This article is based on reflections I gathered at Independence Day commemorations in 2014.
The early morning April sun is high and hot when I arrive at Harare’s National Sports Stadium where Zimbabwe’s annual Independence Day commemorations will shortly commence. Buses and cars jam the driveway that leads to the stadium entrances, and queues of people bend and wind with the railing that runs round the circumference of the imposing structure. The long lines astound me and I wonder if these people are here for the president’s speech, for Zanu-PF, for non-partisan patriotism, or for the entertainment and soccer tourney that will follow the formal programme.
It is my first time to attend any sort of national commemorations and I am filled with curiosity, and hope that I may better understand the contradictory circumstances of my nation through this process. I am not really sure how, but I hold on to this hope.
Upon making an inquiry, I am told by a couple of policemen that journalists are to enter through Gate 17, located around the broad and steep arch of the stadium and atop a small hill. As I begin to navigate my way, a surge of people suddenly starts running and overtakes me; a woman falls and quickly picks herself up to catch up with the rest of the group. Apparently, another gate has been opened to manage the swelling numbers.
When I get to Gate 17, about ten minutes later, I am panting and sweating; the incline is steeper than I had imagined and hot spasms are burning through my legs. A soldier stands stoically, guarding the gate, a rifle under his arm.
Over the years, I have learnt to assume an affectation that makes me respectful but casual with official authority; conscious of when the less formal “Ndeipi” will be more effective than the more fawning “Makadii henyu”.
I don’t always get it right, but it is something I have challenged myself to learn since my first encounter with state power: aged 22, I am detained by the police for attempting to take photographs of a peaceful protest against hiked fees on campus at my then university in Bulawayo. It is an excruciating four hours or so, in which the riot police continually reduce me to paroxysms of tearful terror as they tell me how I will sleep under a maggot-infested blanket that night and how I will have non-stop diarrhoea from all the beans and sadza they will feed me.
My crime is a wrongful accusation of attempting to take photographs for the British press; being the only student in my class who has a camera phone at that time, I have been sent by my lecturer to try to get some photographs for our department newspaper. In the week before, another student protest on campus has been reported by the British media, prompting suspicions that there are moles within the university providing reportage for western media outlets.
During the detention, a policeman pretends to throw a teargas canister at me. As I flinch in fear, he laughs hard, infecting the rest of his men with his sadistic cackling. And it is on that day that I learn that showing fear to authority is precisely how it thrives.
The stadium is not full when I eventually make my way in. Rows of invited dignitaries and senior military officials sit under the two white tents that flank the main podium – diplomats, commanders and friends of Zanu-PF, I presume. A red carpet is spread over the race track that the president will cross from the football pitch to take his seat on the main podium reserved for ministers and other high-ranking government officials. The carpeted podium boasts rows of wine-red plush leather sofas and along its top are wreaths of flowers pinned to the red and white awning protecting the VIPs from the merciless sun. A trimming the colours of the Zimbabwe flag drapes the base of the podium while a white banner with bold black capitals informs of the theme of the commemorations.
DEFENDING OUR SOVEREIGNTY, ECONOMIC EMPOWERMENT AND SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION. ZIMBABWE @ 34.
A waiter in a white coat and gloves hovers about the VIPs, kneeling before them to serve cold drinks and food. He goes in and out of the tent intermittently and through his constant movements, I realise how thirsty I’m becoming from sitting in the open sun. No vendors are allowed onto the grassy football pitch where journalists have been assigned to sit, about 10 metres away from the main podium and tents.
For a time, we are allowed to roam freely, moving to either side of the stadium. At first to the left where Alick Macheso plays a set that rouses the audience with each twang of his guitar. And to the right where a group of women hold up a canvas banner that reads ‘Happy Birthday Zimbabwe’. The women all don Zanu-PF regalia in various hues – red, green, yellow – and sing praise songs to Mugabe as they clap and dance.
