By Phillip Thomson
Sitting in a lecture theatre at Australian National University, it would be strange to think one of the students studying international relations is a woman close to the centre of a country’s historic transformation.
Jacqueline Zwambila, Zimbabwe’s top envoy to Australia, not only holds the title of ambassador but also of pupil. She says, ”My fellow students do not know who I am.”
The grandmother, former public relations entrepreneur and political activist is two years into her first diplomatic posting – and is expected to return to her part-time evening classes in 2013 after an enforced gap year prompted by a heavy bout of diplomatic work.
Australia is a challenging post for a first-time head of mission. It is more important to Zimbabwe than ever. From 2005-06 to 2007-08, Zimbabwe received $5.6 million of Australian aid, according to AusAID. Since the start of 2009 it has received $177 million.
”Zimbabwe was a dirty word when I came here [in 2010],” Zwambila says. Australia now sends more aid to Zimbabwe than any other African nation.
Zwambila sits in her office inside her country’s embassy in O’Malley, a modest building not far from the Iraqi embassy or the diplomatic base from which the Syrians were recently kicked out by the Australian government.
Looking down on us is a portrait of President Robert Mugabe. It is interesting because it was Zwambila’s opposition to Mugabe that essentially brought her to Canberra.
As part of the Movement for Democratic Change, she supported Morgan Tsvangirai. Tsvangirai is now the Prime Minister in a unity government formed in 2009 after Mugabe led a political campaign laced with vote-rigging and violence in 2008, actions which prompted international indignation.
Today there is a three-part coalition made up of Mugabe’s party, Tsvangirai’s party and Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara’s own Movement for Democratic Change faction.
Zimbabwe is a country made up of tenuous political agreements. There are two Vice-Presidents, both from Mugabe’s African National Union Patriotic Front party. There are two Deputy Prime Ministers, one from each of the Movement for Democratic Change groups.
As these power deals were struck it was Zwambila, a Tsvangirai supporter, who was chosen for the Australian posting.
When an allegation surfaced that in late 2010 Zwambila had stripped naked in her Canberra office while admonishing members of her staff, it was reported that Mugabe supporters had perpetrated the smear. Zwambila fought back publicly by suing for defamation.
She says she has reached an out-of-court settlement with Nationwide News, which reproduced the original story from a Zimbabwean publication, and she is still pursuing one journalist who wrote the story in an African paper. If someone is looking to needle Zwambila, it won’t be easy.
Her father was an entrepreneur who started as a bookkeeper and ended up building supermarkets and cocktail bars. It was a time when the highest an African could rise in society was to sell groceries, or become a teacher.
Growing up, Zwambila attended an elite multinational school, a school with white kids. A place where Africans such as her were excluded from sports such as netball.
It was a lonely time. There was no protection from racist teachers while at the same time she did not have the option of running away. Zwambila had to stay to receive an education her parents were working hard to pay for.
”I’ve had to fight the whole system,” she says. ”I’m a fighter.”
That same aggressive spirit to survive and achieve can be seen, she says, in mothers who run households in Zimbabwe. Homes which somehow save the money to send children to expensive university courses in Australia. The ambassador doesn’t believe being a diplomat is any more of a challenge because she is female. Once you have the position, she explains, it is up to you how you use it. And besides, she has encountered a lifetime of challenges to get here.
Zimbabwe at the moment is drafting a constitution, which could be voted on in a referendum as early as the end of this year, and the country also faces another election process next year, which may be held as early as March. It will be an attempt by the country to move beyond the tenuous power-sharing deal under way at the moment.
Australia assists Zimbabwe with institutional strengthening, such as helping the revenue office collect taxes. While Australians rank number two on the list of tourists visiting Zimbabwe, Zwambila wants to see more Australian investors move on from their ”wait and see attitude” toward her country.
”We have the second-largest platinum and diamond deposits in the world,” she says.
In early 2011, however, it was reported that Rio Tinto agreed to give up a 51 per cent stake of its diamond mining operation, a situation enforced by so-called indigenisation laws to bring ownership into local hands. The law is controversial, even within the government, and has delayed expansion by Rio Tinto, but she insists that Zimbabwe wants to engage with the world.
If Zwambila could take some sort of distinctly Canberra influence back to policy-makers in her home country, it would be the capital’s use of open spaces.
”The peace and quiet of Canberra is actually quite beautiful,” she says.
”We tend to cut down the trees and build high-rises.” CanberraTimes
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