I got an email this week inviting me to a recital by a pianist called Genaro Pereira. At the Zimbabwe Academy of Music in Bulawayo.
Given the battered, troubled state of the country, it seems almost unbelievable that such events still take place. The people who go will not be particularly wealthy; the $5 or $10 for a seat will be a major outlay. Yet, given the estimated 90 per cent unemployment rate, it is remarkable anyone can afford to consider a ticket at all. Even those with money in the bank find it almost impossible to withdraw cash due to the ongoing currency crisis. But somehow a couple of hundred people, maybe more, will find a way of getting into the concert, where an hour or so of Chopin and Beethoven may briefly push other thoughts from the forefront of the mind.
My last visit to a concert in Zimbabwe ended up with an unexpected period in a police cell, when I was accused of working without a permit. That’s another story. But I am still a proud trustee of a small British charity that raises money to support the work of the Academy of Music, an institution that has fought for its survival over the two decades since the Mugabe dream started to go wrong.
Some may feel that there are more important priorities than music in Zimbabwe right now. But at a micro-level there is surely something reassuring about the fact that a hundred or so (predominantly black) teenagers still have the option to study violin, piano or percussion. It would ridiculous, however, to try to claim that the academy serves all. It can only offer its teaching to a small elite of the Zimbabwean population. In that it reflects the wider education sector, where good schools are still available, but only if you have the money, or political connections, to arrange a place for your child. Elsewhere badly paid teachers (in reality often unpaid due to administrative stasis) struggle to provide some form of learning, addressing vast classes in crumbling buildings.
But even if it hangs by a thread, at least the education system still exists. It will play a central role in the rebuilding of the country, where parents talk eagerly of the desire to return to days of their own childhoods in the 1980s, when Zimbabwe had one of the best literacy rates in all Africa.
Lots of my emails recently have included “Zimbabwe” in the subject line. Some have been filled with hope and optimism. Others reflect a fear that the replacement of Robert Mugabe by Emmerson Mnangagwa is just a brief pause in the brutal decline of this once rich and dynamic African country. His failure to appoint any opposition politicians to his new cabinet, while including senior military figures, has reassured few.
A decade ago the sight of the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, cutting up his clerical collar live on Sunday morning television became a defining image in Zimbabwe. He announced he would remain collarless until President Mugabe was gone.
When he returned to the studio last week, presenter Andrew Marr returned the severed pieces, which he had been keeping safely in an envelope. The Ugandan-born prelate argued the pointlessness of simply trying to sew the tiny bits of cut collar back together again. He advocated radical change. Revitalising the nation’s schools will be part of this. So too will be restoring the rule of law, creating a stable currency, repairing crumbling infrastructure and allowing experts, black and white, to get on with the job of bringing Zimbabwe’s once hugely profitable agricultural and industrial sectors back to life again.
Some are already referring to the change of leadership as a putsch. After disappointment over the new cabinet, the focus must now turn to next year’s planned elections. They will give President Mnangagwa his one chance to prove his intent. He can continue the corrupt ways of the old regime, or become a reforming statesman, revitalising his once great country. And all must have the chance to vote. The numbers registered on the electoral roll is a major concern: morale and a sense that nothing will ever change means many people simply stopped filling in the relevant forms years ago.
Zimbabwe can be “relaunched”. There is no reason why its citizens should not once again enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the region. But for many a brief burst of optimism is already turning to resigned pessimism. David Coltart, a former opposition MDC senator, was a reforming education secretary in the power-sharing government that ran between 2008 and 2013. His Twitter account provides a fascinating insight to the ups and downs of Zimbabwean politics. A recent tweet included a quotation from Proverbs Chapter 15: “The greedy bring ruin to their households, but the one who hates bribes will live.”
Petroc Trelawny is a presenter for BBC Radio 3
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