It is only when Vice President Joice Mujuru emerges from the tunnel and walks onto the track that pandemonium begins to break out. A throng of officials and bodyguards moves along with her, shoving and shouting at everyone to get out of the way so that she can walk freely. Mujuru is accompanied by a group of children who wave to the crowds in sync with her. Every now and then, she lifts her fist and shakes it in the direction of the audience; a Zanu-PF salute.
But it is the arrival of Mugabe and the First Lady, Grace, that yields the most manic response. Wild cheers erupt from the now-full stadium of about 60,000 people and the security men who flank the president are even more ruthless in their efforts to get us out of the way.
“Hey you, move! Get out of the way!” an official admonishes me.
Evidently, I am not doing an adequate enough job of it as he takes to shouldering me aside instead.
“What language do you understand?!” he asks.
I don’t answer.
Contradictions and tensions
When I encounter Mugabe – for the first time – at the African Union Summit in Ethiopia in January 2014, he is being helped to walk by two men. He is much frailer than he appears today, walking freely with just his pinkie finger linked to that of his wife. This first encounter with him is just after a period of intense hearsay about his health; it has even been rumoured – as it often is – that he is dead and that recent photographs of him at his sister’s wake have been Photoshopped.
It’s a strange mix of emotions that I experience this first time. Firstly, I am being swept along by a massive crowd of people from all over the continent, many who are shouting out to him that he is “the King of Africa.” Secondly, I am attending as part of a delegation that has a position paper on women and girls’ rights that we want to deliver directly to all heads of state. Somehow, I must navigate my way through the tide of people and engage his bodyguards so that our delegation can gain access to him. The only way I can think of at this time is to begin to shout out towards the guards in Shona. And strangely, it is this commonality that would probably count for nothing back home that makes them pay attention to me, and allow our delegation access.
“No one ever nuances our relationship to authority as Zimbabweans,” a friend says as I talk through the experience with her.
There is simply no middle ground, no space for the overlap of irrational awe, insatiable anger and bitter despondency. And so it is how local and international media have constructed the issues that we grapple with daily, and how we are therefore forced to define our relationship to authority.
And yet it often is that our rage and despondency as Zimbabweans is more complex than this: a heady mix of fascination and fear of our leadership.
And this too is a metaphor for our relationship to our nation space, Zimbabwe.
A friend one day tweets that she feels like she is in an abusive relationship with the country. I subtweet her statement, adding the words, “Welcome to my world.” Often, I feel the abuse. The dejection. The apathy. Sometimes I get angry and can’t wait to leave Zimbabwe for my next work assignment, for a fresh perspective on things. This is the same Zimbabwe that in 2008 brought us all to our knees with crippling inflation and commodity shortages that created a black market for everything from cash to cooking oil.
But at the same time, it is the Zimbabwe that we have survived throughout its ugliness; it is the Zimbabwe that I call home.
As I think through these tensions, a memory from the previous year enters my mind. I am at a Mokoomba concert, taking photographs, when I see a man on crutches. He gets up every now and then to dance and sing along. You can tell he really should not be moving so much, because there is a palpable pain in the leg that he is hobbling on. But he cannot help it. The music is emitting uncensored messages to his body, seizing him, making him get up and dance despite his circumstance. With one crutch as his anchor, he shuffles his feet vigorously, sweat forming on his forehead as his face contorts to match his painful pleasure. And once he can take no more, he lets out a grunt.
Within seconds, he returns to take his seat.
Epithets of omnipotence
Mugabe and his wife, Grace, are shaking their fists, strolling casually, smiling and waving to the crowd. A fellow journalist tells me that it is the first time in about five years that Mugabe has actually walked to inspect the guard of honour. I look at him and struggle to comprehend how he can be 90 years old.
As he makes his way to the VIP tent and podium, we are commanded to sit on the grass, our bounds demarcated by the edge lines of the football pitch. Having one’s foot or any part of the body beyond this boundary is immediately reprimanded by a portly security official who barks instructions at us.
