|The ZIMBABWE Situation||Our
thoughts and prayers are with Zimbabwe |
- may peace, truth and justice prevail.
Monday, January 20, 2003
By Wallace Chuma, Special to the Post-Gazette
HARARE, Zimbabwe -- Early last year, as I prepared to leave Zimbabwe for a six-month journalism fellowship in the United States, my country was spiraling downward.
|Zimbabweans line up for food outside a store in Harare, the capital, last month. (Associated Press)|
To maintain power, President Robert Mugabe had rigged his re-election and had declared war on whites, sending thugs to steal their farms. People of all colors who objected to his increasingly repressive rule were subject to violence or arrest. Prices were beginning to rise and goods were getting scarce. AIDS was rampant. International institutions were pulling out of Zimbabwe and levying sanctions on the Mugabe regime.
I returned to Zimbabwe last month, apprehensive and anxious, having kept up with my homeland's decline into near famine via news reports and e-mails from friends, who suggested I extend my stay in the U.S. "by all means necessary." It didn't take long to see how badly things had deteriorated in a mere half-year.
I touched down at Harare International Airport to find it sickly and desolate. My airplane was one of a handful at what was once a bustling terminal. Most airlines, taking their cue from international investors, had left.
Wallace Chuma, a Zimbabwean journalist, worked at the Post-Gazette from July through November of last year as an Alfred Friendly Press Fellow. This is his account of his recent return home.
Almost all the passengers were Zimbabweans, so they filed behind the "Residents only" line at Customs. The "Visitors" section was deserted. Zimbabwe today is a country without visitors.
As we drove home, the friend who picked me up from the airport could not hide his disappointment.
"So, you've decided to come back?" he said. I told him I had to under U.S. law, after the completion of my fellowship.
"If whoever sponsored you for that program could not extend your stay, then you should have considered applying for asylum," he said. He told me most of my friends, educated professionals, had left the country during my brief absence.
As we drove on, I wanted to ask why the highway was deserted. But I figured it was because most people preferred to spend Saturday afternoon indoors.
My friend read my mind. "Look, there're no cars on the roads. Motorists are either in petrol queues or they have parked their empty cars. We've been without enough fuel for God knows how long." He himself was still driving courtesy of the thriving black market, where a liter of gasoline costs 15 times the government's posted price.
I soon discovered that Harare, the capital, had turned into two cities.
In one, thousands work around the clock to scrape by, and thousands more spend the better part of their days queuing for gasoline, bread, cooking oil, corn meal -- virtually everything. This is a city of broken people, loafers and frustrated professionals whose monthly salaries can carry them only a few days past payday.
The other Harare, the seat of government, is a paradise for the properly connected. Affluent young men with tony briefcases drive the latest Mercedes or BMW sedans, armed with tiny cell phones and pistols (despite stringent government regulations on the possession of firearms). These members of the privileged class make their fortunes through illegal dealing in foreign currency (which is in critical short supply) and other scarce commodities. They also bank on backdoor contracts from government departments. Everybody envies them.
A matter of survival
Having overcome jet lag, I boarded a crowded commuter bus into the city center two days after arriving home. The number of people seemed to have doubled since I had left in June.
Shortly after I got off the bus, a frail young woman walking just in front of me tripped and fell hard on the pavement. I knelt and helped her get back on her feet. She managed to whisper "thank you" before moving on, barely.
"She must be very hungry," said a young man who had witnessed the brief scene. An elderly woman chipped in, "Who's not hungry these days, if you're not a thief."
I walked to the end of the street, looking for newspapers. I grabbed two and handed a Z$100 bill ($2 U.S.) to the vendor. I noticed his frozen stare. He asked if I was a visitor to the country. I had to pay another Z$100; the cover prices had doubled.
Prices for household commodities had gone up an average 500 percent while I was away -- for those things that are available at all. Scarce goods cannot be found at conventional shops, though, where prices are controlled by the government, but only at grotesque places called "gum trees," or "sanitary lanes" or just "there."
These are backyard markets where prices can range up to 10 times the official rate and can change several times a day. There is a price for the morning, for midday, for afternoon and for evening. There is usually little room for negotiation.
Toward midday I visited my barber for an overdue haircut. He was glad to see me, but, like my friends, thought I was foolish to come back to Zimbabwe. The price for a standard haircut had gone up 400 percent. I asked him how he was doing.
"We've come to a stage where you have to think as an individual and respond to things as an individual," he said.
For a Zimbabwean, or any African socialized in the communal ethos which underpins our history and values, this was shocking. My barber didn't see things changing for the better anytime soon. "If you allow yourself to break down, then fine," he said. "If you find other ways to survive, again fine. Who cares?"
On my second day in downtown Harare, I listened to a small group of workers argue about the merits of a "stayaway," a general strike, to protest the government's economic mismanagement and disdain for the law. In the past, such actions have been effective, often reversing government policies.
