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Perception vs reality

2015-03-19

Air of hope amid desperation

Although he has ruined the country, Mugabe’s legacy on education informs the future

I was hoping to see Zimbabwe more clearly through the eyes of a couple of colleagues who accompanied me to Harare on a recent business trip. Our mission was to decide the fate of a proposed new guest house I’d been planning to set up there. To proceed with the project in a bottomed-out city or not: that was the question.
What followed was a foray into perception versus reality. At first, my companions were so intrigued to be entering a zany political zone that they peered around in search of Comrade Bob’s evil machinations. One received text messages from her husband in Ireland, imploring her to be careful, though what the world’s most odious tyrant would want with an interior decorator from Belfast is anybody’s guess.
By the end of a day in Harare’s sleepy streets, our closest shave being with a speeding wheelbarrow, my colleagues downed several glasses of South African chardonnay and issued verdicts that had swung from one extreme to the other. “I’m completely in love with the place,” sang my Irish friend. “It’s wonderful; so hopeful,” sighed the other, a well-known Jo’burg spin doctor.
I was amazed at their enthusiasm. While the B&B we were staying in had everything you’d need for an overnight visit, and the two blocks we’d trod between it and the site of my proposed development were rich in dazzling flowers, Harare is stripped to its bare bones. Piles of rubbish stank in the sun on a grassless field nearby. I can still see the hollow eyes of a woman who lay under a tree not far from my property’s entrance, a suckling baby clasped to her emaciated breast.
It’s true that the unity government formed with Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change earlier in the year had begun to reverse some of the destruction wrought by Mugabe’s dictatorship. Prices were no longer doubling every 24 hours, schools and hospitals were reopening, and industrial capacity was creeping up from a 10% low. But Mugabe’s retention of the apparatus of oppression has led more recently to the near collapse of the pragmatic agreement. Progress has ground to a halt.
So what, I enquired of my companions, had prompted their benign analysis of one of the world’s most forlorn cities? Answers ranged improbably from the “cheerfulness” of Zimbabweans to the resourcefulness we’d witnessed in the pop-up home-shops from which locals sold potted plants and hand-made Christmas bric-a-brac, or bartered eggs and chickens for bags of cement.
Neither of my colleagues had been to Zimbabwe in thirty years so I tried to explain why the façade they mistook for sang-froid was actually desperation. Brave faces hide broken lives as Zimbabweans enter a second decade of Mugabe’s catastrophic misrule, I told them. Had they not noticed the painful thinness of the polite, smiling people with whom we’d exchanged greetings on the sidewalks? Didn’t they wonder about the water-table beneath our feet as the gleamingly green lawns of Harare’s elite absorbed the city’s underground river system through private boreholes? But my companions were so convinced of a mutually-detected truth that they ganged up on me rather than conceding doubt. I was a cynic, they huffed. There was heaps of hope in Harare, they insisted.
Apart from feeling that my companions had perhaps mistaken courage for complacency – Zimbabweans being a stoic breed – their optimism nagged away at me for hours. But it wasn’t until my Irish companion, who had recently bolted back to her own country after living for 12 years in crime-ravaged Johannesburg, announced that she felt perfectly safe in Harare (once she’d realized that mad, bad Bob wasn’t going to pounce out of the tropical shrubbery) that I wondered if what the two were observing was not hope but, paradoxically, peace. Except for political activists, among them white farmers, people with dollars in their pockets aren’t physically endangered in Zimbabwe, which is perhaps why my friends could see Harare’s wide verandahs crammed with opportunities that don’t exist in the skeletal city.
After all, living in uber-violent South Africa entails the sort of fear that can wear you down to a quivering wreck, draining the trust that nurtures optimism and making you amenable to the pared-down promise of Harare. Life in Johannesburg involves the scariest of numbers games: sooner or later, bloody crime is going to strike you personally. Whereas in Zimbabwe, you’re extremely unlikely to be apprehended at gunpoint, never mind tied up and gagged whilst being burnt raw with an electric iron. Your cellphone might be snatched or your car driven off by whispering thieves at midnight, but nobody wants you dead unless you’re plotting to topple the government.
Quite why there is relatively little non-political violence up north is unclear. South Africa may be living with the consequences of a particularly brutal history yet Zimbabwe endured a full-on war. Both countries are bordered by states in which armed conflict raged for decades and guns became ruinously cheap. The police are more efficient at combating crime in the former British colony than their counterparts down south. And Zimbabweans in all sectors are much better educated than South Africans, with a resultant tendency towards mental rather than muscular dialogue.
What struck me as a possible explanation of the hopeful perceptions was Mugabe’s educational legacy. His beleaguered nation’s literacy rate, though lately threatened, is in the mid-90s – Africa’s highest. There is as a result a straight-backed confidence in Zimbabweans, even when they’re down and supposedly defeated. It could be described as pride or hope but, more than that, their attitude recalls what Winston Churchill said of wartime Britain: “If you are going through hell, keep going.”
Everyone you talk to in Harare seems to have migrated beyond grievance mode to the deeper resilience I suspect my friends could see shining through the gloom. That admirable quality plus time – Africa’s most abundant commodity – is guiding Zimbabweans through the abyss and persuading doubters like me to invest in the country.

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