Book Recommendation: The Good Immigrant

The Good Immigrant is a rich and powerful collection of 21 readable – and very personal – essays by 21 non-white British writers exploring what it means to be Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic in Britain today. These writers tell stories about trying to find their place in a world (read: country) where “the default is always white”. The book encompasses a broad and colourful sweep of narratives which include: a history of family names; ‘blackness’; being typecast as a terrorist whilst travelling; and TCK angst.

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Mugabe’s people have had enough.

evan mawarire

In a moment of deep frustration this April, Evan Mawarire, a pastor based in Zimbabwe’s capital of Harare, set his camera to record. Draped in the Zimbabwean flag, the emotional 39-year-old looked into the lens and spoke for over 4 minutes about his weariness at what he saw as the government’s failures and broken promises of liberation.As he posted the video online, he could never have imagined the response. Within a day, the video had reportedly been viewed 120,000 times and soon the hashtag ‪#‎ThisFlag‬ was trending as other Zimbabweans emulated the pastor in posting their own grievances.

Continue reading “Mugabe’s people have had enough.”

New additions to my “Zimbabwe” reading collection

IMG_6371 I ordered these books last week and they arrived today. Very excited to start reading these new additions to my “Zimbabwe” collection. Continue reading “New additions to my “Zimbabwe” reading collection”

Why Zambians need their opposition MPs more than ever

Zambians finally have their sixth President! Edgar Lungu of the Patriotic Front (PF) beat Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development (UPND) in a tight contest (48.3% vs 46.7%). This is not the result I wanted to see but it’s a result I will respect. I hope to remember the biblical command to “pray for your leaders” mainly because I hold quite different views to President Lungu and the PF. Continue reading “Why Zambians need their opposition MPs more than ever”

Book Review: ‘Dinner With Mugabe’ by Heidi Holland

mugabe

A family holiday in December 1996 took us to Kariba the Zimbabwean tourist town located a few kilometres from the border with Zambia. It is home to Lake Kariba, a vast and impressive dam teeming with animal and plant life, favoured by tourists and vital for the supply of hydroelectricity. We stayed at a small lodge overlooking the lake and soon after arriving, realised that we were the only black family there. Everyone else was white. We stayed.

On one of the days my siblings and I went down to the pool to enjoy a swim. The weather was hot and sticky, typical for that time of year. We arrived to find a handful of other guests playing and splashing around in the water. Uncomfortable stares greeted us. I vividly remember how when we got into the water everyone else started to climb out and clear up. In a matter of minutes they had all left. We were stunned. What just happened?

The mid-1990s were a relatively stable time for Zimbabwe. The country was still considered “the Bread Basket of Africa”, a well-known reference to its once-productive agricultural sector. Its government had prioritised education since Independence in 1980 and that had resulted in an admirable 90% national literacy rate. Compared to Zambia, Zimbabwe looked and felt better in many ways. But what lay beneath that veneer of stability was something complex and explosive with its roots in the country’s troublesome past. This had created a potent mix of mistrust, bitterness and selfish entitlement on either side of the colour divide. Perhaps the discriminative attitudes we experienced at that Kariba swimming pool were a small indication of that.

In Dinner With Mugabe author and journalist Heidi Holland, a former Rhodesian herself, is not concerned primarily with the historical narrative – what went on and so on and so forth. Instead it’s with trying to understand Robert Mugabe the man, his mind and personality, and how an individual of seemingly high ideals could years later mete out vindictive violence on his own people. She asks: “Was he always a ruthless potentate with a weakness for luxury or did he gradually become power-crazed?”

In the Preface of the book, Holland takes the reader back to 1975. That was the year she first met Mugabe and the point from which she frames the discussion. They met when he visited her home for dinner (hence the title of the book) and a secret meeting with Ahrn Palley, a lawyer friend of hers and fellow activist. Mugabe called her from a public payphone the following morning to check how her toddler son was doing. She had left him asleep in his cot while she drove both men to the train station the evening before. Mugabe’s concern would come to make a lasting impression on Holland. She would come to wrestle with it particularly when he started to lose his mind on a grand scale.

Their interaction over dinner and the subsequent phone call revealed Mugabe to be polite, tense and self-deprecating, a world away from the man many unhelpfully view as nothing more than “Mad Bob Mugabe” today. Behind the pomp and show of his public appearances hides the boy from Kutama who has been deeply insecure all his life; the star pupil who preferred books to playing outside; the dutiful son who carried the weight of his mother’s lofty expectations as “God’s special child”. At St Francis Xavier College, a top all-boys Jesuit high school, he immersed himself into the school’s culture of manners, gentlemanly behaviour and intellectual discovery. His deep admiration for British aristocratic airs and graces was a consequence of his warming towards such a culture, a great irony which became more obvious as the years went by.

