During the last meeting between southern African heads of state, it seemed that Jacob Zuma might finally be challenging Robert Mugabe’s sovereignty. For us South Africans, our government’s refusal to take a stand against Mugabe is bewildering, so this news should have been greeted with jubilant cries by our press. Instead, the article that I read about this news was deeply embedded in the local paper and published a good 10 days after the event.
The article I read was something of a revelation: after all this time, was Zuma actually doing something? It was written by Allister Sparks, who is a sophisticated local political commentator and unlikely to be taken in by rhetoric. Normally I don‘t even make it that deep into our local paper, and I find South African news either tedious or depressing. It has seemed to me that the more you know about this country, the harder it is to live here. But that day, there was a cheerful picture of Michelle Obama on the front cover: it looked like a “good news” sort of day, and it encouraged me to delve deeper.
According to Sparks, Zuma seems to have cottoned onto the fact that Mugabe is bad for business. Most of the world can’t really tell the geographical difference between our neighbour and ourselves, and we are tarred by the same brush. South Africa, after pulling off a stupendous feat in the 2010 World Cup (despite negative press), has recently been included in the formidable BRIC, an economic alliance between Brazil, Russia, India, and China. This was a big coup for Zuma—the legitimate, internationally-accepted kind of coup. Surely this should be the time to shake up the banana republic next door? Even if we don’t care about Mugabe’s appalling treatment of his own people, the embarrassing behaviour of the crazed African despot must be bad for our image.
I was sitting in a coffee shop when I read this article. It was easy to guess that the waitress who served me was Zimbabwean, simply because of her accent. In Cape Town, it’s most likely that a black Zimbabwean waiter will ask you if want a glass of merlot or cabernet with your meal. South Africans from our townships are finding these sorts of jobs harder to come by because they can’t compete with the level of education of the average Zimbabwean refugee, particularly their level of spoken and written English. This led to an outbreak of xenophobic violence three years ago that left South Africans reeling. The country that had opened its doors to refugees was now murdering them in a jealous rage: there was a general assumption among South Africans that Somalis made more money in their spaza shops (corner shops) and Zimbabweans stole good jobs. Despite Mugabe’s rants about the awful colonialists, he, unlike our liberation government, did not decide to reinvent the wheel after coming to power. The wicked colonial education system had served him well and it would serve the rest of his nation. And it did—until the wheels came off and millions of Zimbabweans flocked here or to Harare North (London) to try to find a better life, or at least some semblance of a normal life.
I pointed out the article I was reading to the Zimbabwean waitress. I told her that Zuma had told Mugabe to have a legitimate election, and soon. The waitress shrugged. “It’s too late,” she said. She told me that when she went home she found it awful: people were afraid and there was no sense of hope. I wanted to argue with her, but I couldn’t. When I went to Zimbabwe in 2009, I thought it was an astonishingly hopeful place. Despite everything, it was filled with amazing people: smart, educated and competent. Zimbabweans are the friendliest of people, but in their own country, they have been forced to become mistrustful of each other, never knowing who might turn against whom. Most of the Zimbabweans here won’t be going home. They’d rather contend with openly hostile locals than face the realities of a country that has perhaps been damaged beyond repair.
Isa-Lee Jacobson is a filmmaker from Cape Town with a strong interest in Zimbabwe.