Orwell’s Zimbabwe

The Africa Desk at Radio Netherlands recently had a report on the latest antics of Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, focusing on his highly complicated love life. More about that here:  

It brought me back to school.

Two decades ago, I was teaching English language and literature in a secondary school in the Nyanga area, Northeast Zimbabwe. Proof, it is useful to recall, of president Robert Mugabe’s dedication to education. Among early Zimbabwe’s most enduring legacies will be millions of well-educated Zimbabweans, including my own former students. President Mugabe was, after all, a teacher himself. More on that here (go to the bottom of the page and listen to Part Two of my interview with the late Heidi Holland – the other parts are good as well…):

Two decades ago, I was living in my little corner of Northeast Zimbabwe and to my eternal shame not very well aware of the bloody backdrop to the new unity government that had just been been announced. The main order of the day, I felt, was decolonizing the literature curriculum. I kicked out boring 19th century rural English lit and introduced Chinua Achebe, Wilson Katiyo, Shimmer Chinodya and others. For students wanting to take a deeper literary plunge I could point to Zimbabwe’s greatest national treasure: Dambudzo Marechera. Not yet Yvonne Vera, that other great treasure; her first book came out one year after I had left.

Personal contacts in and outside the school gradually began to reveal a country where political intolerance was the order of the day. Hidden, mostly, between elections; palpable, in campaign time. When the ruling party came up for re-elections, talk in bars moved resolutely away from politics: even then it was unwise to proclaim one’s own dissidence in public. The armed dissident movement in the South and the West of the country had just been wiped off the face of the earth by North Korea-trained soldiers of the Five Brigade. At least according to government propaganda. In reality, there had been an almost completely concealed campaign of mass slaughter going on, which had killed 20,000 people. A fact that was only hit home when in 1999 the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission published its report called “Breaking the silence”.

I kept Orwell in class. Animal Farm: a dangerous choice.

After much discussion, I asked the students if they would want to write essays comparing the story in Orwell’s fable to events in their own country. Not without risk but they jumped at the opportunity – and the insights they offered were razor sharp. How about this? They mentioned…

The revolution that kicked out the former owners.

The short-lived but genuine euphoria: we’re free!

Ubiquitous use of the word “comrade”.

Dissent and infighting in the top ranks; dissidents being banished or coopted.

Sly propaganda to keep the populace in line. Frequent trick: asking, rhetorically, menacingly: do you want the former owner back?

Violent repression of those who disagree with the new rulers.

Writing certain undesirable elements out of history.

It was all there, in the writings of the students. And that was long before the “international community” suddenly discovered that there was a problem in the state of Zimbabwe.

Yes, this country’s history has followed an uncannily large number of the twists and turns from Orwell’s tale, including personality cults and replacing a universal anthem by a “proper” national anthem. It also added a few twists of its own, including the 1997 revolt of the revolution’s rank and file. Their anger was paid off and the “war vets” were co-opted into Zimbabwe’s infrastructure of political violence.

Another extra-Orwellian twist was the emergence of a group that could, perhaps, maybe, help liberation further along by kicking out the liberators. Predictably, Zimbabwe’s leaders wasted no time in painting Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change as stooges of the former owner. Do you want him back? President Mugabe’s ruling party election slogan was nothing more than a simple statement of fact: Zimbabwe will never be a colony again.

Indeed. No-one, except for a few deranged white supremacists, has been suggesting anything else. But the second wave of euphoria has been even shorter-lived than the previous one. Today, with Tsvangirai’s love life at least as untidy as that of the president, you could forgive my former students for turning to the last page of Animal Farm and concluding that, inevitably, would-be liberators bear an eerie resemblance to liberators-turned-leaders…

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One Response to “Orwell’s Zimbabwe”

  1. Job Says:

    A very interesting piece!

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