A Lane Called Memory: Magaisa
By Dr Alex T. Magaisa
When I returned home to Zimbabwe, I was motivated by the desire to make a contribution to the development of the homeland. That motivation remains intact. The political platform was my point of entry.
This was a world away from the last job I held in the country in 1999 before I left to pursue postgraduate studies in the UK.
Then, I was a young lawyer practising in a firm the equivalent of a blue-chip company on a stock exchange. When I left in 99, Zimbabwe was very insular – very inward looking and in many ways, a society that had little interest in what lay across borders. Whatever Diaspora existed was still very small – certainly nothing of the kind we have now.
Two years before I left, when I was still at the University of Zimbabwe, I had never dreamt of working or living anywhere else other than Zimbabwe. My generation had dreams – big dreams.
I started school in 1981, one year after independence from colonial rule. That places me in a generation that had the privilege of enjoying the first bite of the fruit of independence. It was a generation of hope.
Others dropped off the train at O Level in 1991 and either went into a job or became redundant. Opportunities were already shrinking and ESAP was just beginning to bite. Politicians urged our parents’ generation in the country’s workforce to tighten their belts. The train stopped again in 1993, upon completion of A Level, at which station others dropped off again and either went into a job or became redundant.
By then ESAP (Economic Structural Adjustment Programme) was running at full throttle and opportunities were shrinking even further. Our parents’ generation had been pushed further and further to the margins of the economy; the term “retrenchment”, hitherto unknown, became a more familiar feature of local nomenclature.
But the gap between the rich and the poor also increased. The rich were not really entrepreneurs – many of them were members of the high political class and benefitted from the rents often offered by such stations in life.
Radical news magazines like Moto dramatized the irony of the belt-tightening call by politicians with contrasting cartoons of an obese politician trying but failing to wear a belt around his thick waist and an ordinary worker having to tie the belt three times around his tiny waist for it to fit.
In those days, we listened to Edwin Hama’s vocals in his hit song “Today’s Paper”, the lyrics wherein the narrator asks if we had all seen the day’s paper and the price increases. “Have you seen today’s paper …” the lyrics still ring in the memory bank.
In a more hopeful song, his lyrics speak of “Waiting for a New Day”. He is late now, Edwin Hama, one of the finest vocalists Zimbabwe has produced over the years and may his soul rest in peace. I am doubtful though, that the new day he yearned for, ever arrived. Certainly, for many that remain today, it hasn’t.
By the time my group finished at the UZ in 1997, dark clouds had already begun to gather. The future was not looking bright. I remember sitting with a group of friends one afternoon on the famous steps of the Law Faculty at the UZ. It was mid-November and we had just come from lunch.
It was our favourite spot which, among other things, offered a vantage point from which to see, admire, comment and sometimes pursue the many beautiful ones that had little choice but to pass by our Faculty building as they proceeded to their pockets of learning.
Looking back with a more experienced eye, I guess it was harassment of sorts but hey , we were boys – college boys, uncouth probably but certainly not harmful!
The space was often occupied by the likes of my late great friend, the affable Tapiwa Muzvondiwa (the man had an infectious sense of humour – may his soul rest in peace), Ranga Muhloro, Lance Mambondiani, Ezekiel Machingambi, Lovemore Mungeni and a few others.
That afternoon I brought some unpleasant news to my group of friends. I had just heard on radio during lunchtime news that the Zimbabwe dollar had collapsed against the major currencies. Black Friday, as the 14th November came to be known, is the day some say the demise of the Zimbabwe dollar effectively began.
The primary cause of the collapse, we have often been told, was the weight of unbudgeted spending that the country’s already struggling and shrinking economy could not sustain. The Government has just awarded, at $50,000 each, handsome payouts to veterans of the liberation war who for the first time had begun to make audible noises protesting their marginalisation by the political class.
The 50K pay-out was meant to pacify this group which was now finding its voice against the Government but while it made the few very happy, it also wrecked havoc on the local currency. The war vets were very happy.
Young though we were, we were becoming politically conscious. Our department had the likes of the late Kempton Makamure who, from the very beginning, spared little effort in sowing the seed of political consciousness in the psyche of every law student.
As our group of friends discussed the crash of the Zim Dollar on that fateful Friday afternoon, someone raised our entry into the DRC War to support the embattled Laurent Kabila as yet another pressure point that the currency could not sustain. Kabila was under siege from the rebels and our Government decided to join in to support his regime. This, we were told, had not been budgeted for and the Zim dollar was strained even further.
I joined the blue-chip law firm in December of 1997, barely a month after Black Friday. Looking back, it is ironic that having started my schooling years in a year of hope in 1981, I started my first proper job after graduating at a time of creeping uncertainty and despair. It was like having started off jumping and soaring into a bright sky, one was now on the downward trajectory.
Nevertheless, joining law practice was exciting. I had always wanted to be a lawyer; to stand in court and argue my way on behalf of my clients. I didn’t care about the negative perception that sometimes attaches to members of my profession; the misconception that all we do it to defend thieves and murderers, etc. Those were exciting times.
I got myself a decent flat in the Avenues area of Harare. We hoped we would save enough to buy cars, then move out to the leafier suburbs where we believed we belonged. My good friend Tererai Mafukidze had a flat on the first floor and I was on the second.
We were the first tenants of that newly built flat. One day, if Fortune is kinder and opportunity prevails, I hope to purchase that flat – No. 25 Shingai Court – It has many beautiful memories of bachelorhood much of which are best left to the imaginative faculty.
In April of 1999, I stumbled upon an advert for a scholarship in the local paper. I applied – there was no seriousness – but to my surprise I was invited to an interview and to my even greater surprise, they thought I was a suitable candidate. To be fair, I had also been inspired by my other colleague, Patrick Masiyakurima, whom I had joined at the law firm and had left a few months before on Rhodes Scholarship.
He encouraged me to apply for further studies before he left. The same was to happen with another friend and brother, Learnmore Jongwe (may his soul rest in peace), who joined me at the same law firm, later stayed at Shingai Court, got a scholarship but later abandoned it in favour of the political career that beckoned in the year 2000. He had a great group of friends from college days who became the new leadership of the MDC – including Job Sikhala, Tafadzwa Musekiwa, Nelson Chamisa and many others whom through Jongwe also became colleagues and associates.
But no sooner had I started, did strikes and food riots begin in early 1998, led by the ZCTU. Opportunists seized on the gap to seek rents, as rent-seekers do, and went on a looting spree across cities, especially Harare and Chitungwiza. I vividly recall an image of a fellow carrying the whole hind-quarter of a cow on his shoulder, running from a looted butchery in Chitungwiza. It was hilarious but also a sign of things to come.
The Daily News first appeared in 1999, heralding a new era in the media (certainly no pun intended). We were excited to have an alternative source of news. Tererai and I would walk down Second Street, our little briefcases in hand, a newspaper in the other hand – on our way to work. Our dreams of a personal car remained just that – dreams. Things were getting a little more challenging …
(The beginning of writing our own stories, crying our own cries and singing our own songs … the next bits you will have to await the whole text)