Bulawayo

When King Lobengula, or Prince Lobengula as he was then, was asked by some of his generals why he had called a new town in Matabeleland KoBulawayo – meaning “a place where he is being killed” – he looked them in the eye before letting his gaze stray onto the dusk fast falling across the distant horizon. He scratched his chin and quietly muttered, “It is me, the Prince, who is being killed”; thereby causing his generals to do some quiet muttering of their own. Et tu, brute? and all that.

At the time Lobengula was in a sweaty conflict with a group of his fellow Ndebeles who thought that his dint at being the next King was a little hopeful, given his mother was one of his father’s ‘lesser’ wives. As was the fashion across the fertile sub-Saharan plains in the early part of the nineteenth century such disputes were typically settled with knobkerries, and so Lobengula had skirted the option of docile diplomatic talks and gone straight to savage hand-to-hand conflict.

Situated on the high veld, close to the watershed between the Zambezi and Limpopo drainage basins, Bulawayo is the second largest city in Zimbabwe, and is about as far removed from Northern Rock and it’s freewheeling HQ in Gosforth, Newcastle as you can probably get.

That being said, the man appointed to run Northern Rock by the UK government after it had confiscated all the shares and whispered to the existing management to “just disappear”, was one Ron Sandler. Ron Sandler was a steady pair of hands who had carved out a stellar corporate reputation by rescuing Lloyds of London in the 1990s after the insurance market ran into a sticky patch of icky litigation. This was good work for Ron Sandler as he was paid £90,000 a month, thereby affording him the means to buy as many knobkerries as he deemed necessary to rationalize the back office.

Ron Sandler was born in Durban, South Africa in 1952; but Ron Sandler actually grew up in Bulawayo.

Lobengula later saw off the dissidents, quashing them in classically bloody fashion. He was a big, powerful man, albeit one with – supposedly – a voice as soft and velvety as Huw Edwards, and his courage in war garnered a loyal following. He was called King after a coronation that included a war dance, in addition to the slaughter of lots and lots of cattle. Gallons of millet beer were put away by more than ten thousand warriors all bedecked in capes made of ostrich feathers and kilts of leopard skin finished with the tails of white cattle. Garb that would likely leave the ‘creatives’ at many a modern fashion house racked with jealousy and self-doubt.

By 1893 though, King Lobengula was on the run; deciding  torch his munitions and set fire to Bulawayo, rather than eyeball the lethal Maxim gun held by an excitable lackey of the British South Africa Company who had waded in – with grisly intent – after an agreement over mineral rights turned sour. The Ndebele did not give up on Bulawayo though and later laid siege on the white settlers. The same ten thousand warriors crept up one night and surrounded the town. The siege was set and they sat and waited as conditions inside Bulawayo quickly deteriorated. The plan though, was scuppered by a strategic error of school boy proportions.

The Ndebele failed to cut the telegraph line out of the town that enabled those holed up inside to communicate with the cavalry, who duly arrived on thundering hooves and caught the Ndebele warriors idling about, knobkerries at ease. The siege ended shortly after that and the Ndebele hot tailed it back up to the Matopos hills, an area famed for its granite kopjes and wooded valleys, to sit and smoke and curse what might have been.

Bulawayo went on to establish itself as an industrial hub with a large manufacturing presence before being decimated by the malaise wrought by a government intent on pursuing an economic policy that was good news for Swiss banks, not so good for national GDP. Today Bulawayo, largely on account of the economic crisis, is home to the strongest opposition to Robert Mugabe’s murderous rule.

There is, though, hope.

The council is controlled by the main opposition party, the MDC-T, who have made light of their efforts to oust the shrivelled dictator, and instead focus efforts on where they can actually make a difference. Embracing social media and the use of catchy hashtags such as #mycitymypride and #keepbyoclean, they have roused the dormant spirits and today Bulawayo is held up to be the country’s cleanest city. Albeit one, like much of the continent, that is short of water. Unlike Newcastle.

The city has a huge, youthful workforce. It has ready-made infrastructure and is something of a transport hub situated as it is on the Trans-African highway, a  10,000kn stretch of asphalt from Cairo to Cape Town. The City also retains most of what was Zimbabwe’s heavy industry and food processing facilities and even has its own Thermal power station which cranked back into life in 2011 after the Botswana Government bankrolled a new lick of paint. Presumably in return for most of the power. Still, power is power.

If only that miserable man Mugabe had less of it.

That said, all good things come to those who wait. #gobulawayo.

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