Each chapter of the book is an account of separate interviews between Holland and individuals who have known Mugabe at different stages of his life – enemies and acquaintances. In the final chapter Holland interviews Mugabe himself; quite a feat in my view. Throughout the book her natural disposition is to probe and she probes well. She raises important questions and tries her best to provide objective context and analysis. This makes Dinner With Mugabe a thinking book. The reader is involved with considering what kind of man Robert Mugabe really is but also which players through the course of Zimbabwe’s history share some responsibility for the country’s dramatic descent.

Convinced that Mugabe’s actions from 2000 (i.e. the white land grab, violent elections and suppression of human rights) stemmed from complex historical settings, Holland delves into his life’s history in search of answers.

With the help of a psychoanalyst, she examines whether Mrs Mugabe’s lofty view of her eldest son caused him to later on become intolerant towards differing opinions (Mugabe became the eldest child when his two older siblings died). Did she instill in him an unhelpful high-minded view of self? Or maybe his father’s absence was to blame for creating an individual lacking the necessary emotional development? How else was young Robert going to learn how to properly navigate the choppy waters of life – its loves, hopes, fears, disappointments, compromises? His poor emotional development is a theme Holland returns to several times in the book.

Then there was the death of his young son while he was in a Rhodesian prison. Mugabe was never allowed to see the child’s body or attend the burial. Could this harrowing experience and the bottling up of his true feelings have numbed all possible expressions of trust and friendship? It’s worth pondering whether his prolonged periods of closed introspection destroyed something of his humanity and vibrancy. What about the impact of his first wife Sally’s death? Holland presents her as a strong (even feisty), committed, passionate and intelligent woman. They were deeply in love. Did he feel robbed of his rock, that person that had brought a stability he had lacked previously? And what about the violence and mistrust that characterised the country’s liberation movement of which he was a part? What was its impact on his mind? Did it shape him into a slippery, calculating man or had he always been like that?

Or perhaps it was the refusal of his reconciliatory hand by Ian Smith at Independence. This may have allowed him to become paranoid and embittered. ZANU-PF’s failure to win an important mid-1980s bye-election seemed to confirm a personal dislike and distrust from the country’s white (mainly rural) community despite his own personal efforts to reassure and accommodate them in the new Zimbabwe. Ian Smith’s party won that bye-election. Was this the beginning of Mugabe’s ‘us versus them’ post-Independence mindset? And what about Britain’s colonial and post-colonial record? Its double standards and New Labour’s careless handling of previous Tory government commitments to the Lancaster House agreement? And who could ignore the inability of African leaders to confront and curtail his excesses, oversensitive perhaps to accusations of compliance with “the West”? Had they inadvertently propped up a monster?

As Holland wades through these and other big questions, her skill as a writer and researcher shines through. These qualities make the book a remarkably accessible and insightful piece of work. Through her discussions, she humanises Mugabe without releasing him of ultimate responsibility for his poor decisions; decisions that have come to cost Zimbabwe dearly. She shows his admirable ability to seek out friendship and reconciliation but also shows his childish inability to stomach rejection and opposition.

I come to the conclusion that Mugabe is a deeply flawed character which is a real tragedy for him and his country. He hates Britain for its colonial involvement in Zimbabwe yet he greatly admires its cultural airs. He calls himself a communist, advocate for the poorest in society yet his opulent living defies all of that. He believes that the majority of Zimbabweans love him and want him to continue as their leader yet a quick survey is likely to show him otherwise.

I reached the end of the book unconvinced that Holland shows us clearly where his moral climb down began – and that’s assuming he was on a higher moral plane in 1975! The psychoanalysis she employs is weak and frankly doesn’t add much value. The stories she tells are fascinating and the questions she asks vital. But sadly, the book simply ends up being a narration of events rather than an analytically-conclusive piece of work showing why the Mugabe of 1980 had changed so dramatically over the years. This was her stated aim at the start of the book. It’s a reminder that perhaps trying to neatly explain a person of any sort isn’t as simple and straightforward.  My feeling is that the meeting they had in 1975 forever clouded her vision of a man who already had a weakness for luxury, a high view of himself, violent tendencies and other deep flaws. Time and circumstances simply brought these weaknesses to the fore, something Holland seems to have missed altogether. Despite that, I still think the book triumphs in two particular ways.

Firstly, Holland takes what is still a highly emotive subject and by applying courageous commentary and analysis, sets it within its right historical context. The book challenged my view of history and how I interpret it. To what extent do my own preconceived ideas shape how I look at the past? We must be willing to admit that we all bring different preconceived ideas to the table. That said however, we sometimes put little effort into sober, objective reflection of the past. It is much easier to make sweeping, comfortable statements. 

