The Dark Ages

We tend to forget that Europe went through a long period of history, which is now loosely described as the "dark ages". During this time the main form of State administration was feudal in character and this resulted in massive, absolute poverty for the great majority and enormous wealth for a tiny elite who owned the assets of the countries affected by this episode in European history.

The historical evidence of that era is still seen today in the massive houses and mansions that litter the European landscape. The human suffering of those times is well documented and remembered even today. Modern conflicts such as the IRA insurgency in Ireland and the ideological conflicts that caused such suffering in the 20th century are testimony to the legacy of the "dark ages".

Could it be that Africa is going through such an era? It is of course different in many ways - the underlying culture is different, the global context is totally changed and there is the influence of travel, communications and education as well as the legacies of a 100 years of colonial occupation when for a short time the influence of local culture and history was subdued and an imposed colonial subculture prevailed which was more "European" than African.

With the sudden collapse and subsequent withdrawal of such imposed influences, Africa has progressively slipped back into a form of tribal feudalism that allows a small elite to dominate and in fact use the legacies of colonial administration to loot national resources in the pursuit of wealth.

So Africa slides back into poverty and decay associated with some of the greatest fortunes in terms of personal wealth, in the world. Mabutu in the old Zaire, with a fortune estimated at the size of his countries GDP. The Nigerian President's family taking US$1 billion a year from the exchequer and their children arriving in European capitals with suitcases of hard currency. The government of Angola, a "Marxist" regime, stealing a third of total oil revenues. The list goes on and on - fortunes being accumulated with scant regard to the welfare or interests of the countries and the peoples being governed. The term kleptocratic state takes on new meaning in modern Africa.

But is this any different from the conditions that prevailed in Europe a scant 200 to 500 years ago? We may be late in coming to the party but it is that same play - different actors, different stage. It also will not last hundreds of years. Our dark age will be decades, rather than centuries - appropriate in a world that measures progress by the speed of change. But that does not make any excuses for people like Robert Mugabe - because they really have had all that it takes to enable them to avoid the pitfalls that have created these nightmarish conditions in many African countries. He is well educated - a classical Catholic education in the hands of the dreaded Clergy, well traveled, he gets his suits from Saville Row, he is above all an Anglophile and has several University degrees.

Do not for one-minute think he does not understand what he is doing - he is highly intelligent and astute. He is also totally ruthless - but then so are the Mafia in modern Europe. The great difference is that he claims to be a Marxist, a modern socialist and a Pan African humanist. He is actually none of those things in reality and his behavior of late has simply branded him as a tsarist thug who has looted his countries wealth in pursuit of personal gain and power. His actions under the guise of the Murambatsvina programme are in line with Stalin's genocide against the Kulaks. He cares little for the suffering of the majority - only for the welfare of those who can ensure he remains where he is and has the continued capacity to rape and pillage.

But in any "Dark Age" you have your islands of enlightenment and hope. And so it is in Africa and in places like Zimbabwe. You can find such places by visiting our private schools where dedicated teachers and administrators are maintaining a small but effective system of education that continues to produce outstanding athletes, sportsmen and women and fine academics. Above all they produce achievers - men and women who go out into the world and succeed wherever they go. You can find them by visiting certain business organisations - I have a friend here who runs a globally competitive clothing factory - he exports the great majority of his output to the most sophisticated markets in the world. Another friend manufacturers fruit drinks and chemicals - walk through the doors of his business and you are in a clean, modern environment, which is comparable to any in the world. Staff are motivated and work hard and their product is expensive, but always good quality.

Another person I know has all 32 members of his family here - they meet weekly to discuss problems and opportunities and to agree on any thing that needs action. They support each other, help with school fees and medical costs and they ensure that the family has what it needs to prosper and enjoy a life style that is second to none. Walk through the doors of one of our modern private clinics or hospitals and you are in a first world environment - you do not have to wait a year for a procedure as in the UK, you pay and it gets done. And remember I am talking about life in Zimbabwe - that collapsed State created by bad government.

Recently our local Catholic Hospital suffered a serious fire that destroyed the top floor and the roof and damaged some of the rest of the building. Volunteers rescued the patients, the local fire department was there in a few minutes and now - just six weeks later, the roof is back on and the tiles are being laid - much of the work, design and construction done by volunteers. Islands of hope and enlightenment in a sea of despair and human suffering.

To be frank, we are yet to see similar islands of enlightenment in the political realm in southern Africa. The Congo is a mess, Zambia and Malawi are struggling with internal problems, South Africa has its problems with Jacob Zuma and corruption in high places, even little Botswana now shows signs of political intolerance and studied neutrality when it comes to the problems of its neighbor - Zimbabwe. Unless the MDC gets its act together, and soon, it too might lose its image as a beacon of hope in an otherwise dismal morass. While I accept that much of the MDC problems can be sourced in the Zanu PF Secret Police who are the African equivalent of the East German Stasi, we are guilty of shooting ourselves in the foot over the Senate issue and are not exhibiting a great deal of maturity right now.

As for the consequences of Gono's revelations last week - this week the gold price quadrupled, the stock market nearly doubled in value and the improved flow of resources into many of those small centers of excellence and hope began to improve. This will, if they stick to their guns, bring new life back into the private sector across the country and help us to keep things going while we sort out our political leadership.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, October 29 2005.