Zimbabwe

AN EVIL SPELL

Mugabe’s continued presidency has been disastrous for the African nation

CAREY FRENCH August 2 2004
Zimbabwe

AN EVIL SPELL

Mugabe’s continued presidency has been disastrous for the African nation

CAREY FRENCH August 2 2004

AN EVIL SPELL

Zimbabwe

CAREY FRENCH

Mugabe’s continued presidency has been disastrous for the African nation

THIS IS NOT Sussex Drive.

That thought springs to mind as the soldier darts across the tree-lined avenue, bayoneted rifle extended menacingly. On the sidewalk, a heavily burdened woman breaks into a jog-shuffle, a baby jouncing up and down in its white binding on her back.

I am in Zimbabwe for two weeks, as a visiting academic. As we pass, I see the presidential guard in the rear-view mirror, looking at the security cameras in the leafy canopy above before strutting back to his spot beneath the wall of State House. “They have only one job—and that is to be feared,” my driver warns. “People have been shot at here

for stopping at the wrong time.” In a country where strangers usually greet each other on the streets, this little drama outside the official residence of Zimbabwe’s best-known senior citizen is almost as chilling as the absence of metal street signs. They have been filched—in an impoverished society where one in four adults is HIV positive—to make, among other things, coffin handles.

Behind his walls, President Robert Gabriel Mugabe is in siege mode, lashing out at critics who accuse him of having stolen the last general election, and ever watchful for

threats to his increasingly authoritarian rule. These range from the simply bizarre— Mugabe has alleged that the U.S. government had a plot to introduce condoms containing anti-government messages—to the paranormal. Reports from sources in the president’s ZANU-PF party (lent credence by some of Mugabe’s public pronouncements) say meetings are now presaged by searches by his Central Intelligence Organization for weapons—and magic charms.

Once respected as a Mandela-like reconciliator, Mugabe morphed into what Desmond Tutu, South African archbishop emeritus, termed a “cartoon” African despot

when, faced with the prospect of defeat during the 2000 parliamentary election, he launched a crackdown on dissent and also began a land reform program with the violent eviction of 4,000 white commercial farmers. What was advertised as an orderly redistribution of acreage to landless blacks became a bloody free-for-all, spearheaded by so-called war veterans, but with the president’s family and agriculturally illiterate party cronies highly visible at the trough.

In the process, the 2002 presidential election was stolen. A recent report by the African Union said the ZANU-PF used violence and intimidation, while domestic critics headed by

Pius Ncube, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Bulawayo, say they now have proof that voter rolls were stuffed with the names of dead, non-existent and duplicate voters. And Mugabe’s continued presidency has been disastrous for the country. Between 300,000 and one million agricultural workers have been displaced, commercial agriculture has been destroyed, and with it much of the economy. Only three in 10 Zimbabweans of working age have jobs. This is a country, notes University of Zimbabwe economist Tony Hawkins, where output has fallen 40 per cent since 1999.

Much of Zimbabwe’s manufacturing base has fled to South Africa, and Hawkins says it is “unlikely to come back.” While annual inflation has eased—from a cataclysmic 619 per cent in November to a merely ferocious 395 per cent—it means that a loaf of bread costs Z$3,500, or about three times the minimum daily wage. Most ominous, Hawkins notes, “is the erosion of the black middle class.” The best and brightest have left. In their place, Hawkins says, “you have this sort

of nouveau riche, living in a sea of poverty, who are earning a living by facilitating arrangements, not adding any great value.” At the Harare offices of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association, convincing the new rich to help the new poor is a “patriotic” goal, says national director Munyaradzi Bidi. That’s a hard sell, given the current shortage of high-level role models. Land reform, which Bidi supports, was corrupted by greedy party chiefs and their thugs. Bidi’s organization represented hundreds of black victims of violent farm invasions, and then had to watch as the regime let the perpetrators walk free. Bidi says the ZANU-PF government

has not evolved from its liberation movement roots and remains, in effect, stuck in time. Whenever any alarm bells ring, the call is always to “revolutionize the masses.”

