On 15 March 2019, an intense tropical cyclone hit land at Beira, Mozambique. The cyclone also brought severe winds and rain to Madagascar, Malawi and Zimbabwe. Across the region, the storm has been so severe that it has been extremely difficult to get help to the people who need it. The death-toll in both Zimbabwe and Mozambique is steadily rising – but the full extent of the damage is not yet knowable, as floodwaters are still high and conditions on the ground difficult. Roads, villages, and suburbs have completely washed away. In both Mozambique and Eastern Zimbabwe, it is still raining days later, and the wind has not stopped blowing – conditions that make it extremely difficult for rescue helicopters to fly.
Nonetheless, help is beginning to reach the region, from small-scale local efforts to much larger scale regional and international operations. As a Zimbabwean anthropologist living outside of the country, what I have seen and heard is extraordinary, and tells us something about Zimbabweans expectations of the state’s response to such a massive emergency; and their relationships with one another.
Zimbabwe is still immersed in a long term politico-economic crisis. In November 2017, citizens across Zimbabwe celebrated the end of the era of President Mugabe, following a coup-that-wasn’t-allowed-to-be-called-a-coup. After a long limbo period, previous Vice President Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa (ED to locals) was voted into Presidential power in a disputed electoral process in August 2018.
But ED’s rise to power and his consolidation of it has not been smooth. Following protests against the 2018 election results, the Zimbabwean army opened fire on crowds, killing six. It was a harbinger of things to come, however: in January 2019, when the government massively hiked fuel prices in an attempt to bring some money into a collapsing economy, people took to the streets in protest. The army was mobilized once again, and this time the death toll was higher, and came with multiple arrests.
It was into this set of conditions that Cyclone Idai rolled: climate change doesn’t care what stage of political crisis a country is experiencing. And across Zimbabwe, people came together, and came together fast. Almost immediately, collection efforts were set up in large urban areas. My social media feed showed hundreds of pictures of people in queues –not to obtain petrol or cash this time, but rather to give donations towards the people in Manicaland whose lives have been devastated by Idai. In a country with massive unemployment, an insane economy which effectively has a double currency, and where political violence has been the order of the day for months, people came together. In droves. To give. From food to pots to pans to blankets to money to services. In Victoria Falls, on completely the other side of the country, a team of white water rafting guides, supported by major telecoms provider Econet, set off to see if their expertise could assist with rescue operations in the floodwaters. In Harare, the Highlands Presbyterian Church became a hub for private donations. Zimbabweans mobilized, and mobilized fast, across the entire country.
The government acted too, deploying the military to Chipinge and Chimanimani: this time to bring help rather than quell protest. Food aid has been forthcoming, and attempts are certainly being made. But ZimRights, a grouping of civil society organizations, has expressed deep concern at the politicization of the response, and a strong plea that the processing of international humanitarian aid at border posts be fast-tracked, as so far it has been far too slow and bureaucratized.
It’s no surprise that Zimbabweans don’t trust the government and the army to act in citizen’s interests. One of the things I have seen in the research I’ve undertaken in Zimbabwe is the ways in which, aside from moments of extraordinary interference and violence, the state has receded from people’s lives. There is little expectation in urban or rural Zimbabwe of the sort of services that protect socioeconomic rights: access to water or electricity, refuse removal and sewage services, road maintenance, or even the most basic healthcare. While this isn’t necessarily that different to, say, many townships in South Africa (aside from the healthcare), it is different in scale – nationwide – and different in the extent of its’ normalization. South Africa sees hundreds of service delivery protests a year. Zimbabweans no longer expect anything much from government, and have only protested when the fuel hike threatened to bring about truly unsurvivable conditions.
For decades now, Zimbabweans have been making their own plan. And in the process, communities have changed. Wherever you live, neighbors know neighbors. They have to, to make a plan to share a borehole; or to have someone keep an eye on children while mothers, fathers and grandparents partake in some way in the informal economy.
Cyclone Idai’s impacts will remain devastating for a long time to come. But it has shown us the ways in which ordinary Zimbabweans will move to protect the lives and livelihoods of other ordinary Zimbabweans. Idai is a large scale disaster, requiring a large scale response. But the huge disaster that is Idai was preceded by continual day-to-day socioeconomic crises for all citizens. As a result, every single day, on much smaller scales, Zimbabweans are accustomed to working with one another and making a plan. The country’s deep crisis has resulted in tighter forms of community, and greatly increased networks of reciprocity, that largely bypass state involvement. Such a set of conditions meant that when Zimbabweans in other parts of the country heard about conditions in Manicaland, they came together in unprecedented ways. Zimbabweans have realized that the state’s shortcomings can only be filled by ordinary people’s actions; as such, despite poverty, there is a sense of personal responsibility felt towards other citizens when things go terribly wrong. The question that remains is whether the new dispensation will pick up the reins or will continue to leave ordinary Zimbabweans to fill the gap.