A few minutes ago, I risked my life without realizing it. I drove through a green traffic light assuming it was logical, only to realize that my car was the only one that was moving when an angry policeman wagged a warning finger at me. Only then did I realize that the reason why all vehicles at that intersection were stationary was that the “first citizen” was expected to drive past and the road had to be cleared for him in advance.
Fortunately, apart from wagging his finger, the policeman did not do anything to me. I have heard some harrowing stories about the consequences of disrupting the presidential motorcade. A friend I once shared a house with was taken to the police station and “taught the lesson of a lifetime” for disregarding the important first citizen. He was playing his radio at high volume while driving and did not hear the sirens of the approaching motorcade so he did not get out of the way. When the police finally caught up with him, I do not know the full story of what they did to him, but he certainly learnt his lesson. Of course I found out about it because he unusually quiet when he came home that evening, even the car radio did not announce his arrival as usual. I wondered if he had either been fired or dumped by his fiancé, until he told me about his experience. Now, when I meet him on the road, his volume is moderate enough to hear any wailing sirens within the vicinity. I imagine he does not wish to relive that unpleasant experience.
I remembered him today, when the prospect of being suddenly stopped and taken to the nearest police station for some “discipline” was looming over my head. I felt an adrenalin rush, caused partly by fear and partly by curiosity. However that was quickly replaced by anger. Anger at my self for being afraid and how this fear and deference for authority has led to the current situation in Zimbabwe.
Why should I be afraid to cross the road when the traffic light is green? Even my four year old niece knows that “green means go” so why should I be afraid of doing something that even nursery schools are teaching children?
Secondly, the policeman was dressed in a gray shirt and navy blue slacks. He looked like anybody who could have been crossing the road, so why was I expected to be scanning men on the road instead of watching the traffic light for the signal to go? In normal circumstances, police officers wear reflective vests so they can be seen – so it is not my fault that I did not notice that he was directing traffic.
What angered me the most though, was the thought of a whole nation being forced to keep still because a certain individual was expected to use that road! On a Sunday, when there is virtually no traffic, why inconvenience people unnecessarily? So, we had a whole section of a nation at a stand still, just waiting and waiting and waiting for one important man to drive on the road. Pedestrians had to stand still and motorists virtually parked on the road in the blazing October heat, all waiting for the first citizen to cross the road.
Interestingly, this happened on Samora Machel Avenue, which is a very busy road because not only is it central in Harare, but it also leads to the country’s major cities such as Bulawayo, Gweru and Mutare.
Secondly, it is where a significant number of banks are located. I am told in the past it was called Bank Street and one can understand why. Not surprisingly, the banks in this avenue have the longest queues, probably because of their size and centrality. Today being a Sunday, many people were queuing at ATMs.
I am not sure for how long the people I left behind waited, but from past experience, it can be anything above five minutes and life on the section of the road he intends to use is suspended while business grinds to a halt. Further, the consequent disruption to traffic takes even longer to recover from.
So we had a whole section of a nation, waiting for an unknown period of time for one person to cross the road! They did not even know which direction he would be coming from or how long he would take to get there, but were forced to wait.
I wonder how those people felt while waiting for this important individual, who is partially responsible for the depletion of the nation’s wealth and whose policies have contributed significantly to the current state of affairs, to cross the road. I wonder how many had a plane to catch but missed it or how many of them missed the hospital visiting hour and the last opportunity to see a relative who was drawing their final breath. Death has become a frequent occurrence. With the health delivery system in shambles, exacerbated by the man-made water shortages that have led to a cholera outbreak and a host of other water borne diseases, many people are dying needlessly.
How many of those I left waiting had some emergency and were going to queue up at an ATM to get a maximum $50 000 which can only buy two bananas and pay less than a week’s transport for one person? How many of them had managed to scrap together some foreign currency and were on their way to the nearest shop to buy some basic commodity before it ran out of stock? How many were on their way to a fuel queue to get some diesel or petrol for the coming week? I could not help but wonder how many of those people spent a significant part of their productive time in queues and what portion of time wasted they attributed to the important citizen who was expected to use the road they were waiting to cross.