“I said sit down! Don’t kneel! Sit! And you there, get your legs behind the line!”
Anger fills his chubby face and I think how this emotion suitably matches the stubby red tie that stops abruptly at the start of his pot belly.
The guest of honour for the commemorations is Mugabe, as I imagine he has been for all 34 years of Zimbabwe’s postcolonial history. And after a few words from the Master of Ceremony, one of the cabinet ministers introduces him, epithets of omnipotence dominating his oration.
“A dynamic leader.”
“An organic expression of postcolonial heroism.”
“A champion of the cause of the downtrodden.”
I cannot keep up with the superfluous praise and eventually stop scribbling into my notepad. As Mugabe makes his way to the podium, we are all told to stand; the same way we’d rise from our seats in primary school when an adult walked into our classroom.
Having never heard him speak live before, the sound of his voice booming and reverberating throughout the stadium startles me. It is the same voice as always, but today it consumes and commands 60,000 people. He begins his speech in Shona and tells the audience of the significance of this Independence Day happening on the same day as Good Friday. “Double double”, he calls it, borrowing from colloquial language.
Even the weather-beaten journalists chuckle.
As he speaks, the symbolism of sacrifice – of Jesus Christ and the liberation heroes and war veterans – is intertwined within a narrative about remembering those who have given over their lives to grant us freedom and autonomy. It is only the second time in Zimbabwe’s history that Good Friday and Independence Day coincide, and the opportunity is not squandered.
After about an hour of oration in which he gives glowing reports of bumper harvests, good rainfall and promising developments in mining, he moves into the English part of his speech. But before doing so, he chides us journalists for not taking notes as he has been speaking in Shona. Soon, he has the captive audience enthusiastically chanting “Pasi nemaBritish!”, a remark made to dismiss us.
Clouds begin to gather overhead and I feel my energy slowly fading. As Mugabe continues in his usual impeccable English, we are allowed to stand up and take photographs, a barricade of security men keeping us from overstepping our bounds.
Behind us stands the guard of honour: state officials dressed in bottle greens, vivid blues, khaki, grey and olive. By the time Mugabe finishes his speech, they have been standing to unflinching attention for over two hours. One of them, at the centre of the guard, has held aloft a framed image of the president, supported on a short pole, for the entirety of this time.
I wonder to myself if they are all fed a state-sponsored Lucullan breakfast as a safeguard against any embarrassing fainting spells which would contradict the president’s downplaying of mass hunger in the land.
By now, everyone knows that no speech at such commemorations is complete without Mugabe expressing vitriolic sentiments against homosexuality. Predictably, he takes liberties to digress from his 15-page speech and begins a tirade in which he tells the audience to warn organisations championing gay rights that their operations are being monitored, that any foreign diplomats who speak publicly in favour of homosexuality will be kicked out of the country immediately. He further warns that his government is prepared to punish homosexuality in the same way as Uganda.
As he renounces sex between a man and another man, he hits his fist over the platform in a way that chills my blood. His features contort angrily and his tongue lingers on the last consonant sound of the word “man”; stretched so long it vibrates through the speakers.
“We did not fight for this Zimbabwe so that it could be homosexual territory.”
The crowd is roused and is screaming, shouting, waving, ululating. I feel a childlike disorientation. Why does he hate so passionately, so unreservedly, so keenly?
As a child, I sat at home and watched these commemorations, marveling at the choreography of everything that seemed so seamless, at how the drum majorettes would throw their maces up into the sky and catch them without so much as a thought.
But today, I sit on the grass. Like a child again. But in stunned, confused, confined silence.
Brass band sounds begin to stir for the singing of the national anthem, as our flag flutters proudly into the breeze.
Simudzai mureza wedu weZimbabwe.
A version of this article appeared in Chimurenga Literary Magazine in 2014.