Saturday 24 August 2019

‘Something has been awakened in them...the people of Zimbabwe have lost their fear’

CELEBRATION: The new joyous mood of Zimbabwe is reflected after the swearing in of President Emmerson Mnangagwa in Harare Pic: Reuters
CELEBRATION: The new joyous mood of Zimbabwe is reflected after the swearing in of President Emmerson Mnangagwa in Harare Pic: Reuters

Fergal Keane

I've just come back from walking around Africa Unity Square. A few overnighters lay sprawled under the jacaranda. They were revellers from the endless party of the last week. There were still some purple blossoms sprinkled on the footpaths. Harare was still mostly asleep. Across from the cathedral, the soldiers sitting on the armoured personnel carrier smiled when I walked past. "How are you, my brother?" one called out.

"I am well. I am very well," I replied.

I still have to pinch myself. I entered the country posing as a tourist, as I had many times before, and fully expected to spend my time arranging clandestine meetings with contacts, looking constantly over my shoulder for spooks on my trail. I adopted many roles over the years: fisherman, birdwatcher, even travelling musician, a guise which saw me perform Bob Marley's No Woman No Cry with a Zimbabwean guitarist on the streets of a remote town.

I had just been harassed by ZANU PF thugs and decided an ostentatious performance was needed to convince them of my bona fides. So I played and sang and was joined by a passing minstrel. Between us, we convinced the heavies.

In those days Mugabe, assisted by Emmerson Mnangagwa and the generals who led the recent coup, was busy cracking the skulls of the opposition and driving white farmers off their lands. They would have gladly cracked reporters' skulls given the chance. So you will understand why I am still struggling to believe this Zimbabwean change.

Some memories of an historic week: that morning when Harare filled with hundreds of thousands of people. They cheered and sang. Soldiers were hoisted on to the shoulders of the crowd. Time and again, people presented themselves and insisted that we interview them.

This in a place where people had dreaded appearing on camera for fear of the retribution they might experience.

On the day his own MPs moved to impeach Robert Mugabe, I talked my way into parliament and was listening to denunciations of the embattled leader when two messengers approached the speaker. They handed him a letter. Immediately cheering erupted. The MPs could not have known the contents but they guessed.

The Speaker stood to address parliament. The public address system was muffled and I strained to hear him. But the words ''statement of resignation'' were clear enough. After that it was just noise. A beautiful noise that rolled out of the building and carried across the city.

On the floor of parliament I saw MPs from all sides dancing. In the middle of it all the mace bearers passed, solemn in their black gowns, no trace of a smile to compromise their neutrality.

Driving back up town, I ran into crowds on every intersection. Such joy! All the pent-up tension of decades was spilling onto the streets. But it was happening without anger. There wasn't a single incident of violence that night. Or on any of the succeeding nights.

At the swearing in of the new President I stood a few feet away from General Constantino Chiwenga, leader of the coup, and the second most powerful man in the country. Sitting beside him was Air Marshall Perence Shiri who became notorious as the leader of the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade, killers of as many as 20,000 people in Matabeleland in the early 1980s.

There were many other be-medalled and plump generals. Suddenly a loud booing began. The police chief, General Augustine Chihuri, was being sworn in and his face appeared on the giant screens above the crowds. The Zimbabwe police are a much feared institution, notorious for bribery and brutality. The booing went on and on. And on. The other generals sat listening with impassive expressions.

But for me it was the most important moment of the week. This was the response of a people who had lost their fear.

President Mnangagwa spoke of Robert Mugabe as a 'founding father' of the nation. He has decided not to launch prosecutions against the former leader or his wife. It would have been difficult to have done so without serious embarrassment. Pick most of Mugabe's crimes and you will find Mnangagwa was involved at some point. So Zimbabwe will do what it has done before. Forget. Bury the past.

After all the leader of the odious racist regime in Rhodesia, Ian Smith, was allowed to live on in comfort in independent Zimbabwe after Mugabe took over. And look to neighbouring South Africa where not one member of the apartheid regime was ever held judicially accountable for the crimes of that system.

Everybody wants to know if Mnangagwa will change or just be a new version of Mugabe, perhaps with a lighter touch and more open to the international community, but an autocrat just the same.

I don't know. But I am sure that the people of Zimbabwe are sick and tired of those old ways. Something has been awakened in them that cannot be shut away easily. The jeering of the police chief was one indicator of this. There will be more in the months to come.

Next year the country faces elections and there will be international pressure for credible monitoring. The opposition is energised and its ranks are swelling with young Zimbabweans who are demanding accountable government. This is again the country of welcome, the place I remember from the 1980s with the friendliest people in Africa. What a privilege to have been here when Mugabe fell and the people lost their fear.

Fergal Keane is a BBC Special Correspondent

'Something has been awakened in them...the people of Zimbabwe have lost their fear'

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