All these thoughts raced through my mind as I watched the waiting crowd fading through my rearview mirror. Needless to say I did not hear any sirens all the way home, which means those people had a very long wait.
It struck me then, how waiting has become characteristic of life in Zimbabwe. It further infuriated me to realize that a few individuals were responsible for the current state of affairs. We have heard the cliché that “people get the government they deserve,” but I do not believe that this applies to Zimbabwe. We have tried, on numerous occasions, to express ourselves on who should govern us, but our voice has been disregarded either through legislation or various actions that curtail our freedom of expression.
I was reminded of the number of times the nation has been at a virtual standstill while waiting for something or the other – usually associated with a few individuals – including the first citizen.
For instance, prior to the March 29 elections many of us, regardless of our various lines of business, were reluctant to make any long-term decisions because we were waiting for the outcome of the plebiscite and to assess its implications. After the first round of elections, we waited more than three weeks for all the results to be released. During the vote counting process, we waited day and night to learn the results of individual constituencies, needless to say few of those results were released during normal waking hours. Only those of us who sleep odd hours were able to catch the release of the results in the wee hours of morning. The rest of the nation often woke up to learn that the results had been released nicodemously and we were never offered an explanation for this queer method of operation.
The most painful wait was for the presidential election result. I do not remember reading the actual figures anywhere, but I recall that a recount of votes for some of the house of assembly seats was ordered, which seemed like a delaying tactic, before the presidential election results were released. Even so, we were only told the percentages of votes that each presidential candidate had won and not the actual number of votes as was done for the parliamentary and senate elections.
Nonetheless, a run-off election was called for June 27 and the nation, once again, found itself waiting for the outcome and to assess its implications. The sole candidate obviously won the election, which was roundly condemned both within and outside the country, resulting in talks to pave way for a government of national unity.
On September 15, after over two months of talks while the nation waited, an agreement was signed between Zanu PF and the two MDC formations. Currently, the parties are bickering over cabinet posts while the nation waits. It is now towards the end of October and the nation is still waiting. The old cabinet continues to function, without the nation’s blessing, while we all wait for the parties to agree on a practical way forward to the benefit of all citizens.
Meanwhile, industry continues to operate at 30% capacity, non governmental organizations are caught up in uncertainty, schools remain closed, starvation continues to affect the majority of people who cannot afford to buy basics from foreign currency licenced shops that evidently only benefit the elite, inflation soars and patients continue to die needlessly in the public health system. Water and electricity remain luxuries and the economy continues on the downward trend.
All this, while the nation waits because it is difficult to make long term decisions, even at micro level, when one is not sure what the next day has in store. Until the talks yield positive results, the nation will remain in limbo, while waiting and hoping for the best.
At junior school we used to sing a song with the lyrics:
“Why are we waiting… It’s getting irritating… Na na na na na………..”
I imagine if all Zimbabweans knew this song it would be the private national anthem they sing in their homes.
Going back to today’s incident of not waiting for the first citizen to use the road. I felt quite proud of my mistake and was happy that I had crossed the road despite the risks. I wish all Zimbabweans would start taking similar actions as a form of protest. Quite frankly, I fail to see why sections of a nation should stop functioning because they are waiting for one man to cross the road or carry out some trivial daily activity. This is simply an act of paying homage to egotism. Sadly, these acts combined are costing the nation precious time and resources daily. This culture has nurtured arrogance and that is part of the reason why the talks are taking so long to yield results that will benefit the nation at large.
I firmly believe it is possible for people to show respect to leaders without bringing their lives to a standstill, particularly in an egalitarian society, which purports to be a democracy. The starting point, in getting this nation to start functioning normally again, is to deconstruct this dear leader mentality, allow people to express themselves and desist from acts that perpetuate egocentrism – particularly among holders of high office who in any case are civil servants and should be serving us, not the other way round.
Perhaps then, we would be able to get on with our lives without waiting on one man.
Written on 26 October 2008, at the height of Zimbabwe's political and economic crisis.