Freedom for Zimbabwe?

For the past 37 years, which means since it gained its independence in 1980, Robert Mugabe was the president of Zimbabwe and as such makes him one of the longest ruling heads of state in world history. Until the very end he refused to step back from his presidency, irrespective of his advanced age of 93 years. Last Monday (21.11.2017) his resignation was finally announced in parliament. Even before this occurred he had already been deposed as the party leader of Zanu-PF and excluded from its activities.

I recently returned from Zimbabwe where I witnessed the on-going structural processes for change first-hand.

It has been my first visit to Zimbabwe, which was formerly known as “Africa’s breadbasket”. Originally, it was my intention to meet and work with the Jesuits of the country and to get familiar with their education and development projects. In this context I visited the Jesuit’s Arupe College for Philosophy and Humanities in Harare. In addition to this college the Jesuits are running many (boarding) schools where the pupils are introduced to Ignatian spirituality.

Arupe College’s Chapel (© Marita Anna Wagner)

Arriving at the college the dean welcomed me by saying: “You have chosen the right time for your visit. You will experience a lot this week.” It turned out he was right. The work with the Jesuits turned out to be not the only shaping experience of my stay.

I have been at the airport when I heard about the military coup in Harare – which the military themselves did not label as such of course. Nonetheless, I decided to travel to Harare. It became a very exciting and eventful week.

To my surprise the atmosphere of Harare was very calm and seemed to be, at least by observing it from the outside, very relaxed. The stores were opened and people went on with their own business. The situation was remarkably unremarkable. So it seems the international news reports portrayed a very sensational and agitated picture. Nothing from the political debates which were held behind closed doors, was notable on the streets at first sight. Still there was something in the wind which testified a sense of anticipation. People were getting ready for the, at that time, unknown political outcome.

What was quite evident though was the fact, that Mugabe had finally lost backing by his own party, Zanu-PF. The Zimbabwean therefore put their hopes in the military. Their wish was and still is a Mugabe-free Zimbabwe, which is open for transition.

Fostered by the military the people organised themselves for a protest march which took place last Saturday (18.11.2017) to enforce president Mugabe’s resignation. Thousand of Zimbabweans travelled to Harare, coming from all over the country, also school busses. “We want to be there when Mugabe resigns. This is such a historic moment in the history of our country”, some of the youngsters explained to me. Together with my Zimbabwean friend who lives with his family in Harare too, I joined the demonstration.

(© Marita Anna Wagner)
(© Marita Anna Wagner)

I was impressed to witness the enormous solidarity and unity among the people marching together. They laughed, sang chants and danced. They already celebrated the presumed new beginning of their country, being absolutely peaceful. A great joy marked this scenery.

(© Marita Anna Wagner)
(© Marita Anna Wagner)

One of the posters read: “Zimbabwe army the voice of the people – Mugabe out!” Other signs contained the messages: “No to Mugabe Dynasty” or “Mugabe must go! Thank you ZDF (Zimbabwean Defence Force)”.

(© Marita Anna Wagner)

What I experienced as thought provoking was the tremendous admiration and gratefulness the people expressed towards the military. The soldiers were celebrated as national heroes and liberators. People were taking selfies in front of the tanks, which were driving through the streets. Some were shaking hands with soldiers. Women were even kissing soldiers to thank them for their engagement on behalf of the people.

On our way back home, some military jeeps were driving next to us, their machine guns close at hand. But this did not scare off anybody. One man jumped in front of our car, he ran towards one of the jeeps and started polishing the soldiers’ boots. Thereafter he continuously raised his clenched fists victoriously and cheered the soldiers.

There was a common consensus regarding this day’s message: “We are finally free. It’s the beginning of a new era.”

But is this actually the case? I have serious doubts about this. Emmerson Mnangagwa as the former vice president, who was deposed by Mugabe, has now been elected by the Zanu-PF as the successor. But he isn’t known as “the crocodile” for nothing. He is regarded as being ruthless, authoritarian and a hard-liner who has a major influence on the army. For this reason the fear is high that Zimbabwe instead of orienting itself towards a democracy is actually heading to become a military state.

The question remains whether Zimbabwe is really looking forward to a glorious future many Zimbabweans want to believe in. Let us hope so for the sake of the country.

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