“Readable biography… No plaster saint”

New Internationalist, January 2007

Rabble-Rouser for Peace/ What Happens After Mugabe/ The Book of Not

Most people would agree that, Nelson Mandela apart, the pre-eminent figure embodying South Africa’s long struggle for freedom and democracy has been Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In the darkest times, Tutu was always there, speaking at countless demonstrations and rallies and bearing witness to the evil perpetrated by apartheid. When liberty was won, his leadership of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set the country on the path to justice when it could so easily have taken the alternative route to bloody retribution.

Desmond Tutu’s journey from destitute township to world moral leader is well told in John Allen’s readable biography, Rabble-Rouser for Peace. The picture that emerges is of a man driven by his passion and his belief in humanity; an indomitable spirit who never lost hope that truth would prevail. But this is no plaster saint and we glimpse the private life of the man and, crucially, the sparkling zest of someone who sees humour and enjoyment as powerful ripostes to oppression and injustice. The story of Desmond Tutu’s life has also been the story of his country’s turbulent journey towards the fulfilment of a dream. May he remain a potent reminder that justice and peace have to be fought for every step of the way.

If South Africa stands as a qualified success story, then Zimbabwe is the flip-side of the coin. Its birth as a democratic country in 1980 was accompanied by a blaze of worldwide goodwill and a widespread belief that Zimbabwe could be a beacon of good governance. The reality has turned out to be a grim nightmare. Twenty-six years of increasingly authoritarian rule by Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party have seen famine and destitution, Government indifference while HIV spreads unchecked, race used as an ugly political tool, and parliament, the judiciary and the press reduced to obedient claques. The octogenarian Mugabe clings to power, railing against ‘outside forces’ as his country decays and his people despair. There is not one area of Zimbabwe’s infrastructure that has not been looted and left to rot.

With passion and anger Geoff Hill lays bare the full sad story in his book What Happens After Mugabe? But his main focus is not on what might have been but on what is to come. Mugabe cannot live forever and, when he is gone, the people of Zimbabwe will have to build again from the rubble he leaves. Hill does not play down the Herculean nature of the tasks ahead but neither does he submit to hopelessness. As he points out, other African nations have rebuilt successfully after calamities, most notably South Africa after apartheid and Rwanda after genocide, and both can offer excellent models for a Zimbabwean renaissance.

Zimbabwe’s artists and writers have suffered their share of grief at the hands of the Mugabe clique. Those who greeted independence with optimism have seen their dreams trampled. One of the early stars of Zimbabwean literature was Tsitsi Dangarembga whose début novel, Nervous Conditions, published in 1988, charted the aspirations and fears of a generation of young Zimbabweans personified in Tambu as she embarked on her education at The Young Ladies College of the Sacred Heart and her more worldly-wise cousin, Nyasha, brought up in England and alienated from her homeland.

Eighteen years on and Dangarembga has written a sequel, The Book of Not, which picks up the threads of Tambu’s life. In a narrative that overlaps the original novel, the author uses the gradual coming to adult awareness of Tambu and the chaotic, enveloping nature of her family life as emblematic of the emergence of the country from colonialism and its traumatic transition to nationhood. The prismatic nature of Dangarembga’s prose and her huge cast of characters is initially bewildering, but becomes an immersing read as the tangled tales interweave personal narratives and political forces. The positioning of Tambu as an ‘everywoman’ allows the author great scope to explore the fissures and fault lines of Zimbabwean society, both under colonial rule and under Mugabe’s baleful regime. There is hope, but an ambiguous hope at best, in The Book of Not. At the end of the book, as she comes of age, Tambu wonders what the future holds for her as a ‘new Zimbabwean’. Tsitsi Dangarembga is, we are told, at work on the third book in the ‘Tambu’ trilogy. It is to be hoped that what she charts is the brighter future that both her protagonist and the people of Zimbabwe so long for and so deserve.