Just under a year ago, a series of previously unimaginable events occurred in Zimbabwe. The Robert Mugabe regime—politically, if not economically, stable for 37 years—crumbled in less than a week. Mugabe was ousted from power in a minimally violent military takeover that became affectionately known as the coochy-coup, and his former vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa took the helm.
It was a surprising turn of events. There had been significant political reshuffling in the months preceding the coup. But for ordinary Zimbabweans more concerned with the struggles of everyday life, this was nothing new. It was the year before general elections and so it was only natural that internal party politicking would commence.
When we first heard about the latest round of political drama at home, I and a group of Zimbabwean friends living in New York balked at the idea that these grumbles could portend actual change. But, when those political rumblings turned into the actual rumblings of armored vehicles rolling into the capital city of Harare, even we began to take note.
First, we were skeptical, then we were fearful, but by the end of the week, those of us living in the diaspora—albeit distrustful about the replacement of one strongman with another—couldn’t help but get caught up in the hopefulness and excitement that radiated over our social media platforms from family and friends in Zimbabwe. While Mnangagwa and the military still represented the old guard, they also seemed to represent change and perhaps even progress.
And so a few days into the military takeover, while our compatriots at home were taking to the streets demanding the president’s resignation, we found ourselves bundled up against the cold outside the Permanent Mission of Zimbabwe to the United Nations in Manhattan clamoring for the same thing.
We crowded the sidewalk and spilled onto the street, singing, dancing and beating on pots, pans, and drums, while holding posters that read “enough is enough” and “Mugabe must go.” Then, a few days later, he was gone.
In the days and weeks following the coup, political and economic stability returned to Zimbabwe. Mnangagwa launched an international campaign to potential investors, stating continually that Zimbabwe was open for business. Within a few months, he announced an election date—July 30th, 2018. Political campaigning began in earnest and when I traveled back to Zimbabwe in June, I was surprised at the diversity of campaign posters stuck to walls and tacked on trees, all around the country.
Even though everything about our political history pointed to a continuation of the old guard, it was impossible not to get caught up in the optimism surrounding the first elections there in which Mugabe was not a candidate and shoo-in for the top job. It seemed that every day I had tea with yet another auntie or uncle who assured me that this time things would be different, and every weekend I had drinks with friends who confidently stated that we were on the precipice of real change.
But then election day came and went. And nothing changed. The usual voting irregularities were reported, electoral results were contested, and violence commenced. In a recent article about the elections, a close friend of mine wrote that for all the events of the past year, we are simply back where we started. “Hope, no change. Still.”
And in many ways, we are. Today, the ruling party continues to rule. The economy has again spiraled out of control. Zimbabweans at home continue to suffer. And I am back in New York, struggling through another cold November, this time without a reason to sing and dance.
But today, a potentially momentous voting day in America, I am thinking back on my conversations with family and friends in Zimbabwe, in the days leading up to our own potentially momentous elections. As a Zimbabwean based in the diaspora, I was barred from exercising my voting rights at home, and as a “non-immigrant alien” in the United States, I am unable to vote here either. But, I remember watching my fellow Zimbabweans excitedly imagining the future they would create for us with the mark of their pens. I remember how I envied their optimism and confidence, but even more than that how I envied their ability to vote.
I remember reflecting on how the right to imagine and potentially construct an alternative future was in fact also an incredible privilege. That reflection from a few months ago is the same for me today. But, perhaps in this context, in this country, and for this electorate, hope can mean change.
Jacquelin Kataneksza is a Zimbabwean international affairs practitioner and political analyst based in New York. She is a regular contributor to Africa is a Country, and has previously written for Mobilisation Lab, as well as appearing on Al Jazeera’s The Stream, This is Hell Radio and Cape Talk Radio, South Africa, to discuss Zimbabwean politics. She is also a PhD candidate in public policy at The New School, where her research focuses on African politics, civil society and new media.