Zimbabwe's diasporan shame

Oct 16, 2010

Disappointed Zimbabwean singing contest hopeful Gamu Nhengu is probably not enjoying her sudden fame at the moment. In just a few weeks she has gone from almost grasping international singing stardom to being ridiculed for her family's UK visa troubles. The 18-old has particularly been pilloried for (allegedly) claiming that she is terrified that if her mother and two siblings are deported to Zimbabwe, she faces a 'firing squad' from the Mugabe government, although for exactly what reason it was never said.
The British media initially loved the story of the sad, teary, apparently terrified aspiring singer fearing to be sent home. Their collective, gleeful response at this propaganda coup was to say, 'you see, we have been telling you what a nasty character this chap Mugabe is for ages! Not only did he kick many white farmers out, you see how he would probably kill a teenager singer because of outrage at her plying her talent in Britain!'

It was all ridiculous nonsense of course. The whole facade quickly crumbled, leaving Gamu and the UK media that was once eager to use her as a tool in their obsession with Mugabe with egg all over their faces. Now it has emerged that rather than fear going back to Zimbabwe because of concerns over politics or personal safety, the naughty young woman has visited home on holiday in the last few years. As the UK paper The Telegraph put it, 'Gamu Nhengu, the X-factor contestant who is fighting deportation from Britain, has been accused of making trips back to her family's homeland of Zimbabwe to visit relatives.'

What a shame when visiting your own country, troubled or not, is seen to be fit to become an accusation! But what this latest twist in the Gamu saga shows is that while she wants to stay in Britain, it is not because she fears for her life back home in the Zimbabwe she left when she was thirteen and goes back to on holiday. Apart from squashing the claim of fear of persecution, the new holiday revelation would seem to show that Gamu's mother has done rather well for herself and her family in the UK, able to afford sending the children back home for visits. That is positive, something to be proud of until being spoiled by the awkward attempts to cling on in the UK on Zim-persecution grounds that are so overwrought as to be silly.

Zimbabwe is a troubled country just beginning to come out of a very difficult decade. Even amongst his supporters I doubt there would be many who would argue that 30-year ruler Robert Mugabe is soft and cuddly. He is ruthless when he feels threatened. But he is not known for randomly subjecting teen asylum-seekers, even famous ones, to firing squads!

Zimbabwe is a violent country, and has been for the last hundred years of its tortured history, but it's political violence is targeted and deliberate, rather than generalized and random. Indeed there are people and groups who could be said to be in the political line of fire but the majority of Zimbabweans, including the many Mugabe critics (a majority of the country's population based on election results?), are not in daily political fear of their lives.

Gamu's suggestion otherwise, and that of many other 'asylum seekers' is not only simply ridiculous and untrue, it makes a mockery of those brave people who have have been politically active enough to oppose Mugabe at the actual risk of their lives. Despite its many troubles Zimbabwe is very far from being a war zone in which someone going about their own business has to be in fear of being killed on political grounds, even if they are known or suspected to be an opponent of Mugabe.

There is nothing at all unusual about Gamu's family's attempt to do anything they can to try to stay in a country in which they perceive their life prospects to be better than at home. In that regard they are like millions of other people all over the world. And the claim of fear of political persecution at the hands of Mugabe has been a long-running scam in the UK for many Zimbabweans. This has been with the full, winking knowledge and participation of several British governments over the last ten years, partly a strategy in their fight with a troublesome Mugabe they revile.

So there are many ways in which there is nothing particularly unique about Gamu's story except that it has been played out in the media while those of most economic refugees take place out of public view.

Hundreds of thousands or more Zimbabweans have fled their country in the last decade of its political and economic woes. A tiny fraction of them may have been politically active and 'targeted' enough to do so for fear of persecution. But the overwhelming majority left for other countries because of the sharp decline in Zimbabwe's economy. Mass economic migrations are as old as the history of the human race, and they do and will continue all over the world.

The peculiarities of the mass migration of Zimbabweans to the UK has, however, had some shameful aspects because of the unique, complicated and dysfunctional love-hate relation between Britain and Zimbabwe.

The UK is reported to be the second most popular 'asylum' destination for Zimbabweans after next-door South Africa. And it must be said that Britain has been more accommodating to Zimbabweans fleeing the troubles in their country than would be expected of most countries, whether it has done so for political or genuinely humanitarian ends. (The UK government has just announced that they deem the overall situation in Zimbabwe to have improved/stabilised enough that they will for the first time since 2006 begin to again deport Zimbabweans who are out of immigration status.)

But the relative ease of entering and then staying on in Britain for Zimbabweans has been at a high cost to them. The unofficial bargain that has attracted so many Zimbabwean 'asylum seekers' to the UK seems to have been, 'if you are ready to trash your country enough to serve our anti-Mugabe purposes we will let you stay.' As a result, many who didn't have a political bone in their body at home suddenly became 'opposition political activists fleeing Mugabe's tyranny' on landing in Britain! They did this knowing the UK government would listen sympathetically to tales of political woe that fit in perfectly with their stance against Mugabe's government.

This is not to say that there haven't been people with a lot to fear from Mugabe's strong-arm government over the years and even now. It is instead to make the point that many of those who made this claim were not amongst those who were politically active and in any way in political danger. Now eighteen-old Gamu certainly wouldn't have been when she first left Zimbabwe five years ago to join her mother working in the UK in the quite 'good' job of being a nurse!

Apart form fleeing hardship, political or economic, many Zimbabweans abroad can be expected to have antipathy for Mugabe's government. It is reasonable to guess that even the many non-political people who migrated to other countries would feel resentment for needing to do so, and would blame the ruler presiding over the country at the time. In that very broad sense one could perhaps say most Zimbabweans who have gone to other countries since about 2000 were 'fleeing Mugabe,' but that is really stretching things.

The saddest aspect of all this is not that people will often resort to despere measures to seek a better life for themselves. In the particular case of many Zimbabweans seeking that better life in Western countries, and particularly in Britain, the shame in many cases has been what has been perceived by the 'asylum seekers' as the need to not just distance themselves from the oppressive ruler of the country, knowing that would play well in the countries in which they were seeking refuge, but to seemingly also ridicule their very nationhood.

In Gamu's example, an understandable need to want to continue residing in Britain meant cooking up such ridiculous claims about what fate would await her if she were deported back to Zimbabwe that it instead seems to have been counter-productive. The British media initially lapped up her absurd firing squad story, before quickly retreating when it caused ridicule and outrage for its outlandishness in Zimbabwean online forums. Gamu not only seems to have been unfairly passed over by lesser singers on the TV competition show which brought her to fame and notoriety in the face place, but has further jeopardized her family's visa application while losing much of the support of Zimbabweans who were cheering her on, presumably many 'asylum seekers' among them.

Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe are not one and the same thing. The UK media has chosen not to make any distinction between the two when it suits them, but Zimbabweans, asylum seekers or economic refugees, should easily be able to make this distinction. It must be possible to dislike or reject the country's political leadership without rejecting the country and submitting it to shame and ridicule. In the desperation to seek opportunities elsewhere, clearly many Zimbabweans have failed to do this, arguably harming their country and themselves in many ways, just like young Gamu has done. It should be possible for its citizens to disagree with and dislike the country's current rulers without making Zimbabwe the nation an object of lies, ridicule and scorn.



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