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Zimbabwe: Years of Hope and Despair

Philip Barclay

(Bloomsbury; US: Oct 2010)

“Mr. Philip, we are so pleased you are here, but do you really think there is hope?”


It is midnight on 29 March 2008, the momentous date of elections for all levels of Zimbabwean government, from local council right up to president. The location: a polling station in Masvingo, Zimbabwe, where the results have just been announced. Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition party candidate for President, has won this precinct by a large majority over Robert Mugabe, who has ruled the country since it gained independence in 1980.


The questioner is a policeman. Mr. Philip is Philip Barclay, a British diplomat who, for the first time in the two years since he arrived, dares to think that the answer might be yes; yes, change could finally be coming to Zimbabwe. The policeman’s question and Barclay’s tentative response are both underlined by a pleading and precarious mixture of belief and disbelief. In those early hours and days after the election, hope was so a precious commodity that it needed to be shared to be validated. It was almost as if, after years without it, people needed to remind themselves of exactly what the emotion felt like. 


Barclay served in Zimbabwe from 2006 to 2009, and his book, Zimbabwe, is the story of the country during these tumultuous times. Although subtitled “Years of Hope and Despair”, after reading the book, it is clear that hope and despair did not deserve equal billing. Except for the most optimistic of people, those who can see the hope in almost anything (and they do exist, especially among the tireless advocates for human rights in Zimbabwe – how else could they keep going?), for the vast majority there was only, at most, 14 days of real hope, the kind of hope that causes your heart to soar. These 14 days began at midnight on that fateful day in March 2008. They spanned the announcement that Tsvangirai’s party had won Parliament, and encompassed a time when people still believed that the Presidential election results, once announced, might produce similar results.


Two weeks later, people knew that the dithering and dallying over the release of the Presidential election results could only mean one thing – Mugabe was scheming how to cling to power. Reality set in: the reality that the human instinct for self-preservation, no matter what the cost to others, reigns supreme; the reality that violence is power; and the reality that a small few can make decisions that cause death and torment, and completely obliterate the nascent hope of millions. In July 2009, after several months of terrorizing the population, Mugabe “wins” a run-off election. Barclay’s important chronicle of critical years in Zimbabwe’s history might be more aptly subtitled “Fleeting Days of Hope, Grueling Years of Despair”.


Zimbabwe has faded from the headlines, perhaps because the stories remain the same: political gridlock, economic crisis, human rights abuses, hardships for everyday people. How many times can we expect journalists to write the same story?  All the more reason to read this book. Media interest is fleeting. Ambassadors, political officers, aid workers all finish their tours and move on. However, as Zimbabwe considers new elections in 2011, this book becomes a vital record of what happened after the 2008 elections, and what could very easily happen again.


In Zimbabwe, Barclay deftly mixes recent history with personal stories of his experiences, including a bone-chilling confrontation with a threatening government operative he names “Mr. Nasty”. His writing style is brisk and lucid, but not cold or self-important. Uniquely for a diplomat, Barclay does not take himself too seriously. In the introduction, for example, he describes “using a series of sharp-elbowed and duplicitous maneuvers” to quickly move up from third secretary to first secretary in the British Diplomatic Service.


This phrasing is reminiscent of his pithy, well-received blog entries, which he wrote for the Foreign Office website during his tour. The informality of these blogs showcases a more audaciously colorful style, one that is both funny and telling. An excerpt from 19 January 2009 reads: “Now Harare’s water ain’t great for drinking, fortified as it is by large amounts of the charmingly named but deadly Vibrio cholera bacterium. But I do still find it helpful for flushing toilets and miss it now it’s gone.” If you are a fan of Zimbabwe, re-reading Barclay’s old blog posts is a pleasure that breathes even more vibrancy and life into the words of his book. For a third perspective, you can peruse Barclay’s articles for The Guardian and The Sunday Times; they were written under the pseudonym Sophie Shaw, as unaccredited journalism was illegal at the time.


When Barclay arrived in Zimbabwe in 2006, he, like most first-time visitors, was in awe of the scenery, the amazing weather, and the friendly people. He writes that “I soon worked out why the country’s story is so grim and tragic… It is because everything is going backwards.” The truth in Zimbabwe is not visible in the long strings of sunny days, but in the darkness of well-protected government buildings where decisions are made, the townships where there is no electricity, and the nights when political thugs can come to your home and turn your life upside down. Barclay says that “[d]uring my three years in Harare, I saw so many failings and endings” – hospitals stopped admitting patients that did not have foreign currency, teachers stopped coming to school because they were barely being paid, factories shut their doors. Just before Barclay departs, the Zimbabwe dollar meets its demise after the Reserve Bank issues a last-gasp 100-trillion dollar note that is almost immediately worthless.


As Barclay points out, Zimbabwe is not a failed state like the Democratic Republic of Congo or Somalia, where there never was reliable infrastructure, a well-educated population, or a functioning government that provided services to citizens. Zimbabwe had all these things. And now it does not. Except for the 14 magical days in 2008, for every day of the three years described in Barclay’s book, things were just a little bit worse than the day before.


In February 2009, Tsvangirai and Mugabe signed a Global Political Agreement that made Tsvangirai the Prime Minister. Around the same time, the country officially began allowing the use of foreign currency, which has had a positive effect on the economy. Today, a new Constitution is in development. So, Mr. Philip, do you really think there is hope? In the end, Barclay’s answer is a very qualified “maybe”.

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