COLUMN | A country always on the brink: globally entrenched narratives on Zimbabwe

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By Takura Zhangazha

I remember being interviewed by a journalist for a global media house some time ago during the November 2017 “coup-not- a coup” in Zimbabwe.

In the pre-recorded interview, it appeared he preferred an editorial slant that would respond to the general popular view and ‘relief’ that the long duree president, Robert Mugabe, had finally been removed from power and how of course as with news journalism the public mood as seen via army mediated demonstrations in the capital Harare should be reflected in analysing events as they occurred.

Given the fact that he considered me an analyst, I went out of my way to break down what I considered the complexities of events.  These included my own perspective that the November events were primarily a direct result of the ruling Zanu PF’s party lack of an internally acceptable succession plan, as opposed to any popular uprising.

And that where he considered the military factor as decisive, he would probably need to view the latter within the context of divisions among war veterans of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle and not in a typical ‘army simply takes over’ perspective.

Inclusive of the fact that SADC as the primary regional oversight body on Zimbabwe was likely to be a bit more nuanced in its approach to the events depending on how they panned out.

My perspective on the matter did not make the final cut of the story that eventually appeared on the news channel.  I did not follow up with the journalist colleague as to why this was the case.  But I understood the probable reasons.

My views did not probably suit three criteria; firstly, the editorial position of the global media house and, secondly, the target audience – especially in the global north – of the story and their own pre-conceived understanding of the prism through which political events in Zimbabwe must be understood. That is, a basket case of a country. There was the very real possibility that the journalist, if he failed to file a story that suited the editorial slant of the media house, he was probably not going to get paid.

The same is possibly true for local state media controlled narratives, though I must confess to not being interviewed by them in a long while on any major events in Zimbabwe.

But, judging from their own content, again there is a predisposition toward pushing specific editorial lines that are sympathetic to the ruling establishment or alternatively seeking out audiences with empathy for the same.

Shifting narratives

In the three years after November 2017, these narratives have again shifted due to a number of factors.

While the global media and its target audiences sought a Zimbabwean success story made in their own image, the leaders of what is now referred to as the “Second Republic” presumably failed to meet these standards, especially after the 2018 general elections and every subsequent major international meeting where Zimbabwe came under some sort of global scrutiny.

The ruling establishment has, however, been trying its damned hardest to still fit into this entrenched narrative that it is still in the short term least likely to win.  This is not only via its embrace of global neoliberalism, but also by way of insisting on ‘re-engaging’ those that would sooner see the back of it.

On the other hand, the mainstream opposition has sought to also harness the same said global narratives because these are backed by powerful countries in the global West, while also claiming greater proximity to the leaders of these same said global powerhouses and the singular ability to ‘unlock’ immeasurable wealth.

In either of these cases, what becomes clear is that the entrenched narratives about what Zimbabwe is or can be are not necessarily about the people of Zimbabwe.  By default, they will reflect sentiments that are to be found on the ground in relation to popular or populist opinion. But, in the final analysis, it would appear that the approval of them will be found elsewhere.

Zimbabwe: always on the brink

This is an existential dilemma for Zimbabwe. There can be more serious conflicts between Armenia and Azerbaijan, or an escalation of COVID-19 cases in Western Europe, but Zimbabwe will always hog a news headline or two.

This does not just stem from journalism, but more significantly from entrenched narratives. Even when the neo-liberal IMF projects economic growth in our country, this is less significant and not in merit of follow-up stories and analysis in the immediate.

We are a country that is assumed to basically always be on the brink of catastrophe, globally, and in some cases internally as a result of the former. Unless, of course, there is a globally anticipated and accepted narrative of change, as viewed and accepted by others.

In all of this, we lose track of values, principles and, in some cases, facts about our own country. Instead we seek more what we want to hear and from whom we want to hear it, than what we should pragmatically know and come to understand.

What should happen is that we own our own Zimbabwean narratives more. And that we come to understand issues and events in the fullness of our own national contexts and our general placement in global politics. Where we do not own our narratives, others will gladly step in and casually decide, in ephemeral moments, what suits their own interests.

I will end on an ambiguous anecdotal note.

In an interview with a journalist, the late Tanzanian leader and Pan-African luminary Julius Nyerere was asked about the African proverb, “When elephants fight it is the grass that suffers”. He laughed, and said that he had once used that same proverb with the late Singaporean founding leader Lee Kuan Yew, who retorted: “When elephants make love, the grass also suffers, no?”

Nyerere also laughed at the counter narrative. But the African proverb has never changed.


Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (