Zimbabwe is so heavy with missed chances that it is hard not to be skeptical of the prospects for renewal

Former Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe

ROBERT MUGABE may be out of office, but the country for now remains firmly in the hands of Zanu-PF and the Zimbabwean army.

By Mathew Curtin

My late father would have turned 80 on November 15. What an extra special celebration it would have been: he would have woken up to the news of the strange military coup d’état in Zimbabwe, which led, in less than a week, to Robert Mugabe standing down as the president of the Southern African country after 37 years in power.

Tim Curtin, an economist who spent much of his youth in what was then British-ruled Southern Rhodesia, would have raised a toast to Zimbabwe’s new leader, Emmerson Mnangagwa, and the prospect of the country’s renaissance.

My father would have reminded us of the richness of the land he loved deeply and the many generous-hearted and proud Zimbabweans he knew. He would have insisted on how a successful, open-minded, democratic Zimbabwe could bind Central and Southern Africa together in a more harmonious, prosperous whole, a mission he had worked on fruitlessly in the mid-1970s.

Yet, my father would have kept his optimism in check. Zimbabwe’s history is so heavy with missed opportunities and the worst caprices of African nationalists — visible in the vicious divisiveness of white-minority rule in Rhodesia and the false promises and misrule of Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party — that it is hard not to be sceptical of the prospects for renewal. Mugabe may be out of office, but the country for now remains firmly in the hands of Zanu-PF and the Zimbabwean army.

My father had experience of his own of the heavy hand of the Rhodesian government many years ago when he was a lecturer at the University College of Rhodesia in Salisbury, as the capital Harare was then known. In July 1966, about eight months after the country’s white settlers made their Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Britain, he was briefly imprisoned and then deported, along with eight other lecturers, to the UK.

With the renegade regime of Ian Smith preparing to entrench apartheid-style policies in Rhodesia, the lecturers and some students had protested against the police presence on the multiracial campus.

The irony is that one of my father’s most bitter disappointments was seeing how Zimbabwe’s leaders at the country’s true independence in 1980 — many of them well-educated lawyers and economists with whom my father felt he shared much common ground in the 1960s — ended up guilty of many of the vices of Smith’s white nationalists.

True, there was no shortage of reasons for the bitterness among Mugabe and his cohorts toward whites and the UK in particular. Zimbabwe’s freedom fighters had suffered at the hands of the British and the Rhodesian authorities. Apart from the casualties of the bush war, there were years of imprisonment, a fate that befell Mugabe and Mnangagwa, and sometimes torture. There was also the pettiness of the segregationist thinking of the 1960s and 1970s. Take Bernard Chidzero, a future minister of the economy in one of Mugabe’s administrations. Returning to his native land in 1959 after studying abroad to take up a lectureship at the university in Salisbury, Chidzero then had the post withdrawn when the authorities realised his wife was white.

Governing Zimbabwe was hardly an easy task in the 1980s. Apartheid SA bristled on the country’s southern border and the Cold War was at its height, with foreign powers, notably the UK, conflicted on how much to help Mugabe’s Zimbabwe just as they had been in bringing Smith’s Rhodesia to heel. Perhaps it is no wonder that the country had no equivalent of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up in SA to reconcile the people with their past after the demise of apartheid.

However legitimate the grievances that burnt up Mugabe and others in government in Harare, it is still hard to explain the economic devastation wrought on the country and its citizens in the past 20 years without pointing the finger at those post-independence leaders.

In the words of the long-time Africa commentator Richard Dowden, Smith and Mugabe were opposites in “every conceivable way”, but they did have one thing in common: “Stubborn and reckless, they both gave the finger to the rest of the world and to their own people.”

Zimbabwe is also the land of my birth, though I haven’t been back since my parents’ forced departure in 1966. In another irony of timing, I paid two visits to the Zimbabwe Embassy in Paris, either side of Mugabe’s forced departure, to ask for and then collect a certified copy of my birth certificate. The embassy staff couldn’t have been more efficient and obliging on both days.

The only difference? The lugubrious official portrait of Mugabe hanging in the embassy reception had been replaced by a nondescript poster. Change can happen quickly in Africa. For once, may it be for the better in Zimbabwe. – This article was first published by the Business Day.