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If it doesn’t work, don’t fix it

By Tendai Huchu
Posted on Friday, 25 March 2011 11:23

A last word by Zimbabwe’s Tendai Huchu, author of The Hairdresser of Harare. Changing faces in government is not going to change the country in any meaningful way if it means preserving its colonial character.

Last August I had the privilege of hearing David Coltart, Zimbabwe’s education minister from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, speak at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Most of his talk focused on the problems Zimbabwe faced – which are ­already well known – but I was rather surprised when he moved on to speak about the cabinet’s response to a teachers’ wage strike in the preceding months.

He said that whilst he had ­favoured a negotiated settlement, most of his colleagues from his party, like those from the Zimbabwe African National Union-­Patriotic Front, were in favour of using the full extent of the country’s repressive laws to break up the strike. It was only after Mugabe’s personal intervention that the matter was decided in his favour.

What I found surprising was the willingness of opposition members in the unity government to use force against constituents who had previously suffered oppression for supporting them. It seemed to me that once in a position of power their attitude had already changed, which says a lot about governments on our continent.

I found myself wondering if changing the faces in government would change realities on the ground. After all, we have been here before. The very revolutionaries who suffered and bled under colonial oppression in turn began to oppress the people who had supported them during Zimbabwe’s independence struggle.

There are many absurd parallels between Zimbabwe today and colonial Rhodesia. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the role of the military and police, which were set up, not primarily to protect the country from external threats or maintain law and order, but to suppress its citizens. Today these institutions still mainly exist for this function. Other arms of government only serve to entrench the interests of the elite. The prevailing attitude is “to govern is to completely dominate.”?

Whilst criticising the government is easy, more nuanced are the parallels one finds in society itself. The middle and upper classes have merely supplanted the old white elite, with all the usual trappings – large houses, fancy cars, housemaids, garden boys and foreign holidays. They are all too comfortable flashing opulence, seemingly oblivious of the dire poverty around them.

I am not convinced that changing the faces in government is going to transform the country in any meaningful way if it means preserving its blatantly colonial character. What Zimbabwe needs is a meaningful national dialogue that seeks to create a true African democracy: the creation of an intellectual framework that everyone buys into, not just the wealthy and powerful, and which seeks to transform the relationship between the people and the state.

I do not pretend to know what form such a framework would take, but with elections pending later this year it is not enough to keep repeating the same formula that has failed the people for 120 years.

This article was first published in The Africa Report’s March 2011 edition.