In the township of Mbare, anthropology student Rowan Jones finds a complex picture of poverty and propaganda - plus a baffling level of support for Mugabe. In her second report from this troubled nation, she digs into recent political history to make sense of what she encounters. 

“We are delivering democracy on a platter. We say take it or leave it.”

Mugabe gives his first post-election broadcast

My first day in Harare is a blur of opulence and finery at the city’s only five star hotel, Meikles, which sits proudly on its own private road defended by armed guards. This is the kind of lifestyle that the ruling elite enjoy, and it seems miles away from the Zimbabwe that I have become familiar with.

I’m here to attend a conference as part of my research, but as the meeting draws to a close I’m somewhat relieved to escape the rows of crisp white tables, lunch buffets, and circular chitchat to see the city as it ‘really’ is. I leave, dashing out into the roaring traffic to meet a friend of my grandfather’s, who is sitting in his shiny development agency pick-up truck.

Andreas has been living and working here for 30 years. He responds rather wearily to my initial question: “When did you first come to Zimbabwe?” “I came here in 1982, just after Independence. But it’s my home now. I have lived here longer than I did in Europe. I’m part of the country.’

He introduces me to his secretary, Mosie, who is smiling broadly from the back seat. She cackles with laughter at most of what is said between us, and she’s particularly amused when Andreas jumps a red light. No-one else on the road seems to notice his transgression.

As our first few minutes of conversation lurch about, Mosie keeps bursting out the word ‘Mbare’ from the back seat. At first I’m not sure what her interjections mean. ‘Mbare. Please, Mbare!’ Andreas turns to face her and says: “You want to take her to Mbare? I’m not sure if she will want to go.” He faces me. “How do you feel about visiting Mbare? It’s our biggest township.”

I agree, curious to see the city’s other side. Mosie’s enthusiasm is palpable. As we approach the township, Andreas explains that it’s famous for its vast market. “You can buy anything there, including the parts they stole from your car the night before!”

We jump out, and quickly we’re immersed in the chaos of the market. Andreas is right – everything is here, often in the most bizarre combinations. Someone sells workman’s overalls alongside net curtains, another stall displays barbed wire alongside laundry powder - and a third proffers tomatoes along with mobile phone cases.

In the market, it’s not so evident that this country faced such acute economic crisis only a few years ago. In fact, its bustling nature is probably testament to the slump in the formal economy. Back then supermarkets were completely empty, and street-traders met the demand for goods, seizing the chance to develop the black market. By late 2008, the so-called ‘informal economy’ was the dominant means of exchange for most people, and Mbare has flourished ever since.

As we wind through the endless corridors created by the tight-knit shacks of market-sellers, I notice lots of people wearing lime green t-shirts with the words, ‘Indigenize, Empower, Develop, Employ’, across the back. A single word is emblazoned on the front: ‘Revive’. At first this puzzles me, but I realise later that it’s a Zanu-PF slogan. Mugabe is often quoted saying exactly these words.

Listening to Mugabe’s speeches is a bewildering experience. They’re full of the rhetoric of ‘indigenization,’ the process that seeks to make black Zimbabweans the dominant economic stakeholders in the country. He’s been repeating these statements for at least 15 years. This policy led to the expulsion of most foreign investors from the country and was used to justify the ‘invasions’ of white-owned farms that began around 2000.

Mugabe continues to blame (not entirely without reason) economic sanctions and the ‘imperialist’ policies of Western governments, primarily those based in London and Washington, for the country’s financial plight.

To the outsider, it seems that a multitude of other factors initiated the country’s downward spiral: the government’s expensive involvement in the war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the late 1990s; the unbudgeted and continuing handouts to war veterans; the annihilation of the commercial farming sector caused by farm invasions; and the government’s reckless printing of more and more and more currency to cover its mushrooming costs.

These factors never appear in any of Zanu-PF’s official statements; it continues to blame the scheming West for attempting to destroy the defiant nationalist government. In Mugabe’s first post-election broadcast on Monday, he exclaimed: “We are delivering democracy on a platter. We say take it or leave it.”

There’s a madness and mania to this kind of language that somehow seems to work. If you don’t buy it, this rhetoric simply goes straight over your head; to you and me, Mugabe’s speeches appear to have the hallmarks of insanity. But the crucial part is that if you relate to this language, every utterance is deeply meaningful and painfully truthful.

As we come to the edge of the market, Mosie invites me to her family home. We are approaching what seem to be large, post-war housing blocks, the kind not unfamiliar in the UK.

But as we enter the first corridor, the stench of rotting food and human waste is almost overwhelming. The floors are covered in puddles of stagnant water that reflect the long, unlit walkway. We climb up to the fifth floor; I notice that the roof the floor above, which is the top storey, has mostly fallen in.

Mosie’s family house is just one room, like every other residence in this building. A curtain divides the room in half, separating the living space from the sleeping area. A sofa and two well-worn armchairs occupy most of the space. Six people sit on these; all of them live here. The opposite wall is piled almost to the ceiling with cooking equipment, food, brooms and various other indicators of human life. It’s hot, and it smells bad. The air is heavy and humid.