Fewer than 600 white farmers now work their properties full-time, and even they are facing eviction. Doug Taylor-Freeme, president of the mostly white Commercial Farmers’ Union, concedes that by supporting the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), some farmers inadvertently played into the ZANU-PF leadership’s willingness to exploit antiwhite paranoia. “Our sector had access to nearly two million people,” says the 40-yearold fourth-generation farmer. “I think that was seen as a serious threat.” The regime targeted the country’s white populationnow estimated by Taylor-Freeme at less than 40,000, compared to 250,000 in 1976— as a straw man, responsible for pulling the strings of the MDC and for all of the ills besetting the country.

It’s a theme Mugabe drums out incessantly,

while fudging the question of whether he will leave politics earlier than 2008, his advertised retirement date. He might, of course, simply try to hang on to power. Responding to one reporter recently, Mugabe said he would like to write books, if only those squabbling to replace him would stop seeking help from ngangas—witch doctors.

IT WAS PAST the third police roadblock along the Bulawayo road, somewhere between the Lake Chivero turnoff and the little town of Norton, that I began to wonder about Mugabe and the spirit world. Cruising slowly past the barren fields of Kintyre

Estates, once so productive that they were featured in school books, on past the shacks of the Porter Farm squatter camp, the thought occurred that “Uncle Bob” must be talking to mediums and witches himself.

How else to explain the boast—made as his government sent a team of UN agricultural experts packing—that a bumper crop was in the offing and that Zimbabweans no longer need to be “choked” on foreign food aid? How else but by magic can empty pastures feed as many as six million people who, according to UN estimates, face famine?

The temporal explanation, circulating among diplomatic missions and partially confirmed by government leaks, is that the country’s Grain Marketing Board has been stockpiling enough imported grain to feed the country and influence voting in the next parliamentary election, expected in March 2005. While some of this maize and wheat has flowed from South Africa, a substantial amount is coming from Zambia, where many of Zimbabwe’s displaced white

farmers are now growing maize—some of it, almost certainly, for export.

South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki— Mugabe’s only friend with any clout on the international stage—has been urging Mugabe to begin a dialogue with the MDC. But under the gloomy “food-for-votes” scenario, some observers fear the MDC will be all but wiped out at the polls. In fact, Mugabe’s party may be banking on the opposition imploding before then, possibly with a guilty verdict in the case against MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who is charged with plotting to have Mugabe killed.

MDC strategists expect the verdict in the case—which hinges on tainted evidence supplied by a Canadian-based businessman formerly on the regime’s payroll—to be timed for maximum impact, says Tsvangirai’s spokesman, William Bango. But the MDC is still strong in urban Zimbabwe, and Bango says it is not about to disintegrate. “If any party is in disarray, it is ZANU-PF because of the bungled succession,” he says. Given Mugabe’s age, infighting over who might replace him is clearly destabilizing the party. “When you have a president who is in his 81st year, who’s had a couple of health wobbles— you never know when he’s going to drop off his perch,” notes Hawkins. “When that happens you’ve got a new ball game very quickly—and it’s not going to be Nelson Mandela handing over quietly to Mbeki.”

The manoeuvring has already devolved into farce, with the Joseph Goebbels-like information minister Jonathan Moyo, publicly attacking would-be successors to Mugabe. Moyo is a sometimes comic figure who recently released a CD of his pro-ZANU-PF compositions entitled Back2Black (it now features prominently on state radio, which he controls). Insiders say he is acting not on his own behalf, but on Mugabe’s. “Moyo owes his political life to Mugabe,” said one senior ZANU-PF member. “He doesn’t want to be the boss, he wants his old boss to stay— and that’s what the master wants, too.”

Above it all—and apparently enjoying the view—the old karigamombe (slayer of bulls) builds his plush new “retirement”mansion in Harare’s wealthy Borrowdale suburb. And he dreams, some say, of the day when his eldest son, Robert—reportedly now in his early teens—can take his place at State House, flfl

Carey French is a writer and an old Africa hand. Fie teaches journalism at Toronto’s Flumber College.