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Love in the Time of (Zimbabwe’s) Cholera

GB Geo-Blog

Love in the Time of (Zimbabwe’s) Cholera

London, UK


Through the saga of Florentina Ariza and Fermina Daza in his epic Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez weaves together narratives on the enduring power of love; the roots of renewal in social strife and warfare; the bounties of suffering; and the blurry limitations of infirmity.  The narratives flow through the book as though they are constantly in friction with hope, on the one hand, and conflict, on the other, as if probing the reader to question life conducted in the name of some higher or important enough ideal.  It is as though the reader is asked, “Is it the result we seek that is truly important, or the action itself?” Or, furthermore, “does the result and/or action even really matter?”


The book came to mind with the passing of recent headlines on Zimbabwe in the popular media, a country which, incidentally, has also endured a cholera outbreak.


This month, in response to the cholera outbreak which claimed 4,287 lives during August 2008-July 2009, Zimbabwe launched a “National Clean Up Campaign” as part of a broader strategy of cholera awareness-raising initiatives throughout the country (1).  These efforts are anticipated to minimise the risk of cholera in the upcoming rainy season and to avoid the unnecessary loss of lives (ibid).  Furthermore, with an increase in illegal dumping of refuse due to the breakdown of refuse collection infrastructure and other social services, Zimbabwe’s cholera outbreak risk remains particularly acute (ibid); a reason why, again, “cleaning up campaigns” remain particularly critical at this time.


This month was also particularly important because it witnessed the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) issue calls for the end of sanctions against Zimbabwe (2), rather than an outright criticism of Zimbabwe’s incumbent President, Robert Mugabe.  With the election of the controversial and outspoken Jacob Zuma (a.k.a. JZ or Msholozi) as South Africa’s new President in April 2009, many expected a different (read: more critical) approach vis-à-vis Mr. Mugabe – well, at least one more critical than JZ’s predecessor Thabo Mbeki.  Instead of a policy of estrangement, the SADC (of which South Africa is the most powerful and influential member) resumed a policy of engagement with Zimbabwe à la Mbeki.


JZ and the SADC are not alone in their calls for the termination of sanctions.  Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s Prime Minister in the currently ruling MDC-ZANU-PF coalition government, has also appealed for the ending of sanctions, which in fact are aimed specifically at certain Zimbabwe business and political figures and not Zimbabwe per se (ibid).  A call for ending sanctions by the SADC is therefore supportive of both Mr. Mugabe’s and Mr. Tsvangirai’s calls for reform in the West’s approach to Zimbabwe, even though the process by which the conditions are lifted may be disagreed upon by the SADC, Mr. Mugabe, and Mr. Tsvangirai.  It therefore does not make sense to criticise the SADC for its call to end sanctions against Zimbabwe because apart from Mr. Mugabe’s pleas, criticism would also be layered against the West’s more favoured ally, Mr. Tsvangirai.


Expecting the SADC to take aim at Mugabe is also too simplistic a curry to flavour.  From the perspective of the SADC, encouraging Mr. Mugabe’s estrangement would actually favour one party (Tsvangirai’s MDC) over another in an already very fragile coalition (and regional) situation.  Furthermore, institutionalising democracy in Zimbabwe could perhaps best be served by working on political unity and listening to the voice of the people (who, at the last election, were in favour of Mr. Tsvangirai), while dealing with the hard reality of Mr. Mugabe’s grip on power.  Besides, old lions even in their growing infirmity still have a sharp bite: if forced into a corner, you can be guaranteed that Mugabe and his ZANU-PF would not go down without one hell of a fight.


The final noteworthy event so far this September on Zimbabwe was that the European Union (EU) sent a high-level delegation to Zimbabwe, its first since 2002 (3).  While there were times when Mr. Mugabe noted a “good rapport” with the EU team (4), his tone before the EU visit, and that of others after, was more rancorous (5).  It was also clear that the sanctions would not get lifted (6) for, as the European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid Karel de Gucht noted, reforms are “in the hands of Zimbabwe’s decision-makers”  and that the EU would be pleased to assist when “…all the right conditions [are] in place” (ibid).  In other words, recognising that solutions must come from Zimbabwe’s leaders, the EU maintains that it will have something akin to “a final say” on when Zimbabwe’s sanctions are to be lifted.


