President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, an audacious autocrat, turned 90 last week. Gimlet-eyed, and as avaricious and assertive as ever, he has ruled his singular southern African country for 34 years. Despite preying relentlessly on the people of the country, since 2000 he and his governing Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) unexpectedly have won six bitterly contested parliamentary and presidential elections, the most recent in July 2013. A querulous democrat, Mugabe declares invulnerability and revels in omnipotence.
But what has the Mugabe regime really accomplished during its three-plus decades in power? First, he has presided in recent years over the exodus of approximately one-fourth of the nation’s people; a full 3 million Zimbabweans have voted with their feet and removed themselves with difficulty and disarray to South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia, and Botswana. Britain is now the home of the majority of Zimbabwe’s trained midwives and nurses.
When I dined recently at a classy restaurant in Cape Town, our party was served expertly by a very well-spoken Zimbabwean – once a primary school teacher in a town near Mugabe’s own birth place. The waiter left his family behind, but sends regular remittances – a steady and oft-repeated tale of the enforced Zimbabwean diaspora.
Second, Mugabe compelled his citizens to endure three years (2006-2009) of Weimar-like inflation (500 million percent per year at its peak) before a sensible opposition finance minister (installed in office during the so-called and mislabeled Government of National Unity (GNU) interregnum from 2009 to 2013) junked the Zimbabwe dollar and made the US dollar, the South African rand, and the British pound legal currency. Now the Chinese yuan, the Japanese yen, the Australian dollar, and the Botswanan pula are also approved tender.
But, in 2014, as the US dollar has strengthened against the rand and other currencies, Mugabe’s minions may want to revert to printing a local dollar. That is the best way to arbitrage currency accounts to favor insiders, a patrimonial tactic that Mugabe and his men employed to profit themselves during the inflationary years. They may soon begin to do so again as greed outruns sense.
Third, nowadays there is the gift of deflation. In the post-July, post-GNU, ZANU-PF era in which Zimbabwe now finds itself, the economy is slowly but steadily collapsing. Banks are finding it increasingly difficult to pay their depositors. Big businesses long in the country are closing their doors. Most Western foreign investors, who hoped for a different result in July, are now turning their backs on potential platinum mining and other ventures.
The economic meltdown has been influenced by the Mugabe administration’s decision to continue its questionable attempt to obtain 51 percent of most foreign and domestic white-owned concerns. It also follows a major move against Zimbabwe’s major foreign-owned, globally-competitive, sugar producer, the harassing of existing platinum mining companies, a renewed decision to force gold miners to sell to the state rather than on the world market, and the government’s inability to meet International Monetary Fund and World Bank conditions for financial assistance.
Fourth, jobs have vanished along with the exodus of skilled and well-educated Zimbabeans (like my waiter in Cape Town). At least 80 percent of adult Zimbabweans are unemployed in the formal sector and no one really knows what happens on the informal margins of society. Poverty is everywhere. Crime is cascading.
Fifth, Mugabe has successfully spread sleaze throughout his once vigorous, now weakened, domain. No cabinet minister suffers the effects of deflation. Moreover, in the past six weeks Zimbabweans have discovered that technocratic, Mugabe-appointed, directors of statutory boards (parastatals) such as the medical aid society, the rural electricity administration, andAir Zimbabwe, have paid themselves huge monthly salaries to run organizations that are otherwise wildly bankrupt and providing almost no public services. Others, the local press reports, take bribes from foreigners to try to gain a foothold in the lucrative diamond exporting business.
A Zimbabwean commentator wryly wrote: “What has shocked many Zimbabweans is the extent to which public servants are helping themselves to state coffers in a manner that is not only abhorrent and immoral but also revealing about the true nature of the neo-patrimonial empire that ZANU-PF has built over the last thirty-four years.”
This week millions are being spent celebrating Mugabe’s birthday. In March more millions will be spent when Mugabe’s Hong Kong-educated daughter is married in an impressive national ceremony at state expense. Meanwhile, basic services are collapsing.
