November 29, 2017

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM | 21 Years Living Under a Dictatorship

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On November 15, the military took over my country’s main broadcasting station, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Cooperation, and announced that it had put our president of 37 long years under house arrest. A week later on the 21st, President Mugabe turned in his resignation letter just as the impeachment process in Parliament began. I watched all this from my dorm room, terrified that the bloodshed and pillage that I had seen in other countries like Syria, Somalia and Egypt had come to my home. I feared for the safety of my family back home. The army, however, was quick to put out the disclaimer that its actions were not a coup and news from my family, friends, and other countrymen mirrored these sentiments. Watching the events unfold, the peace that pervades Zimbabwean atmosphere right now and the hope for a future without Mugabe has me reflecting on some of the things that characterized my 21 years living under the Mugabe regime.

The Cult of Personality

Whenever people who know the political situation of Zimbabwe find out my nationality, they always ask what is it like to have a 93-year old president. While my American classmates have lived through three or four presidencies, I have only known one. Years of propaganda and Mugabe’s charisma have not left me unscathed. Listening to his speeches had the same effect as listening to Obama speak has for many Americans. Mugabe is charming, energetic, articulate, funny, and smart. He has a way of working a crowd such that you can’t help but feel a fondness for him. I was part of the population in my country that even believed that Mugabe was infallible, almost immortal. Indeed, there are several myths of immortality surrounding him, one of the most popular being that Mugabe ate the heart of a tortoise and so will live the same life span as a turtle, which can live up to 200 years. This is ridiculous, of course, but that’s the effect of the Cult of Personality.

Fear of Speaking Out

I cannot stress the level of anxiety I have writing this article right now. Even though Mugabe has resigned and seems to have lost his political clout, I am still afraid of him. I am afraid that tomorrow I will wake up and be charged for treason for even putting these thoughts down. That’s what speaking out in Zimbabwe entailed under Mugabe – being charged with “subverting the authority of a constitutionally elected government.” While studying abroad I have often been envious of how people in the US can easily express their dissatisfaction and not expect any repercussions. Coming from a country with state owned media, a ruthless secret police, and a highly trained riot police, organizing and attending protests is not as easy as it is here. Even writing an op-ed can land you in jail.

Loss of Hope

I’ve lived through holding a 10 billion dollar note in my hand that couldn’t buy a loaf of bread. I’ve lived through water shortages and food shortages and the adoption of a chaotic multi-currency system in which you buy goods in one currency and receive change in another. My country currently has one of the highest unemployment rates — I know more than 20 degreed and highly educated people who have no jobs. This made me and many others my age lose hope. Most of us looked for opportunities beyond borders; many Zimbabweans are in South Africa, Canada, Ireland, and the US. Those who remain hope to leave soon, too. Nobody chooses to leave the familiarity of their home out of a whim — all Zimbabwean immigrants were forced beyond their borders and yearn for home.

While Zimbabweans wait anxiously to see how Mugabe’s successor will fair, we hope that after this cut-off head falls down, another won’t sprout in its place. The experiences I have detailed are not at all exhaustive. they’re just the surface of a very rotten regime. Even though there is uncertainty at the moment in my country and in the diaspora, this is the first time in 37 years that Zimbabweans have hope for a change. As we move into a new era, I hope we can consolidate the gains of this “non-coup” and usher in a stable democracy and economic prosperity.