|The ZIMBABWE Situation||Our
thoughts and prayers are with Zimbabwe |
- may peace, truth and justice prevail.
The one other drinker in the near-empty Cape to Cairo bar in Bulawayo concurred. “Our money is worthless these days,” he sighed. “Prices go up every month, every day even. It is ridiculous.”
Before talking to one of the few tourists to venture into Zimbabwe’s second city nowadays, both men had nervously checked they could not be overheard. Satisfied that the lone couple dining in the restaurant were too far away to eavesdrop, the barman continued.
Officially, inflation in Mr Mugabe’s ruined country — once the region’s breadbasket — is 133 per cent. Unofficially it is put at nearer 400 per cent. In 2000, the currency was Zim $60 to £1. Today, it is around 10,000.
“Every three months prices double. The Government says inflation is less than 150 per cent, but they are lying, just like they lie about everything,” Pius Ncube, the Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo and one of Mr Mugabe’s most vocal critics, had wearily explained a few hours earlier. Closing his eyes as if in prayer, the Archbishop added that despite economic mismanagement and huge popular discontent, Mr Mugabe’s ruling Zanu (PF) party would romp home in parliamentary elections due on March 31.
“This Government is one of crooks and liars. They will not tolerate any dissent. Zimbabweans have been intimidated into silence. Zanu will win because they control everything. Everything has been set in advance,” he said. He listed all the ploys the Government has taken to ensure a handsome victory: two million dead voters on the electoral register, a muzzled press, opponents deregistered, heavy surveillance, intimidation, fear, and now hunger.
Just in case that is not enough, draconian legislation cements the ruling elite’s advantage. Opposition supporters can be arrested for putting a poster on a tree without written permission from the owner — often the local council or landowner fearful of incurring officialdom’s wrath.
“People have been tortured and humiliated and are afraid. People here have no voice. You can’t make any protest at all,” the Archbishop said. Under new legislation, the votes can now also be counted at individual polling stations rather than in the constituency’s main office.
“This means they will know how every village votes. The people know the crop is poor, and only the Government can give them food aid,” said a woman human rights activist who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. One Zanu (PF) supporter openly told people this week not to vote for the opposition if they wanted to eat well. “In addition, much of the counting will take place late at night in remote areas where there is no electricity. Most of the people there will belong to a state organisation, it will take a very brave person to object to the result they come up with,” the activist added.
Outside the Archbishop’s cathedral in the half-light of an African dusk, dozens of people line the pavements, waving disconsolately at every passing vehicle in the hope of hitching a ride home.
On the surface, Bulawayo — capital of Matabeleland and long an opposition stronghold — is a bustling commercial centre. Unlike most African cities, there are few potholes in the roads and its grand old colonial buildings appear well maintained. The suburbs have quaint English names, sports clubs and smart houses with neat gardens. But like many things in Zimbabwe, appearan- ces are deceptive. Drive on to a garage forecourt and more often than not the attendant politely explains there is “no fuel, only oil”. He then gives instructions on how to find the one garage with petrol that day. Order a cup of tea in a modern-looking café and you are told that there is no milk.
Hawkers selling African curios line the streets, but there are no customers. “Please buy this. I’m hungry. I want to get something to eat,” said one man proferring a poorly made sheepskin hat. The town’s main cricket pitch is brown and dry. The irrigation system broke down, and there are no spare parts available to repair it. Many of the seats in the main stand are broken and the white paint is peeling.
The imposing Bulawayo Club, once the hangout of rail and mining magnates, is now only half-lit at night. The members’ bar, formerly the favoured watering hole of the city’s business elite, now rarely attracts more than one or two visitors a day. “We have more barmen than clients these days,” quipped a porter.
Fuel shortages mean public transport has pretty much ceased to function, and if the rickety old buses do finally arrive the cost is beyond most Zimbabweans’ budget. People look tired and broken. They shuffle dispiritedly through the streets, but once safely in the passenger seat they speak openly of their plight.
