On the fifth anniversary of Tonderai Ndira's death, how much has changed in Zimbabwe?

Amid all the bloodshed of Zimbabwe’s 2008 election, it was the murder of the 30-year-old Tonderai Ndira that caught the international media’s attention. He became a symbol for the country's political struggles. Five years on, Zimbabwe is transformed, but

The shadows were lengthening when Tonderai Ndira and his two friends huddled around a table in a suburban Harare garden, and started singing in their native Shona. The words were lost on me, but their intensity wasn’t. When they’d finished, Tonderai translated: “That one is all about I'm dedicated to liberate Zimbabwe, so you should not cry when I get killed.” That was March 2007.

At dawn on 14 May, 2008 - not long after Robert Mugabe had lost a first-round Presidential election to his bitter foe Morgan Tsvangirai - Tonderai slept while his wife Plaxedes made porridge for their two children at their home in the impoverished township of Mabvuku, east of Harare. Around eight armed men wearing masks and dressed in plain-clothes barged in and pulled him from his bed. “They’re going to kill me,” Tonderai shouted to his wife, as they dragged him outside, still in his underwear. His children watched from the doorstep as he was shoved into a truck and driven off.

A week later, in a Harare mortuary with bodies on the floor and failing electricity, Cosmas Ndira recognised his brother’s decomposing remains only by his height and his distinctive wrist bangle. According to the post-mortem, he’d been asphyxiated.

Amid all the bloodshed of Zimbabwe’s 2008 election, it was the murder of the 30-year-old Ndira that caught the international media’s attention. In death, the tall, charismatic youth leader for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, who had been arrested 35 times - more often it’s said, than anyone in the country’s political history - became known as ‘Zimbabwe’s Steve Biko’. Like South Africa’s anti-apartheid icon, he had made the ultimate sacrifice for his country’s freedom.

I first met Tonderai in 2004 and on my regular trips to Zimbabwe he would take me to places which were otherwise off-limits, and introduce me to people on the front-line of the country’s political struggle.

His laid-back manner and languid, reggae man, dread-locked style masked an unshakeable resolve, and an antenna highly tuned to danger. To Zimbabwean activists his deeds became legendary: once when the police were hunting for him he joined the search party without them realising who he was, and twice he escaped custody by jumping out of a truck. But during the febrile days in 2008 when Mugabe’s long reign appeared to be drawing to an end, the regime’s desire to eliminate its enemies took on a new urgency.

Today [14 May], on the fifth anniversary of Tonderai’s abduction and murder and with another election looming, much has changed in Zimbabwe: Tsvangirai and Mugabe are in an uneasy power-sharing agreement, the devastated economy has been revived, a new - albeit flawed - constitution has been agreed, some Western sanctions have been lifted, and Zimbabwe and the UK recently held their first bilateral talks in more than a decade.

Deep political fault-lines remain, but for all its messy, difficult compromises, the accommodation between Tsvangirai’s MDC and Mugabe’s Zanu-PF has improved the lives of many ordinary Zimbabweans. This year’s election could as easily see this relative stability continue, or herald more violence and repression. Yet at some point, past crimes must be reckoned with, and the country’s culture of impunity stretching back more than 30 years finally broken.

When Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980 after a seven-year civil war between Ian Smith’s white minority regime and the guerrilla forces of Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, an amnesty was granted and no-one was held accountable for the many atrocities committed. Some Rhodesian intelligence and army officers even moved seamlessly to work under the new government - led by the very people they had recently tortured or tried to kill. In 1988 another amnesty was granted, this time for those guilty of the Gukurahundi massacres, in which around 20,000 civilians were murdered by government forces in Matabeleland, western Zimbabwe.

The course of this history isn’t about to change. Last October the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) was set up to investigate human rights abuses. But its remit was limited to crimes committed after 2009, and in January its chairperson resigned because of its lack of credibility and independence.

Speaking at Tonderai’s funeral, Morgan Tsvangirai demanded justice for the victims of state-sponsored violence: “We can forgive all other things, but I think we would have stretched our humility too far if we forgave this. Mugabe and his cronies are always preaching about sovereignty. They should know that no sovereignty is greater than giving people the right to live,” he said.

Five years on, as Tonderai’s friends and family gather in Mabvuku to remember him, his status among many Zimbabweans as a national hero is secure. But as long as his killers – and the many other perpetrators of political violence in Zimbabwe – evade justice, the “sovereignty” Tsvangirai spoke of remains an illusion.

Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai and his wife Elizabeth Tsvangirai in 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear