Our Children. Their Dreams. Our Future.

We cannot always shape the future for our children, but can shape our children for the future

Zimbabwe Politics and Parenting at Crossroads

‘I do not think we have quite understood how much the collapse of public institutions has degraded our society,’ Webster (not his real name) remarked. If we did, we might have taken different choices. ‘It should worry those of us who are bothered to raise children and who care for family,’ he declared as we sat down for dinner at a News Café Restaurant in Nairobi, Kenya. 

Webster and his wife Tinei (not her real name) are one of the many Zimbabwean couples who have chosen to grow their family and life opportunities outside the country of their birth. They have refused to put life on hold. They have established a thriving business and have beautiful children who are in good schools.

That conversation had been triggered by perennial ‘starter issues’ at most Zimbabwean dinner tables: How to once-again build a country that offers opportunity for hard working families, hope for young people and works well for all. The basic bargain of any 21st century society.

Given the opportunity, Webster and Tinei may have preferred to run their business and grow their family in the land of their birth – an option now precluded by a brutal assault on the fabric that once held Zimbabwe together as a community as well as a toppling of the foundation on which the nation rests: honesty, kindness, the traditional family and a belief in plain old hard work.

The genie is out of the bottle and trouble is brewing. There is an even stronger assault on the traditional family unit. Some separated by long distances and borders, others by a breakdown in values, authority and commonality of purpose. In its place is a redefinition of the family unit, forced by political and economic choices that have permeated the most intimate aspects of our life:

More people are living alone, more children are being raised by single parents and more grown-up children are living with their parents than ever before. The most radical changes have been to child-rearing and marriage, with increasingly more women giving birth at a much younger age while fewer are getting married. For the first time in our history having children has become the first major milestone of adult life, ahead of marriage.

Zimbabwe has suffered tremendous failure of institutions of economic and political governance, as well as basic social institutions. ‘Institutions’ make economies work better and more efficiently for the same amount of human capital. The stronger the institutions, the more resilient and better our economy, society. And the better our prospects and services delivery.

And for many, life really is on hold. And unfair. Zimbabwe has witnessed an unprecedented and rapid inequality. We have always accepted that inequality of outcomes is inevitable because no two individuals face exactly the same circumstances. Some enjoy abundance of opportunities while others encounter an endless string of obstacles to success. We were OK with unequal outcomes as long as those outcomes reflected actual merit. But that has changed with institutional collapse.

The Zimbabwe of today rewards notoriety. Those with money and notoriety assert themselves effectively. Others see their hopes and dreams vanish. To some it is a sure sign of a failing society and State.

And that is not the kind of future Webster and Tinei wish for their children.

‘Our parents were lucky to have given us every advantage in life. We grew up with role models in our families and society – and built our aspirations around them.’  What perks up a child's sense of aspiration is comparison. Only by comparing one's situation to others is a child able to aspire and dream... that a different outcome is possible, that if I work hard I could be better.

It is a fine kettle of fish we have set for children. We have robbed our children of the right to dream. Zimbabweans have always understood that we cannot always shape the future for our children but can shape our children for the future. Unfortunately such basic parenting opportunities have been taken away – leaving behind the kind of role models that our children should not aspire to.

Perhaps Webster and Tinei's is a strategic retreat to raise a new generation of Zimbabweans who will hopefully grow up to undo the havoc that has wreaked family values and our nation. For the sake of Zimbabwe, I hope they and others like them succeed.

For that is the basic bargain that must bother every Zimbabwean. One writer remarked, ‘every family in our nation stands at the intersection between politics and parenting, facing a crisis in which the fate of our nation will be decided. You do not have to be a parent to be concerned. We are affected regardless of family status.’

Maxwell Gomera