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The Mass Media

The Wounded Elephant and the City Mouse

Muna Kangsen shakes hands with Elias Mudzuri, the former mayor of Harare, Zimbabwe
Muna Kangsen shakes hands with Elias Mudzuri, the former mayor of Harare, Zimbabwe

Elias Mudzuri is not a politician. Absent from him are the characteristics so common in Western politics, the measured walk, the measured smile, and the measured response to questions Elias Mudzuri is a civil engineer.

“I’ve never expected that we’d get anywhere if we don’t confront the system,” said Mudzuri.

On Friday, April 20th, Mudzuri spoke to a group of students and faculty in an event sponsored by the African Students Union and the Trotter Institute. Muna Kangsen, president of the African Students Union told me that here at UMass Boston we can sometimes forget that people are dying around the world.

“That is the reason I wanted to become president of the African Students Union,” Kangsen told me. “These things are happening right now,” he said emphatically. “You can no longer separate fact from fiction in Zimbabwe,” said Kangsen, so to hear first hand experience from “a former high ranking official, a former revolutionary, and now an exile, Elias Mudzuri,” Kangsen explained, is a rare and important lesson.

Mudzuri is the former mayor of Harare, Zimbabwe, and is currently in exile, attending classes at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Mudzuri believes that African leaders can forge a strong democracy by working honestly and openly with one another and with the disenfranchised that make up the great majority of people Africa. “African government is about talking to people in the trenches.”

“The leaders think it’s normal to loot in Africa,” he said, “It’s a club.” Mudzuri describes the political trends in Africa as “kings in a corner.” Mudzuri said that African politicians tend to be convivial and open minded up to the point when they are elected to the top government position, and then, he said, they shut off the rest of the world.

Mudzuri described the attitude of Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, as “If you’re not with me, you’re out.”

At the end of the nineteenth century, the land now known as Zimbabwe was known as Rhodesia. Rhodesia was essentially sold to and managed by the British South Africa Company under orders from Cecil Rhodes, who among other endeavors organized De Beers Consolidated Mines, Ltd. In 1923 the British South Africa Company relinquished control and passed the power to a small minority of white politicians to govern the British colony. In 1964 the white supremacist, Ian Smith became prime minister of Rhodesia. Smith had a fantasy of an Anglo Saxon dominated Africa that clashed with Britain’s new concept of the Empire.

In his first official act, Smith exiled four black nationalists. In 1965 Smith declared independence from the British Commonwealth. The situation in Rhodesia became more and more violent as black rebel groups pitted themselves against the whites in power. Smith was eventually forced to relinquish power, and in a 1978 New York Times article was quoted as saying the black nationalist militias’ presence was “worrisome and awkward.”

Mugabe rose to power in Southern Rhodesia towards the end of the 1970s. Mugabe was second in command of the Zimbabwe African National Union. Mugabe and his colleagues argued for immediate black majority rule, they used violence, ‘chimurenga’, against the white colonialists. Mudzuri told the crowd gathered on the third floor of the Campus Center that he himself and other people in his community had initially supported Mugabe, and believed that Mugabe would be a positive force and an advocate for the black majority.

“A lot of people think Mugabe is fighting for the survival of black men, but he is fighting for selfish gains,” he said, “We cannot change the past by just wishing it away or saying ‘the white man caused it.'”

Mugabe won Zimbabwe’s first election in 1980. His party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front took the majority of Parliament seats. Mugabe mobilized to form a single party socialist state. After his election, Mugabe toured the United States, stopping in Harlem, where he applauded the courage of black civil rights activists. Mugabe was a hero, and Zimbabwe was his achievement.

“We are to blame,” said Mudzuri, “We thought he was a leader.” By 1990, Mugabe had converted Zimbabwe into a one party socialist state. The Zimbabwean government was bogged down by lies, cronyism, and reverse racism.

“I saw how Mugabe cheats in elections,” Mudzuri said. In areas that didn’t favor Mugabe, people would have to wait up to forty-eight hours to vote at which point voting would be over. Mugabe’s henchmen would stall voting in opposition strongholds by standing in the voting booth all day. Voter’s cards were unnecessarily confusing. Mugabe knows that he can’t get away with as much fraud in the city, so he concentrates on manipulating rural areas. There is no freedom of speech in Zimbabwe. “Now he’s perfected the methods of cheating,” Mudzuri warned.

