Netflix has added a Zimbabwean-made film to its platform for the first time this week. Tomas Brickhill’s Cook Off is a romantic comedy: boy meets girl on a TV cooking show. Like many films made in Zimbabwe over the past ten years or so, it was put together for just a few thousand dollars, with borrowed equipment and deferred payment contracts for its cast and crew, and filmed under the constant threat of power cuts. The only allusion to the country’s economic situation (even worse now than when the film was made) is a blackout during a cooking montage.
Before the cyclone, there was a drought in Zimbabwe. People prayed for rain; and then the rain came, and it was not at all what was wished for. It seems brutally unfair: to have lost so much, in so brief a time, at the ordinance of the sky.
The latest government crackdown in Zimbabwe is not wholly surprising, but it is still shocking in its brutality. The people who took to the streets two weeks ago to protest against fuel prices and the rising cost of basic commodities have been beaten, arrested and raped. The state has also attacked anyone suspected of having the potential to protest, i.e. those living on the breadline, the only people desperate enough to risk it. The protests were sparked by the overnight doubling of fuel prices, but the anger and frustration have been building for months. When I visited Zimbabwe in December – I left on 11 January, just before the recent violence – people’s budgets were stretched to breaking point. There were twelve-hour queues at petrol stations. Friends asked me to bring them cooking oil for Christmas.
The result of the presidential election in Zimbabwe, held on 30 July, was announced after a brief period of turmoil, on 3 August. Victory went to the Zanu-PF incumbent, Emmerson Mnangagwa, with roughly 2.4 million votes. Nelson Chamisa, the candidate of the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance, got 2.1 million. The rapid shifts in the political landscape that we've witnessed since Robert Mugabe was removed last November felt exhilarating, but the outcome of the vote leaves big questions unresolved.
Robert Mugabe is gone, Zimbabweans are on the streets. Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice president sacked by Mugabe three weeks ago, has been quiet during this very Zimbabwean coup d'état, biding his time and watching his back by retreating to South Africa. Today he flew in to Harare, having issued a lofty statement which announces that the new era – ‘in its full glory’ (we look forward to that) – ‘is not a job for Zanu PF alone but for all people of Zimbabwe’. Music to the ears of the downtrodden. In the past, food aid has been distributed first, and sometimes only, to hungry people holding a ZANU party card. Mnangagwa will be sworn in tomorrow. The transition is peaceful so far, and Mnangagwa is plausible. So far.
On 4 November, Grace Mugabe announced that she could see no problem with her succeeding her husband as president of Zimbabwe. ‘What if I get in?’ she said. ‘What’s wrong with that?’ Then Robert Mugabe fired the vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, the last of his long-term allies. That wasn’t wise. Mnangagwa, one of the original freedom fighters from the 1960s, is deeply embedded in the army and Zimbabwe’s security structures. He had been planning to succeed Mugabe himself.
As a teenager in 1965 I heard Harold Wilson making a broadcast to the white population of Southern Rhodesia, where I grew up. He was an impressive figure, articulate but plain-spoken, with an ability to recognise the fears and prejudices of his audience and address them in adult terms. The tiny settler population had in 1962 elected a Rhodesian Front government which, on 11 November 1965, soon after Wilson made his broadcast, issued the Unilateral Declaration of Independence. White settler rule came to an ignominious end some fifteen years later, on 18 April 1980. Today, a much larger British population is about to elect a government that will, it seems, give the United Kingdom its own version of UDI. There are self-evident differences between the two processes, but the similarities and parallels throw an unfavourable light on the present state of British politics. Britain’s UDI may have been a long time coming, but the country’s ability to deal with the consequences is no more powerful or sophisticated than that of the tiny settler population of Rhodesia in 1965.
Earlier this year Harare City Library unveiled the Doris Lessing Special Collection, 3500 of the writer’s books donated to the library after her death. Lessing lived in Southern Rhodesia between 1925 (when she was six) and 1949.