By Jack Mapanje
Zimbabwe: Challenging the Stereotypes. Robert Mshengu Kavanagh, Themba Books, Johannesburg, South Africa, 2014. Pp 427.ISBN 978-1-5001-8624-1 (pb), 230 rand, US$24.99.
If you do not know the history of Zimbabwe you will find this book fascinating. Kavanagh has provided a non-taxing, perhaps oversimplified, story of the origins of the complex subject of stereotypes. I like the way he traces the indirect geneses of the stereotypes from the history of Mwenemotapa’s empire, the Nguni incursions, the missionary factor, the colonial legacy and its impact on the nation, the development of the first, second, third chimurengas and other stages in the struggle for Zimbabwean independence, the complicated Zimbabwe economy which was devastated by IMF and the World Bank through their structural adjustment programs, the struggle of Mugabe’s street children and of ordinary Zimbabweans who effectively still wrestle to govern themselves in spite of Mugabe’s government– all these are well sketched though they often read like oversimplified blogs on complex subjects.
Kavanagh’s reliance on stories, anecdotes and personal experiences to talk about the stereotypes of a nation is clearly daring. A non-historian challenging the stereotypes about Zimbabwe is not alone; historians like Terence Ranger and others; Zimbabwean novelists such as Yvonne Vera, Chenjerai Hove, Shimmer Chinodya, Dambudzo Marechera, Tsitsi Dangarembga or poets like Musa Zimunya and other cultural workers; these and more have passionately challenged the roots of diverse stereotypes people have about Zimbabwe. Their in-depth analyses have provided challenges that cannot be easily surpassed by non-analytical blog-like gatherings of stories, anecdotes and personal experiences, which Kavanagh offers.
Of course, Kavanagh would argue that his book is not about challenging cultural stereotypes as presented by writers and historians. He is challenging largely prejudices that Westerners and their journalists have against Robert Mugabe and his government. And in many respects Kavanagh’s observations about life for the rich and for the poor in Zimbabwe applies to many African countries today. The president and his first lady’s life-style, both stinking rich, their corrupt bureaucrats, the resilient ordinary people who thrive and stubbornly govern themselves in spite of the officials they elected for the purpose, the food and fuel shortages, load-shedding, pot holes on the roads suffered by ordinary Zimbabweans including the street kids – all these observations read like descriptions of African countries we know elsewhere; Kavanagh’s eye is sharp.
The problem appears when he begins to defend the indefensible, when he selects one problem after another and tries to justify Mugabe’s treatment of them. Consider the stereotypical notion of Robert Mugabe as a dictator. ‘What is a dictator and to what extent can Robert Gabriel Mugabe be said to be one?’ Kavanagh asks and he answers, ‘The way I see it, a dictator is someone who wields total power and tells everyone what to do. A dictator does not like anyone to disagree with him.’ Kavanagh then provides further instances where he does not consider Mugabe a dictator though the Western international press calls him so. He eventually concludes: ‘So I think we can safely say that when it comes to the press and the freedom of the press, Mugabe was no dictator’ (pp.69-70). I am not convinced of the arguments that lead to this conclusion.
For instance, Kavanagh believes that Mugabe is not a dictator; Mugabe only speaks his mind; you do not become a dictator by speaking your mind. He observes, ‘That is why he told Blair to keep his England and let him, Mugabe, keep his Zimbabwe’ (p.73). The view that the IMF and its structural adjustment programs have impoverished many African countries, including Zimbabwe (the so-called ESAP), has been exhausted by historians and others. Kavanagh has nothing new to offer.
Kavanagh’s defense of Mugabe against the Western stereotypes of his country is revealed in the incident he records between him and Dambudzo Marechera early in the book. Marechera tells Kavanagh that people think he (Kavanagh) is a supporter of ZANU-PF, which influences his position. Indeed Kavanagh concedes that he has cast only two votes in his lifetime: one under apartheid in South Africa, the other for ZANU-PF. It is obvious then that Kavanagh’s defense of Mugabe’s politics and Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown under him has early roots.
Finally, I do not know how many books the family publishing house, Themba Books, has printed or intend to print. Zimbabwe: Challenging the Stereotypes is well printed. I wish the book was less costly and light in weight.
Jack Mapanje, Visiting Professor, York St John University
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 77 (Winter 2015/16), pp. 147-148]