The Sunday Mail
The devastation from Cyclone Idai was a national disaster, although largely localised to a handful of eastern districts, and the people of Zimbabwe responded nationally, putting together their hundreds of thousands of gifts to make up convoys of relief supplies.
Politics never intruded. No one asked those who lost everything what party they belonged to, or how they voted at the last elections. No one knew, or cared, about the political beliefs of the vast numbers who showed compassion and fed the hungry and clothed the naked. On the ground rescue teams and overworked administrators battling to move in equipment and relief supplies methodically went about their grim work, putting in effort well beyond the call of duty and not only treating all equally but showing that they had not even considered the possibility of unequal treatment.
The Government reacted swiftly, deploying army engineers and others who could clear roads so emergency aid could reach the afflicted swiftly and President ED Mnangagwa, correctly realising that the head of the Government needed to be at home, cut short his important economic and diplomatic visit to the United Arab Emirates.
He visited the worst hit areas and pressed everyone to keep up their sterling efforts for as long as was needed while promising to mobilise more State resources, a promise he kept as the Treasury started some emergency budget juggling to produce $100 million, as a start.
Of course by this stage politics were starting to intrude. The paranoid types of social media, seeing a conspiracy everywhere, started circulating pictures of Zanu-PF pick-ups carrying supplies and accusing the Government of favouritism. That startled both the drivers of the vehicles and those running the relief efforts.
Everyone in the area who had a suitable vehicle had been asked to volunteer, and most did, although driving along badly damaged roads and over damaged bridges was not going to do their vehicles very much good. It was a pity that opposition parties did not have suitable vehicles, otherwise they would also have been conscripted and probably found themselves in the same convoys.
Those leading the relief efforts were totally uninterested in anything except getting the aid in. And many of those who did respond with their vehicles possibly had voted for the opposition last year, although no one bothered asking and they never bothered telling. In this sort of emergency political affiliation is a trivial matter.
For his follow up visit the President decided to go all out to show that the relief effort was national, not a party political matter. He invited all who had stood against him in last year’s election to come along and see for themselves and see how they could pitch in and help. President Mnangagwa promised a great deal more transparency in his administration than we have had in the past and there is nothing quite as transparent as inviting your major political opponents to join you, talk to whom they like and look around.
So the gesture was important, in stressing the national nature of the emergency and stressing the need for everyone to pull together.
But it also had practical purposes. Manicaland is the most politically mixed province in Zimbabwe. Most Parliamentarians and local authority councillors won with very modest margins and many Parliamentary and council seats can be described as marginal. Seeing the full political leadership of Zimbabwe walking around together would reassure those on the ground that whether afflicted or whether battling to get everything working again party politics are not going to be a factor.
That will become more important as, in what will we hope will be a just a handful of people, envy overtakes gratitude. Why was their bridge repaired before ours? Why did that school get a new roof so soon? And even why did she get a nicer dress than me? A united political front means that the sensible people will work out the answers. That first bridge was needed so the cement trucks could reach the second. That roof could be fixed fast because the trusses and sheets could be salvaged. And the dress was just pure luck as to who was next in line when it came out of the bag.
One job of a President is to be able to make it clear when he is President of Zimbabwe and when he is leader of the largest political party. President Mnangagwa prefers the national role in any case and in an emergency he dumps the party role, to the benefit of everyone. And rightly so, that is his job after all.
We saw this last year with a potential disaster. Harare was hit by cholera. The previous epidemic killed thousands. This one a handful. The serious big difference was that last year the city and the Government worked hand-in-hand at full throttle from the start, despite the President being of one party and Mayor Herbert Gomba being of another. While his party was fooling around with walkouts in Parliament the mayor personally hosted the Presidential visit to the centre of the epidemic and to his municipal hospital and that relationship is still highly functional, although we suspect a little formal (Mr President — Mr Mayor).
Disasters are not welcome. But in what can be an over-polarised political environment they do remind all of us that however important politics might be, our common humanity is infinitely more important. The people of Zimbabwe, and the political and national leadership have shown they realise this.