“A hungry man is an angry man,” says the former guerrilla fighter with a steely glare followed by a shake of the head as he gleaned the thin pickings of a dry maize field on communal land just outside the capital Harare. As Zimbabwe turned 40 this weekend, I harked back to his soulful, disappointed, eyes on independence day, April 18,back in 1994, a few weeks after I had landed in Africa as a television journalist.
I will never forget Israel Mandere, who must be in his sixties now, yet clearly the internet – if ever it knew his name – has. I can still see him sweating in that field under the bright autumn sunshine as part of a struggling cooperative of war veterans scratching a living in the dust.
“No money, little food, tattered clothes,” says Mandere shaking his head in anger and stuttering with emotion.
“Ï am very embarrassed about that one.”
Two decades earlier, Mandere strapped an AK47 on his back to fight operations in eastern Zimbabwe from guerrilla camps, in the bush, across on the other side of the border in Mozambique as part of the ZANLA guerrilla forces that helped put President Mugabe in power. He joined, as a teenager and trained with thousands of comrades in Ethiopia to fight a small, yet tough, Rhodesian army bristling with modern weapons and vast firepower. The promise from his leaders – many of whom ended up in the cabinet – was a brighter tomorrow for the black majority.
In the early, euphoric, days this seemed so for many black Zimbabweans who found rights in a country where they had grown up feeling like foreigners. Black Zimbabweans took up top jobs in the land the commanding heights of the economy on a secure bedrock of robust infrastructure. Investment and flowed in the wake of the first elections in and land with universal suffrage.. Politically Zimbabwe campaigned for change in Africa as part of the Non Aligned Movement in the former frontline states.
Yet the economy was mismanaged and struggled to increase the standard of living for the growing population. In the early 80s the government turned on its own people in Matabeleland and more than 20,000 people died – as a journalist, I saw some of the shallow graves with my own eyes. More than a decade on, it choked me that relatives knew where their loved ones were buried but were merely too afraid of authority to go and visit them.
I was so angry that the crew and I went to a church in Bulawayo to question one of the politicians who oversaw the killings, the late Enos Nkala, who has become a pastor. Seriously, his people said the man himself was praying and couldn’t talk to us right now. We waited and Nkala slipped from the building and his accountability. One of many examples I saw of how the people of power in Zimbabwe often had that air of impunity.
Then there was the ham fisted way productive farm land was taken over and often left in ruins. It is a shame that Mandere’s grandchildren can only hear stories about Zimbabwe being the bread basket of southern Africa. It is a bitter irony also that many children and grandchildren of those who risked their lives fighting to free Zimbabwe were on the streets to howl President Mugabe out of power in November 2017.
I called one of my old friends and colleagues in Harare on independence day to see how it went. He admitted it hadn’t been a very celebratory 40th birthday party with the economy down after 20 days of COVID-19 lockdown.
“Zimbabwe at 40?” says he,” It is like you have gone to school, grown up, got married, had children and then you wake up at 40 to find you are undernourished.”
Now, I worked in Zimbabwe, as a journalist, and for years I travelled to almost every corner, small town and village to report stories and talk to people. I drank masese, danced in shebeens and met tens of thousands of Zimbabweans of all creeds and colours – good and bad, For every bad person there were a hundred good.
“This one is free,” people used to say in the dance halls late at night when they were asked why I was there.
All I want is the best for Zimbabwe, but I fear how the country will be when it turns 50.