After a few disappointing and shoddy documentaries which shook my faith in the ability of modern British television to produce a decent one, along came a brilliant example. Zimbabwe’s Forgotten Children directed by Jezza Neumann and produced and presented by Xoliswa Sithole was intensely, at times unbearably, moving, while at the same time being extremely instructive. The film was presented as a personal mission by Sithole, who had come to Zimbabwe as a child to escape apartheid South Africa. At that time Mugabe’s Zimbabwe was a highly prosperous and healthy society, in which all children enjoyed an excellent education, which was, Sithole stated, the best in Africa if not the world. She had obtained permission to film in Zimbabwe by claiming that she was making a film about her childhood education and its value. In fact she looked at the current lives of Zimbabwe’s children, and the reasons why a rich and socially advanced society had, in a short space of time, collapsed into one of extreme poverty, appalling ill-health, repression and very limited educational provision.
The format which the film used to develop these themes was to tell the story of three particular children – Esther, Grace and Obert – and follow their struggles: these three individual narrative were intercut with voice-overs relating the damning facts about current day Zimbabwe, and face to camera pieces in which Sithole reflected on the changes which had occurred since her childhood. Each individual story was intensely moving and at times, particularly in the case of Esther, unwatchable. Esther, aged 8, lived in a shack in a squatter camp, with her mother who was dying of HIV/AIDS and her baby sister: Esther is herself HIV positive. It is difficult to say which was more heart-rending – seeing this young girl try to cope with the situation, or seeing her mother who, we were told, had been a strong confident community activist and women’s groups organiser, reduced to a shell of a woman unable to move or wash herself. The programme was unflinching in its depiction of the physical horrors of the life which they were leading. All of the children were desperate for education, desperate to go to school but none had the money to do so. This was most tellingly shown in the story of Obert who lived in Zimbabwe’s devastated countryside with his grandmother. Obert is a very bright boy, but his life had been reduced to desperate measures just to feed himself and his grandmother. What might be seen as the film’s climactic scenes came in the rural school – a collection of small red-brick buildings, unfinished, mostly unroofed in the middle of the scrub – which he wanted to attend. Over a thousand children trekked in to attend but in the end all but a hundred were sent home because they or their parents could not afford the fee – in Obert’s case 50 cents, and at most 2 dollars a term. The succession of shots as the children were turned away was not merely heart-rending but made one realise what a precious thing education, which we esteem so lightly, is.
The programmes real intellectual strength though came in the fact that Sithole kept dragging us, and herself, back to the issue of how it came to this. As she remarked, she had been made programmes all over Africa and witnessed similar scenes elsewhere: what made Zimbabwe different was that in her childhood it had been utterly different. She was scared by the way in which this demonstrated the potential for a society to completely collapse. So what were the causes? Well Mugabe’s actions of course. Both Esther’s and Grace’s lives had been ruined and destroyed by Operation Murambatsvina which is Shona for “sweep out the rubbish”. This was what Mugabe claimed to be an ‘urban renewal’ programme which he launched in 2005. In fact it was the deliberate destruction of thousands homes, which made up to 1.5 million people homeless, in order to smash the opposition party’s political base (see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC558731/ ). This reference to human beings as ‘rubbish’, this glossing over a terrible destruction with a glib and shiny phrase, how modern, how of our times and immediate past it all seems. The other major factor which was identified, and was critical in Obert’s story, was the driving out of the white farmers. His grandmother and parents had all been gainfully employed on such a farm and when it was ‘resettled’ they were driven out. Now one needs of course to be careful here. If this had been genuine resettlement, if the farms had been nationalised and well-run for the benefit of the majority population then there would be no cause for complaint. But this was not the case : the farmers were driven away, but no-one took their place and Zimbabwe changed from being totally self-sufficient to being dependant on international food aid in the course of a few years. Beyond pointing to these factors the programme did not go; it did not try to explain how or why Mugabe degenerated into the vicious tyrant that he has become. Perhaps though this was wise as such questions enter the realm of speculation and this programme, however carefully, indeed lovingly, shot was always very rooted in reality.
It is important to remark that the programme did not just tell us the story of these children and then abandon them. At http://zimbabweschildren.org/ you can find out what has happened to Esther, Grace and Obert since; at least all three are now at school, and in particular for Esther her life has been immeasurably improved. So this was a documentary which was not only brilliantly constructed and excellently made (at some considerable personal risk given the nature of Mugabe’s regime), it has also made a difference to lives. If you haven’t seen this make every effort to do so: it demonstrates what really good documentary film makers can achieve.