By Philip Mataranyia
ZIMBABWE turns 40 today in the midst of a major global health crisis caused by the outbreak of coronavirus (Covid-19), which is killing people in their thousands, daily worldwide.
For the first time since April 1980, we are celebrating our national independence in the safety of our homes as all large gatherings had to be suspended in order to contain the spread of the virus.
In years gone by, Independence Day commemorations would be marked nationwide through various activities which dominated our print and electronic media. Many would take advantage of the holiday-break to visit friends, relatives or even go on holiday to the many resorts we are endowed with, Kariba, Victoria Falls, Matobo, Nyanga, Vumba and many others. COVID-19 is changing all that, for better for worse, depending on how people of the world shall respond to the pandemic that requires us to think and act differently. I am seeing some of the lessons on how we were able to attain our independence shaping our responses to COVID-19 and to the myriad of other challenges facing our nation.
I was 16 years old when we attained our independence from Britain through the barrel of the gun and thanks to our gallant fighters whose tenacity in wedging the liberation struggle forced the colonial regime of Ian Douglas Smith to the negotiating table to end 14 years of a brutal war.
Thousands had to give up their lives for the unalienable rights that we enjoy today, while many suffered varying degrees of injury, with families getting displaced from their original homes. As they fought a heavily militarized Rhodesian army, our guerrilla fighters drew inspiration from Chinese Communist Party Leader Mao Zedong – the founding father of China – whose philosophy was that the war is won by first winning the people, coining the metaphor “the guerrilla is the fish and the people are the water”. Using this ancient technique, our fighters justified their war effort in a way that endeared them to the masses earning their love, admiration and support leading to the successful execution of the liberation war.
While the boys and girls had guns to execute the war with, the masses provided them with medicines, food, clothing, shelter, intelligence, trail-watchers and putting booby traps, among other kinds of assistance. They became inseparable just like fish and water.
Their message of self-determination was able to win the hearts and minds of the masses that were promised the right to vote which was then a preserve of whites. The boys also promised restoration of the land which had been forcibly taken from their forebears and making education and health free for all, among other pledges made by the guerrilla fighters. Together, they defeated the menacing enemy, with the years immediately succeeding our majority rule scoring huge successes in education whereby Zimbabwe leapfrogged other nations to become one with the highest literacy rate on the African continent.
Major achievements were also made in expanding and decentralising health facilities and access with economic opportunities being opened up to the previously marginalised through organisations such as the Indigenous Business Development Council, (IBDC), Indigenous Business Women Organisation, (IBWO) and Affirmative Action Group, (AAG), among others. We soon had the likes of Strive Masiyiwa and James Makamba making it in the telecommunications sector, through Econet and Telecel. In the banking sector, about two-thirds of the banks were at some point owned by black Zimbabweans.
Perhaps our major breakthrough came in the form of changes to land ownership whereby only 4,000 whites owned the best half of the land while the worst half was left to the 600,000 black peasant farmers. Thanks to the land reform programme, Indigenous Zimbabweans now own 96 percent of the agricultural land, which excludes company, church and corporate estates.
It is, however, sad that the country turns 40 today amid widespread poverty in spite of the huge potential that we have. For a country endowed with vast mineral resources, good climatic conditions and an educated populace, Zimbabwe does not deserve to be at the bottom of the pile. This is also not reflective of our reputation for being resilient and hard working.
Our biggest undoing has been the absence of oneness amongst us as a people, yet it is unity of purpose that pulled us through during the war of liberation. In every aspect of our lives, we tend to pull in different directions, with the divisions fashioned along the lines of political affiliation, race, religion, gender and creed.
The outbreak of COVID=19 in Wuhan, China and in the rest of the world is, however, teaching us to put a united front to avoid being wiped out from the face of the earth.
China, which became the epicentre of the disease, is winning the war against COVID-19 with pulmonologist Dr Zhong Nanshan and other Chinese nationals becoming the face of that country’s virus containment efforts, cutting through public confusion and disinformation about SARS-CoV-2.
In as much as ancient rules first developed by Sun Tzu taught us how a war can be fought, even with the barest of resources, I am seeing Zimbabweans from all walks of life beginning to fight this war against -19 together with government, business, labour and civic society, all working together. Given our ability to come together in the face of a common enemy, maybe we needed COVID-19 to remind us of who we are and what we can do together.
A number of health institutions that had been neglected, among them Wilkins, St Anne’s, Ekusileni, Rockford and Montagu Clinic, are being retooled and this wake-up call is revolutionizing the revival of many public hospitals. That same spirit should extend to our education, agriculture, infrastructure development and other facets of our economy that are in dire need of a revamp.
New heroes and heroines of this crisis period shall emerge and have their names engraved alongside those of the 1970s bush war, whose heroics must continue to be celebrated even as we exercise social distancing.
While the 21-day lockdown is ending at midnight tomorrow, this year’s Independence Day should assume the significance that Arabs attach to the number, which they associate with a re-birth. Being an optimist myself, I am convinced that instead of taking a turn for the worst, this could be the beginning of something good. After all the children of Israel eventually got to their Promised Land after wandering in the wilderness for 40 years.
The fight against COVID-19 should therefore form the basis upon which Zimbabweans find each other, work for each other and with each other, end international isolation and turn swords into ploughshares.
Instead of COVID-19 breaking our spirits, let us join in toasting to a more purposeful Zimbabwe going forward.
Philip Mataranyika is founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Nyaradzo Group.