Features

Alone again

"Alone again" Continued...

Issue: "Don't run, Newt," April 14, 2007

Even without the threat of arbitrary arrests, soaring inflation means Zimbabwean salaries cannot buy much in stores ridden by shortages. Cross says the minimum monthly wage in industry is 90,000 Zimbabwean dollars. Using the realistic black market exchange rate of at least 16,000 to $1 (not the official rate of ZWN 250 to $1), that is only about $5.50. A 25 fl. oz. bottle of cooking oil costs one-third of that monthly wage.

With such hardships, some 3 million Zimbabweans have braved an electrified border fence to cross into South Africa, which sends back only a small fraction. Many turn to crime: South African police, Cross said, estimate that Zimbabweans commit half of the country's bank robberies.

In his retail store, Cross encountered one penniless 19-year-old Zimbabwean deported from South Africa. He came from a remote village, and his family had selected him-as the best-educated one-to work in South Africa and send home $28 a month. When he reached Johannesburg's slums, he did so by joining a gang and robbing and killing for cell phones.

Does such desperation mean Zimbabwe is ripe for revolution? Cross does not think so. He says the country is too fearful of Mugabe's force: "We have no means of defending ourselves. You're met not with minimum force but maximum force."

Regional leaders have tasked South African President Thabo Mbeki-the man with the most influence over Mugabe-with mediating a solution between the dictator and opposition, but activists and opposition members are skeptical. One local political cartoon said African leaders were applying "pressure" on Mugabe-and pictured them giving him a back massage.

Cross, however, says the little signs matter. The African leaders' emergency summit came together at short notice, showing they are genuinely worried that Mugabe's free-falling Zimbabwe will hurt the region. Mugabe bused in provincial supporters to win the presidential nomination, but he lost his initial request to party colleagues that they tack two years more onto his current term.

Mugabe remains a shrewd politician who knows how to press local racial sore points by blaming Western "imperialism" for Zimbabwe's woes. At the same time, he is an Anglophile absorbed with etiquette. He once proclaimed, "Cricket civilizes people and creates good gentlemen. I want everyone to play cricket in Zimbabwe. I want ours to be a nation of gentlemen." In the political game, however, Mugabe knows he can get away with barbarism.

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