|The ZIMBABWE Situation||Our
thoughts and prayers are with Zimbabwe |
- may peace, truth and justice prevail.
Enough is Enough
We have a fundamental right to freedom of expression!
12 August 2004
Zimbabwe’s crisis is not only political and economic; the signs of social disintegration are everywhere. Nightly, street children as young as five or six seek the “protection” of older children who act as pimps; cold, hungry and homeless farm workers huddle against each other on the roadside where they have been dumped like a pile of rubbish; a young girl of sixteen with a blank stare cuddles her baby, conceived when she was raped in a youth militia camp; an adult rushes her dying parent to the hospital, because it is cheaper to transport the living than the dead; she will not return when the parent dies, because she cannot afford to bury her; an elderly grandmother weeps when told that a foreign donor will no longer supply food aid – her thirteen grandchildren whom she is keeping have nothing else to eat. These are mere glimpses of the social chaos affecting every corner of the country.
Families can no longer fulfil their necessary functions, and yet the family is the basic unit of any society. Adults are expected to provide the material necessities for human life – food, shelter, clothing; they provide security and emotional care which allow children to develop into self-confident adults; and the family as an institution gives moral guidance which will enable its members to live socially acceptable lives. Where the family fails, the society at large steps in – with care for orphans and for old people, support for the disabled, the abandoned and the unlucky. Beyond that the government must ensure an enabling environment for economic activity, appropriate education, health care and social security as a final safety net for the destitute.
But in Zimbabwe, all systems are collapsing. Breadwinners can no longer provide; adults, increasingly absent, leave children without emotional support or moral guidance. The burden on the wider society to fill the breach is unbearable, and government services are either far too expensive, incapable of delivering what is needed, or simply don’t exist any more. When they are most needed because of the destructive social effects of AIDS, they have failed abysmally.
These problems are not the result of natural disaster, war or uncontrollable external events. Government’s single-minded determination to cling to power has led it to adopt disastrous economic polices which have produced social chaos.
It begins with unemployment on an alarming scale (70%+), which has deprived most families of the means to support themselves; the extended family cannot help, because hyperinflation means that even those who are employed can no longer afford the necessities for their own children.
The coping mechanisms which people use to survive keep them alive, but have drastic social consequences. Hundreds of thousands, now reaching into the millions, have emigrated, dividing families and leaving growing children without social support and the elderly without care. Others have taken to crime, while still others survive through “informal economy” occupations, many of which lead to social disaster.
Emigration is a long tradition in Zimbabwe; but the migrants of the twenty-first century are different from those of previous generations. From a trickle they have become a flood; reasonable estimates put the figures at one quarter of the entire population. And most have gone, not as fortune-seekers, but merely to survive, to feed their children, to avoid sinking into deeper poverty. Some who have professional or technical qualifications have settled into their new homes, brought their families to join them, and have sent money home to those remaining behind. But the vast majority have not. They leave behind elderly parents and young children; they work, if they find work, in menial jobs, diminishing their sense of their own value; others, the young ones, especially in South Africa where the majority are found, survive on piece jobs, on the streets, through crime, through prostitution, as sex slaves of immigration or police officials, living in crowded squalor, with little hope of ever returning to a “normal” life. The desire for a better life has long given way to a desperate struggle to stay alive.
For others, particularly women, cross-border trading has been a lifeline. They travel constantly, to South Africa, to Botswana, to Zambia, as far as Durban, Cape Town, further and further to make enough to be able to bring home precious forex to exchange for food, to pay school fees, rent, clothing. They travel in groups or singly, legally or illegally – survival is the name of the game. They deal in forex, in wood carvings, in cigarettes, in clothing, in electronic goods, in their own bodies – whatever this month can make a profit. They leave their families behind; they get used to it, and so do their children and their husbands – but at what cost to the survival of the family as a unit, to its ability to raise children who feel secure, who are guided and directed into adulthood.
Gold panning or digging is perhaps even more destructive. Shack camps are built near the source of gold – a river or an outcrop where gold is near the surface. Diggers may be displaced farm workers, retrenched workers, young school leavers with no hope of employment. They settle in with whoever can provide them space, striking up casual liaisons which often produce children. Nor are there any social services – no schools, no clinics, no entertainments. The very nature of gold digging makes it dangerous, and leads to the ups and downs of fortune-seeking. The lack of social order produces crime, drinking, fighting, prostitution as the norm.
All of these coping mechanisms have had a serious impact on the function of the family. In earlier times, emigration did not have such a deleterious effect. When young people go off, the family continues. But now it is the bread-winners as much as the young people who go – even pensioners whose pensions have been made worthless by inflation. These are the adults who are expected to care for the children, and to provide social and moral guidance. They are not there – they are in U.K., in South Africa, moving up and down from one country to the next. How do we expect the fourteen year old whose parents are in the U.K. earning her school fees to behave after years of managing her own life? Who will give her the encouragement, the discipline, the advice that every child and adolescent needs every day? What happens to the families of the cross-border traders, also absent much of the time, leaving children with maids, neighbours, returning home for long enough to settled the bills before heading off again?
Government has brought about this desperate situation through the mismanagement of the economy. Not only are families scattered, the social services which are an essential part of a modern society are in a state of total collapse. Education exists, but the lack of finance makes the value of much of the schooling provided questionable. A teacher runs a shebeen at night, so comes to school tired and sleeps on her desk most of the day; others put more energy into the private tuition they offer than their classroom teaching – they have to, or they won’t be able to pay their rent. Even if a young person gains an education, its value is diminished, because there is no job at the end of the road.
