Meltdown gets researchers thinking

ZIMBABWEs factories may be shuttered and its farmland fallow, but research is a rare growth industry although much of it appears in SA.

Since the meltdown began in 2000, the Zimbabwe crisis proved to be an area of scholarly enquiry, with researchers exploring the many facets of the countrys economic collapse, and the social ramifications of this.

University of Cape Town lecturer Wallace Chuma recently focused on the Zimbabwean reserve banks covert ownership of media houses and its grooming of a select crop of journalists to tell the good news about the bank.

University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) researcher Sarah Chiumbu and Richard Nyamanhindi have looked at how unemployed youth relied on selling prepaid cellphone cards to survive the economic crisis. One interesting aspect of the growing informal mobile phone market is that it was linked to the democratic and communicative deficit facing the country, they argue.

Thabisani Ndlovu, of Wits English department, studied how transnational migration affected Zimbabweans notion of home, touching on its effect on traditional ethnic rivalries, such as that between the Shona and Ndebele.

Having long felt marginalised, Zimbabwes Ndebele people, according to Ndlovu, have often described their constant stream to SA since the 80s as a response to the Zulu king Shaka calling his children . The Ndebele nation traces its origination to Zululand and left as a result of conflict during Shakas reign.

Ndlovu says in Matabeleland, a frequent response to the Zimbabwean crisis is: This mess was caused by the Shonas and only they can sort it out. He describes this view as an abdication of responsibility, a feeling of resignation, and also of not belonging.

But blaming the Shona is not unreasonable. Due to their numerical strength 80% of the population the Shona have a bigger effect on election outcomes. They have always been the majority in the cabinet. For that reason, Ndlovu says some Ndebeles ask the question: Whats wrong with Shonas? They messed up Zimbabwe and now they are following us to SA.

Head of the Wits school of social sciences Eric Worby is interested in strategies of social disconnection by Zimbabweans in SA. This is the common desire by some Zimbabweans living in SA to keep friends and relatives at bay and remain incommunicado.

Among its other implications, visa- free entry has made it easier for Zimbabweans to travel to SA, presenting those already living in the country with a dilemma, described by Worby as the burden of ubuntu.

Since relaxation of entry requirements more than two months ago, many have joined the trek down south, arriving with little or no money sometimes unannounced looking for work and a place to stay.

As with migrant communities in other places, the expectation is that the established will look out for the recently-arrived countrymen. Many among those already in SA appear resigned to helping friends, relatives, and other acquaintances.

In April, SA also granted Zimbabweans a 90-day visitors permit obtainable at the border. This allows undocumented Zimbabweans to seek casual work during their stay. The concession may have encouraged those previously unwilling to make the trip.

A Zimbabwean professional in Johannesburg received an unsigned SMS that read: Hope you are fine bro. Want to pay you a visit, when is it convenient? Such requests may present peculiar problems, especially for those who do not wish friends and relatives back home to know about the true nature of the envied life in SA. Often, as a matter of pride and the desire to maintain ones reputation and dignity, one doesnt want ones real situation to be observed at first hand, says Worby.

The result is that some go to extremes to avoid visitors. The ethical obligation to help those back home is nevertheless felt as acutely as the shame and the indignity of living in circumstances regarded as dirty or immoral, says Worby.

Worby tells the story of Charity, a trader. The 38-year-old, who pays R10 a day for a place to stay in Hillbrow, has a husband and five children in Chitungwiza . She avoids friends and relatives by switching off her cellphone, changing SIM cards frequently and regularly moving house.

Eddy, also a migrant, says although he does assist the needy among his kith and kin, he prefers not to get calls from Zimbabwe. He phones his family regularly, but would rather they do not call him.

Worby, Ndlovu, Chuma and Chiumbu were among several speakers at last weeks conference on the hidden dimensions of the Zimbabwe crisis held at Wits. Co-organiser Dumisani Moyo says the event was motivated by a desire to move away from the obvious aspects of the crisis which portray Zimbabwean citizens as hapless victims of a vicious system.

In short, we are trying to move away from what have become deterministic, knee-jerk or shorthand responses to explaining the Zimbabwe crisis, says Moyo, who is also head of the media studies department at Wits University.

Business Day (SA)

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