On this day, most workers ignored the call to action, hastily made by the National Constitutional Assembly, a coalition of civic groups. "Stayaway or no stayaway, things won't change," one of the workers said. "In fact, we could end up being beaten up or killed by the green bombers and the army."
"Green bombers" is the derogatory term for hordes of young militiamen trained by the government to crush dissent and instill "patriotism" in the country.
One fellow said it was better to be killed in protest than die of hunger, but he soon gave up on the stayaway, too, for lack of followers.
Obey or leave
Mugabe's dictatorial regime has made one thing clear: If you can't stand the heat, catch the earliest plane out. For the regime, the response so far has been encouraging. A recent national census showed that more than 3 million Zimbabweans have fled in recent years, most of them after Mugabe and his "war veterans" launched the violent seizure of white-owned farms and led the economy into a cul de sac.
As the crisis escalates, the state apparatus has been all the more determined to silence those who have remained and who continue to ask why things are going so badly.
The land redistribution program -- in which the government seized some 3,000 commercial farms -- was concluded in August. But the departure of the commercial farmers has not diminished the government's screeching rhetoric against whites and the West. In fact, the propaganda machine has been turned up a notch.
In a country with little fuel or food, where more than half the population faces starvation, the hungry poor are invited every day to join their government's diatribe against the "evil and imperialist machinations" of President Bush and Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair. Mugabe's speeches -- and there are many -- are aired for hours on state TV and radio, the only broadcast channels available.
Citizens are told the country is at war against neo-colonialism and that their patriotic duty is to rally behind their government.
They are told it is better to go hungry and be a proud Zimbabwean than to be fed by imperialists and denounce their country (which means disagreeing with the ruling party's policies).
The irony is stunning. At the moment, more than 70 percent of the population in rural areas depends totally on international food donations, mostly from the United States and Britain.
I had a chat with the director for a local human rights organization the other day. She thinks Zimbabweans are strong, capable of enduring.
"I think even Mugabe is shocked that he is still in power after all this," she said. "He must be saying to himself, 'These guys are the most docile people in the world' and assuring himself that he's still popular."
Most Zimbabweans would rather not talk about what has gone wrong. They want to go join the queues, which are now part of their daily lives.
They also understand the relentless nature of their president and his allies.
One secret to their survival, of course, is the hope that things will eventually get better. They have a local proverb that roughly translates into, "That which flies high will certainly come down, sooner or later."
|Light in the Zim tunnel?|
Could it be that our collective indignation regarding the mayhem in Zimbabwe is working on our subconscious minds and that we are seeing a possible end to the misrule of President Robert Mugabe where no such possibility exists?
First there was a report that Zimbabwean defence force chief Vitalis Zvinavashe and parliamentary Speaker Emmerson Mnangagwa had commissioned a retired army general to discuss with the opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change, an exit strategy for Mugabe. This has been denied by almost everybody except the leader of the opposition, Morgan Tsvangirai, who, incidentally, was the source of the story.
Now, Zvinavashe, in an interview whose primary objective was to deny the so-called exit plan, has admitted that Zimbabwe faces a crisis and needs change.
Is there anything profound in his statement? After all, everybody knows that Zimbabwe is in a crisis. Is he perhaps merely stating the obvious?
But then Zvinavashe is no ordinary man. He is the power behind Mugabe. Without him, Mugabe cannot stay in power. And when the defence force chief calls for change and makes his statement public, his words cannot be taken lightly.
He has called for the establishment of a task force, involving various arms of government, to address what he termed a crisis. However, the general has still affirmed his loyalty to Mugabe.
His call may be the only hope for Zimbabweans to resolve their political and economic crisis. There cannot be a peaceful resolution without the active support of the army. And now that the defence force accepts the need for change, there appears to be light at the end of this long and dark tunnel.
Pretoria, whose quiet diplomacy is premised on the conviction that war must be prevented in Zimbabwe, should now actively respond to the signals sent out by the general.
Fifa give every country affiliated to it a grant of $250,000 a year, and have sent auditors KPMG to examine what has become of Zimbabwe's share of this cash.
"We have asked our partner KPMG to carry out an audit at the FA of Zimbabwe to check the use of funds from Fifa and especially from our financial assistance programme," Fifa spokesman Nicolas Maingot confirmed.
"You don't give out $250,000 a year without checking what is done with it."
Mugabe was initially dismissed after allegations of financial misconduct, although he has strenuously denied any wrongdoing.
Maingot added that he did not think the audit would take long to complete.
"We have asked KPMG to conduct this audit quite rapidly - at the end of this month or maybe early February," he said.
But he warned that until the examination was finished there was little point in speculating on what punishments, if any, Fifa would deal if financial irregularities were discovered.
"We need to wait for a complete audit and report from KPMG before we look at any future consequences," he said.