to preach intergenerational consensus and unity, rather than preaching division and antagonism among generations,” Zicosu tweeted on April 6 this year. “[B]eing youthful is not the ticket to the presidency; sound policies are what we should vote for, as young people.”

Robert Mugabe Illustration: Vusi Malindi

Zicosu executive member Godknows Mdari said his organisation was also mobilising young people and assisting them to register. “Our message is simple,” Mdari told Africa in Fact. “We are emphasising the fact that the future is in our hands. We need to be responsible, and vote for an experienced leader who has the capacity to improve the economy so that we get jobs.”

The student organisation was “encouraged” by the direction that Mnangagwa had taken since he became president. He was “engaging the international community” and bringing the country “out of isolation”. “He has declared that Zimbabwe is open for business and this is the sort of leader we want,” said Mdari. “We don’t believe in voting for someone just because they are young.”

As the younger candidate, Chamisa might benefit from the likely participation of younger people in the general election, but his age was “not a guarantee”, said University of Zimbabwe political science lecturer Eldred Masunungure. Youth organisations would need to motivate young people not merely to attend election rallies, but to cast their ballots on election day.

Location was another important factor that might determine the decisions of younger voters, he added. Younger voters in rural areas, in the Mashonaland and Midlands provinces, for instance, were more likely to vote for Zanu-PF, while those in urban areas would likely vote for the MDC alliance. “Urban voters are less motivated to vote compared to those in the rural areas, where people are more vulnerable to manipulation and intimidation,” he told Africa in Fact.

The political parties, meanwhile, should be wary of concentrating their election campaigns only on young people, as this would effectively ignore the remaining 40% of the electorate, Masunungure added. Politicians have realised that the youth will have a huge say in the elections, and they have focused some of their election campaigns on social media. All the major contenders in the presidential elections, including Mnangagwa and Chamisa, have been using social media to promise jobs, among other things, for young voters.

The political parties have also played their role in ensuring youths register. MDC-T secretary general Lovemore Chinoputsa told Africa in Fact that the party was campaigning to mobilise young people under a bereka mwana tiende (“carry your child and let’s go”) campaign, which encouraged parents to make sure their children were registered to vote.

Zanu PF spokesperson Simon Khaya Moyo said his party was confident that most Zimbabweans, young people included, would vote for Zanu PF. “We are a tried and tested revolutionary party, which represents the interests of all Zimbabweans. We have a vibrant youth league and we are confident that all Zimbabweans, regardless of age, are happy with President Mnangagwa’s leadership,” he told Africa in Fact.

OWEN GARARE is news editor at the business weekly Zimbabwe Independent. He has previously worked for two national daily newspapers, NewsDay and The Chronicle. He is based in Harare.