Stories from Dangamvura | Watching Zimbabwe’s bubble of joy burst, facing a new reality

Marechera reading in First Street Mall, Harare, during the International Book Fair Harare in August 1983. © Tessa Colvin

In this instalment of Stories from Dangamvura, Chris Kabwato remembers the social divisions at the University of Zimbabwe, and watching a country’s bubble of joy bursting, slowly.


The biggest club beat in Harare in 1988 was probably a dance/electronic/house song by Kraze called You Want the Party Started Right. We rocked that tune at Brett’s Nite Club like Armageddon was upon us.

Decked in our baggy trousers and suede shoes, we did the shuffle dance – a ridiculous move of the upper body, rocking back and forth with arms in some lazy boxing position, head jerking like some malfunctioning robot.

Music aside, reality was beginning to seep in slowly into our student life through the lectures, reading material and assignments.

The magic of the import licence

Out in the real world of Ha-ha-ha-ra-re, our ever-enterprising people were working out which avenue of the economy could bear some hard cash. Recognising early that manufacturing or setting up proper industries was too cumbersome, we learned about something called the import licence that you could obtain from the Trade and Commerce officials at Mukwati Building. It was a prized piece of paper in a country where every industry enjoyed protection and inefficiency. New cars were in short supply. Preowned cars cost an arm and a leg. Desktop computers were a novelty. Electronic typewriters were in vogue but expensive.

Enter the briefcase man, a toothpaste smile, a suit from Barons Modique and Topman, or a navy-blue blazer bought on account from Sales House. The briefcase man took down the orders from the parastatal where he knew the buyer and had arranged for a kickback, invoiced in advance, got paid, flew to Botswana or South Africa, bought office equipment (cash registers, calculators, printers, typewriters, toner) and bond paper.

The briefcase man set up offices in town, rented a flat in the Avenues, drove a Nissan Skyline and entertained generously with Saturday afternoon drives to Spillway.

I should not try to play some holy dude here. In 1990, my friend Kidza asked me to be his sales representative as we tried to sell an electronic Olivetti typewriter. He spent the evening explaining to me the key features of the machine and how it operated. The next day we went to the offices of the potential buyer. I must have looked ridiculous in my cousin Sinoni’s grey and white striped formal jacket, a floral tie, green pants and borrowed brown shoes. We pulled off the sale and Kidza, all great for a touch, rewarded me handsomely.

When university is not an equaliser

Whilst some were minting it, others in the real economy were beginning to tighten their belts as the suave and beguiling Minister of Finance Bernard Thomas Gibson Chidzero introduced measures to balance the books of a government that did not seem to appreciate numeracy.  

Even on the island called Mount Pleasant, you could not escape the contradictions that were emerging in our young nation. Social class was something you confronted at UZ. There were three main groups: the Nose Brigade, the SRB (strong rural background) and the ambivalent township cats that could play the ‘nose’ game for strategic purposes. Still, one could not help but marvel at the privileges of the rich.

My roommate at Manfred Hodson Hall was a personable fellow who had come from St George’s, drove a Mitsubishi Lancer, had a boombox and his circle of friends comprised the children of Harare’s political and business elites. Like Lazarus, I did not mind the crumbs he threw my way. 

The social class could reveal itself in subtle ways. At the end of each semester, there was the little matter of catching a long-distance bus back home. If your homegirls Monica and Immaculate decided that they had extended enough credit, you had to devise a plan to raise the $10 bus fare to Mutare. One option was liquidation of assets – selling your treasure trove of empty beer bottles at Groombridge or Bond Street Shopping Centre. If you were still short, you moved to flogging some of your books – a painful, embarrassing and necessary act.

Ethnicity and regionalism popped their heads during Student Representative Council elections. Our seniors from Manicaland gave us clarity on how the voting should go. We did not need to read some manifesto. If the candidate that had been recommended happened to be charismatic and widely admired, the better. We loved our firebrands, especially if they could throw in some Latin and finish off with the flourish of ‘No Retreat. No Surrender. Victory is Certain.’ Verbosity. Bombast. Braggadocio. Now that was how to communicate.