Now, that’s food for thought…


As much as one may claim that the SADC (and South Africa) are part of the problem with regards to Zimbabwe, they are clearly also part of the solution.  No one doubts that South Africa, given its regional economic clout and historical relations with Zimbabwe, carries a large weight in deciding how best to engage with Zimbabwe.  What is intriguing, however, as the EU visit has demonstrated, is that often the EU (and Western governments) are portrayed in the media as part of the solution (which they are), but much like the SADC and South Africa, they are part of the problem too.  Even with the sanctions issue aside, early on in his Prime Ministerial role, Mr. Tsvangirai invested a good deal of time travelling to Western capitals and meeting with Western political leaders to build momentum for change in Zimbabwe and for more aid.  Met with fanfare and moving mouths but almost deaf ears, Mr. Tsvangirai came home with the crumbs off their tables, and little except more promises.


So where does that leave Love and Zimbabwe? Well, it remains that Márquez’s book entrusts us with grand questions still, particularly when one considers Zimbabwe in the context of its pre- and post-colonial history, but especially with the current (often choleric) international, regional, and national ramifications of the “Zimbabwe situation.”  However, I suspect from the perspective of those working on the ground who through sheer blood, sweat, and tears, work fastidiously for a better life for Zimbabweans, the enduring power of love, the potential for renewal in social strife and warfare, the bourgeoning fruits of suffering, and yes even the possibility of Mr. Mugabe’s future infirmity, provide hope and conflict even when the friction of the tide seems a little too tough to bear.  I also suspect that the results of the political efforts of their leaders matter to Zimbabweans, as do their leaders’ actions and those of the international community.  However, the ultimate driving force may just so be that neither political results alone nor action alone matter; but, rather, what does is the stark reality of whether there is food and water available to feed people (or, at least, food and water clean enough to stave off cholera) or, whether the crumbling health infrastructure will not quite relent, so that at least Zimbabwe’s children can be offered the hope to live to see (and have a say in) their country’s future. 



One can only aspire too that the same sense of humanity and humility is true of the SADC, the EU, and the many other characters in this current non-fiction – particularly, as they ruminate over their next calculated political moves and accompanying policies.


On another note: A little while ago an initiative called Save Zimbabwe Now (SZN) was born to mobilise South Africans, people in the southern African region, and Africans in general (as the SZN Facebook page notes) “in support of the Zimbabwean people in their struggle for dignity and rights.”  Part of the campaign involved hunger strikes, including by prominent South Africans such as Kumi Naidoo, the former Secretary-General (and now Honorary President) of CIVICUS, the World Alliance for Citizen Participation.  This is an example of work going on behind the scenes whose efforts and activities often get crowded out by other Zimbabwe-related headlines. The website (and, if you have time, the Youtube videos) are worth a look, at least for somewhat of a different (and provocative) perspective:





1. World Health Organisation (Africa Region) (2009) “Zimbabwe Launches National Clean Up Campaign” [Accessed Tuesday September 15 at 5:01pm BST from: http://www.afro.who.int/country_offices_press/2009/pr20090903.pdf]


2. Scott Baldauf (2009) “African leaders embrace Mugabe at SADC summit” The Christian Science Monitor [Accessed Wednesday September 16 at 8:25pm BST from: http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0911/p06s10-woaf.html ]


3. Constant Brand (2009) “EU Delegation to Visit Zimbabwe, first in 7 Years” The Washington Post [Accessed Friday September 11 at 8:25pm BST from: http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0911/p06s10-woaf.html

4. Andrew Harding (2009) “Mugabe Hails Landmark EU Meeting” BBC News  [Accessed Wednesday September 16 at 9:49pm from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/8251978.stm]


5. Scott Baldauf (2009) “EU Visit Widens Zimbabwe Split” The Christian Science Monitor [Accessed Monday September 14 at 4:25pm BST from: http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0914/p06s04-woaf.html]


6. Angus Shaw (2009) “EU: Sanctions targeting Mugabe won’t be lifted” The Washington Post [Accessed Wednesday September 16 at 8:26pm BST from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/13/AR2009091300937.html]



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