Now between two presidents, Zimbabweans dare to imagine ‘an easier life’
Spirit of humanity
After 37 years under President Robert Mugabe, the possibility of a more democratic future encourages many Zimbabweans. But others have more basic hopes for jobs and stability – a window into the economic ruin he leaves behind.
Johannesburg, South Africa—This time 37 years ago, the Moyo family had a lot to celebrate.
Their country, Zimbabwe, became independent that April, and to great international fanfare it inaugurated its first prime minister – a charming and bookish former freedom fighter named Robert Mugabe.
Then, barely four months later, the family rejoiced for a second time – at the birth of their daughter.
They named her Bekezela, an Ndebele word meaning patience.
In the course of her life, that has proven to be a virtue Ms. Moyo has often needed, as she lived through the transformation of the bright Zimbabwe of her childhood into something far dimmer.
She has called on that patience each time she handed over an entire month’s earnings to pay her children’s school fees – all, she thought bitterly, so they could attend schools that were a shadow of the one she graduated from two decades ago. And she has been patient during each of her pregnancies as she packed the many things the hospital could not provide – bed sheets and food for herself; needles, hand soap, and gloves for the nurses.
She called on her namesake virtue, too, on the crossing from Zimbabwe to South Africa, as the Limpopo River sloshed up to her chest and she prayed hard that she would not see a crocodile. And she was patient once again in the following weeks as she walked for miles from hair salon to hair salon in downtown Johannesburg asking if they had any openings for a stylist.
But on Tuesday night, there was suddenly one important thing she didn’t have to be patient about anymore.
As lawmakers in Zimbabwe’s parliament debated a motion to impeach Mr. Mugabe – whose stunning fall from power began when army tanks moved quietly into the capital early last week – the country’s justice minister suddenly rushed towards the stage with a letter in his hand. He whispered something to Parliament’s speaker, Jacob Mudenda, who opened the note and, smiling broadly, began to read.
“I Robert Gabriel Mugabe in terms of section 96 (1) of the constitution of Zimbabwe,” he began, “hereby formally tender my resignation as the President of the Republic of Zimbabwe with immediate effect.”
The chamber erupted. Outside, within minutes, it seemed a country-wide dance party had begun, as Zimbabweans flooded public spaces in jubilant celebration. A thousand kilometers away, Moyo heard the shriek of vuvuzelas and the staccato pop of fireworks exploding outside the window of her Johannesburg apartment. Below, entire blocks of the inner city – an area popular with migrants – had broken into a spontaneous block party.
Moyo herself was skeptical. The next Zimbabwean president, after all, will be Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s former deputy and a career-long loyalist of his party, ZANU-PF, who will be sworn in Friday. Mugabe’s removal was set in motion by an early November political purge in which Mr. Mnangagwa himself was fired – a sign to many that the president’s wife, Grace Mugabe, was positioned to inherit his rule – but his rise hardly seems a recipe for radical political change.
But like many Zimbabweans, in this strange moment of suspension between the country’s past and its future – between Mugabe and whatever happens next – Moyo allowed herself a flickering moment of hope for the Zimbabwe to be.
Things could change, she thought. Things could be better.
Indeed, as analysts the world over scramble to guess at the country’s path post-Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s citizens are imagining their own – taking stock of hopes that, in many cases, they long ago gave up believing could become reality.
For some, that means thinking seriously for the first time about what life might be like under a democracy, where presidents come and go at the whim of voters.
Many in Zimbabwe, indeed, are optimistic that changes in the region in the last four decades will mean their next leader will be forced to be more accountable than their last one. Mugabe was the last remaining African president from the independence era, a strongman who ruled in some ways in the mold of the colonial government that preceded him – by violently crushing dissent and muzzling civil society. (In a recent statement on Zimbabwe’s crisis, Amnesty International placed the number of people “tortured, forcibly disappeared or killed” by the Mugabe regime in the “tens of thousands.”) He also routinely rigged elections and, in the early 2000s, set Zimbabwe’s economy into freefall when his government seized most of the country’s commercial farms – which were largely white-owned – in a campaign to return land to black Zimbabweans.
“I envision a future of responsible, credible leaders, regardless of their liberation war credentials,” says Presia Ngulube, a political activist in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s “second city,” who notes that the country’s youths have become increasingly important in politics in recent years. “We need a government that has love for the people and helps make their lives better.”
But many Zimbabweans also have hopes for the future that are several degrees more basic – a revealing window into just how far the country has fallen under Mugabe’s nearly-four decade rule.
“I just hope there will be more jobs for people,” says Priscilla Dlomo, who works part-time as a maid in Johannesburg.
Several years ago, she says, she came home to her family’s house in Bulawayo to find her parents collecting stacks of her old clothes. They were preparing, they told her, to take them out to the countryside to barter with farmers for corn. They still had money – trillions of dollars in fact – but rampant hyperinflation meant that it shrunk in value between morning and the afternoon of the same day, and anyway, there was almost nothing left in the stores to buy.
So when she imagines the Zimbabwe she would like her daughter, now 18, to live in, it’s simply a place where such humiliations are a distant memory.
“For her I’d like to see her be able to finish school and to find a good job,” she says. “So she can have an easier life than mine.”
Even for ardent supporters of Mugabe, of which there remain many in Zimbabwe, the prospect of change is in some ways a refreshing one.
“We have a new leader who is willing to work with every Zimbabwean,” says Gift Muchena, a ZANU-PF supporter and informal trader in Harare, speaking of Mr. Mnangagwa. Mr. Muchena says that toward the end of Mugabe’s rule, even supporters like himself recognized that pointed political infighting in the party had prevented them from always ruling effectively. “We are looking forward to a rejuvenated ZANU.”
For now, all of these possible futures still jostle for space. There is no longer a President Mugabe here, and there is not yet a President Mnangagwa. There is only Zimbabwe – cautious, hopeful, and unsure.
“I feel good about the future,” says Ms. Dlomo, the maid in Johannesburg. “As long as Mugabe is gone, I think things will improve for all of us.”