The growing consciousness – the Marechera influence

Although we could barely understand Dambudzo Marechera’s novella House of Hunger, we revered the rebel artist. We relished anything we read about his confrontation with authority, whether it was with Minister Edison Zvobgo at the 1984 Book Fair or in his acerbic barbs in his book Mindblast. We read and recited his poem Oracle of the Povo well before we landed at university:

Her vision’s scrubland
Of out-of-work heroes
Who yesterday a country won
And today poverty tasted

In the poem we could see echoes of the Samson Paweni scandal and the minister who enabled matters:

Her vision’s Drought Relief grain trucks
Vanished into thin air between departure point
And expectant destination

Buddy, we called him, as if he lived next door. But he did not. His death in 1987 was a blow that took us more than a decade to recover from. In August 1988, Flora Veit-Wild organized a memorial event at the Africa Unity Square. Significantly, university students Tendai Biti, Enock Chikweche (later Munyaradzi Gwisai), Nhamo Mhiripiri, Munodawafa Mararike and several others were in attendance.

The revelations of the corruption of government ministers and officials at Willowvale Motors by the Sandura Commission was the final nail in the coffin of our euphoria. By the time we read Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth and pored again and again over the chapter titled The Pitfalls of National Consciousness, we sensed we were just another post colony. The pomposity and pride of being Zimbabwean was wearing thin – fast. The Kenyans had led the way with Jomo Kenyatta setting aside the ideals of the people’s struggle for the new Wabenzi Tribe.

Ngugi tries to show a new nation a new path

The Zimbabwean struggle had been one that ignited the imagination of many progressives globally including Bob Marley. At the birth of our nation so much goodwill poured in and manifested itself in various ways such as in the Pan-Africanists (from the continent, the Caribbeans and the USA) who visited or relocated, the demobilisation programmes, the expatriate teacher programme, music concerts, the songs, the new bands that were formed, the conferences, the summits, the state visits…The Pied Pipers had given us a gem of an album titled People of the World Unite with title song exalting us:

Revolution is the only way to free man from slavery

And it’s only like yesterday that man was like a toddler

And he still is a toddler in mind

All you people of the world unite!

In the wake of the failed coup in Kenya in 1983 against Daniel Arap Moi, intellectuals such as Kimani Gecau, Shadrack Gutto and the late Micere Mugo and Ngugi wa Mirii escaped to Harare to avoid political persecution or worse.

It was ironic that in 1987 the Minister of Education and Culture Dzingai Mutumbuka invited Ngugi wa Thiongo to give the keynote address at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair (ZIBF). I am yet to hear an address on Zimbabwe, in Zimbabwe, that is more profound. Zimbabwe Publishing House (ZPH) felt Ngugi’s speech was so important that they distributed copies of it in a 16-page A5 black and white cheap bond paper format. But the words were not cheap. I bought my copy of the address at Kingstons Mutare and for some time it was like some religious text to me.

Ngugi’s address titled ‘The role of education for a national culture’ was a lecture, a call to arms, an exhortation, and advice delivered in a patient, illustrative and vivid manner:

“…in a class structured society, or in a situation where one nation or race or class is dominated by another, there can never be any neutral education transmitting a neutral culture. For the oppressing class or nation or race, education becomes an instrument of suppression, that is an instrument for the conservation of the prevailing social order; and for the struggling class, race or nation, it becomes an instrument of liberation, that is, an instrument for the social transformation of the status quo. In such a society, there are in fact two types of education in mortal struggle, transmitting two opposed types of culture and hence two opposed consciousnesses or world outlooks.”

Unaware of our lived experience, Ngugi had nailed the contradictions of the new nation – an educational system that looked towards an egalitarian ideal and a government of big-bellied men emptying the national cashbox. We had seen how, in the first two years of independence, the school curriculum (especially Geography, History and English) had begun to shift positively to centring Africa, centring Zimbabwe. By the time we got to UZ in 1988, we found degree programmes such as Politics and Administration, Law, English Literature and Drama warmly shaking hands with Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Kimani Gecau, Tawana Kupe, Kempton Makamure, Shadrack Gutto and Issa Shivji represented lecturers on the radical spectrum despite their different public personas.

A confrontation with a chameleon state was inevitable.

The black boot and the march towards a patriotic nation

The famous university student demonstrations of 1988 and 1989 consciously positioned themselves in alliance with Peasants and Workers. Years later, I chuckle at the peasants’ part and the naivete with which we believed we were in the same struggle. The encounters with the black boot (Support Unit/Gondo Harishari) were a sobering experience. The smell of tear gas, the burning eyes and eerie cat-and-mouse game with the baton-wielding enforcers brought into sharp relief the simmering tensions. Something was breaking down…

Youthful dreams and the nightmare of history

When our group of graduates joined the ranks of the employed in the period 1991-3, we still had dreams bigger than ourselves. We still thought about the ‘people’, about the endless possibilities of reinventing ourselves and our country. In my final offering of this series, I shall look at the various characters that came together, dreamt and put forward concrete plans for the nation.

They were, in many ways, my generation’s prophets and dreamers.