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The untold story of Cecil the Lion

By Tamuka Chirimambowa

Cecil the lion was virtually unknown in Zimbabwe before the international media campaign that followed his shooting by American hunter and dentist Walter Palmer just outside Hwange National Park at the beginning of July.

Tamuka Chirimamboa
Tamuka Chirimamboa

I first heard of him on international news programmes and social media platforms, and so did most of my friends. It was even amusing when I first saw Facebook posts about Cecil. It was only gradually that other truths behind the story began filtering through.

Much has been said and written about the rights of animals, the decimation of the tourism industry in Zimbabwe and the inadequacy of natural resource conservation efforts there. However, less well known is the pillaging and plundering of strategic national resources by the politically connected elite since Zimbabwe ‘took back’ its land [1].

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The questions that Zimbabweans need answered are: Who is Honest Trymore Ndlovu, the owner of the farm on which Cecil was killed? How did he come by his land? What farming activities does he practise? The answers will help peel back some of the layers behind the story of Cecil.

Let’s go back in time about 15 years, to when the Zimbabwean government first introduced the deeply problematic accelerated land reform policy known as the Fast Track Land Resettlement Programme in 2000.

This ushered in an era of intense social upheaval (jambanja in Zimbabwe’s Shona language), in which violence and patronage were not only closely linked but normalised. In this new relationship between state and society, this unholy pair quickly became the only method for deciding how wealth was redistributed in Zimbabwe.[2]

The fact that most Zimbabweans (including myself) had to learn about the existence and demise of Cecil the lion from the Western world reinforces the truth of a popular dictum among former colonial farmers: ‘We gave them the politics and remained with the banks’.

This acknowledgement of the lack of genuine transformation of the economy[3]  speaks volumes about the economic illiteracy of Zimbabweans and punches holes in the notion that the Zimbabwean state ever genuinely radicalised[4] or dealt with decolonisation[5].

An online search shows a number of news websites parroting the description of Honest Trymore Ndlovu as a ‘prominent’ farmer from the Gwayi-Shangaan area, yet what remains a mystery is what makes him prominent.

On the surface Ndlovu comes across as a nonentity – a character that the mainstream media is (consciously or unconsciously) allowing to fade, depending on editorial lines. For the popular narrative in Zimbabwe, Ndlovu has to be portrayed as an ordinary farmer, even a villager, for a closer look at his true identity may open a Pandora’s Box.

Ndlovu is a member of the ZANU PF elite, a party functionary in Matabeleland North, and a beneficiary of the Fast Track Land Reform programme. The killing of Cecil the lion is not something new in Zimbabwe as such activities have been going on unabated while the politically connected plunder national resources at all levels of the state.

The only reason the general public came to know of Cecil’s death was that, unbeknown to Ndlovu, Palmer and his guide, professional hunter Theo Bronkhorst, this time their bounty was part of a study by Oxford University (one of Her Majesty’s citadels of higher learning). It was the GPS tracker on Cecil’s collar that gave them away.

Examples such as the intense fights over the Save Valley Conservancy in Masvingo province in the past five years, pitting ZANU PF factions against each other; the displacement of emerging small farmers from Manzou Farm in Mashonaland Central by the first family to pave way for the establishment of a game park containing the ‘big five’ wild animals earlier this year;

…..and the controversial business dealings between safari mogul Charles Davy – father of British Prince Harry’s former girlfriend Chelsy – and former ZANU PF commissariat and government minister Webster Shamu all attest to how the political elite have cloaked their personal accumulation projects in the language of indigenisation and black economic empowerment.

Honest Trymore Ndlovu is not just a farmer. He represents the nature of the leadership, state-society relations and accumulation norms and patterns that have emerged in the Zimbabwean society since the Fast Track Land Reform programme began.

The prevalence of street vernacular terms such as Madhiri, MaGames, Tsoro, Zhet and Maths Dzanguin Zimbabwe’s general lexicon routinely sanitises and even nods approval to graft, indicating a society that has been corrupted right to its marrow.

Economic literacy matters, and this is an important thread emerging from the death of Cecil the lion. The fact that most Zimbabweans had not even heard of Cecil, let alone knew that we had the right to be notified of his death, speaks volumes to under-investment in research and development by African nations.

Ironically, Gwayi-Shangaan is near Lupane State University, an institution that is dedicated to the study of indigenous fauna and flora. It has been silent when it comes to enlightening the nation about the potential value of Cecil.

The depletion and looting of alluvial diamonds in Chiadzwa, and the bankrupting of parastatals and government entities like Air Zimbabwe through corruption and underhand dealings, attest to the wishful assumption that resources are infinite. Sadly, our children will be left to learn that neither diamonds nor lions are forever.

Access to both public office and the civil service has become a vehicle for personal accumulation as rents can be collected at any given administrative or political level. The untold story of Cecil is that we are now in the ‘morning after’ phase of the party-political chauvinism behind the Fast Track Land Reform programme.

The politics of populism is not sustainable and the bubble has burst. James Ferguson, in his book The Anti-Politics Machine, argues that development policies have both intended and unintended consequences, hence the need for policy authorities to think things through as thoroughly as possible before adopting any policy direction.

The story of Cecil the lion needs to be placed within its historical context – a context of the political economy of violence and patronage that has emerged since the Fast Track Land Reform programme was launched in 2000.

Only then does the urgency of policy reform emerge in areas such as natural resource governance, economic transformation and mass economic literacy. This applies to post-colonial Africa at large, for these are not Zimbabwean problems only. Nevertheless, opportunities still exist for policy authorities to address the many questions raised in this piece. As the saying goes, better late than never.

Tamuka Chirimambowa is currently studying for a DLitt. et. Philosophy in Development Studies at the University of Johannesburg and has worked extensively with civil society in Zimbabwe and South Africa, on issues of human rights, governance and democracy, migrant’s rights, economic policy and social justice.

This article was initially published on Democracy Works


[1] See Hanlon, Joseph, Jeanette Manjengwa, and Teresa Smart. Zimbabwe Takes Back its Land. Kumarian Press, 2012.

[2] Lasswell, Harold Dwight. Politics: Who gets what, when, how. New York: P. Smith, 1950.

[3]Chirimambowa, Tamuka Charles. “The Rise and Fall of the Indigenous Business Development Center in Zimbabwe.” (2007).

[4] Moyo, Sam, and Paris Yeros. “The radicalised state: Zimbabwe’s interrupted revolution.” Review of African Political Economy 34.111 (2007): 103-121.

[5] Hammar, Amanda Julie, Brian Raftopoulos, and Stig Eduard Breitenstein Jensen. Zimbabwe’s Unfinished Business: Rethinking Land, State and Nation in the Context of Crisis. Weaver Press, 2003.