Sixth, diamonds were discovered on Mugabe’s watch, mostly in the Marange district in eastern Zimbabwe. After De Beers abandoned the discovery, a British company developed the claim and, just as it was finding good paying stones, Mugabe and his cronies pushed it and 40,000 artisanal miners off the Marange grounds. It has since been kept as a Mugabean bonanza, largely exploited in cahoots with a Chinese company and a mysterious South African concern. Grace, Mugabe’s wife, holds one concession. So does Emmerson Mnangagwa, now minister of justice, principals in the Central Intelligence Organization, and the chief of the defense forces. Mugabe’s electoral victory in July was greatly facilitated by diamond revenues, few of which then (or even now) flow as royalties to the national treasury.
Seventh, Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, once the prosperous bread basket of southern Africa, is again desperately short of home-grown maize and other food staples. Fully 10 percent of the remaining Zimbabweans are kept from starving on a consistent basis by handouts provided by the World Food Programme. Virginia tobacco, once the country’s primary agricultural export earner, is moribund thanks to the destruction of the white-owned farming sector (where up to 500,000 Africans were once employed).
Eighth, Mugabe’s nation is dramatically short of electrical power. Where the opposition minister of power in the GNU managed to restart some of the Kariba generating facilities and to tap thermal power stations and the southern African power grid for more supplies, Mugabe’s current appointee has appropriated himself a big salary increase without giving the country’s major cities (forget the towns and rural areas) steady supplies of power. Load-shedding is common; some areas of Harare are lucky if they receive a few hours of electric power per day.
Clean water is also a major problem, especially in the big cities. Without funds to repair old pipes or to chlorinate, residents of Harare rely on their own boreholes or boil water to keep it safe. One senior colleague tells me that he and his family have not had showers available in their house for many years; they go to friends who have more reliable sources of water.
Schools and hospitals, once recovering under the GNU administration, are once again providing lamentable services. Mugabe travels to Singapore to treat his prostate cancer while most Zimbabweans suffer at home, without much recourse to modern medicine. Supplies of even the most basic antibiotics are scarce, as are sutures and other common hospital fundamentals. Teachers are no longer paid, so they teach infrequently and use outdated textbooks, if any exist.
Ninth. But Mugabe does have reliable official Chinese partners. They help supply his security forces with the requisite hardware, provide military uniforms, give jet fighters, and have constructed an intelligence headquarters. They are investing in a solar power venture (and Indians may be investing in a steel plant) and have leased agricultural land. All they want, in return, are diamonds, platinum, ferrochrome, copper, and other minerals.
Tenth. As the July 2013 election demonstrated, Mugabe at 90 still outwits his opponents. He knows when to compromise opponents by helping them to big houses, big motor cars, jobs, and other perquisites of the good life. He knows how to entrap his closest supporters in webs of corrupt practice and privilege. If persons even within his own party cross him, or become too independent, he often manages literally to cut them down. Sometimes, as in the case of Edward Chinori-Chininga, ZANU-PF chair of Parliament’s mining and energy committee in 2013, they lose their lives in unexpected and inexplicable road accidents. Frequently, they simply vanish.
Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma of South Africa told South African executives and Western leaders such as President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Prime Minister Tony Blair that they could neutralize and modernize Mugabe. But instead they let him run roughshod over his captive nation. Western sanctions have hardly worked to lessen that grip, either. As long as he lives, therefore, Zimbabwe will slide backwards, the country’s poor will become poorer, more citizens will flee, and conditions inside the country will become even more brutish than they already are.
A better Zimbabwe may emerge when Mugabe dies. Or there could be many nights of long knives when supporters of Mnangagwa and backers of Vice-President Joice Mujuru vie for supremacy. Then, when there is mayhem, South Africa may come to its senses and find it necessary to restore order and stability. Or there will be a Ukrainian scenario.
Whatever happens, Mugabe will have the last tragic laugh. “I took an exceptionally good and prosperous country,” he and his ghost may say, “and then I wantonly destroyed it, piece by piece, with only Botswana, and never South Africa, lifting a finger to curb my worst instincts.”