A faraway darkness, visible

Zimbabwe’s rulers have reduced it far below its promise 

By Jayanta Roy Chowdhury
  • Published 19.08.18
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As the Kenyan Airways Boeing 737 circled around the British built-1950s era Robert Gabriel Mugabe Airport, I could spy out the dark blue waters of Lake Chivero to the southwest and the hills of Mashonaland to the north, and a colonial city of tall buildings in the centre surrounded by neat colonies of bungalows set in a dry, rocky plain.

This is Harare, capital of landlocked Zimbabwe, earlier known as Southern Rhodesia, the dream of many schoolboys for its lore of diamond mines and lost African civilisations, made famous by Rider Haggard with his novels King Solomon's Mines and She, and tales of how Cecil Rhodes, the white supremacist adventurer took over a large swathe of southern Africa in the last century with a handful of settlers.

Flying in with me on the aircraft was President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the man who took over power last November from Robert Mugabe, who had ruled Zimbabwe either as prime minister or president for the last - 37 years after its freedom from White rule.

The take-over from a once popular freedom fighter-turned-dictator is often described as a coup by an army alarmed by Mugabe's plans to instal Grace, his 40-years-younger secretary-turned-second wife.

As my car drove down the surprisingly broad and spotlessly clean streets of the capital city, I could see long queues of men and women in front of banks seeking to get a ration of $20 allowed to each account holder a day, the result of an ill-fated demonetisation in 2015.

Mugabe, faced with up to 69 trillion per cent inflation, had scrapped the old Zimbabwean currency and replaced it with new bond notes and the official use of nine foreign currencies including the US dollar. Most business is now done with the American greenback. The brand new Zimbabwean bond, which officially equals the US dollar, actually sells at a 40 per cent discount in the black market!

Driving southwest after a comfortable sojourn at an old, if somewhat crumbling, Victorian hotel called the Bronte, towards Bulawayo, on the highway, which eventually leads on to Botswana, the landscape changes from rocky outcroppings to vast acres of farmlands to the endless Savannah, the southern African grasslands.

This is typical territory for Zimbabwean wild buffaloes and the odd leopard. Most lions, zebras, sable antelopes, leopards and elephants have however been herded into game parks, which make a trip to Zimbabwe an exciting proposition.

Some 434 kilometres from Harare is Bulawayo or the "city of kings" where the Ndebele tribe of Zulu stock, led by Prince Lobhengula, established their kingdom after defeating rivals from their own tribe as well as the more numerous and physically shorter Shona tribe of Bantu stock.

If you drive 307 kilometres east from Bulawayo on highway A9 you would hit the ruins of Greater Zimbabwe, from which the nation's modern name has been taken. The name Zimbabwe itself is derived from the Shona word Dzimba-dza-mabwe, meaning "large houses of stone". This city built entirely of stones and believed to have been the seat of power of the 700-year-old Shona civilisation, still stands today, a tribute to the fact that black Africa had its own civilisation long before Europeans invaded that continent. At its peak, it is estimated, the African city had some 18,000 citizens.

After its discovery by a Portugese adventurer in the 16th century, White supremacists including Prime Minister Ian Smith's Government of Rhodesia tried hard to prove that it was the handiwork of Biblical tribes and not the black Africans they ruled. A British map dating from 1873 marks Great Zimbabwe as "the supposed realm of the Queen of Sheba".

However, archaeological evidence has made it clear that this was the handiwork of the Shona people, whose economy depended on cattle, grain, gold and diamonds, traded through east African coastal cities with the Middle East, China and India.

Zimbabwe's economy still remains a mess with the public wage bills larger than government revenue, a central bank overdraft of more than $1 billion and a fiscal deficit of over 13 per cent of the GDP. However the country's tapped and untapped deposits of gold, diamond and lithium as well as vast acres of arable farmland could yet turn it into a new "Great Zimbabwe" if Mnangagwa, once spy minister to Mugabe, who was re-elected in a contested election last month manages to weave the nation together and opens it up to private investment, discarding decades of isolation.