My Experience in Zimbabwe (14th in a series on critical thinking)

Zimbabwe

So far in this series, I’ve been trying to trace my personal development from ethnocentrism to world-centrism. The tracing has had me recalling leaving home for the seminary at the age of 14, then traveling to Rome for 5 years following my ordination in 1966. From there I spent a year working for the Christian Appalachian Project in Kentucky, and then decided to leave the priesthood. I subsequently began my 40 year career of teaching at Berea College. My first sabbatical in 1984 took me to Brazil; that was followed by language study in Nicaragua, some teaching in Costa Rica,  where I also worked in a liberation theology think tank, and then several trips to Cuba. In this posting I tell of a mind-expanding six months in Zimbabwe — my first time in Africa. 

Fresh from my first trip to Cuba, my family and I spent 1997-’98 in Zimbabwe – this time accompanying my wife, Peggy, who had received a Fulbright Fellowship to teach in the capital city at the university in Harare. In terms of critical thinking, our experience in Zimbabwe helped me further reflect on the importance of Franz Hinkelammert’s observation about the centrality of utopian concepts in critical thinking. Zimbabwe embodied a problem that must be faced by any critical thinker in the mold of what this series intends to explore: Which utopia is a better guideline for structuring a just society – a world with room for everyone, or a market free of government regulation?

That is, if Cuba demonstrated utopian commitment to Hinkelammert’s capacious world, Zimbabwe revealed what typically happens when socialism’s goals are dropped in favor of capitalism’s utopia. Let me share with you my personal experience in the former Rhodesia, for it provides a case study in systemic critical thinking about the way social problems can implicate us all.

To begin with, the Zimbabwe my family discovered in 1997, had experienced the triumph of its bloody socialist revolution in 1980 under the leadership of ZANU (Zimbabwe African National Union). After its triumph, and unlike Cuba, ZANU was very cautious in the socio-economic reforms it implemented. True, ZANU established as its goal economic “growth with equity.” And towards that end, its policies followed the Cuban model through programs of modest land redistribution, as well as emphasizing education, health care, higher wages, and food subsidies. This required large government programs and expenditures. In those early days, ZANU devoted approximately 50% of its annual budget to such endeavors. These reforms succeeded in significantly raising living standards for the country’s overwhelmingly black and poor majority. After years of apartheid, they were finally experiencing living room.

However, from the outset, ZANU chose not to institute truly comprehensive land reform to aggressively redistribute white-owned acreage to poor black farmers. Instead, it left 70% of the country’s productive capacity in the hands of the former Rhodesia’s white settler class and under the control of foreign corporations.

Then in 1990, after the fall of the Soviet Union, which had supported socialist revolutions everywhere, Zimbabwe, like Cuba, lost a role model as well as a major source of foreign aid. Socialism seemed entirely discredited. So like other socialist countries, Zimbabwe found itself at a crossroads. Its question was that of every socialist country at the time: Should we continue on the socialist path or admit defeat and surrender to the apparent inevitability of capitalism?

Whereas Cuba, despite overwhelming pressure from its virulently hostile North American neighbor, chose to remain with socialism, Zimbabwe decided otherwise. Acceding to the recommendations of the United States and the International Monetary Fund, the country embraced capitalism and drastically restructured its economy. It lowered taxes on local (usually white) commercial famers as well on foreign investors. It cut back on social programs, lowered wages, and devalued its currency. The idea was to create in Zimbabwe an investment climate attractive to multi-national corporations, whose wealth would finance jobs and trickle down to the country’s poor masses.

When our family arrived in Zimbabwe in 1997, the effects of such counter-revolutionary reforms were visible everywhere. On the one hand, Harare seemed to exude prosperity. Downtown streets were broad, clean, jammed with traffic during rush hours, and largely absent of the beggars, homeless, prostitutes and street children we had encountered elsewhere in our travels.

The apparent prosperity was commercial too. Stores in Zimbabwe’s capital were modern, clean and well-stocked with items from all over the world. The East Gate Shopping Center was a monument to it all.  Standing at the corner of Second Street and Robert Mugabe Avenue, it was a block square mall five stories high. Entering this darkened underworld from the sun-drenched pavement outside, patrons were suddenly transported from steaming Third World Africa to very cool and exotic locations resembling Paris, São Paulo, or New York.  The transition was a day to night experience. In the mall the hour was always post meridian, brightened by shop lights, garish neon signs or by commercial manifestos with the same light-bulbed borders otherwise reserved for backstage Hollywood dressing rooms.  Four sets of glass-enclosed, stainless steel elevators whisked shoppers and office workers to their respective destinations. The layers of overhead walkways were constructed of dark green girders, pipes, tubes and mesh floors all made of hard, cold steel.  The appearance of complex, unending scaffolding and catwalks gave reluctant testimony to the unfinished impermanence of the New World Order congealed in the mall’s defiantly postmodern architecture.  At the same time, though, the formation trumpeted the fact that Zimbabwe was part of it all. East Gate housed thoroughly up-to-date clothing shops, shoe boutiques, candy and liquor stores, pharmacies, beauty parlors, sporting goods outlets, and food courts.