Health services, twenty years ago the pride of Africa, have collapsed. Clinics and even hospitals have no drugs, no food, no bedclothes, and no medical staff. Nursing is the coveted profession – not because of the old-fashioned service commitment – but because it is the fastest ticket out of the country. But to get a place for nursing training you have to know someone or have enough money to pay a hefty bribe – or both.
Social welfare, designed to fill the gap where the family can no longer provide, hardly exists. The ragged queue which forms outside the Reserve Bank every month represents the “lucky” few who are still able to draw social assistance – a sum barely enough to cover their bus fare and a loaf of bread.
Even the legal remedies which used to be available are barely accessible. An inheritance dispute cannot be resolved, a divorce cannot be finalised, a maintenance claim cannot be heard – there is no magistrate. Their low level of pay and resentment of government interference has sent them scurrying to other forms of employment or fleeing into exile.
Private security systems such as insurances and pensions no longer fulfil their expected functions. Health insurance is too expensive and requires unaffordable “co-payments” for most procedures; as more and more people withdraw membership, the medical aid societies are likely to collapse. Life insurances, funeral insurances, education plans, all of which were thriving five years ago, are no longer viable. The runaway inflation has destroyed the benefits of such insurances, so that a life insurance policy designed to keep a family for months if not years after the death of a bread-winner doesn’t even pay for the funeral. A funeral insurance doesn’t pay for the digging of the grave. Pensions make one want to weep and have led to many suicides. A person who retired four years ago on a comfortable pension can’t pay their rent, can’t buy clothing, and is lucky if they can buy one bag of mealie meal a month with their meagre income. Some have joined the tide of emigration to earn enough to provide for the days when they can’t work any more. Others have returned to full time work at the age of 70.
A look at two families reveals the general trends: the first is a middle class, professional family. The parents, in their fifties, both previously widowed, each brought children to their marriage, making a total of six. All of those six children, all in their twenties, are in North America, struggling as students, or as refugees, to survive and prosper. They are unlikely ever to return to Zimbabwe, and their children will be foreign. Grandparents and grandchildren will hardly know each other.
The second is a traditional rural extended family with few resources. The twenty-four children born from that homestead range in age from forty-five to twenty. Nine (more than one third) live outside Zimbabwe – seven in South Africa, one in Botswana and one in England. None of those in South Africa is legal, but some have steady jobs; two are in and out of prison, others live by their wits doing piece work. Of those who remain in Zimbabwe, three have already died, two of AIDS and one because medicines were unaffordable; two more are too sick to work. Two are unemployed wives of working men, two are gold-diggers, both with criminal tendencies; one is a cross-border trader, one is “seated” doing nothing, while only four have steady employment, one as a soldier, one as a teacher, one in a low-paid desk job and one as an unskilled worker. None remains in the village. Only six have managed to establish stable families, but two of these have already crumbled through death of one or both of the parents.
This was the generation which was to benefit by independence; the four oldest of the twenty-four actually left the country to join the struggle, the youngest ones are “born frees”. But their lives are in chaos; even those who have “succeeded” cannot assist the others as they feel obligated to do, because their own incomes are stretched to cover the needs of their children. And the majority - those in South Africa or within the informal economy - are at the mercy of slight shifts in policy, police and immigration officials, accidents, health problems. What kind of families will they establish, if ever they do? What wisdom will they pass on to their children? And beyond this family, what kind of parents will street children become, or the emotionally abandoned children whose parents see them only on infrequent visits from England? If the family does not provide a strong social core, what future for the cohesion of our nation?
And what is the response of government to the disastrous effects of its failed policies? Not sympathy, not concern, but blame shouted to everyone except themselves. “The enemy” has caused the problems. The solution? – more of the same. Policies which destroy the few jobs that remain, further evictions of farmers and their workers, and destruction of productive capacity. The economic plunge continues, and the social chaos gets worse. Anyone who dares to suggest alternative policies is castigated. Opposition politicians, journalists, NGOs and human rights activists who cry for a change in direction are imprisoned, tortured, and hounded out of the country. Even those foreign well-wishers who try to help are insulted and prevented from bringing relief to starving Zimbabweans Catholic services to the poorest of the poor are closed down by government because the archbishop has criticised the President.
Government’s preaching of violence, hatred, divisiveness, and its condonation of corruption over months and years has had further devastating effects. The message to the young generation is unmistakable: take what you want, use and be used, as long as you are on the right side any crime is excusable, people on the wrong side are worse than human beings. Respect for others has vanished into the ether; grandmothers, parents, siblings, can be raped, murdered, tortured if they don’t agree with you. Anyone you have labelled as “the enemy” can be starved. Lies and deceit and hypocrisy rule the airwaves and the words on the page. A culture of “me first”, intolerance, and violence pays, has been insinuated into our once proud Zimbabwean people. Our leaders are not even ashamed to set up camps for the youth to erase our traditional values of respect, honesty, tolerance and replace them with crude messages of destruction.
And so we end up crying for Zimbabwe, a nation where the family no longer provides food, shelter and a safe haven. Where government tells us that hatred will solve our problems, and encourages us to lie and steal. When families as institutions no longer give their young people moral guidance, surely we are headed for chaos which cannot easily be reversed. The collapse of moral values which accompanies the chaos will be felt for generations to come. Long after the political crisis has softened and we are on the road to economic recovery, the social and moral effects of government’s policies will poison our relationships and make the rebuilding of our nation more difficult than we can possibly imagine.