From breadbasket to basket case

Africa | Waiting for tyranny to exhaust itself, Zimbabweans look next door

Issue: "Social Security breach," Feb. 19, 2005

In southern Africa, Zimbabwe's loss has been Zambia's gain. The autocratic rule of Robert Mugabe has sent more tourists flowing north to the little known Zambian side of the Victoria Falls and has forced displaced Zimbabwean landowners to start new farms in Zambia. Now Zambia even exports grain to Zimbabwe, a once unfathomable thought considering its food shortages of only two decades ago.

Such a turnaround has been possible only because Zimbabwe has tumbled so fast. Mr. Mugabe, by seizing land from his country's wealthiest farmers, has single-handedly crammed decades' worth of economic decline into five years. The once-prosperous side of the former Rhodesias-and once one of Africa's most stable countries-Zimbabwe has degenerated into a police state. With famine, unemployment, and political crackdowns now common, and worsening, Zimbabweans hold little hope-even with parliamentary elections scheduled next month.

In the face of international condemnation, Mr. Mugabe has refused to allow an independent electoral commission to monitor the March vote and has denied his opponents access to public media. His government has shut down independent newspapers, and journalists who practice without government accreditation are subject to two years of imprisonment. Most foreign journalists have been expelled or have left; BBC correspondents are banned altogether.

We see you’ve been enjoying the content on our exclusive member website. Ready to get unlimited access to all of WORLD’s member content?
Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.
(Don’t worry. It only takes a sec—and you don’t have to give us payment information right now.)

Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.

So it's not surprising that opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai would take his campaign across the border to Zambia's capital, Lusaka. Harassed at public forums in his homeland, Mr. Tsvangirai has ready access to media, displaced Zimbabweans, and community leaders across the border. He met last month also with Zambia's president, Levy Mwanawasa. That encounter followed meetings with the heads of state in South Africa, Ghana, and Nigeria-and recognition that as political agitation within Zimbabwe grows more difficult, the country's only hope may lie with its neighbors.

Mr. Tsvangirai told WORLD, "This crisis can only be resolved through free and fair elections. If the stalemate is allowed to continue it will be allowed to have a contingent effect on the continent. It could degenerate into conflict." After months of toying with a boycott, his party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), decided on Feb. 3 to contest the March election. But members are resigned to an unfair fight. Mr. Tsvangirai's regional tour-at a time when he should be campaigning at home-reveals how crucial opposition leaders believe outside pressure is to restoring true multiparty elections. "It's a defining moment for the country," he said.

For almost three years, authorities in Zimbabwe barred Mr. Tsvangirai from leaving the country while the high court considered treason charges brought against him just two weeks before he ran for president in 2002. The government accused him of trying to assassinate Mr. Mugabe, and Mr. Tsvangirai lost that election amid widespread polling fraud. After his surprise acquittal last October, Mr. Tsvangirai began his regional tour, cautioning neighboring leaders that these parliamentary elections also seem doomed for rigging.

Even without full-blown conflict, Mr. Tsvangirai and his party followers are used to living dangerously. Ask him how many times Mr. Mugabe's thugs have tried to assassinate him, Mr. Tsvangirai laughs. "I can't recall how many," he said. "The most dramatic was when I was almost thrown from a 10th-floor window in 1997."

But the stats on intimidation are serious. In the last three to four years, his party estimates that Zimbabwe's intelligence service, police, and army have killed 450-500 MDC supporters, raped 2,000, and displaced 10,000 from their homes. All but three or four of their members of parliament have been arrested or beaten, he said. "I've got my treasurer here who lost his eye because of incarceration," Mr. Tsvangirai said, waving his left hand toward a bespectacled man, Fletcher Dhulini Ncube, reading a newspaper on the next sofa. He is diabetic, and authorities delayed treating him until it was too late to save his eye.

Zimbabwe's woes began five years ago, with Mr. Mugabe's forced land redistribution program. Mugabe "war veterans" from the fight against white rule demanded that land from the country's 4,500 white-owned commercial farms be parceled to blacks. Already unpopular, Mr. Mugabe saw it as a chance to consolidate a dwindling power base, and he dubbed the radical program a redressing of British colonial dominance.

Not surprisingly, the land invasions have caused disastrous disruptions to farming. Zimbabwe's white farmers may have controlled the choicest arable land, but their crop exports also provided much of the country's income and fed the population. Further, white-owned farms employed about 300,000 mostly black workers.

Zimbabwe once exported corn, wheat, and soybeans, but now has to rely on food imports. Zimbabwe also was once the world's second-largest exporter of tobacco. Now tobacco production has fallen from about 240 tons a year to about 71 tons last year.


You must be a WORLD member to post comments.

    Keep Reading


    Life with Lyme

    For long-term Lyme patients, treatment is a matter of…