A roller coaster for Zimbabwe’s middle class

By Petina Gappah

Posted on Thursday, 26 August 2010 14:34

Focused on education and jobs in the professional sector since the

1980s, Zimbabwe’s middle class became a group of barter traders due to

the country’s economic crisis, writes Zimbabwean writer Petina Gappah.

For more on our series examining Africa’s middle class see Moving on Up.

My father’s dream was that all his five children would become ‘professionals’, by which he meant those professions associated with the middle class: medicine, law and finance.

My father’s dream for his children was daring because like my mother and the first four of their five children, my father was born in Rhodesia. Such dreams, for a black man, represented the audacity of hope. This was not a dream my father could live for himself. His ascent to the middle class was constrained by birth – he had been born into a poor family in rural Gutu – and by race – the access of blacks to Rhodesia’s middle class depended on education, which was controlled to ensure that not everyone could achieve it.

The bottlenecking of educational opportunities meant that there were very few black ‘professionals’ then. There were only a handful of black doctors and lawyers. The most a black who aspired to the middle class could aim for was to enter business supplying goods and services to the rural areas and townships, and at a slightly a rank lower, to enter the teaching and nursing professions.

Education and knowledge

My father often talked about his dreams for us. Money never entered into these talks. A profession meant a good income, a house in the suburbs and a car, but it was not primarily about that. For him, it was mainly about standing in society, it was about kudzidza and ruzivo, education and knowledge. He wanted us to know the world, to go to university, to travel.

He set for us the example of the Takavarasha family, relatives of my mother’s. Dr Takavarasha was a medical doctor, his wife was a nurse and their children were exactly what my father wanted us to be. The family produced a new graduate every other year, adding a new photo of the capped and gowned graduate to the family album.

Rhodesia is now Zimbabwe and all my father’s children have fulfilled his ambitions to be middle class. We have seven university degrees among the five of us. Not one of us entered the field of medicine, but we work in law, management, development, business and finance.

Go to school and get a job

My father was not alone in this dream for his children, as this was the ambition of many of his generation. Many of my friends and contemporaries were given the same lectures about the value of education. Access to the middle class was contingent on education, so it became something of an idée fixe for parents. The 1980s brought a massive focus on education in Zimbabwe. The new government invested massively, building new schools and starting adult literacy programmes. Zimbabweans took full advantage of these opportunities long denied them. The whole country, it seemed, was upwardly mobile, driven by aspiration and desirous of achievement.

By the 1990s, Zimbabwe had a growing and comfortable middle class in the civil service, law, business, medicine and finance. This class contributed through taxes, and it invested in education for the next generation. There was nothing nakedly consumerist about this middle class: a house in the plush Borrowdale suburb was an achievement, but so was a house in the more modest Mabelreign or Waterfalls. Families were content to have a shared Nissan or Mazda which dropped smartly uniformed children at school before being driven to town by two working parents. There were occasional holidays to Victoria Falls or Nyanga. The men played tennis, golf and boozers’ football; the women hosted kitchen parties and served on their school parents’ associations.

Then the economy collapsed and with it, the middle class. There same deprivations and hardship were experienced by all Zimbabweans across the class divide. We became obsessed with hedging against inflation by buying as many goods as we could afford and chasing after basic commodities such as bread, cooking oil and maize meal. It was not uncommon to find teachers dropping out of teaching to become cross-border traders, to find lawyers selling tomatoes from their cars, magistrates selling eggs from their offices and doctors selling cooking oil at the hospitals. Zimbabwe became a nation of barter traders paying for services using goods and exchanging goods for other goods.

Middle class values

Money had completely lost value. There was a sense in which education also lost its value. What was the point of going to university at all, what was the point of being part of a profession, if all you did was barter and trade? Those who were doing well were using their cunning and wits, education could not get you the best deal on potatoes or fuel or whatever else was in short supply. The emergency taxi driver and the doctor were in the same queue waiting at a fuel pump that ran out just before they reached it. This middle class was now about access to goods, about access to foreign currency. It was greedy, materialistic and consumerist. It was about survival.

But Zimbabwe, like Rhodesia before it, is a country of contradictions. The belief in education remains strong. Parents wanted to send their children to school and to pay for extra lessons. Teachers went on strike, but ultimately they still taught. My cousin Kumbirai continued to teach although his salary did not cover his travel costs. “Unongotiwo vana vevanhu,” he said, “they are other people’s children. If we do not teach, then what will become of them?”

My favourite taxi driver in Harare is a man named Gideon who lives in Warren Park. I was in Harare in 2007, possibly the worst year of Zimbabwe’s crisis, when there was no food in the shops and everyone who could leave was leaving. Gideon was barely sleeping, he told me, because he needed to drive as much as he could to get money for extra lessons. “One day,” he said, “maybe my son will be a doctor or a lawyer.” In that, I heard an echo of my father. Here was another man daring to dream a future for his children against what seemed like impossible odds.

This article was first published in the August-September issue ofThe Africa Report.

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