Former President Robert Mugabe’s removal from power, under the weight of a military intervention in November last year, brought forth renewed hope in citizens and Zimbabweans are freer now than they have ever been in the last 38 years, a United States envoy has said.
In her speech to mark the US’s 242nd independence anniversary this week, American embassy Charge d’Affaires in Harare, Jennifer Savage, said the events that forced Mugabe out of power in November were a chance for Zimbabwe to “move forward”.
“Here in Zimbabwe, independence was won 38 years ago, but freedom from oppression did not immediately follow, until last November. The people of Zimbabwe found their voices, and dared to hope. More than at any other time in recent history, the people of Zimbabwe have more freedom to speak their minds. More freedom to dissent,” Savage said.
“More freedom to voice their own vision for the future of Zimbabwe. This new sense of freedom of expression is monumental, and a fundamental change for human rights in Zimbabwe as long the leaders and institutions protect it.”
She said the renewed hope came from “dreams of something better, from believing that change is possible”.
“President (Emmerson) Mnangagwa has called for free, fair, and credible elections. We have seen the political opposition hold rallies in ruling party strongholds. We have seen the government invite elections observers and media in irrefutable numbers. We have seen State media shift from antagonistic to curious about the diplomatic community. And we have heard that Zimbabwe is open for business,” she said.
Tens of thousands of Zimbabweans rallied across the country demanding that Mugabe resigns on November 18 after the military rolled tanks onto the streets confining the then 93-year-old to his home.
Mnangagwa, who had been fired as Vice-President two weeks earlier, returned to take power after Parliament moved a motion to impeach the former Zanu PF leader.
But opposition MDC-T spokesperson Tabitha Khumalo, while acknowledging that there had been improvements, argued Zanu PF had pulled wool over the Western world’s eyes.
“What these people are missing is that Zanu PF has changed tact. They have put up a smokescreen. Now the rigging is technical. They are not using physical force and when they do resort to it, it’s not as glaring as it was under Mugabe,” she said.
International Crisis Group (ICG) consultant and political commentator Piers Pigou also agreed that there was now a greater sense of freedom, but an uneasiness remained given the country’s checkered human rights history.
“I think there is a greater sense of freedom, but this is in the context where there has been a well-documented history of turning on and off repression. The legacy of this is expressed in an array of continued anxieties and an expressed reliance on the intangibles of hope and prayer,” Pigou said.
Savage, in her speech, suggested real change might take time, but added Zimbabwe had “an incredible opportunity you all have, particularly those of you in public positions, to restore public trust in the leaders”.
University of Zimbabwe political science lecturer Lawrence Mhandara also agreed Zimbabwe was a much better place under Mnangagwa than “autocratic Mugabe”.
“On paper, Zimbabwe has one of the best Constitutions in the world, especially the Bill of Rights. But there was a gap in implementation given the autocratic nature of the leader then … But after November last year, when Mnangagwa took power, we have seen positive changes. That nobody has been charged under the presidential insult laws shows how far we have come,” he said.
“He [Mnangagwa] has demonstrated that he is willing to give Zimbabweans their civil and political rights, but the sustainability of this will only be seen if he gets a full term after July 30.”
Savage applauded Mnangagwa’s government for changing Mugabe’s toxic narrative. She added that relations between Zimbabwe and the US, poisoned by trade sanction for nearly two decades, should now look beyond these differences to allow for free exchange of goods and services.