I am a Zimbabwean Citizen and my African roots go back to 1867 when my Great Grandfather came out on a sailing ship and started a Baptist Church in a small town called Grahamstown in South Africa. The Church he built is still there – right in the center of town and if you go to the Museum you can see pictures of him and the Church.
My Grandfather was a prominent South African and served his country in many capacities eventually serving in the South African government led by Jan Smuts through the Second World War, retiring when the Nationalists came to power in 1949. My father grew up in South Africa but moved up to Rhodesia in the early 30’s, travelling to Bulawayo by train – without even a passport. His first and only passport was one issued by Rhodesia and he held that until late in life when he was stripped of his citizenship by the new Zimbabwe Government after Independence. He died stateless after over 60 years working and living in Zimbabwe.
I have never had that problem but my wife, who married me in 1963, had her citizenship taken from her in 2005 and we had to fight her case in the Courts for two years before her status as a Citizen was restored. My son had so much trouble with the passport office that he eventually used the links to Ireland – through my great grandfather, to get an Irish Passport, a process which was completed over the Fax system without problem.
The reason for all this nonsense was a desire by the Zimbabwe government to deny anyone with foreign links the right to hold Zimbabwe Citizenship and therefore be able to vote. It not only affects white Africans like us, but many Africans who have links to other African States. The numbers affected are staggering – one third of all young Zimbabweans have no birth certificates and cannot get a passport or vote despite the fact that the new Constitution specifically sets out criteria for citizenship by birth or residence.
When I first stood for Parliament and had to serve my papers at the Courts in Bulawayo, the State claimed I was not a citizen. I was forced to go the High Court and seek an urgent interdict setting aside the government decision and saying that I was a citizen. This shows just how far the regime in power here will go to use citizenship to control participation in our fragile democracy.
But the question of Citizenship goes far beyond the current campaign to manipulate the voters roll and affects almost every aspect of life here. Young people with parents, who originally came here from Malawi or Mozambique or Zambia, find themselves unable to register their children and get them a National Identity Document. Children born to Zimbabwean parents should get such an ID number at birth and it should stay with them for life. Children need an ID to get into school, to qualify for State assistance or eventually get a passport.
Our new Constitution makes this a right – not a privilege and stipulates that anyone born in Zimbabwe automatically has Citizenship, any person born to one or more Zimbabwean parents – anywhere in the world, also has such rights. Further the Constitution allows Zimbabweans to hold more than one Citizenship; a right that is being recognised by the regime in Harare with grave reservations and reluctance. If you come to work here or to become an investor, you can also claim Citizenship after a lengthy period.
But I am more concerned about the sense of belonging and patriotism – what we used to call nationalism. This word is much abused today because it has become associated with extremist views in many countries and here it was associated with the movements which struggled for independence. My own view is that a sense of nationalism is essential in the process of nation building.
When my son went to the United States for the first time he came home and said to me, almost wistfully, that “Americans are so proud of their Citizenship! They even fly US flags outside their homes!” The Americans have long pursued policies which assimilate migrants into American society. Migrants have to learn English and study the Constitution. They have to pass exams and then take an oath to abide by the law and to be loyal to the country. They even learn the National Anthem.
Any study of those countries that have successfully navigated their way to reasonable prosperity and modernized will show that they have retained their own culture, language and traditions and in the process cultivated a strong sense of national pride. The prime example is Japan, but India and China are both also examples.
African States do not seem to have achieved any of these goals – I get the feeling that in most countries the sense of nationhood is weak or nonexistent. The sad reality is that both pre change regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia had a strong sense of nationalism and patriotism among their white minority population. This has rapidly broken down since the time of change although I get the impression that many white South Africans retain a strong sense of belonging and nationalism.
This was perhaps mainly because of the transition under Mandela. The younger generation wants to feel a sense of belonging and national pride and for that to happen they must have full Citizenship with all the rights and responsibilities that that entails. I was once in London with Morgan Tsvangirai and I got a call from a young voice over the phone to try and get us to attend a meeting of young Zimbabweans in London. We agreed and drove across town two days later to find a Church Hall filled to capacity with perhaps 600 young black and white Zimbabweans.
During his speech Morgan said to that audience, “once I become President in Zimbabwe, I will ensure that when you come home, you are welcomed at the airport with a passport and all rights to live and vote in the country of your birth.” There was a burst of applause and many in that hall wept in response. Afterwards, Morgan said to me “I never knew that those youngsters were so committed to their country”. What he needed to also understand is that you cannot buy that spirit or feeling and that it is priceless and fragile, easily lost.
The issue for all of us to understand is that this is so easy to achieve. We all want to feel we belong and are accepted. My family and I decided a long time ago that we were Africans. Not “Europeans” or “migrants”, or “settlers”. We made a commitment to the country and have worked hard to achieve acceptance and recognition. My son is a Pastor and leads a totally integrated congregation where his congregants regard him with respect and acceptance as a Zimbabwean. I represent a Constituency with 25 000 voters who are 99,9 per cent people of colour. I think I am accepted simply as one of the many who seek to serve and fight for what is right.
However, when people walk into a Citizenship Office or the Ministry responsible for Immigration, they encounter almost universal hostility and difficulty, many having to resort to the Courts to win their rights, just as we had to fight for my wife’s Citizenship in 2005. Our indigenisation laws specifically state that unless you are born in Zimbabwe and are black, you are not “indigenous”. Like the Black Economic Empowerment laws in South Africa this is designed to isolate and discriminate against those who are not in the mainstream. You cannot build a nation on such rules and regulations.
At one time after change this may have been necessary to try and level the playing field – but not now after 37 years in our case, it is time to move on. We need to give everyone who chooses to make Zimbabwe their home a sense of belonging and pride. Full citizenship is a good start.
Eddie Cross is MDC MP for Bulawayo South. This article first appeared on his website www.eddiecross.africanherd.com