Terence Bhebhe packs a big round stomach under his bright red singlet and scratches his sprouting hair – he’s a would-be Rasta who dreams of visiting Jamaica but struggles to grow passable dreads and to relinquish his Catholic upbringing. “I love my country. I have a lot of hope. One day, Zimbabwe will be Great again,” he says, referring to an impressive civilization that flourished in the country until the 16th century, leaving remains of a vast stone-built city, known as Great Zimbabwe, that was founded on trade in gold and other precious elements.
Terence, 36, moved hundreds of kilometres north from Harare to Victoria Falls four years ago, another victim of Robert Mugabe’s destructive economic policies, which left the university educated man unable to find paid work outside of this tiny northwestern tourist corner. Now, he struggles to feed his two children and frequently disappears for months at a time to South Africa, Botswana and Namibia for work. But things are looking up, he tells me with a broad grin. “Two years ago, people were starving and desperate, but now, there is hope.”
The country has adopted the US dollar as its currency, which has somewhat stemmed the ridiculous inflation rate that crippled daily life. A loaf of bread would cost ten times as much in the afternoon as the morning. As we drive along, I ask Terence to stop alongside an impressive baobab tree so I can admire it, and a couple of impoverished locals attempt to sell me various items including a Zimbabwean $1 billion note that’s of value only as a curio.
And the racist (against whites) policies introduced by Mugabe have softened considerably. “We’re seeing marriages again between blacks and whites for the first time in a few years,” Terence says. “Everyone loves [Morgan] Tsvangirai. We’re all waiting for Mugabe to die. He’s 87 now, it can’t be long!”
When Mugabe came to power in 1980, in the aftermath of Zimbabwe’s liberation from former British Rhodesia, there were celebrations throughout the nation – he was an exciting breath of fresh air, Terence recalls. Among his first acts was an impressive literacy programme that saw schools spring up across the country to teach children and also enroll adults that had missed out during generations of racist (against blacks) education policy. “Everyone was included – the literacy rate rose to 97% and we matured as a people,” Terence says. “Everyone in the country speaks English.”
But almost immediately, Terence says, there were misgivings. Mugabe announced early on that he wanted Zimbabwe to become a one-party state. It wasn’t until 1990 that the first real opposition party formed, and Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party didn’t come together until 1999, six months before an election that saw it win half the parliamentary seats.
Terence is a founding member of the MDC, and currently party Secretary for the region. “The main basis for forming the party was the issue of racism,” he explains. “I was studying for my undergraduate degree [in molecular biology] at the University of Harare, and a few of us like-minded students would get together and talk for hours about politics. It was clear that Mugabe was a racist, and we blacks, who had suffered under the segregation policies before, did not want the same to be done to white people – to our white friends. It was unjust and backward.”
The MDC grew out of these university discussions to the extent that Tsvangirai is the ‘power-sharing’ president-in-waiting. “We are working on a new constitution, right now, which should be completed by February or March. It will be a non-racist constitution with firmly written rules spelling out how long a president’s term can be,” Terence says with a grin. “We’re aiming for the beginning of 2011 for the next election.”
Zimbabwe, a nation of 12.5 million people – although 4m are currently living in South Africa, pending a return to democracy – is made up of 14 tribes speaking 17 languages, and yet it is a remarkably peaceful country despite severe provocations. One of Mugabe’s nastiest tricks was creating a racist culture where none existed. Liberation from the British took a joint campaign in different districts by the two largest tribal groups, the Shona and Ndebele. On taking the throne, Mugabe, who is from the Shona group, and his generals instigated a hate campaign against the Ndebele’s, probably from fear of power-sharing, which in 1982 saw thousands of Ndebele ‘rebels’ slaughtered and imprisoned. Terence, who is Ndebele, says this was a top-down hate campaign and he has never in his life suffered any racism from Shonas – “they are my friends and the people I sat next to in school. Hate in Zimbabwe,” he explains, “is not about hating people, it’s about hating policies.”
Mugabe’s success has been secured by the country’s extraordinary riches. The Great Dyke, a granite formation, stretches from the east to central Zimbabwe, and is rich in 9 minerals: gold, platinum, radium, uranium, asbestos, tin, diamonds, emeralds and manganese. “The gold we have could be mined for the next 1000 years without running out,” Terence says. Mbeki is a top shareholder in the country’s platinum mining company, which is a large part of the reason for South Africa’s ‘softly, softly’ diplomatic approach towards Mugabe’s atrocities. But the way that Africa’s leaders have effectively condoned Mugabe’s destruction of the country and its people says a lot, I think, about the extent of corruption and inequalities across this sorry continent. And says a lot about this perception that the leader of a country in Africa is not the servant of his (it’s always a man) people, but rather their master.
We visit the magnificent ‘Mosi oa Tunya’ (Smoke that Thunders), or Victoria Falls, as the dutifully patriotic David Livingstone named them, when he – as a plaque by the Falls records – “discovered” them in the 1850s. This, one of the seven wonders of the world, is breathtakingly beautiful. A powerful surge of water that tips 2 kilometres of Zambezi River down 100 metres of granite, sending spray visible for 10 kilometres or more. We are immediately drenched as we walk along the Zim side (the Zambian side – Livingstone’s approach – is mostly river) and we reach the 1904, British-built bridge after a couple of hours. It is crowned with rainbows.
A pool of water that is apparently safe to swim in, is midway long the river at the edge of the falls on the Zambian side, but we don’t cross the border. Anyway, two people died there last month, slipping from the pool to their flying deaths. Bizarrely, the Vic Falls is something of a destination for suicidal tourists. One man recently flew in from New Zealand, specifically to jump to his death. As I walk the rocky edge, marvelling at the power of so many innocuous drops of H2O, a national parks guide rushes over and grips onto my wrist (annoyingly), fearful I may fall. Many people slip on these wet rocks, and it’s a one-way fall.
We make it safely back to the dry lands and return across the border into Botswana.