By Sizo Nkala
In Zimbabwe, the cadaverous Covid-19 pandemic has gripped the apex of the country’s political leadership. Three government ministers and a retired top ranking army official succumbed to the Covid-19 pandemic in rapid succession in a space of a week.
Ellen Gwaradzimba who served as Manicaland Minister of State for Provincial Affairs died of Covid-19-related complications on the 15th of January 2021. Five days later on the 20th the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, retired Lieutenant-General Sibusiso Moyo succumbed to the virus.
He was a key figure in the military-led ouster of the late former president Robert Mugabe in November 2017. On the night of the 22nd the Transport Minister Joel Biggie Matiza and the former Commissioner-General of the notorious Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services (ZPCS) who was also a retired Major-General, Paradzai Zimondi, died of Covid-19.
Moyo, Matiza and Zimondi were buried at the National Heroes Acre on the same day. Six months ago the Minister of Agriculture Air Marshal Perrance Shiri died on the 29th of July 2020. He also succumbed to the same disease making it a total of four cabinet ministers to lose their lives to the ravaging virus.
While death is ordinarily and perhaps universally greeted with sombernes and sorrow, the recent and rapid deaths of the Zanu-PF bigwigs have elicited polarized and starkly contrasting emotions among Zimbabweans. Evidence that even the most sacred of our cultural customs and moral principles are not immune from our divisive politics.
On the one hand are the ruling party members and supporters who are solemnly mourning their fallen leaders. On the other hand are Zanu-PF opponents who seem to be celebrating or at least swearing that they will not mourn the deaths of their oppressors.
They argue that the ruling party has done nothing for them other than making their lives miserable through corruption, human rights abuses and violence. They cite the contrast between the opulence and affluence of the ruling party leaders and their associates and the grinding abject poverty which consumes the lives of the majority of Zimbabweans.
Appalled over their heads by this ‘abominable’ behaviour, those whose sympathies lie with Zanu-PF quickly draw-out the cultural card. They accuse their compatriots of lacking Ubuntu which prescribes collective sympathy and sorrow in the event of a misfortune such as death.
The Zanu-PF spokesperson Simon Khaya-Moyo posted on his twitter account counselling that “wishing for the death of political opponents is unAfrican. Ubuntu is being stronger together”.
A local newspaper, the Daily News, which of late has been charitable to the ruling party came out guns blazing. The paper thundered at “the depth of depravity that has been exhibited by a few pinheads who have celebrated the death of people linked to Zanu-PF”.
In places the paper labels the behaviour of those who have not shown sympathy as “shocking witchcraft”. However, doubling down, the other camp is quick to quip back reminding the sympathizers that it’s the corruption and incompetence of the same Zanu-PF leaders which has collapsed the country’s healthcare system.
When the healthcare professionals protest the poor conditions in hospitals, they argue, they are battered and brutalized by the police. As such, now that Zanu-PF leaders cannot skip the border as they usually do to seek attention to their ailments, they are facing the consequences of a health sector that has crumbled under their watch. The underlying tone being that those who died deserved their fate.
It is clear that Zimbabweans are at loggerheads and there appears to be no common ground. The pandemic has aroused and amplified political differences and divisions and set the country sliding dangerously towards Manichean politics of good against evil.
We are losing our shared sense of right and wrong on account of politics. We are shredding age-old cultural customs that have long defined our civilization and gave us a sense of identity. There is need to take perspective before we reach a point of no return.
It is true that Zimbabwe has become one of the poorest countries in the world while its political elites have become some of the richest people in the world through plunder and looting. The country is ranked 157th out of 180 countries in the prevalence of corruption.
State institutions are consistently used to repress dissenters in the most egregious of ways. Today the Zimbabwean state cannot provide basic public goods like decent jobs, justice, health, education, roads and food security among others.
Millions of Zimbabweans, young and old, have had to migrate to countries like South Africa or take on informal jobs to earn precarious livelihoods in dehumanizing conditions. All this while the Zanu-PF elites and their associates live their best lives untouched by the economic disaster around them. However, the Covid-19 pandemic should be a moment of reflection for the political elite.
The money, power and wealth which has made them look invincible over the years cannot shield them from the rampaging virus. A robust and well-resourced health system and impartial and effective law enforcement could have gone a long way in containing the pandemic.
Instead of invoking Ubuntu and insulting those who struggle to sympathize with the deaths of their leaders, the ruling party should look in the mirror and understand why an otherwise decent citizenry would breach sacred cultural values. Without acknowledging their mistakes and committing to change, the ruling party’s appeal to Ubuntu sounds self-serving and insincere.
Just as important, it is understandable that people may express unsympathetic sentiments when their perceived tormentors perish. However, while such sentiments may not be motivated by bad intentions, they do encroach on and erode cultural customs and moral values which ground our shared identity and humanity. Cultural and moral values that bind us together are the starting point in nation-building. In their absence, the nation will have no ground on which to stand.
Celebrating and even wishing for the death of your political opponents is certainly not the most effective way of convincing them to change their ways. Especially if they are in power and you need concessions from them. It only reinforces their perceptions of you as evil and unpatriotic.
Politics becomes a vicious circle of two camps defined by their mutual hatred of each other. Already the government spokesperson Nick Mangwana has recklessly insinuated on his twitter account that doctors linked to the opposition may have assassinated Zanu-PF leaders under their care. This is dragging politics down a perilous path and no side will win.
The economy, people’s livelihoods and thousands of lives have fallen prey to the coronavirus pandemic. Now cultural and moral values are taking a hit. Their weight and importance is diminished by Zanu-PF’s convenient invoking of Ubuntu while its government is happy to maim, kill and abuse dissenters exercising their human rights.
Our cultural and moral values also take a blow when, under the urge of otherwise justified anger, Zanu-PF opponents breach the most sacred of cultural customs and celebrate the death of their political rivals. We should not let politics trample on the very foundations of our civilization.
Sizo Nkala is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.