A space is made for me on the sofa, and I’m offered a biscuit, which I gratefully accept. Everyone speaks a smattering of English, and conversation is initiated with the rather direct: “Do you believe in God?” I answer in the affirmative, which is the only real option if I am to stay here any longer, and I notice the Christian pop music playing in the background. The chorus repeats: “Jesus is my candle and salvation.”

There are numerous Christian denominations in Zimbabwe, many of them unknown to most people in the UK. When people ask me what denomination I am, and I answer Anglican, they always want to know what type of Anglican. I explain that there are fewer types of churches in the UK, and that I attend my parish church. Mosie’s older brother replies: “Ah yes. In Zimbabwe we have many, many churches!”

I’m curious about this, so ask him why he thinks there are so many. He answers as if it is obvious: “Because God uses poverty as a weapon to get people to church.” I look down at my hands, suddenly uncomfortable and aware of my comparative wealth. I hear Mosie’s mother say the word “dollar”, which Mosie snaps back at, but I know she wants to ask me for money.

When I leave half an hour later, uncertain about what’s the right thing to do, I produce $10 from my purse. The adult family members beam at me, and take it in turns to shake my hand. Mosie’s mother even starts to cry, but Mosie is quick to tell her off. Their response is overwhelming and conflicting. I know my $10 will do nothing to alleviate their poverty – by next week it will be gone. Even more so, it will do nothing change the fact that Mbare exists. I feel sad, confused and out of place.

As we leave, Mosie’s father leads me down the stairs. Mugabe’s face grins from the back of his shirt, a reminder of the 2008 presidential election. I hear later Zanu-PF have just won the Mbare constituency. This place seems riddled with contradiction and uncertainty. I don’t know if I can tie together all the threads that hang loose around Mbare, Harare, and Zimbabwe. There doesn’t seem to be any easy way to fit together all the pieces that I’ve seen of the puzzle.

The elections that took place two weeks ago were somehow rigged; that much is clear. International consensus is now that they were ‘free but not fair’ (whatever that really means). One hears a lot about ‘irregularities’ and ‘assisted voting’ in the papers, but no-one is entirely clear on how the election was won.

It is crucial to understand, however, that not every vote for Mugabe was achieved by beating people senseless or stuffing the ballot boxes. He has, amazingly, retained (and even regained) a firm support base, and there are many who delight in his frenzied monologues. Although we are now over 30 years from independence, race still plays a crucial dynamic in Zimbabwean politics, and it is this that Mugabe continues to seize upon with so much success.

Mbare residents have many reasons to abhor him: their neighbourhood has suffered particularly brutal onslaughts. June 2005 saw the infamous government ‘Operation Murambatsvina’ that literally bulldozed small enterprises, like the homemade stalls of Mbare township, and crushed most of the places where these sellers had operated. It was an attempt to control by destroying even the smallest industry that had clung on through the years of degeneration. It’s generally thought that Zanu-PF was paranoid that the opposition, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was winning support here. ‘Operation Murambatsvina’, which translates as ‘operation to drive out rubbish’, was an attempt to crush support for MDC by destroying people's livelihoods.

Despite this, the only election posters I see here are for Zanu-PF. Many people wear t-shirts emblazoned with Mugabe’s image, just like Mosie’s father. This is not somewhere I would readily bring up politics, but it’s clear that there is support. It seems likely that Mugabe retains people’s support on the basis of his racial and anti-colonial rhetoric, which evidently retains a deep and powerful appeal for many.

The ‘indigenization’ programme has garnered a lot of support from the poorest Zimbabweans. The world, viewed from another angle, makes sense that way. The painful irony for me is that Mugabe now occupies the same position of privilege and ‘oppressor’ as those he has spent his entire life condemning.

That evening as Andreas and I drive back to his house, it occurs to me that Zimbabwe is once again a one-party state. Having gone through a tentative few years of the Government of National Unity, in which MDC shared power with Zanu-PF, the dominant party has now regained control. Morgan Tsvangari has lost (or rather, failed to win) three consecutive elections – and his political career is effectively over.

MDC’s inclusion in government gave Zanu-PF another scapegoat – Tsvangari. MDC continues to be accused of being a puppet of the West. The problems of the last five years were simply deflected by Zanu-PF onto their rivals. This is what Mugabe meant when he said on Monday: “We found we were dining with and sharing our bed with thieves. We will never give thieves the power to rule.”

There has been much talk of a ‘second liberation’ for the people of Zimbabwe, now that MDC has been defeated. This may sound like the hyperbole of a madman, but there are thousands, if not millions, who remain loyal to a man that his put his country through so much. Understanding that Mugabe still has support, even from those who have clearly suffered under his rule, is critical to understanding Zimbabwe. Loyalty to him is still widespread, especially so among the poorest. For 30 years he has successfully cast himself as the revolutionary war hero who liberated his country from oppression, and it seems to still be working.

To protect the identity of the family in this report, Rowan Jones is a pseudonym. Other names have also been changed.

For more information about this story, contact Alex Buxton, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge, 01223 761673

All images credit: Rowan Jones

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