Secondly, the book shines a bright light on human nature in a way that can’t be ignored. There is more that unites than divides us – and I’m not referring to positive characteristics as is often meant by that phrase. Rather, negative and dark traits in us all such as greed, selfishness and manipulation. In the whole Zimbabwe debacle, we see accusing fingers point in all directions yet that will never be the source of true peace and nation-building. You know what they say: when you point the finger at someone else, there are three pointing back at you.

Those with responsibility for Zimbabwe’s dramatic descent ought to be called out, including President Mugabe. But mere punishment and public embarrassment, though necessary steps in themselves, will do little to build a united Zimbabwe if that’s where we end the conversation. Perhaps the country ought to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the coming years, as did South Africa and Kenya after their respective 1994 and 2007 general elections. That may be one of the steps to ensuring some healing in a country with a history as chequered as Zimbabwe’s.

Book rating: 3.5/5

© Chipo Muwowo, 2013.

BRICS Development Bank: More about political posturing than anything?

Photo Source: Photo/Agencies
Photo Source: Photo/Agencies

“The BRICS development bank will take shape at the fifth BRICS summit to be held in the eastern port city of Durban, South Africa, next month. The governments of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa will each make an initial capital injection of $10 billion to fund the bank, which will not only symbolize the unity of the world’s five most dynamic economies and showcase the rise of emerging nations; it will also become a global tool for “mobilizing resources for infrastructure and sustainable development projects in the BRICS and other emerging economies and developing countries”. – China Daily

Calling the BRICS economies “the world’s five most dynamic” is likely to be an overstatement of fact. Whatever “dynamic” means in this context. Nevertheless, the direction of travel around the creation of this development bank will be interesting to follow. It is intended that the bank will act as an alternative to Western lending institutions such as the World Bank. I wonder where its lending criteria will be positioned – somewhere in between the generous EXIM Bank of China and the conditionality-obsessed World Bank?

Some points to ponder:

(1) How much of this is simply about political posturing? Should citizens of the five countries (particularly South Africa) be sceptical? The implications of being involved in the project (and the grouping itself) are costly (initial capital injection of $10 billion) and therefore how these countries will benefit needs to be made more obvious to citizens.

I suppose putting your money where your mouth is is an essential part to being a member of the big boys’ club.

That said, is there really a case for a global emerging markets/developing world development bank? It’s well-known that these plans are borne out of frustration at the lack of reform in the Bretton Woods institutions but how different will the BRICS bank be to the World Bank in its actual lending?

(2) How sustainable is the whole project? An initial capital injection of $10 billion as already mentioned is no small amount. And that’s just the beginning. Given the notion that it will be different to the World Bank, will it find itself trying to be all things to all people (i.e. serving the interests of its founders while also acting as flag bearer for “sustainable development projects in the BRICS and other emerging economies and developing countries”)? Surely its founders will, in the longer term, succumb to self-interested policies leading to accusations of it acting just like the World Bank?

It all remains to be seen.

Look out for the BRICS Conference from 26-27th March 2013 in Durban, South Africa.

See our December 2012 event report, ‘The BRICS: A view from South Africa.’

‘It’s Our Turn To Eat’: final excerpt

In the final chapter of the book, author Michela Wrong laments the prevailing attitude amongst Western donors who have, by and large, been more interested in disbursing ever-larger sums of money to recipient nations than in ensuring accountability frameworks are adhered to.

She suggests that Western qualms and sensitivities are in fact encouraging political elites to become more brazen in their abuse of state resources, as well as giving credibility to governments that don’t deserve it. She writes (pp326-327):

“If they only set foot on the continent, idealistic Westerners would be astonished to hear how often, and how fiercely, politically engaged Africans call for aid to be cut, conditionalities sharpened.

Kenyan journalist Kwamchetsi Makokha is not alone in detecting an incipient racism, rather than altruism, in our lack of discrimination. ‘Fundamentally the West doesn’t care enough about Africa to pay too much attention to how its money is spent. It wants to be seen to do the right thing, and that’s as far as the interest goes.’

One of the many lessons of John Githongo’s story is that the key to fighting graft in Africa does not lie in fresh legislation or new institutions [per se]. Most African states already have the gamut of tools required to do the job. A Prevention of Corruption Act has actually been on the Kenyan statute books since 1956. ‘You don’t need any more bodies, you don’t need any more laws, you just need good people and the will’, says Hussein Were [a quantity surveyor].

Rather than dreaming up sexy-sounding short cuts, donors should be pouring their money into the boring old institutions African regimes have deliberately starved of cash over the years: the police force, judicial system and civil service.”