It should have been a peaceful conference in Harare, Zimbabwe; it wasn’t. It turned to chaos, seething anger, peppered by almost comical misunderstanding.
In 1997, the historic first African American conference on the continent, in the plush Sheraton, should have been remembered for its high discourse; it had all the makings: Coretta Scott King – the widow of Martin Luther King – headed a powerful bunch of speakers. The restaurants were full of well-heeled African Americans raising their glasses to their “first night in mother Africa” before complaining about the traffic, the accommodation and the smells.
We journalists, who had spent years flogging our guts out reporting the progress of the continent, shook our heads at a lot of this faux sentimentalism that pervaded like cheap perfume. Our view was that people should bring skills and raise money, rather than glasses, for mother Africa. You couldn’t help but err on the side of scepticism in the face of the often Disney-style perceptions about the continent and its problems.
The chasm between the comfortable dream and uncomfortable reality was epitomized by the horde of angry former guerrilla fighters who had been hurling insults at police and fighting for days to break through the gates of the Sheraton. These were battle-hardened soldiers, formerly of the guerrilla Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), many of them in their 50s, who had spent their youth in the bush fighting the landmines, napalm and heavy guns of the Rhodesian forces. They wanted compensation from a cash-strapped government and were angry as hell. They wanted to disrupt this well-meaning conference to make their point.
I will never forget the moment the mob broke through the gates. A thin green line of uniforms retreated with their hands up as if they feared death – I think one or two did – as the war veterans screamed victory and hurled themselves across the manicured lawn in an angry wave, throwing combat shapes. We filmed it from the top floor of the hotel where we had been interviewing Zambian president Frederick Chiluba. It made stunning footage.
We ran downstairs to see a mass of angry veterans, all regimented high steps and clenched fists, bounding and chanting in an aggressive dance outside the now locked doors of the hotel. One or two delegates, misreading the brimming anger on the faces, tried to dance and chant back from inside the hotel, which made matters worse. I was thinking there was going to be blood when a question from another planet chimed in.
“Say, where did they get these dancers from?” says an old man who looked like he had marched with Dr King in the 60s. I explained that these weren’t dancers, but survivors from the bush war.
“Which war was that?”
I explained the one to create Zimbabwe and told of the compensation.
“Can’t they give them farms, or shops maybe?”
A young lady with dreadlocks sat studiously making notes. She told me she was a teacher in West Africa and also asked about what war the people had fought.
“In chiShona they called it the Chimurenga – meaning uprising,” says I.
Sorry readers, I am a journalist who can’t resist a dash of mischief in a ludicrous exchange.
“They got it from a Bob Marley album.”
“Uprising, oh really,” says the teacher earnestly writing another note.
The war veterans didn’t get their compensation on that day, but prevailed months later. I don’t think the conference delegates got anything at all.