Zimbabwe

MUGABE’S END-GAME

The president says he'll step down, but the country's opposition isn't convinced

ALAN MARTIN August 18 2003
Zimbabwe

MUGABE’S END-GAME

The president says he'll step down, but the country's opposition isn't convinced

ALAN MARTIN August 18 2003

MUGABE’S END-GAME

Zimbabwe

ALAN MARTIN

The president says he'll step down, but the country's opposition isn't convinced

DRESSED in a thick wool turtleneck to ward off the winter breeze, Victor is keeping office hours under a large tree just up the road from Zimbabwe’s mighty Victoria Falls. The two identifying tools of the 26-yearold’s trade—an expensive Nokia cellphone and a duffel bag full of cash—lie casually on a picnic table in front of him. Until two years ago, the well-spoken accountant earned a respectable $US1,200 a month working for a chain of luxury safari camps. Now he makes seven times that amount exchanging Zimbabwe dollars for U.S. dollars on the black market. “This is a country in crisis, a place where economic Darwinism is the order of the day for the average guy,” says Victor. “All I’m doing is exploiting a loophole to get by.”

The “loophole” is the near collapse of Zimbabwe’s financial sector. The banks are running out of money, and Victor’s success highlights the growing political and economic paralysis gripping what was once one of Africa’s most prosperous countries. Zimbabwe’s slide into ruin began three years ago when Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, now 79, began targeting white farmers by allowing roving gangs to take over their land. Now with only 600 left on their farms— a far cry from their former ranks of4,500food production has slumped, leaving nearly eight million people out of a population of 13 million on the brink of starvation. The collapse is so dramatic that the International Monetary Fund declared Zimbabwe’s economy to be shrinking faster than any other in the world. “We are not yet a failed state,” says Eddie Cross, an economic adviser for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. “The lights still switch on. But we are perilously close to the abyss.”

Unemployment hovers near 80 per cent; inflation, already running at 365 per cent annually, is expected to triple by year-end. The banks would print more money if they could—the expedient fallback of any respectable banana republic—but that’s not an option: they have neither ink nor paper.

Acute gasoline shortages have helped strangle the country’s economy and traffic, leaving motorists at the mercy of profiteers charging over US$2.50 a litre. Diplomats have not been paid in weeks; underpaid judges, doctors and other public servants were left fuming in early July after senior politicians in Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party granted themselves a 600-per-cent pay increase.

Only Mugabe’s departure will help end Zimbabwe’s death spiral. During George W. Bush’s week-long tour of Africa in July, South African President Thabo Mbeki, a Mugabe confidant and supporter, told the U.S. leader that Mugabe would leave office this fall. But those opposed to Mugabe doubt it. They say the country is locked in a violent end-game with Mugabe and his supporters in the Zanu-PF stepping up repression in a bid to hold on to power at all costs. The phones of high-profile government opponents are tapped and their movements watched by the Central Intelligence Organisation, the feared secret police. Even e-mail traffic is monitored for subversive content.

Torture is also used to intimidate. Michael Moyo, a young political activist, was jailed in June after taking part in an anti-Mugabe rally. Moments after being released he was cornered by a mob of 20 soldiers and CIO agents as he walked toward his brother waiting in the family car. “They put sugar into my petrol tank and slashed the tires,” he says. “Then they told me to push the car while they assaulted me.” Badly beaten, he was dumped into the car and left for dead. When he met later with Maclean’s, he was wearing a cast on his right arm and still had partly healed head wounds. Fear was evident in his eyes. “I have had to remove my children from school,” he says, “because they have threatened to kidnap them to get to me.”

Stories such as Moyo’s are all too familiar to Shari Eppel, a psychologist and human rights consultant to Pius Ncube, the country’s outspoken Roman Catholic archbishop.

Women are being raped in youth militia camps, she says, and homes belonging to government opponents are being torched. “Mugabe knows that you don’t need to kill someone to send a strong message,” she says. “He knows that it’s easier to get away with torture because it doesn’t make international headlines.”

This is the mess that Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) could inherit. Tsvangirai was charged with treason and imprisoned for 14 days after being accused of organizing a massive protest in June. He was also charged with treason in the run-up to the 2002 elections for allegedly threatening to have Mugabe killed. But George Bizos, the South African lawyer made famous for his defence of Nelson Mandela in the 1960s, has shredded the state’s case against Tsvangirai, leaving only politi-

cal intervention in the way of his acquittal.

When Maclean’s visited Tsvangirai’s compound in Strathaven, an upscale Harare suburb, he was overseeing the transfer of black-market fuel from drums to jerry cans for use in the upcoming campaign for municipal elections. The former union leader, who was widely believed to have been robbed of the presidency during last year’s rigged election, admits the MDC lost a crucial propaganda war before the vote when Mugabe succeeded in painting the opposition as lackeys of Britain and the U.S. “Africa misunderstood the MDC agenda,” he says. “We’re not out to reverse the gains of independence, but to democratize Zimbabwe. Our problems don’t stem from a colonial lega-

cy, but a crisis of governance. Anyone who looks at Zimbabwe objectively will see that.”

The opposition has been buoyed by a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times in which Colin Powell, the U.S. secretary of state, slammed the Mugabe regime as “corrupt and repressive.” Powell also chastised South Africa for not criticizing Mugabe. Bush reiterated the message during his talk with Mbeki. One of the hallmarks of Mbeki’s presidency has been creation of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, a multi-billion-dollar aid program that rewards African countries for promoting fiscal and political accountability. But Bush made it clear that the U.S. would withhold $10 billion in financial support for the program until Mugabe resigns.

Bush’s support is the latest in a series of successes for the MDC. Many foreign ob-

servers expected the fledgling opposition party to fizzle after the presidential elections, but instead the MDC has consolidated its political support, says Robert Schrire, a professor of political science at the University of Cape Town. “The MDC has been tested and has proved that it has a lot of talent within the ranks,” he says. “Key countries like South Africa are reluctantly coming around to accept Tsvangirai as a key player.”

Despite growing support for Tsvangirai, the Zanu-PF may not be willing to step aside even if Mugabe quits. Many observers believe hard-liner Emmerson Mnangagwa, the speaker of parliament, will replace Mugabe. “It would be a duplicate of Mugabe’s style of governance,” said Tsvangirai. “He doesn’t tolerate dissent and he’s violent in his nature. The country will be worse off under him.” Putting Mnangagwa in charge of negotiating with the MDC would be a non-starter, adds Schrire. “The whole regime must go, not just Mugabe,” he says. “He’s only one of an elite that has robbed the country dry.”

Zimbabwe’s remaining white farmers can only watch and wait. On several occasions Mugabe has told the country in radio addresses that land seizures and occupations of farms are to stop. But the so-called war veterans—most of them dispossessed peasants born after the war of liberation—continue to do as they please. A farm belonging to Roy Bennett, an opposition MP, was overrun by over 200 Zanu-PF supporters in June. They assaulted workers, killed livestock and vandalized farm equipment. Just days before the attack, the president told supporters at a rally that there “should be no more Bennetts” farming the land.

The MDC says it would give the farmers back their land, but hundreds have fled to neighbouring Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique, where the governments have offered them tax incentives. Tobacco companies have also bankrolled farmers to start up plantations in Zambia. In Zimbabwe, more than 200,000 black peasant farmers have moved onto white-owned land. Many of the new farmers say they have not received seeds or fertilizer promised by the government. Others are using ox plows because tractors promised by the government have not arrived. But none of this seems to matter to Mugabe, who clings to power even as the country collapses around him. lifl