The country has made huge progress in education, equality and inter-ethnic harmony.

Thirty years ago, on 18 April 1980, the renegade British colony that had been Rhodesia was born as Zimbabwe. In the nightmarish events of the last 10 years the euphoria of that day has been all but lost. Certainly, the achievements of Zimbabwe in the last 30 years are in danger of drowning in the mire of statistics about rampant inflation and unemployment, in images of the political repression of a cowed populace — all taken as evidence by those Thabo Mbeki calls the Afro-pessimists. For his part, President Mugabe has certainly provided much grist to the mill of the brigade that believes Africans cannot rule themselves and that independence has achieved nothing worth celebrating.

As Zimbabwe turns 30, however, there are significant achievements to celebrate. Independence itself was one, especially as it brought the end of an apartheid-in-miniature that had allowed a small white minority to enjoy benefits not available to the black majority. Rhodesia's segregationist policy was grievously unjust; but children born in Zimbabwe would no longer have their life paths determined simply because of the colour of their skin.

Independence came through a civil war in which tens of thousands died, and many more people were displaced. Following this, Mugabe — then prime minister — urged former combatants to turn their swords to ploughshares, and white and black to work together to build a new nation. The reconciliation policy at the time did much to allay fears of reprisals, and put Zimbabwe on a path to stability and prosperity.

The chief achievement of the country's prosperous early years, one bearing fruit even today, came from the massive investment in education. From free primary education to adult literacy programmes, this investment made it the sub-Saharan nation with the highest literacy rate. Poor Zimbabweans were encouraged to see education as the only thing that stood between them and their circumstances, and to use education as the means to get out of poverty. Even now, taxi drivers and market-stall holders invest in extra lessons for their children, and in the evenings in Harare adults make their way towards colleges for further education and training. The Zimbabwean diaspora of the last 10 years is evidence of the success of this education policy: Zimbabweans have taken skills and education to the Commonwealth and beyond, making it tragic that their skills should be used to benefit other countries and not their own.

The government particularly encouraged the education of females. Achieving equality for women was a key goal, which led to the overhauling of the country's colonial laws to create legal equity between black men and women. Under the settler regime, while white women and men could achieve legal majority, black women to whom African customary law was applied were damned to be forever minors and subject to the legal authority of male guardians. The government bulldozed into operation the Legal Age of Majority Act, in the face of opposition from traditionalists who predicted all manner of calamitous events if women were allowed to make their own decisions about their lives. On this edifice, and backed by an activist judiciary and a flourishing women's rights movement, the government built a sophisticated legal structure to guarantee women's equality, and ended retrograde cultural practices such as the pledging of young girls to appease angry spirits. As recently as 2008 it adopted a domestic violence law that is among the most progressive in the world.

The other achievement, on a continent riven by ethnic conflict, has been the forging of something that could be called a Zimbabwean identity. Unlike African countries with multiple languages, Zimbabwe has the advantage of a fairly integrated population, with virtually no ethnic conflict. (While the perceived secessionist threat in the Matabeleland and Midlands areas in the 1980s met with disproportionate force from the Zimbabwe army, with about 20,000 lives lost, it was not a simple conflict or civil war between Shonas and Ndebele.) That there has been no such conflict may reflect the accommodation of ethnic differences through a system of ethnic balance in all leadership structures. The integration of the predominantly Ndebele Zapu PF into the predominantly Shona Zanu PF and the formation of an urban-based opposition led by both Shonas and Ndebeles means that political parties have avoided splitting along tribal lines. With the right political will, Zimbabwe may yet avoid all politically inspired ethnic clashes.

At the centre of Zimbabwe's flag are two bands of red running parallel to a band of black. Children are taught that the black represents the black majority, the red the blood shed during the independence struggle. The flag is a reminder that the nation was born of pain. The real tragedy of Zimbabwe is that the pain has continued after independence, and that its first and only leader has been overseeing the destruction not only of what he inherited at independence, but also of what he built. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

(Petina Gappah is a Zimbabwean writer whose short stories, An Elegy for Easterly, won the Guardian First Book Award.)

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