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Diaries
Last Updated: 05/01/2008
The ruins of Zimbabwe
Catherine Chaweza

At independence, Zimbabwe was one of the countries in the southern part of Africa with a very solid economic standing. It had the infrastructure and the systems in place for a continued progress of the economy and the country as a whole. Mugabe himself was an acclaimed hero: “the revolutionary leader who had embraced the cause of reconciliation and who now sought a pragmatic way forward.” Western governments were impressed with the transition and flooded Zimbabwe with offers of aid. President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, the late President of Tanzania advised Mugabe at independence that: “You have inherited a jewel. Keep it that way.”

For a number of years Mugabe did indeed take care of the jewel – it was the bread basket of the Southern Africa region and the literacy rate in Zimbabwe rose to 90%. It’s been 28 years since the jewel was placed in Mugabe’s hands and today, it is unrecognizable and Nyerere should be turning in his grave.


I still remember that particular history lesson in my standard eight class. The teacher wrote down on the board, “The Mwenemutapa Kingdom and the Great Zimbabwe ruins.” I surely knew what the word kingdom meant and I guessed Mwenemutapa should be a name and I already knew what Zimbabwe was. It was a country that was separated from my own country by another one called Mozambique. I recalled one history lesson where the teacher told us that this country, Zimbabwe, was previously called Southern Rhodesia and that it was in the same federation with Zambia previously known as Northern Rhodesia and Malawi which was called Nyasaland. I reminded myself what federation was and mused at the prospect of adding a new word to my vocabulary- ruins, whatever that word means.

Three minutes into the class my question was answered, the teacher defined the word ruins. He said they are remains of a house that was. In other words, it’s a house that is broken down, uninhabited. In my mind’s eye I saw a good-for-nothing pile of rubble overgrown by thick bushes. That was the picture I created of the Zimbabwe ruins. Over the years I have come to learn that the Zimbabwe ruins are one of the most important archeological sites in Africa. It spells out the lost civilization of the Shona, a dominant ethnic group in Zimbabwe. The ruins show that there existed an amazing complex there. They are made up of regular, rectangular granite stones carefully placed upon one another and they are the largest, single ancient structure south of the Sahara. They date back to 900AD. According to archeologists, these ruins were a main regional trading center associated with Arab gold trading – fragments of Persian and Chinese pottery have been found at the site. These ruins Zimbabwe take their name from the Shona phrase “Ziimba dza mabwe” which means houses of stone. These ruins have been a mystery because they are clear evidence of civilization existing way before the arrival of Europeans in the 1800s, and it is still a mystery how this advanced civilization would have been lost. What led to the downfall of this empire still remains a mystery and a subject of lots of speculation.

Zimbabwe was colonized by the British in 1889. It was the last African country to win independence from the British. While most of the countries gained independence in the 1960s, Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980 under Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union. He is remembered as a fearless revolutionary who was not ready to negotiate with the British-led government for peace and independence. He believed that the gun would liberate the Zimbabweans from the tentacles of white rule. In 1976 while leading the guerilla movement based in Mozambique he had this to say;

“Our votes shall go together with our guns. After all, any vote we shall have shall have been the product of the gun. The gun which produces the vote should remain its security officer- its guarantor. The people’s votes and the people’s guns are always inseparable twins.”[1]

At independence, Zimbabwe was one of the countries in the southern part of Africa with a very solid economic standing. It had the infrastructure and the systems in place for a continued progress of the economy and the country as a whole.  Mugabe himself was an acclaimed hero: “the revolutionary leader who had embraced the cause of reconciliation and who now sought a pragmatic way forward.” Western governments were impressed with the transition and flooded Zimbabwe with offers of aid. President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, the late President of Tanzania advised Mugabe at independence that: “You have inherited a jewel. Keep it that way.”[2]

For a number of years Mugabe did indeed take care of the jewel – it was the bread basket of the Southern Africa region and the literacy rate in Zimbabwe rose to 90%. It’s been 28 years since the jewel was placed in Mugabe’s hands and today, it is unrecognizable and Nyerere should be turning in his grave.

