Somewhere around 1996, my family and I climbed aboard a Land Rover, set off from our Johannesburg home and went north, by road through Zimbabwe all the way to Kariba and then back home. The trip was memorable for a number of reasons: it was my first “Landie”, our then-small boys could sprawl on its back benches, and it was our first lengthy road trip through a neighbouring country.
It was also memorable in a different way: South Africa had just, just, emerged from its transitional miracle; our Zimbabwean neighbours had done something similar a decade and a half earlier. But as we drove through Zimbabwe, particularly on the road home, down through the centre of the country, staying at various farms and guest houses, I realised that their miracle was about to turn to dust.
In fact, shortly after our return to Johannesburg, I wrote a column for The Star newspaper to that effect, suggesting that unless white Zimbabweans changed their attitudes, and changed them quickly, here was a country headed for deep trouble.
I don’t have a copy of that old newspaper column in front of me, although it’s surely somewhere in an old file, or if you’re interested, maybe down, buried, in a dusty archive at The Star’s offices. But the gist of what I argued was this: following a brutal civil war, a peace settlement had been hammered out at Lancaster House out that gave everyone a chance at a new nation. A small shot, but a shot nonetheless.
But during my trip through the country 15 years later, I had found, almost without exception, white Zimbabweans who still spoke openly and contemptuously about “the munts” and how “they are f**king up the country” and, on the other hand, black Zimbabweans who were resentful, angry, still very poor, and convinced that things weren’t “going to go on like this much longer”.
Less than four years later, the land invasions began, and Zimbabwe had thrown itself over a precipice. I would argue that the leap was a collective one, white and black determined to go down together.
The leap took place 20 years after democracy came to Zimbabwe, and it’s a significant number because South Africa is now just over 20 years into our own democracy.
I was reminded of this having spent much of the last week pondering the events last Thursday evening in Parliament – the State of the Nation Address, by President Zuma.
State of the Nation? A very accurate reflection, in my view. We are a nation that is busily squandering its chance at redemption, just like Zimbabwe.
There, at the podium, was President Jacob Zuma – a Mugabe-in-Waiting, determined (as I have written here before) to have at least one more term as president. He’s surrounded by sycophants, cronies and placemen. As Carol Paton wrote so cogently in last week’s Financial Mail, if he falls, they fall – so he won’t fall. The ANC has become South Africa’s ZANU-PF – if you’re on the team, it means money, wealth and prestige. If you’re not, well…you’re not and watch out for the party’s security apparatus.
Over there is still an opposition, as there was in Zimbabwe in those days. It’s not Bishop Muzorewa, but Mmusi Maimane of the DA. They used to say that Muzorewa was controlled by the whites, by Ian Smith’s chums, and sure enough, when Maimane was on camera directly after the DA walkout, there was Helen Zille right behind him. An Avenging Angel – or the Puppet Mistress?
Talking of the whites, South Africans really do remind me of the folk I met during that Zimbabwean journey. Except they’re here, now, and they are us. It’s not “munts” but the “k” word that is back in fashion: “The “k’s” are f**king up Eskom, SAA, Transnet…we should never have handed the country over to them….” I hear words like this on a daily basis.
The angry, sullen, dispirited Zimbabweans that I observed at the farm gates in 1996? They’re here in South Africa, too, and you can see them most mornings, lined up at the side of the road, hoping for work and that today will be different. Their faces are no different those I saw in Zimbabwe 20 years ago.
One major difference of course is that some of their number are now in Parliament wearing red overalls: the EFF. If I believed for one moment that their Commander-in-Chief had any interest other than where the next Breitling or Blue Label was coming from, I might take them seriously, but in that respect, we have a different dimension.
Other than that, I can’t help but conclude that we are more or less exactly where Zimbabwe was in the mid-1990s.
What a wasted opportunity!