It all stood in sharp contrast to Cuba. During this same historical period, after losing overnight 70% of its (Soviet) trading partners, the island found itself plunged into a decade-long depression far worse than anything Americans had experienced after the Great Stock Market Crash of 1929. Survivors of the “special period” recalled that the average Cuban adult probably lost about 20 pounds. A sociologist told me “We all looked like those pictures of World War II concentration camp internees.” Yet astoundingly in Cuba, not a single school or hospital closed, and unlike European countries after socialism’s demise, there were no riots in the street, much less any   counter-revolution.

Yes, Cuba was apparently miserable under socialism, while Zimbabwe prospered under its new allegiance to capitalism. But was the difference merely apparent? My personal observation and experience with Zimbabwe’s working class and maid system made me wonder. Both showed the country’s underbelly where the vast majority lived in distressing poverty that (in contrast to Cuba) remains to this day.

Anyone could see the distress each morning. Beginning at sunup, around 5:30, a long procession of tan mini-buses transported to the city center waves of black workers from their shacks in the “populous suburbs” that had little to do with East Gate prosperity. Life there was like living in the favelas we experienced in Sao Paolo and Recife. As the vehicles arrived one after another, the waves crashed together to form a turbulent sea of humanity walking, jogging, running, frowning and chattering along streets like Alexandra Park’s Barrowdale Road.

Dressed in heavy wool sweaters and toboggan watch caps of navy, sky blue, red or black, machine operators, plant janitors, maids, gardeners and factotums hurried to assume duties in the industrial centers, or in the homes of well-off whites who meanwhile breakfasted securely behind well-locked gates invariably patrolled by huge fierce dogs. The wealth disparity between blacks and whites was there for all to see.

Each morning innumerable underpaid and overworked maids bravely made their ways from the Chitungwiza slum to Alexandra Park and other white sections of Harare.  It was the same “maid systems” we had encountered in Brazil and throughout Central America.  Actually, I realized, it’s a step below slavery.  At least in the slave system, owners had to provide food, shelter, clothing and health care for their workers and offspring.  With capitalism and the “maid system,” the master class could wash its hands of such concerns, pay a pittance, and leave the maids to figure out how to take care of their children and make ends meets.

Yet I have to admit that in Zimbabwe, we found ourselves cooperating with that very system. And using maids made us complicit in the exploitation of workers throughout the Third World.  The wage we paid our maid was the same Nike workers received in Taiwan — $1.50 a day.  The hours she worked were as long as theirs — twelve. The ideological justification for not providing higher pay was identical as well. “We know the wages are terribly low,” employers everywhere in the world have said from time immemorial. “But if forced to pay more, we’d have to go without employing these people at all; we simply couldn’t afford them.  As a result, they’d be laid off and have no income.  At least under the current arrangement, they have some money coming in.  Moreover, if as an individual, I could afford to pay more, it wouldn’t be fair to other employers who might not be able to do so.  It would just create tension between them and the maids they’ve hired.  We’re trapped in a system without a just alternative.”

This is the sort of contradiction Zimbabwe revealed to me – including in our own lives. So who was better off, Zimbabweans or Cubans? Which country made the better choice? Whose utopia is preferable? And should our family have cooperated with the one Zimbabwe’s governing elite chose? Answering questions like those reveal the essence of the critical thinking recommended here. What do you think?

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

One thought on “My Experience in Zimbabwe (14th in a series on critical thinking)”

  1. Hi Mike,

    I distrust structural theories (e.g., economic structural theories of capitalism, socialism, communism). Some of them have done better than others, but mostly in places with a homogenous society: the Scandinavian countries are now showing a dark side with the influx of immigrants. And Cuba, for all its achievements in the face of adversity, did not connect with the life of the people at the bottom: q.v., “Dirty Havana Trilogy.” Loved that book for its ability to convey the experience of life at the bottom. I guess that’s one of the benefits of having countries that suppress writers: we get a chance to experience the other side of life as the writers are pushed to the bottom.

    What works for me is Systems Theory of organization for process, and the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for values the systems must serve. Systems have to form from the bottom up in order to take into account life as it is lived. They then have to rationalize boundaries with other systems. All of of this has to exist to serve the protection of our inalienable rights.

    The systems that form in the hinterland of Zimbabwe are likely to be very different than the systems forming in the slums of Havana. To be responsive to life as it is lived, they have to be different.

    None of this can happen from the top down. Discussions of whether this structural theory is better than another are all from the top. Time after time these structural theories have been used by those in power to maintain and extend power. Enough, I say, enough.

    And then there’s the problem of how do we get there from here. Systems Theory of Organization has some possible answers to that but who am I kidding? Are those in power going to give up that power to determine other people’s lives? The big difference in the current moment is that the lies are being shown for what they are much more quickly than in the past. Nothing else has changed, regardless of the structural model. Lies, suppression, and repression have been the tools of those in power for recorded history. If those in power were to read (and understand — I have my doubts about that) your forthcoming book on critical thinking, that could indeed make a difference. That’s, as the saying goes, a big if.

    thanks,

    Hank

    Like

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