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“Anthem for Uncle Bob” (Reprise)

March 11, 2011

Now, Dear Reader, after the previous blog entry’s long-winded history lesson, you might wonder what else, outside of developing a penchant for cyber-lecturing on African politics, I have been up to at DITSHWANELO – The Botswana Centre for Human Rights.

Continuing with last week’s musical accompaniment, I’ll refer to Johnny Clegg’s “The Revolution Will Eat Its Children (Anthem for Uncle Bob)” to best capture what thoughts (many outside the realm of politics alone) I’ve been thinking over the past few weeks of my internship. I’ll also fill you in on the details of the Zimbabwe Children’s Rights Exhibition that  DITSHWANELO – The Botswana Centre for Human Rights conducted at Marulamantsi Community Junior Secondary School) over February 28th to March 4th.

At the exhibition, my colleagues and I explained the human rights situation in Zimbabwe and how it has affected Zimbabwean children to the school’s students. We were able to share with them interviews we had conducted with Zimbabwean children who had fled the economic and political turmoil to South Africa. As unaccompanied minors, these children were among the most vulnerable children living in South Africa. Sadly, most of them seeking asylum did not meet government requirements for refugee status and were, as such, deemed illegal immigrants. To DITSHWANELO’s knowledge, at least some of these children have been deported to Zimbabwe, coming dangerously close to a violation of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention’s principle of not returning refugees to countries where their lives may be threatened. This principal is commonly known as non-renfoulement.

We were also able to discuss with the children their feelings about what the Zimbabwean children have experienced, their opinions on the political situation of Zimbabwe as well as their knowledge and enjoyment of their own rights and responsibilities as children. Some of the children were extremely affected by the images they saw and things that they learned at the exhibition. (Several of the displays featured photographs which Amnesty International has used to document human rights abuses in Zimbabwe). In accordance, we have made efforts to ensure that these children receive appropriate psycho-social support.

For me, what was most heartrending was listening to the stories of the children and of the two Zimbabwean refugees who were helping us to conduct the exhibition. Studying refugee issues in the lecture hall by no means prepares an individual for the emotional realities of working directly with such populations. (But, I’ll write more on this issue in my next blog entry, once DITSHWANELO has completed another research project interviewing refugees residing in Botswana on their access to socio-economic rights such as health care, education and employment.)

Working with children is probably one of the best exercises for the intellectual mind. The questions children ask sometimes have a simple black and white morality that helps to clarify issues of right and wrong that adults can sometimes make complicated or even cloud over as we to accept lies or justify unethical conduct under certain circumstances. This is certainly true in the political realm. For instance, many children did not accept the prioritization of state sovereignty or self-determination as a justification for the international community to abstain from more pro-active approaches. “Mugabe is bad, they should remove him,” many children said.

But at other times, children ask questions that no one else thinks to ask, or in ways that jaded adults have not stopped to considered. This has been so useful for me, as I have been forced to pause and re-evaluate my own assumptions which form the basis of the types of questions that I ask. While a documentary film entitled “Are Dictators Ever Good?” is to be screened at DITSHWANELO’s upcoming annual Human Rights Film Festival, the Zimbabwean question that I am most preoccupied with at the moment is Were Dictators Ever Good?

Mugabe’s corruption has certainly betrayed high hopes Zimbabweans had of him at the onset of independence. This, I think, is the tragedy of Clegg’s song – of Zimbabwe … ideals once nurtured, a president once revered, the disintegration of them all, but the strength to carry on in pursuance of those once-held ideals. This is encapsulated perfectly in Clegg’s lines, “I’m so thankful I got to love you / You are the reason I survive.”

But, as I ponder the existence of any residual goodness in dictators, this line also makes me feel a smattering of sadness and wistfulness for the man that Mugabe was once said to be and the love that Zimbabweans had for him. It is as if the man Mugabe once was (and maybe not just the ideals) is what the people were thankful to have loved and the reason they are surviving to find a better future for their country. Of course I’m not Zimbabwean, so I hesitate in speaking for anyone for whom that is their country of origin, but I certainly have empathy and genuine respect for their situation, resilience and spirit.

These feelings led me to contemplate Mugabe’s character throughout last week’s exhibition when I was asked the same question by tens of students (maybe more than a hundred): Why doesn’t Mugabe give up power? There seem to be a variety of possibilities (likely, the truth is a combination of many of them; others, perhaps, were true before but are not so true now):

  • Optimism: Desire to right past wrongs he’s done to his country with a tenacious intention to never give up until he’s returned prosperity to Zimbabwe.
  • Pessimism: Relentless hunger for power with no intention to cede it willingly.
  • Self-Preservation: Fear of prosecution for human rights abuses he has committed. If he steps down from power he will likely face trial by the Zimbabwean people and go to prison (or perhaps face execution or banishment).
  • Peer Pressure: Mugabe is willing to cede power, but his inner circle of advisors or supporters who have benefitted from power and privilege over the past 30 years are not. They also would likely face prosecution for their crimes.  As such, Mugabe has been pressured, perhaps threatened, into maintaining power.
  • Strategic: Holding onto power long enough to force the MDC into merging with the ZANU-PF in a manner much like he handled the revolt of the ZAPU (the party which merged with Mugabe’s ZANU to form the ruling ZANU-PF after independence). If this is the case, then we must refer back to options 1, 2, 3 and 4 in order to decipher the answer to the indomitable question of why?

And that, Dear Reader, is where my quasi-political musings have ended. By way of sign off, I will leave you with some of the more thoughtful reflections on things I’ve remembered in Botswana and putting into practice what I’ve learned along the way.

First, as my colleague said to the children at Marulamantsi School last Monday, “Human rights begin with helping your neighbour.” Lately (in Canada too), I’ve been caught up in my own work, adventures and anxieties that I think I’ve let this principle fall by the wayside. In the final month of my internship and back at home in Canada, I’m aiming to slow down and find time to exercise this principle every day.

The other tidbit of wisdom – or perhaps astute guesswork for a brighter future – is something my Mom has said to me sometimes whenever we get into any sort of debate or friendly discussion on the subject of development: “Change will come from the artists,” she says.

Now I can’t say whether this is true or not, but when I think about the outrage and sadness that the Marulamantsi students felt at the abuses of their fellow children and the sincere letters they wrote to their Zimbabwean counterparts, I imagine the school’s 657 children taking up the chant of the “Anthem for Uncle Bob.”

With this song (and others by Johnny Clegg), the wave of emotion that songs like “Waving Flag” and “We Are the World” sent rippling across North America and other far off places, as well as pockets of activism from Bono, John Lennon and others, I often find myself agreeing that it is the artists who (at the very least) will be instrumental in making people care about other people and places that do not immediately affect them.  Change, of course, cannot come if there is nobody who cares. Somebody – everybody – must stand to demand it.

Sala Sentle, thuso moagisanyi!

(Stay well, help your neighbour!)