Visiting Mr Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is like entering a time warp — a throwback to the days of Eastern Europe before the collapse of communism. It is a country of nervous whispers, anxious backward glances and hollow declarations praising visionary leadership. Meanwhile, most of the country’s 11 million people struggle to feed their families.
State-run newspapers are full of “news” about friendship agreements with countries such as Iran, and articles on the dark intentions of Britain, the United States and their puppets in the Zimbabwean opposition. Michael Howard’s every criticism of the hated Tony Blair, who has led the fight for Commonwealth sanctions against Mr Mugabe’s regime, is headline news. “Blair is a drunk,” declared one typical headline in the state-controlled The Herald newspaper this week. After Mr Mugabe took power he made friends with North Korea, which trained the army’s notorious Fifth Brigade, accused of murdering at least 20,000 opponents in Matabeleland in the early 1980s.
Foreign journalists rarely obtain visas to visit. Instead they have to visit surreptitiously as tourists, risking a possible two-year jail sentence if caught. “Whatever you do, don’t take anything which can identify you as a reporter. They will have you,” my friend warned me before I left, a bag of golf clubs in hand.
Within moments of leaving the airport, visitors have to drive through a roadblock manned by sullen police, some dressed in casual clothes. “They get paid peanuts, so they are always on the lookout for something extra,” said my passenger. “Drive slowly, but don’t look at them.”
Zimbabwe’s descent into economic chaos began when President Mugabe launched his policy of land redistribution in 2000, seizing the farms of “white colonialists” to give to landless peasants and the veterans of the war of liberation.
After 20 years in power, opposition to his rule was suddenly growing, and for the first time since independence in 1980, he looked vulnerable. The whites, though small in number, possessed 4,000 farms and owned large tracts of land. There are now only 400 left, and most of those are in business with Cabinet members.
“We wanted land reform, but we wanted it done responsibly and with compensation. Mugabe had had 20 years to draw up such a policy and had done nothing,” said David Coltart, the Shadow Justice Minister and a leading figure in the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Aware that there was little sympathy in western liberal circles for Zimbabwe’s whites, largely remembered for their opposition to black majority rule, Mr Mugabe cunningly played the race card to strengthen his grip on power.
“It was never a racial issue, it was a power issue,” said Archbishop Ncube. The issues of “race, colonialism and land” raised by the 81-year-old President, one of the last survivors of the generation of African leaders who defeated white rule, resonated widely in the rest of Africa, particularly South Africa, he said.
Most of the seized farms went to President Mugabe’s loyal cronies in government who used them for weekend retreats. Virtually every Cabinet minister and senior security official now has at least two farms. Even then, they are not given the title deed, just a long lease which the President can revoke at the first sign of disloyalty.
Those that did go to the landless are far from the capital, Harare, and the new occupants were given no financial assistance to run them. Farm equipment lies rusting and unused. Agricultural production, previously the mainstay of the eco- nomy, has collapsed.
“It has been a catastrophe. These people had no idea how to farm commercially or inclination to do so. They did not pay their workers. This year’s harvest will be a disaster,” added Mr Coltart. “Whatever happens at the polls, Mugabe cannot win. But what will he do next?” The five-hour drive from Bulawayo to the capital bears testimony to the failure of Mr Mugabe’s rule. Fields that would normally be overflowing with maize and other crops lie fallow, much of them now covered in waist-high wild grass. Farm machinery stands unused in abandoned fields. On arrival in the capital, the other side of Mr Mugabe’s Orwellian state is everywhere. BMWs and Mercedes carrying party fat cats cruise by — the occupants busy chattering into mobile phones. Harare is a bustling, modern city — its streets named after the heroes of Africa’s liberation struggle, such as Nelson Mandela, Samora Machel, Kwame Nkrumah.
Come nightfall though, its hotels, bars and restaurants are strangely quiet except for groups of party apparatchiks, dressed in smart suits, laughing loudly at their good fortune.
“Here some people have so much, too much,” lamented one old man. “The rest of us have nothing.”
Tactics of repression