In 2008 or so, I registered for a Masters degree at Wits University with a rather interesting research component that I never got to finish. My thesis was to be an examination of the coverage of Zimbabwe in South Africa’s Sunday Times; the use of the prism of Zimbabwe to debate local issues. The idea was to look at opinion and comment pieces on the Times’ pages and show these as not really examining Zimbabwe but using the country to the north as a touchstone to critique the local.
Words like “Zanufication” and “Zimbabwe”; phrases like “go the way of Zimbabwe” and even stock ones such as “bread basket to basket case” are handy tools in this exercise. They are, in fact, not meant to shoot down whatever is wrong about Zimbabwe but, instead, to bend the barrel of the gun and target it at the self, right at South Africa.
When I conducted some of this research, Thabo Mbeki was president and his battle with Jacob Zuma couldn’t have been more toxic. Among other issues Mbeki, it was argued, was too soft on Zimbabwe; he was stifling debate in the liberation movement; he was going to commit the cardinal Mugabe sin- seeking a third term as ANC president. (If Mugabe finishes his term, he would have been in power for 38 years.)
Fast forward this debate to this year and we don’t seem to have moved an inch. Voted into office for another term, Mugabe will remain in South Africa’s firmament for a while. The Mugabe ogre inches ever closer towards the Limpopo river and, for this reason, Zimbabwe continues to occupy a fantastical space in South Africa’s imaginary. Or rather, South Africa’s own problems increasingly make a Mugabe style approach to social justice ever more appealing for a segment of South Africa’s citizenry. The agent of the “Mugabefication” of South Africa is, of course, Julius Malema. It’s not helped by the fact that Malema, cast away by his biological parents, the ANC, has found a home in Mugabe’s Zanu PF. Like a good adoptive child, Malema spouts the doctrine of his new family. Mugabe — after taking away land and giving it to black farmers who have generally made a success of it — is now moving on foreign owned companies. The doctrine of nationalization is, of course, one that scares vast swathes of South Africa. Nationalisation of companies, the culmination of Mugabe’s lifetime work, is a sermon that Malema has been preaching for years now.
Zimbabwe (or Rhodesia, its antecedent) has always occupied a mythical space in the imagination of outsiders. In fact, much of the myths originated from the majestic stone walls from which the name Zimbabwe itself comes from. “Dzimba dza mabwe” (houses of stone) came to be the rallying metaphor for the nationalist struggles that began in the 1950s. Coined by nationalist Michael Mawema, the name of this future country wasn’t universally accepted by the various factions when it came into being.
Decades earlier, in 1891, British South Africa Company (Cecil John Rhodes’ vehicle of imperialism) partnered with a research institute led by one J.T. Bent about the origin of the stone walls. One of their conclusions was, “the authors of these ruins were a northern race coming from Arabia”. Some even thought that Zimbabwe was the Ophir referenced in the Bible. “Zimbabwe is an old Phoenician residence,” Rhodes himself wrote.
Rhodes, like many other British invaders, refused to believe that this was the work of native Zimbabweans. In the book Great Zimbabwe, archaeologist Peter S Garlake writes that, to the white settlers, “the African had not got the energy, will, organisation, foresight or skill to build these walls. Indeed, he appeared so backward that it seemed that his entire race could never have accomplished the task at any period.”
Most of the early settlers had gone to Zimbabwe on the basis of what proved to be a false alarm, a myth, if you like. After the vast gold riches of the Rand and Kimberley’s diamond wealth, fortune seekers were told by Rhodes and some of his people that Zimbabwe was blessed with even more gold. Delirious with the myths that the gold used by King Solomon had come from Zimbabwe, it wasn’t difficult to convince the men who would soon trek up to Zimbabwe as part of the Pioneer Column. When they got to Zimbabwe, they realised that the myth of the gold was just that: a myth. There was gold, but not to rival that on the Reef. There was a lot of land, though, plenty of well-watered and fertile soil. So it was natives were dispossessed of their land; the same land that is central to Zimbabwe’s economic and political struggle.
The myth of Rhodesia not just occupied the imagination of those near. It was equally bewitching to those afield. From the United States, the expression of this imagination would assume a form that anyone aware of the Civil Rights struggles would instantly recognise. In 1968, James Earl Ray, the man who is thought to have assassinated Martin Luther King, was arrested in London on his way to Rhodesia. A year before the assassination, Ray had expressed his desire for “immigrating to Rhodesia” so that he could be in the land of Ian Smith who was “doing a good job”.
According to Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King (Jr) and the International Hunt for His Assassin (Double Day), a book about him by Hampton Sides, “the idea of Rhodesia burned in his imagination, the promise of sanctuary and refuge, the possibility of living in a society where people understood”.
Rhodesia was then a renegade republic ruled by Smith who had unilaterally declared independence from Britain in 1965. By denying the black majority the of vote and stripping them of rights in their own land, Smith made sure that only an armed solution would break the impasse. Mugabe’s refrain — “we fought for this country” — was made possible by Smith.
Even to this day Zimbabwe remains, for many, just a metaphor — not an actual, physical terrain whose people have hopes, ambitions and fears. On their territory, the fears and anxieties that, sometimes, have nothing to do with them at all, are projected. Some Zimbabweans will tell you that the suffering of the last decade that manifested itself as food shortages, lack of forex was not really about Zimbabwe. When the west imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe, what they were really doing was warning South Africa that a Zimbabwe style turn wouldn’t be accepted. Let us face it, Zimbabwe is quite insignificant in terms of global capital. The suffering Zimbabweans endured was a vicarious warning to South Africa, Africa’s economic giant, a country whose social injustices dwarf Zimbabwe’s. Try what Zimbabwe did and see if you can get away with it, so the warning emblazoned on some virtual banner is supposed to read.
Much in the coverage of the last elections still betray that Zimbabwe remains an abstraction for many, a place that is still host to the fantasies, anxieties and fears of many South Africans. But Zimbabwe is its own self, its own country, not some echo chamber from which people hope to catch reverberated strains of their own discourses.
* The piece was first published in The Con, a South African publishing initiative.