The other side of the Limpopo, part one: How Zimbabweans deal with ‘xenophobic’ violence

The other side of the Limpopo, part one: How Zimbabweans deal with ‘xenophobic’ violence

In this, the first part of an ongoing series detailing how Zimbabweans deal with the repercussions of the violence in South Africa, RICHARD POPLAK meets the head of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, and the busiest man in the local universe.

The Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition is located in a sprawling Rhodesian-era bungalow on Samora Machel Avenue, in the Harare suburb of Eastlea. The house’s history as a middle-class manse is now so completely erased that the business within seems like it’s been going on forever. The Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition is, as one would expect from a country terminally in crisis, always busy. Today is no different. And yet Director McDonald Lewanika is happy to make time for a chat.

“I smoke in public,” he tells me when I walk into his cigarette-swamped, Mad Men-ish office. “I hope you don’t mind.”

Lewanika is a big man with a deep voice dressed in a black suit, who understands that the trouble confronting his countrymen at home and abroad is a feedback loop of violence and shame. The so-called “xenophobic” or “Afrophobic” violence that bedevils Zimbabweans in South Africa is little more than a reflection of the violence that bedevils Zimbabweans at home. It isn’t Zanu-PF leaders who get their heads staved in during South African township flare-ups; they arrive in Pretoria on VIP jets to a hero’s welcome. No, if anything, this is a war on the marginalised that doesn’t acknowledge borders, because borders are funny things in Africa: they exist and they don’t exist, spectral at one moment and immutable the next.

And so Lewanika presides over the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, a growing market that includes almost four-dozen institutions, all slamming their collective heads against the wall of the Zimbabwean condition. “We run with issues from an advocacy perspective,” Lewanika tells me. One of their more pressing issues at the moment is the disappearance of the young journalist Itai Dzambara, who had not been heard of for 84 days, eight hours, four minutes and five seconds as of this writing. Most activists believe that Dzambara is in the hands of the authorities, and those hands are not being particularly gentle. It is therefore worth noting that President Robert Mugabe, currently chairman of the African Union and sitting chair of the Southern African Development Community, still presides over a country in which journalists go missing for 84 days without a trace.

More to the point, CIZC was also concerned with the five million Zimbabweans who have gone errant over the course of the past decade, a massive community of migrants that slipped away into South Africa in order to make a buck or two. They left following two great economic disruptions: the first was fast track land reform that properly began in 2000, a phenomenon that is most commonly understood in the West as a sustained attack against the country’s six thousand white farmers, but is just as easily understood as an assault on tens of thousands of black farm workers who happened to fall outside the ZANU rubric. The second was Operation Murambatsvina, the great urban clean-up that was initiated in order to sweep away opposition support in Harare and beyond.

Regardless, the Zimbabwean brain was drained, the best educated and more moneyed fleeing for opportunities in the finer suburbs of Johannesburg, while the poorest set out for the townships and improvised communities on the fringes of South Africa’s cities. Neither cohort was untouched by the violence that first flared up in 2008 and then again earlier this year. But African foreign nationals in general, and Zimbabweans in particular, are never properly safe in South Africa. And that can seem less like an accident and more like design the closer one gets to the source.

“Our government’s response with regard to xenophobia has not been as supportive as we would have liked it to be,” Lewanika told me, after he’d butted out his cigarette. “There is a lot of shared political and economic elements that could have been used as leverage. And they have not done so.”

When Mugabe visited South Africa in April of this year, his first state visit since 1994, the president gave some muted, mumble-mouthed criticisms of his hosts, but offered none of the raging fulminations for which he has become known. “Zanu-PF said they would protest,” continued Lewanika, “but they never did. Shared interests between our political elite put all talk of boycotts to bed. Money basically prevailed over morality.”

Is Lewanika suggesting that there was some sort of complicity between the governments?

“I just think that interests, mainly economic, stopped our government from being more vociferous,” is all he would say. “We believe our government could have spoken louder.”

And so unfolded one of the odder footnotes of the recent “xenophobic” outbreak, albeit one that occurred far from the locus of the violence. CIZC, in a joint action with almost 90 civil society organisations, decided to register their disgruntlement. “We wanted to press the South African government to do something about these criminal acts,” said Lewanika. The group of several hundred marched past the South African embassy, and then made for downtown Harare. The cops, Lewanika told me, were twitchy, and the fact that several protesters were wearing Itai Dzamara t-shirts made them even twitchier. Assuming the protesters were making a run for the media centre and about to stage a Dzamara protest, the police stepped in. They clubbed protesters at will, breaking the leg of at least one woman. “Quite a number of protesters were injured,” said Lewanika.

Despite all of this, on 24 April CIZC, along with a number of other institutions, were able to sit face to face with South African president Jacob Zuma in order to register their concerns. Represented by an activist named Joy Mabenge, this was a closed-door meeting that was meant to conjure as little press hoopla as possible. The participants then held a highly regulated press conference, in which they put forward three (rather anodyne) points: the government of South Africa needed to protect foreign nationals; more focus needed to be placed on the socio-economic roots of the violence; and Zuma needed to pressure his peers to get their own houses in order so that migrants didn’t have to make a run for it every few years.

Indeed, Lewanika, along with most of CIZC, may be disgusted by what happens to Zimbabweans in South Africa, but they’re focused on Zimbabwean crises, and therefore can’t help understanding the “xenophobic” phenomenon as a Zimbabwean failure.

With this in mind, I found in the organisation’s lobby a copy of The Legal Monitor, the headline of which read “Sofarsogood? Zimbabweans suffer humiliation at home and abroad 35 years on.” The header referred to the hashtag campaign that accompanied Zanu-PF’s 35th Independence celebrations, one that seemed to be modeled on the ANC’s “Good Story to Tell” election slogan. While the Zanu leadership pimped it at various functions, their countrymen across the border were having a less than stellar time. All of this was happening while a vicious internecine fight for succession unfolded—no one knows who Zanu’s next leader will be; all the players are waiting for the other guy to make the next move. This hasn’t resulted in a leadership vacuum so much as a stasis during which nothing that happens matters, because it belongs to a regime that has already died, but one that isn’t quite buried yet, and is most dangerous in this zombified state.

Understandably, ZICC would like the next bunch to be somewhat kinder than the current crop of sjambok-happy goons. Whether or not that is the case remains an open question, because no one knows who will emerge on the other side of Robert Mugabe’s (imminent?) death as leader-in-waiting. So nothing will change for Zimbabwe’s migrant population until all of the politicking flushes itself out.

Which it will, won’t it?

According to Lewanika, it both will and won’t. “Our take on the entire issue is, yes, the South African government needs to do more. Secondly, when this was breaking, I said what everyone calls ‘xenophobia’ does not happen in Sandton. So it is a class issue. These people are vulnerable, they are running away for political or economic reasons because they are political or economic refugees, which will require political or economic solutions at home if we want to solve it.”

Does anyone want to solve it?

Lewanika shrugged his big shoulders. The answer was so obvious it was barely worth stating. DM

Photo:  Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe(C) makes a fist, the symbol of his ruling party Zanu PF, to Daluthando Phelekeza Mphoko (2 – R), grandson of new co-Vice President, Phelekeza Mphoko (L), during a group picture after the two new Vice Presidents’ swearing in ceremonies, State House, Harare, Zimbabwe, 12 December 2014. EPA/AARON UFUMELI


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