The Zimbabwe Situation: Identity Challenges in The Diaspora

As political revolts against President Bashar al-Assad prevail in Syria and as Libyan rebel forces continue to ravage a fiery war against Col. Muammar el-Gaddafi, Zimbabwe faces political uncertainties of its own.  As a new Zimbabwean constitution is in the process of being drafted, and as the country looks towards elections that will take place next year, generations of Zimbabwean immigrants grapple with questions of dual citizenship, political participation and cultural inheritance as they envision a new Zimbabwe, after a decade of human rights violations, a persistent steel fisted dictatorship, and a record breaking inflation rate.

Zimbabwean Passport. Photo Credit:

Nothing is certain. Not even what it means to be a Zimbabwean in the Diaspora, living in New York City, with a Zimbabwean passport.

“People have had to adjust – creating new lives in a new place. What does it mean to carry a Zimbabwean passport?” said Vusa Sibanda, who has been living in New York for more than a decade. “People have to constantly redefine themselves. The Zimbabwean Diaspora community in America is something new–something that is still in formation.”

Many are particularly concerned by the fact that Zimbabwe does not allow dual citizenship, forcing those that live in the Diaspora to relinquish their Zimbabwean citizenships if they choose to seek citizenship status in another country, and cutting ties that officially bind them to Zimbabwe.

“There is the misconception that you are only Zimbabwean as long as you hold a Zimbabwean passport. The crisis we had forced many people to the Diaspora. A lot of those people don’t have Zimbabwean passports,” said Amson Sibanda, a Zimbabwean who has been living oversees since 2003. “If you look at most advanced countries, dual citizenship is accepted. We have to think of the kids. Do I have to tell my son that when he is eighteen years old, he has to give up his American citizenship to be Zimbabwean? ”

The investments made in other countries, as well as the heritage that many Zimbabweans abroad hold dearly-belonging to their home country, has complicated the meaning of being Zimbabwean but not in Zimbabwe. Some feel that they do not have a political voice in Zimbabwe and that they are being unfairly excluded from political dialogue.

“We need to be given the right to vote. That’s what the new constitution needs to address. South Africans in the Diaspora can vote, all Namibians vote, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Amson Sibanda.

Discussions about  including the dual citizenship in the constitution have been seen as a move to somehow politically include those in the Diaspora, who already cannot vote, but contribute financially to the country.

“There is absolutely nothing wrong with it [Dual Citizenship]” said Rumbidzai Mabuwa, a lawyer based in New York City. “It benefits the country, and it’s a choice for people who are already Zimbabwean citizens. Also, it’s an incentive for people to go back to Zimbabwe after acquiring expertise in other countries.”

The government of Zimbabwe has faced a plethora of economic problems which, according to UNDP (United Nations Development Program) has forced a large population, estimated at least 3 million (about a quarter of the country’s population), to flee the country. It’s involvement in a war in the Democratic Republic of Congo from 1998 to 2002 cost the government millions of dollars. The government’s land reform program, which aimed at redistributing farm land from a small Zimbabwean minority to the larger population, has been largely disastrous, tainted by corruption and lack of production,  and has harmed the countries agriculturally based economy.  The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, until 2009, printed money to remedy the budget deficit which caused the highest hyperinflation rate in history, at 500 billion percent.

“We became a state that could not attend to the basic fundamentals of a state. You can’t call it hyperinflation. You have to call it something else,” said Tendai Biti, Zimbabwe’s minister of finance, in a speech at Africa House, New York University. Biti, since becoming minister of Finance in 2009, and as part of a new coalition government between the ruling party ZANU-PF and the opposition party MDC, had led reforms that have eradicated use of the Zimbabwean dollar, and have replaced it with the American dollar, which has stabilized the economy. However, even with economic storms calming down in Zimbabwe, socio-economic unrest continues inside as well as outside the country.

“The thing that statistics don’t capture is the social cost of the matter. How do we measure the cost of dictatorship? These figures don’t actually portray the real story,” said Biti.

Tendai Biti Speaks to Students At New York University

The story is of families that have been separated because of the crisis, of a community in the Diaspora that has worked hard to acquire goods that have caused psychological as well as economic stress on their families.

“Sometimes we try to so much for our families, to the detriment of our own lives. But our lives here are important as well. It’s a harrowing shift,” explained Vusa Sibanda.

Family members in the Diaspora continue to send money to their families in Zimbabwe, to a population that has an alarming unemployment rate. According OCHA (United Nations office for The Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) out of the country’s 12 million people, only 480 000 had formal jobs in 2008. Those who have left have done so to find employment elsewhere, and a vast majority of the population in Zimbabwe is sustained by foreign currency send by family members from abroad. Yet even with the financial support, tensions arise from questions of political involvement from the population in the Diaspora.

“Zimbabweans are already so skeptical of their own country. Sometimes Zimbabweans at home don’t trust Zimbabweans in the Diaspora because they walked away from the country,” said Mabuwa. “Yet we were only pushed away by circumstances. Some of us got the money we have under difficult circumstances-abuse, working without immigration papers, disconnected without support in a foreign country.”

Some address the speculation that because so many Zimbabweans have fled to the Diaspora, coups against the government have not been formed, and that the Zimbabweans that have remained have been left to bear the burden of a dictatorship are weak, timid and unable to fight.

“Are Zimbabweans passive? No. It’s a question of values. We believe in order. We know what war means and we know about its destructive capacity. We also want to preserve our infrastructure. We had a huge economic dip, but our infrastructure was not destroyed. We keep it in place, we fix it after,” said Amson Sibanda.

Others address preconceived notions they face in the countries they inhabit that the political atmosphere in Zimbabwe is simply a fight between the opposition and the ruling party- and that the Zimbabwean peoples’ identities are limited to their political tags.

“Zimbabwe hates bloodshed. They panic when they hear a civil uprising in other countries like in Rwanda or Nigeria. Zimbabweans do not like mass violence, where people get into an uprising. That’s “unZimbabwean” culturally. Zimbabweans would sacrifice anything for peace, and that’s a cultural aspect that the Zimbabwean government has manipulated,” said Mabuwa.

Nothing is ever simple in Zimbabwean politics, and in decoding Zimbabwean identity. “It’s so unclear-the brutality in taking power. You have a lot of people standing on the sidelines. After the liberation war [against British colonial rule in 1980] and independence, there was a clear sense of what needed to be done,” said Vusa Sibanda. “The situation is more complicated than that now. I resent being put in a box where it’s either one or the other.”

The ultimate challenge that Zimbabweans face is in the Diaspora is one that concerns the future. Whether the dictatorship will last and whether there truly will be elections next year, or whether the supposed constitution in the works will represent their interests as an intricate part of a global Zimbabwean community are questions that will be prevalent in the next years.

“I have high optimism. I have confidence that they will come up with a constitution,” said Amson Sibanda.

Another challenge is waiting to see if foreign countries will intervene in Zimbabwe or whether immigrants will face perpetual political exile, and if going home will even be an option.

“I don’t ever plan on going back to Zimbabwe. I don’t see any reason why I should permanently go back there. I will visit Zimbabwe occasionally, unless there is some massive change of plan by God,” claimed Nkosilathi Vuma, a Zimbabwean graduate student at NYU and a U.S permanent resident.

The final query is whether a Tahrir square is even a possibility in Zimbabwe. “The North African situation won’t be easy to replicate in Zimbabwe,” said Amson Sibanda. “But you never know, you can’t always predict what will happen.”


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