What’s left of Zimbabwe? Part I

The first of a five-part journey through our northern neighbour’s tradition of leftist politics, from pre-independence to the rising tide of

On 14 February 2018, a few weeks before his 65th birthday, Morgan Tsvangirai, the founding president of Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), eventually lost his long battle with colon cancer in a Johannesburg hospital. In the years leading to his death, as the cancer ravaged his body, he had become a frequent visitor to hospitals in Johannesburg, the city that hosts the biggest concentration of Zimbabweans abroad – exiles who fled former president Robert Mugabe’s policies.

The repatriation of his body back to Harare, the city that had been Tsvangirai’s home for more than three decades, was cause for mourning of the passage of a life, but also a reason to celebrate a life of struggle.  

I joined thousands of MDC supporters at what is sometimes called Freedom Square (Zanu-PF supporters call it Robert Mugabe Square). The square is little more than a patch of red earth on the southern edges of Harare’s CBD, near Kopje, a forested hill where the Pioneer Column, the imperial force of Cecil John Rhodes, hoisted the Union Jack in September 1890. Masses of people in workers’ colours and garb – red T-shirts, red overalls, red berets – gathered to listen to Tsvangirai’s comrades reanimate the life of perhaps Mugabe’s most formidable opponent.

Tsvangirai was not going to be buried in Harare but in his rural home of Buhera,  in Zimbabwe’s southeast, not far from the sooty kitchen in which, on 10 March 1952, he was delivered by a traditional midwife.

His repatriation to Buhera, where it all began, was a reminder that birth and death often exist in stifling proximity. At about 6pm, the funeral party set off south on the Harare-Beitbridge road as the smoke exhaling from the city’s mostly second-hand Japanese cars hastened Harare’s approaching dusk.

Buhera is a semi-arid, boulder-strewn rural enclave similar to many areas where blacks were shunted under oppressive Rhodesian land laws – principally the Land Apportionment Act of 1930 and the other laws it spawned, such the Native Land Husbandry Act of 1951 and the Land Tenure Act of 1969 – in a bid to force them to the fringes of the formal economy.

Hated in life, feted in death.

When our funeral party got to Buhera at about midnight, Tsvangirai’s body had already arrived as cargo in an army helicopter. The same generals who had repeated, since 2000, that they would never accept him as president and their commander-in-chief because, they said, he hadn’t gone to war, were falling over themselves to honour him in death. Constantino Chiwenga, chief architect of the coup that deposed Mugabe, even acknowledged Tsvangirai as “a great son of the soil”. Hated in life, feted in death.

Months after his burial, as I continued to think about Tsvangirai and his legacy, I arrived at a conclusion already reached for a different situation by left-wing Chilean author and poet Roberto Bolaño, in his novel Amulet, that “our history is full of encounters that never occurred”.  

Bolaño wasn’t talking about Salvador Allende and his ouster in a CIA-backed coup in 1973, an episode of Chilean history he witnessed. The young idealist had left Mexico, where he had moved with his family as a teenager, for his native Chile to “help build the revolution”. When Allende was removed from power, Bolaño was caught up in the dragnet as a terrorist but was let out of prison, after eight days, by his former schoolmates who had become detectives.   

The missed opportunities Bolaño was writing about are in the broader canon of South American literature: “If Ruben Dario hadn’t died so young, before reaching the age of 50, Huidobro would certainly have got to know him, much as Ezra Pound got to know WB Yeats. Imagine it: Huidobro working as Dario’s secretary.”

Dario, a Nicaraguan poet who was born in 1867 and died in 1916, is the founder of South and Central American modernism; Vicente Huidobro, an avant-garde poet from Chile who was born in 1893 and died in 1948, is the founder of a modernist literary offshoot known as Creationism. “ …the encounter between the old Yeats and the young Pound had been [important] for poetry in English (and, in fact, for poetry all around the world), so they didn’t realise how important the hypothetical encounter and the potential friendship between Dario and Huidobro might have been…”

That despondent feeling of what might have been, for the cause of the left and for workers, had the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) morphed into a workers’ party and not the Blairite MDC it became – against land reform, in bed with white Zimbabwean capital and friendly with George Bush’s America and Tony Blair’s Britain – weighed on me in the weeks and months after Tsvangirai’s burial.  

So I sought out lawyer, socialist, scholar and former MDC MP Munyaradzi Gwisai, perhaps one of the few people in Zimbabwe who still belong to the organised left. He is a busy man, but, after some missed appointments, we managed to sit down for an interview at the Working People’s Chambers, his labour law firm on Herbert Chitepo Avenue, a wide-brimmed road named after the first black lawyer in Southern Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was known), and a founding nationalist.

We fought with Tsvangirai right from the party colours.

“We fought with Tsvangirai right from the party colours. I don’t remember the colours he wanted, but not red – red was ours, [in line with] the International Socialist Organization (ISO),” he said, right at the start of the interview, of the animosity that existed between him and the late opposition leader. It’s a friction about which Tsvangirai wrote: “Apart from a small number of individuals, like [lawyer David] Coltart and [businessman Eddie] Cross, other white Zimbabweans seemed hesitant to join us. They saw the ZCTU as a leftist organisation that was anti-business. That association arose when communists like Enoch Chikweche aka Munyaradzi Gwisai, a law lecturer, openly aligned themselves with the ZCTU”.

In the 1990s, some years after graduating from the University of Zimbabwe, where he had been a feisty student leader, with other socialists, Gwisai had established a relationship with the ZCTU, the umbrella body that Tsvangirai, as secretary general, and Gibson Sibanda, as president, led.

In many ways, the ZCTU was the progenitor of the MDC. The socialists had established structures at the Harare Polytechnic; the University of Zimbabwe; ghettos in the south and west; and in Harare’s Avenues area, a transitional zone that bridges the CBD and suburbia in the city’s north and northeast.

“The ISO and socialists were pushing the agenda, not of a movement, like in Zambia, but of a workers’ party. That’s where we didn’t see eye to eye with Tsvangirai.”  Gwisai was referring to the Movement for Multi-party Democracy, the Zambian opposition party led by unionist Frederick Chiluba that, in 1991, ended the rule of Kenneth Kaunda’s United National Independence Party, which had lasted almost three decades.

This is part one of a five-part series through our northern neighbour’s tradition of leftist politics, from pre-independence to the rising tide of neoliberalism in the post-Mugabe era.

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