Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Mugabe Worse Than Smith

Many who can recall pre-independence Zimbabwe said to believe current abuses exceed those of Smith regime.
By Joseph Nhlanhla
Rosetta Sibanda, now well into her sixties, said she once served time in prison, falsely accused of involvement in political activism.

That was in 1964 in what was then Rhodesia, and she said she had always believed this to be the worst time of her life in a prison manned by “irascible white prison guards”.

“While in prison we went on a hunger strike as part of the protest to have us released,” she told IWPR.

On the fourth day of their hunger strike, a compassionate prison official came to their rescue and they were freed without any charges.

“I have never prayed so hard in my life,” she said as she recalled life under the then white government. But “what I am seeing now is worse”.

Life in post-independence Zimbabwe has, she said, become increasingly unbearable, “Many now believe Robert Mugabe is worse than the white government.”

She recalled being able to buy her home in one of Bulawayo’s working class townships from her wages as a domestic worker during the Federation years between 1953 and 1963 – out of the question now in a country with over 80 per cent unemployment.

Sibanda is one of many older people here who have taken a new interest in the country’s current affairs after the country's disputed March 29 elections.

In the past, the people who lived through the years of the country's struggle for independence appeared content getting their monthly pensions or remittances from children living across the border, but Zimbabwe’s rapid economic decline, which has left their pantries empty, has seen them question the country’s leadership.

Rights groups such as Women of Zimbabwe Arise, Woza, which has become a thorn in the side of the Zimbabwean authorities, said it has active members aged over 50. Last year, the group claimed one of their members, aged 64, died after she succumbed to injuries sustained after police violently broke up their demonstration.

For thousands of older people like Sibanda, who are living in an era when children die from ailments that could have been cured had medical care been available, their present circumstances have become particularly dire.

Their pensions have been eroded by hyperinflation, leaving them with no source of income.

“Why is [Mugabe] refusing to go? People have had enough. I have never seen such stubbornness,” said Sibanda, a month after the close of polling.

Analysts and ZANU-PF party insiders say while Mugabe had appeared to concede defeat to the main political opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, led by long-time rival Morgan Tsvangirai, ZANU-PF hawks have forced him to fight on, signalling a prolonged struggle for the better Zimbabwe that people like Sibanda say they are dreaming of.

The post-election crisis has seen inflation worsening, with shop shelves remaining empty across the country, further worsening the plight of vulnerable groups like the elderly. The country’s once vibrant commerce and industry has failed to absorb young men and women desperate for jobs.

“I have never followed politics, but because of the suffering we are going through, I now find myself asking younger people about what is happening,” said Sibanda, a widow and one of many grandmothers getting food assistance from a local faith-based organisation. “It will take more than a generation for young people to be able to buy their own homes as some of us did before independence.”

Members of Zimbabwe’s older generation said they remember with fond memories the independence euphoria in 1980. But as the political crisis drags on, older people here are becoming more and more openly critical of the man who led their country to black-majority rule.

“This is not at all surprising,” a Bulawayo-based human rights activist told IWPR.

“They have watched the transformation of the nationalist movement during the Smith years; many also helped the liberation war activists one way or another,” said the activist, who asked not to be named.

“They say old people are guardians of history, and they naturally remember the good old days before bad governance and economic mismanagement set in.

“These people experienced racism and other abuses and they have a template for bad governance and human rights abuses. It is unfortunate if Mugabe is remembered as being worse than Ian Smith.”

Joseph Nhlanhla is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

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