Two days ago, the MDC-T youth held a demonstration in Harare to demand that ZEC put in place electoral reforms ahead of next year’s elections. The demonstration, as I read, began peacefully, but as usual the police violently cracked down on protesters. Those unfortunate enough to be in bank queues nearby were hit by the canon spray as well, while they experienced another violence of not being able to access the very money they have earned.
I remember thinking of how common this all is – police brutality in the face of a fight for basic rights and freedoms and answers that citizens deserve. Our country has been smothered by a fabric of violence that permeates every aspect of our lives, and it is in our best interests to tear that fabric and start building the country we all really want. This piece is deeply personal, and speaks to my encounters with this state violence and how it’s shaped my view of politics. It’s been particularly difficult to write because of my proximity to perpetrators of this violence. I want nothing more than a fresh start for this country and for our people, and I believe it’s possible. But we have to take a hard look at the ways this fabric of violence was woven and how we’re continuing that violence, if we’re ever going to tear it.
2005 was the last time I listened intently and uncritically to my father’s take on politics. I had just begun the teenage phase where I was perpetually annoyed with my parents. But what I felt that day was deeper than mild annoyance, and I knew that. His convictions had stopped moving me; if anything, they began to cause confusion and discomfort, which eventually, years later, turned to something close to disappointment. He’s dead now, and I’m older; and thankfully I ask more questions than I did back then.
2005 was the year of Murambatsvina, the government’s operation to demolish informal housing and business structures in urban areas across the country. It had a profound impact on my relationship with politics and my understanding of state violence, even at that age. Zimbabwe was going through a painful economic slump which was only to worsen over the years, reaching the tipping point in 2008. The currency was weak and jobs were scarce. The informal economy served as a source of much-needed income for urban residents who couldn’t access the formal sector or who simply couldn’t survive on salaries paid in a currency that was worth less and less every day. It was also the first time I had ever even considered my father to be a perpetrator of violence.
That’s important. A perpetrator of violence.
It wouldn’t be the last time, and it began a complex period of both loving him dearly and making wonderful memories, but gradually despising what he represented politically.
Operation Murambatsvina was swift and brutal; carried out in the height of the winter cold, rendering hundreds of thousands homeless and desperate. You see, my father was pictured in one of our newspapers in a white dust-coat, holding a broom and sweeping away the remains of people’s make-shift structures. “We’re cleaning up the city,” he said, after I asked if this didn’t seem harsh to him. “I mean, we’ve issued warning after warning…we’ve been clear about this from the start.” He tried to make some comparison with an example I might understand, but by now I had stopped hearing him. I remember staring at the picture of him sweeping away the livelihoods of the people him and his colleagues implied were “filth”.
I try not to think of my father very often anymore. But when I do, it’s with a feeling of both deep fondness and deep disappointment. Some days the latter outweighs the former. To me, he symbolised a party that rose on the backs of passionate black people’s painful sacrifices, steadfast resolve and a leadership that could see the Zimbabwe that many couldn’t even dream of. But there was an underlying violence in their actions that I saw and understood to an extent, but couldn’t fully articulate, and that I desperately want us to rid ourselves of now.
Tearing the fabric
I grew up thinking the state had everyone’s best interests at heart. More often than not I’d hear the words “sovereignty”, “freedom”, and “independence”, as did everyone else really. Except I listened to them twice – both from the mouthpieces of the party and one specific mouthpiece, my dad. I was taught to associate Zanu-PF with freedom and black empowerment, but more importantly as the only source of political and economic freedom and empowerment. It was this portrayal of a single ‘saviour’ – the ‘pasi nemhandu-ness’ that labelled anything outside of the ruling party as enemy and ‘other’ – that threaded together the fabric of violence we’ve wrapped ourselves in.
For years we’ve been taught to see difference in political opinion as being an inherent threat or something to be shunned and destroyed immediately and without question. It’s infused in the slogans we chant at rallies, the Facebook comments on political party pages, the high school history books, the newspapers and news sites, the arguments during dinner and the WhatsApp groups we rant to. The violence is everywhere. It’s in the way MDC supporters feel entitled to our votes, and the way Zanu supporters are willing to do anything to win. It’s the reason why, when independent candidates or new parties come about, we’re quick to tear them down. We’ve done things the same way, over and over. We’ve covered ourselves completely with the fabric, tearing it occasionally, but never enough.
This is where we are. But it doesn’t have to be where we stay.
2016 was the first time I felt my heart awaken with the possibility of taking back what our leaders had stripped from us. It was a long, hard stare at the fabric and how long and thick it had become. It was an attempt to tear the fabric of violence and sew a different kind of fabric – one woven together with democracy and tolerance and the ability to oppose one another without feeling threatened and insecure. We’ve already started weaving a new fabric. We may have to undo a few knots or close a few gaps, but we should never stop trying. Our efforts are in every refusal to accept poor governance, every protest, every counter argument on vote-splitting, and every demand to have our dignity recognised by our leaders. It’s in every bit of encouragement we give to those who speak truth to power and fight for our rights, that the fabric starts to tear.
2017 was the first time my grief didn’t fully consume me. And it was the first time I felt a deep sense of longing for a better country, and that I actually thought a better country was within our reach. And I realised that even more than I loved my father, I love myself. I love myself and my country enough to help work towards a future I can be proud of, and enough to be part of tearing the fabric of violence alongside everyone who’s fighting for a new country too.