A million things have gone wrong in Zimbabwe for the last ten or so years. Now Mugabe “presides over a nation whose economy is in tatters, where poverty and unemployment are endemic and political strife and repression commonplace.”[3]

Four out of every five Zimbabweans are unemployed. Three million productive Zimbabweans have left the country in search of a better life. Thousands of teachers are scattered in the region and Doctors and nurses, to mention but a few have trekked overseas leaving the very important sectors of Zimbabwe to be run by the very disgruntled few that remain. The country’s inflation rate has reached an obscene high at over 100,000%. Zimbabwe is by far the only country where everyone is a millionaire. The US dollar trades anywhere between 20 to 40 million Zimbabwe dollars.

The people of Zimbabwe viewed the 29th of March as a day of salvation. The election was viewed by many as a day that would change the lives of millions of Zimbabweans. However, the people did not raise their hopes too high for fear of being disappointed for there is a history here - Mugabe had rigged elections before so what would stop him this time around? They did not have much choice - Morgan Tshvangirai might not have been many people’s favourite but all people wanted to see was change. They wanted something, someone different. Mugabe has been on the scene for almost thirty years, he has had his time and he is the very last of his freedom fighting breed still in power. Others have honorably relinquished power before him, while yet others have been removed by the ballot and willingly or unwillingly bowed out to the will of the people. It seems Mugabe is ready to do anything but give up power.

Almost a month after the election the Presidential result is not yet out. Five days after the poll the Movement for Democratic Change declared that its leader Morgan Tshvangirai had won the vote with over 50% but that ended with the word of mouth, nothing more after that. Tshvangirai himself has been Africa trotting; it is however not clear whether he is doing that for security reasons or whether he is garnering support from neighbours. The Southern African Development Community (SADC)[4] heads of states met in Zambia on 12th April to discuss the way forward for Zimbabwe. Mugabe did not avail himself to the summit because he had “other important business to attend to”. Tshvangirai, however addressed the Heads of State and hurriedly left the meeting long before it ended, perhaps he had sensed nothing good would come out of it. This summit just ended up endorsing Comrade Mugabe’s government’s directive that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission does a recount of some areas where they claim to have been victimized. It’s a great surprise that the Heads of States would endorse the recount knowing fully well that the results have not been announced. Instead of pressing for the results to be announced they signed for a recount, beats me! As I am writing the recounting has been going on for four days and nothing has been heard from Zimbabwe.

The post election period has been marked by all sorts of violence with houses of people accused of supporting the opposition being burnt, opposition supporters beaten up and the remaining white farmers have been threatened. Some five members of Zimbabwe Electoral Commission were arrested after being accused of malpractices that disadvantaged the ZANU-PF in the vote. The most classic one being an assertion by the Minister of Justice that Tshvangirai is being accused of treason by collaborating with the British Government for regime change, yet the people of Zimbabwe had democratically voted on 29th March.

One thing is certain; the people of Zimbabwe are desperate and are looking up to anybody who will help. They overwhelmingly voted to change the course of their lives that for many has become unbearable. Things have gone wrong after the elections and they expect help. I just hope, one day, other states and Heads of States and Governments will not stand to be judged for watching things go that way in Zimbabwe. It seems no one is willing to become their brother’s keeper in this case. I fear for what is to come.

We may be witnessing the creation of the new Zimbabwe ruins. But unlike the first ones, there will be no mystery on what made the Great Zimbabwe crumble. I am wondering however, if these ruins will stand for centuries to come.


[1] Meredith Martin, 2002, Our votes, our guns: Robert Mugabe and the tragedy of Zimbabwe., Parseus Books.

[2] ibid

[3] BBC website; Country Profile: Zimbabwe. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/country_profiles/1064589.stm

[4] SADC is an inter-governmental organization that aims to further socio-economic, political and security cooperation among 15 southern African states.


Catherine Chaweza is a Master's degree cadidate at the UN University for Peace.
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