One of Mugabe’s greatest tricks was to plant weapons on a rivals’ property, and then send the police to discover and arrest the person. Mudzuri said that this is how Mugabe usurped his longtime rival Joshua Nkome. In February 1982, Mugabe publicly accused Nkome of plotting to overthrow the government, claiming Nkome had been “caught red handed.”

For a politician to be close to Mugabe, it meant that he must buy in to Mugabe’s corruption. Mudzuri learned that as he became more involved in government. “If you want to survive, you’d better do what we do,” a connected friend advised him.

One opposition leader was thrown down a flight of stairs, and successful farmers had their land taken away, because it was supposed that they had received aid from white people. In Zimbabwe, aid hardly ever reaches the people who need it, and farms are routinely given away as gifts to Mugabe’s allies. “A lot of people just take this land to say it’s mine,” Mudzuri explained.

“Torture and violence is a day to day thing in Zimbabwe,” Mudzuri said. Mudzuri himself was put in jail many times without ever being charged.

Mudzuri described a culture where productivity was the enemy. Most successful farmers have moved to neighboring Zambia to escape the tyranny. Mudzuri predicts that when Zimbabwean systems begin to work again, people and business will return to the country. He says that if you improve the system, people will see opportunities, and good things will happen.

“A lot of people don’t know why they’re in government,” Mudzuri postulated, slamming his fist on the podium, “They think they’re in it for themselves.”

Before he ran for office, Mudzuri never saw himself in politics. He saw the need for change, but he couldn’t picture himself at the head of a revolution. Nonetheless, Mudzuri had a talent for organization. He was encouraged by his neighbors. “If you start an organization, you get assimilated into the structures of politics, they will push you up,” he says.

Mudzuri was elected Mayor of Harare in 2002 on the Opposition Party ticket. Before that, Mudzuri was a civil engineer, educated in Sierra Leone and around the world; he ran a nightclub. As mayor, Mudzuri discovered that the water supply to Harare was in grave danger. The water supply was predicted to dry up by 2001. This problem has not yet been addressed. Starvation is disturbingly common in Zimbabwe.

The source for Harare’s drinking water is downstream from the city, and it is polluted by sewage treatment plants. Despite his admonitions, the government refused to buy the necessary chemicals to treat the water or to acknowledge the problem. Mudzuri was punished. He was harassed. His colleagues questioned his motives.

Mudzuri plans to travel back to Zimbabwe when he finishes his degree at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “After Kennedy School, I could get 100,000 jobs,” he said, “Some people call me a fool.” Mudzuri and his family are well aware of what might happen to him on his return to Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. “Don’t worry,” Kangsen told Mudzuri, “If you go to Zimbabwe and anything happens to you, we will all go and have a talk with Mr. Mugabe.”

Before Mugabe, before the devastating British regime, this region on the south east coast of Africa had its own culture. Today, Mudzuri tells me, the culture is largely overrun by Western commercialism and Christianity. Mugabe had a Catholic wedding.

Some vestiges of old culture still exist said Mudzuri. “People in my culture value their totems, which is an umbrella for a clan. The totem is usually symbolized by an animal, or the body part of an animal. People are not supposed to eat the animal or body part of an animal that symbolizes the clan totem.”

Mugabe’s iron fist has played itself out. Great groups of people have fled to neighboring countries, and the international community has recognized Mugabe’s tyranny for what it is. The group Reporters Without Borders lists Mugabe on their website as one of thirty three “Predators of Press Freedom.” In 2000, the voters in Zimbabwe soundly defeated Mugabe’s proposed constitution. Harare voted 3:1 against it. “Mugabe defeated was like a wounded elephant or a wounded lion. He is so hungry he wants to attack for food.”

“We are all in it,” Mudzuri said, “We cannot run from it. It’s only us who can make Africa be different.” Mudzuri’s eyes shimmer when speaks about traveling back to his home. He is determined to go. “Africans in The States have a lot of opportunities in Africa,” he said. His advice for people interested in traveling to Africa and getting involved is to get to know the place first.

“Immerse yourself among Africans. They don’t care where you came from. You will eat for free. They will even give you something when you leave.”

“Let the West allow Africans to talk for themselves,” Mudzuri says. In Africa, there are “a lot of people with talent who cannot move an inch from where they are, because they are not sponsored.”

Of Mugabe, Mudzuri has this to say, “The worst enemy of any tyranny… is people who watch, and we have been watching.”