Thanks to much-celebrated African nationalists, I am politically independent but in desperate need of freedom. Some would argue that, despite glaring income and standard of living disparities, those living in South Africa, with its world class infrastructure and liberal constitution, are better off than other Africans. If freedom was that simple, I would be one hell of a happy Zimbabwean. As it stands, I am at a loss as to what extent South Africans are ‘free to choose’, given the vice-grip that the ANC ruling party has on the country’s political system and stuck with a populist president burdened with all manner of accusations. But I have my own country to worry about.
Robert Mugabe and his coterie of grateful cronies have good reason to deliberately confuse independence with freedom. To them, it is a pastime fraught with gainful patronage. They may fool themselves, but they cannot fool me, or even other progressive Africans. Ironically, we often concur that independence has strong strains of self-determination, devolution, self-rule and self-governance. The point of departure depends on where we position ourselves on the ideological spectrum, because with even a limited knowledge of liberalism, anyone will know that communism, socialism, authoritarian dictatorship, popular leftist zealotry and ‘executive’ monarchy would not offer, by any stretch of the imagination, a morsel of true freedom. Zimbabwe labours under the yoke of post-colonial nationalist dictatorship which pretends to allow citizens to play, worship, learn and move at will. Yet looks can be deceiving. True freedom has nothing to do with anarchy or constitutionalised multi-party democracy. Freedom is when the state keeps clear of my life; allowing constitutional institutions meant to safeguard my personal liberties to do their work, unimpeded.
Mugabe, like his counterparts in Zambia, Mozambique, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Lesotho, Swaziland, and, to a lesser extent, South Africa, epitomises this poisonous conflation of independence and freedom. It is impossible to be an executive president for 37 uninterrupted years in a free country. When institutions and processes that govern electoral independence have been perverted with patronage and cronyism, citizens like me cannot approach the polling station with an open mind. When state media, the police, the army and traditional leaders are contaminated with patronage, designed and paid only to sing praises to an incumbent president and the ruling party, that is not freedom. When those like me with opposing political views cannot access public media institutions; cannot gather in public spaces to preach the alternative view without attracting the wrath of the police, that is not be freedom. Even in the case of South Africa, State Capture deprives citizens of true freedom.
Is it freedom when close to three million Zimbabweans have been hounded out of a country that cannot sustain their professional and economic interests? Is it freedom when 80% of employable adults are etching subsistence livelihoods from vending stalls and underdeveloped crop fields? What about thousands of teachers who struggle on pittance salaries; thousands of civil servants who cannot afford decent shelter and food; or thousands of sick people marooned in public hospitals with no drugs – would that be our version of African freedom? I could tell you about Mugabe’s cronies who siphon millions of dollars from diamond mines; continue to haemorrhage state companies and benefit from state tenders to line their own pockets. Would I assign that to my freedom?
Tell me about a justice system that confines innocent political activists to uninhabitable prisons; allows ruling party politicians to buy votes as thousands of their supporters access food relief – is that freedom? How free am I when I drive on roads that are filled with pot holes, inundated with police check points while Mugabe squanders millions of dollars on numerous international flights? What about a defunct railway system and electricity supplies that are routinely interrupted – is that freedom?
Besides, these so-called nationalist governments have perpetrated the most heinous crimes on their fellowmen, in the name of sovereignty. Imagine if Ian Douglas Smith had murdered 20,000 white Rhodesians, would he not have been classified as a modern-day Adolph Hitler? In the fight for independence, Mugabe’s ZANLA forces inflicted the most callous acts on thousands of villagers they labelled sell outs. These despicable acts of unwarranted violence were never documented. The momentum of murderous retribution on political opponents was carried over to Entumbane, Gukurahundi, commercial farm invasions, Murambatsvina and 2008 elections in the so-called ‘era of freedom’. Even as you read this, hundreds of human rights activists continue to be harassed while private citizens are denied independent radio and television broadcast licences.
There is no true freedom that impoverishes its citizens, decimates industry and sends millions of young citizens into exile. There is no true freedom that rigs elections and compels villagers to vote for a party they do not support. There is no freedom that allows party deployees to monopolise state institutions to frustrate local governance. There is no freedom that deprives a country of own local currency and allows millions of citizens to spend cold nights outside banks queuing for $50 in coin withdrawals. That is why I insist: thank you Mugabe and your fellow nationalists for independence but, for crying out loud, show me my freedom.
Author Rejoice Ngwenya is a writer and head of COMALISO (Coalition for Market and Liberal Solutions) in Zimbabwe. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.