While Cecil and his death at the hands of an American dentist may have turned the world’s spotlight back onto this southern African country in the middle of the year, the tragic episode paled in comparison to massive job cuts, a worsening cash crunch and the unmistakeable glee that greeted the #MugabeFalls debacle.
Here are some of the biggest news stories from Zimbabwe in the last 12 months:
#MugabeFalls (not from power, silly): That red carpet tumble at Harare International Airport in early February prompted a slew of hilarious internet memes of the 91-year-old. Officials insisted it wasn’t a full-blown fall and even if it was, he “broke” it. The fall, not the internet.
He stumbled again, in October, at a summit in India. An elephantine birthday feast: Or not, as it turns out. Those two elephants donated by a new farmer to feed party-goers at Mugabe’s 91st birthday in Victoria Falls were returned and the farmer arrested. Apparently they weren’t his elephants to donate. There were lots of birthday cakes at the party though. And Mugabe evidently liked Victoria Falls so much that he took his Zanu-PF party there again in December, for its annual conference.
One mischievous commentator suggested Victoria Falls should be renamed Mugabe Falls, at least for the duration of the conference. Mugabe turns 92 in just two months (though a Malawian prophet says the president won’t make it to January 1, let alone to his party).
Itai Dzamara: this journalist-turned-activist was abducted from a barber’s shop in March. Nine months on, he has still not been found. Big news story? If it wasn’t, it probably should have been.
Cecil the Lion: The international media furore over Cecil’s killing in July took many Zimbabweans by surprise. After all, apart from visitors and workers in swanky lodges in Hwange, who’d actually heard of the animal, magnificent though he clearly was? Lions aren’t every Zimbabwean’s friend, especially if you live in the rural areas. By the way, dentist Walter Palmer appears to have got off scot-free.
Job cuts: Ongoing throughout the year, they were particularly harsh in July and August after a court ruling made it easier to sack workers without paying heavy termination benefits. Many companies had workforces inherited from the Zimbabwe dollar era, when wages were low in forex terms. Parliament had to be recalled to put a stop to the sackings – but not before more than 20 000 people had lost their jobs in just six weeks. The cuts meant less tax revenue in the treasury, which was bad news.
Wrong speech: Like the #MugabeFalls debacle, this was intensely embarrassing, not only (one presumes since he didn’t actually say so) for the Zimbabwean president himself, but also for those who insist he is fully fit to govern. Mugabe read the wrong speech out at the opening of parliament in September, a speech he’d already given in public three weeks earlier. Officials later blamed a mix-up in his secretary’s office. But that hasn’t stopped the speculation at every subsequent public event: will the president read the right speech this time?
Now you see her, now you don’t: After getting herself elected as ruling party women’s league president at the end of last year, First Lady Grace Mugabe suddenly disappeared from view. She’d had an operation to her appendix in the New Year, the president explained.
But that didn’t explain her almost complete absence from the public eye for several months. Speculation mounted: Was she terminally ill? Had she sneaked out for treatment in Dubai, where her elder son is believed to be studying?
In the last few months, Grace Mugabe has been back with a bang, holding rallies in different parts of the country at which she’s controversially handed out government-sourced agricultural inputs (as well as shoes, clothes and washing powder).
She claims she doesn’t want to be Zimbabwe’s next president. Should we believe her? One thing’s increasingly clear: she doesn’t want Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa to be Zimbabwe’s next president either.
Elephant poisonings in Hwange and Kariba: News that poachers used cyanide to kill 60 elephants, mostly in Zimbabwe’s biggest national park, sparked outrage. It’s still not clear who masterminded the killings, but the suspicion is that some rangers and villagers may have been involved.
Civil servants’ wages (or rather, the lack of them): Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa’s struggle to raise money to keep Zimbabwe afloat is no secret. The authorities have been racking their brains to find ways of raising money: there are now ambitious plans to tax churches, increase power tariffs, impose an “indigenisation levy”, hike traffic fines and tap into the nearly $2bn that Zimbabweans in the diaspora send home to their families each year.
This week, public anger has been growing over the authorities’ failure to pay civil servants on time, while Mugabe holidays with his family in the Far East. Teachers have just been paid (though in some cases apparently with their salaries inexplicably docked), while nurses and doctors will have to wait until next week.
There are growing strike threats, prompting at least one media commentator to ask if civil servants would be the “changemakers” Zimbabwe had been waiting for.
After all, the one man who made “change” his rallying cry a few years back – opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai – has hardly made the news at all this year. Which doesn’t bode that well for his future either.