I am a proud Zimbabwean, even during a time when it is becoming hard to say so.
I am also quite young, being born over a decade after Independence.
Though our generation is derided as spoilt, self-centred, apathetic to issues of national development and blind to contemporary social, political and economic issues, I think this is a false narrative. One only needs to scroll through Twitter and Facebook to see passionate young people who want a free, equitable and just society for all. What has changed is the manner of the struggle, not the will of young people, as the #ThisFlag movement, fronted by Pastor Evan demonstrated.
What older people see is not apathy, rather it is despair. Despair at an older generation that ignores our pleas for social justice, for jobs and assurance that tomorrow will be better than today.
For people of my age the majority of our waking hours are spent on social networks and instant messaging apps, connected to a vast web of other young (and old) people across the globe. These platforms, aside from serving as virtual gossip rooms and sources of humour- especially with the countries high unemployment- sometimes turn into arenas of serious discourse about the current state of country and continent, where we are coming from and where we are going.
It is on social media sites that I now see a worrying development: Occasionally on Facebook, Twitter or, more often, in WhatsApp groups, a frustrated young man/woman will opine that Rhodesia couldn’t have been much worse than Zimbabwe, that Mugabe and Smith are similar, or even that Smith with his faults was a better steward of this country.
Such claims are not new but it used to be that they were mostly aired out by nostalgic Rhodesian racists writing on their fringe websites.
Today, in a WhatsApp group where some very educated and smart young people discuss social issues, someone remarked that life under Smith was more predictable, better even. I expected the opinion to be quickly shot down but the debate that ensued showed that there are indeed many young people who do not see a difference between the Robert Mugabe government and the Rhodesian one under Smith.
It was pointed out that Ian Smith banned demonstrations and called those who were fighting for independence “terrorists” financed by foreign countries and communists. President Mugabe’s government has done the same, banning demonstrations and blaming discontent on Western countries.
The Rhodesian government reacted to social unrest by incarcerations and unleashing the police and dogs on black people. Similarly the government of Zimbabwe reacted to recent and past demonstrations with teargas, baton sticks and jail for protestors.
I argued that although things are bad, Ian Smith’s government only benefited around two hundred thousand whites and completely ignored the needs of seven million blacks. Under Ian Smith the white population lived lavishly while black people suffered the dignity of segregation, inhuman treatment and extreme poverty.
And who, I was asked, benefits from ZANU PF’s rule, if not the elites, their families and friends?
It is a difficult question that I struggled to answer.
Indeed, the vast majority of Zimbabweans still struggle to make ends meet in a harsh environment that has reduced most citizens to vendors.
This, however, has not stopped the political elite from amassing great wealth. They drive German cars, shop in Asia, get treated in Asia and educate their children abroad. Zimbabwe’s government is full of what Prof George Ayittey calls “fake revolutionaries, crocodile liberators, “Swiss bank” socialists, briefcase bandits, semi-literate brutes and vampire elites.”
Smith, I was told, for all his faults did not allow Rhodesia’s industries to shut down, or let its roads fall into a deplorable state or ruin the healthcare system. Even in the presence of sanctions. At the very least, the argument goes, he took care of his own instead of oppressing them.
These points are hard to contest.
It is not too difficult to see how such opinions arise.
Most Zimbabweans were born after Independence and have no first hand experiences of the evilness of Rhodesia. Our view of Rhodesia; its keeps, reserves, segregation and brutality is through history books.
On the other hand our experiences with teargas, police brutality, violation of laws, unemployment, corruption and poverty are not only recent but also painful. Not once but many times over.
While Rhodesia had the Law and Order Maintenance Act (LOMA) to fight “illegal” gatherings we have the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), a Zimbabwean version of Rhodesia’s act to do exactly what LOMA did in Rhodesia.
In Rhodesia the Special Branch was feared, a visit from them often led to imprisonment, death or disappearance. Likewise in Zimbabwe those who criticize the government can vanish without a trace.
The argument that Smith was good leader- at least for the economy- however misinformed, is one that is gaining traction amongst the young people of my generation. I am convinced, as I have always been, that it is wrong, that majority, self-rule, with all its flaws is better than a minority racist government.
However, the government’s glaring failures, its complete disregard of national laws and the constitution, the rampant corruption and its other numerous vices, give those who make a case for Smith more ammunition.
And despite the weakness of arguing for a racist state, that side presents an argument that, by the day, is getting harder to rebut.
There is nothing wrong with independence. There is nothing wrong with black people. Our problems stem from a narrow elite that has kept their snouts in the feeding trough for 36 long years while the rest of the country crumbles around them.
I do not believe that Smith was better and I steadfastly defend(ed) Independence. Independence is more than economic growth, it includes other metrics that are immeasurable- like the freedom of moving around without pass laws or being confined to a reserve.
Celebrating independence is not accepting the mediocrity that is ZANU PF. It is more. It celebrates the collective fight against imperialism, the sacrifices of thousands of Zimbabweans who fell to the oppressor’s bullets and were buried, unmourned and in unmarked places, in the forests of Mozambique, Zambia and elsewhere.
Yet it pains me that we have misgoverned ourselves, that the government has abused the people, to such a point where our disillusionment convinces some Zimbabweans, however few or misguided, to compare Zimbabwe with Rhodesia.