How Zimbabwe hurts its own image

Dec 2, 2010

 Zimbabwe has long ceased to be just the name of a country. 'Zimbabwe' has evolved into a word and concept with deep, often disparate symbolisms for people all over the world. It is astonishing the amount of daily attention that such a small country not at war continues to garner on a continuing, daily basis.

In certain quarters 'Zimbabwe' represents all that is wrong with Africa: economic dysfunction, political dictatorship, entrenched official brutality, no rule of law and so forth.

Others look at the same country and same set of basic data and instead see a rare shining beacon of an African country boldly trying to take its economic destiny into its own hands in the face of powerful international forces resisting those efforts.  

So what exactly 'Zimbabwe' principally represents depends a lot on who you are and how you see yourself and the world.

There are a lot of articles on this website about how Zimbabwe's ruling Mugabe government has a lot of grievous wrongs against the people it rules to answer for, but how also many times the shrill emotionalism of the western and particularly British attacks against are overblown and counter-productive.

Mugabe's government is now long past accepting any responsibility for any of the country's any ills. For them, everything wrong in Zimbabwe can be laid firmly at the door of 'the many powerful imperialist enemies conspiring against us because we don't toe their line and refuse to be their colony again.' Every failing of the country is blamed on the "machinations" of those evil imperialists. The Mugabe's sole defense now against solving any problem is, 'we could do so much more and would like to for 'our people' but our noble hands are tied by the many efforts of the powerful evil enemies to make us ineffective and to remove us from power.'

As the years have gone by since Mugabe's controversial expropriation of once white-held farms, there has
indeed significantly increased hostility towards him in western quarters. It is hard to accept that this is primarily because of the economic and humanitarian consequences to the majority of Zimbabweans of those actions. The blatant present kith and kin sympathies of a western world that was not so concerned about the welfare and 'human rights' of black Zimbabweans when Rhodesia was white-ruled are one big reason Mugabe today can continue to wear the mantle of a towering anti-imperialist hero in a significant part of the non-Western world.

But despite this convenient and occasionally even plausible defense for him to hide under, regularly the casual brutality of his regime reveals itself.

An example:

Zimbabwe prisoner treated for exposed intestines

A Zimbabwean prison official says a man who spent two months in prison with his intestines hanging out has been taken to the hospital.

Harare Remand Prison's superintendent says suspected motorcycle thief Baos Chimwanza was taken to the hospital Tuesday after appearing in court. The judge sent him to the hospital and postponed his trial.

Chief Superintendent Billiot Chibaya says Chimwanza was shot in the stomach when police tried to arrest him in September. He has suffered with a protruding intestine since. Chibaya said Wednesday the prisoner uses colostomy bags to cover his intestines and takes painkillers.

The prison official says Chimwanza was taken to a hospital Oct. 11, but has not returned since. The prison doctor would not comment on his condition.

This story would be horrific if it happened anywhere in the world. This prisoner's experiences were wrong and inexcusable on so many levels, and reflect an institutional failure and callousness that is unfortunately not at all unusual in today's Zimbabwe. The attitude was probably 'if he hadn't been an accused thief he wouldn't have been shot in the first place, let him suffer. The fact that he is 'suspected/accused' rather than convicted woul have made little to no difference to the prison officials who for two months had no trouble 'hosting' a prisoner with his insides hanging out. Not that his being convicted would have any more justified his treatment.

This story first appeared in the Zimbabwe government's own The Herald newspaper. Many news agencies were so struck by it that they featured it and this story made the rounds of the world media. The excerpt above was from The Washington Post.

The un-necessary to state but clear, obvious subtext to the story and its featuring in many international media was, 'see the state/level of mercy/human rights in Zimbabwe, or rather the lack of them.' To readers who for years have been bombarded with the message that Mugabe is a frightening vampire who sucks the blood of his people for fun, the response to this story would likely be , 'oo, all those stories about him must be true if this is how the country's prison authorities treat a disemboweled petty thief.'

This is a particularly gruesomely arresting story, but the sad factor of the matter is that casual cruelty against ordinary Zimbabweans at the hands of officialdom has become quite entrenched in the country.     

There is no suggestion in the story that this man's suffering reflected 'official' prison policy on the treatment of prisoners. The 'system' clearly failed him and itself on many levels.

It is also true that whether this was neglect, incompetence or willful cruelty, this kind of prisoner abuse is probably not uncommon in many countries, even if this particular case if particularly blood-curdling. Therefore it is unfair to paint this as a particularly Zimbabwean or Mugabe-inspired phenomenon.

And yet that is exactly how many foreign readers would read the story, and it is possible that is the unspoken context in which media outlets like The Washington post found The Herald's article so newsworthy, as confirmation of Mugabe The Big Bad Wolf.

Sadly, the undercurrent of contempt for the citizens reflected in this prisoner's treatment is now quite deep in Zimbabwe, and that cannot be excused by whether the same, similar or worse does or would happen anywhere else. And for an embattled government with a particularly poor world image, stories such as this are far more damaging than if they happened in most other countries       


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