Zimbabwe Collapses As Its Aged Tyrant Fades

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“Even physically, he (Mugabe) can only sit up alert in his chair for 40 minutes. He’s not there mentally or physically the rest of the time.”

ZIMBABWE’S schizophrenia is in vivid evidence on Friday afternoons in Harare’s leafy northern suburbs. At the Tin Cup restaurant round the back of the Chisipite Shopping Centre, white, sun-baked former farmers gather for a lunch of barbecued ribs and cold Castle lagers, and to talk about the good old days.

The owner, Leith Bray, was run off his Tengwe farm in 2002 by a baying mob intent on killing him, but he now laughs that off as part of life’s rich tapestry and gets on with his new career as a restaurant proprietor. “That’s what Zimbabweans do – they make a plan,” says Bray.

Half a mile away along Enterprise Road, past the desperate, ragged street-corner vendors selling everything from mobile phone airtime for nickel-and-dime commissions to rhinos and elephants made from beer cans, a more contemporary crowd is dining on fusion cuisine and South African chardonnays in four acres of lush, beautifully landscaped gardens.

Amanzi Restaurant is owned by Andrew and Julia Mama, a gregarious Nigerian-British couple who fled sectarian violence in Nigeria to settle in what they regard as a relatively peaceful African country. Amanzi draws in the diplomats, NGOs, aid workers and visiting European doctors, all of whom give the capital a veneer of prosperity and normality.

But right now Zimbabwe is anything but prosperous and normal. Robert Mugabe and his Zanu PF government, while greatly enriching themselves, have run this country into the ground.

The country is bankrupt and, this year, faces a famine of epic proportions – there is a shortfall of more than a million tonnes of maize and, at the time of writing, Mugabe’s government has failed to issue a letter of appeal to the United Nations, standard procedure to get the World Food Programme activated.

According to opposition member of parliament Eddie Cross this is either down to Mugabe’s “pride or simply lack of attention”. On such whims, it seems, hangs the fate of millions of Zimbabweans.

At the same time the economic sectors – manufacturing, mining and agriculture – that were once the engine room of a productive and innovative small economy are grinding slowly to a halt. Bulawayo, once the hub of the nation’s industrial output, lies still and silent, the Detroit of the Zimbabwean lowveld.

The blame for this economic torpor lies unequivocally with Mugabe and his Zanu PF. These days the 91-year-old is known in Zimbabwe as “a visiting president”, as in a visiting college professor. His role as chairman of the African Union – another bankrupt African organisation that depends for survival on largesse from the West – has him jetting from one AU constituency to another just as his own country appears to be locked in a death struggle.

For the first time in 35 years of totalitarian rule Mugabe’s political party is starting to tear itself apart, purging itself of former stalwarts, breaking into warring factions as the leadership contenders position themselves for the moment the Old Man dies.

The whole country is waiting for that moment. I have just spent a month travelling around Zimbabwe and, from the wilderness areas, through the rural communities, and in the major cities, the phrase that prefaces almost every conversation is “When the Old Man goes…” It will be a defining moment for the new Zimbabwe.

But right now the Old Zimbabwe is clinging on by its fingertips. It is a situation that alarms David Coltart, a former Cabinet minister in the now defunct Government of National Unity (GNU). He says that “as a country, as a people, we are at our lowest ebb.”

President in waiting

The vast majority of Zimbabweans I speak to want a new president, and a new government, as soon as possible. They dread the idea of another rigged election in 2018 that, given past form, may even fiddle a 95-year-old Robert Mugabe into yet another presidential tenure.

One name keeps coming up – Simba Makoni. An English-educated former Zanu PF minister, he became disillusioned with the party in the mid-2000s and resigned in 2008 to run against Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai in the presidential election. Though the precise numbers are disputed, he came a distant third – Tsvangirai won with around 51%, Mugabe recorded 40% and Makoni, with none of his rivals’ financial or organisational backing, came in with 9%. Although he remains on the political margins, for many he is the people’s president in waiting.

Makoni has supported the MDC’s Morgan Tsvangirai in the past and recognises the need to form what he calls a “grand coalition” to oust Mugabe and his party. Makoni has travelled a long political road. He was educated at Leeds University during the 1970s Rhodesian War and returned to take his place in Zanu PF in the early days of independence.

He left Zanu PF in 2008 “and the day I announced I was leaving somebody in the party promised me I would be buried within a week”. Seven years later he is still around, a principled thorn in his old party’s side, a man several foreign diplomats describe as “the most ethical politician in the country”.

The problem is the Zimbabwean political machine has little time for democratic issues or such subtle nuances as the will of the people. The machine is controlled by Zanu PF and, for the moment, Zanu PF is controlled by Mugabe.

However, Makoni says that old age is fast prising open the old dictator’s grip: “Even physically, he can only sit up alert in his chair for 40 minutes. He’s not there mentally or physically the rest of the time.

“People ask me about Mugabe and I say he was genuine up to a point, then he changed, and I can tell in both time and mind when that change took place and to some extent why.”

Makoni says that in the late 1980s Mugabe lost three colleagues – Maurice Nyagumbo, who committed suicide by drinking rat poison, Enos Nkala, one of the founders of ZANU who accused Mugabe of assassinating rivals, and Edgar Tekere, who denounced Mugabe and constantly criticised Zanu PF corruption, so was expelled from the party in 1988.

“They (Tekere, Nkala, Nyagumbo) were the only people more than equal with Mugabe, the only ones who could say no, because it was they who brought him into the nationalist movement.”

Today the voice in Mugabe’s ear, according to Makoni and others, is that of his wife Grace. Her rise to prominence over the past 12 months has been spectacular even by Zimbabwe’s warped standards of dynastic entitlement. Grace was a typist in the President’s office when she and Mugabe began an affair, apparently sanctioned by his dying first wife Sally.

Now approaching 50, more than 40 years the President’s junior, Grace has been transformed from First Lady and mother of two children with Mugabe to leader of Zanu PF’s Woman’s League, thus landing a place in the ruling party’s politburo. Along the way in 2014 she was awarded a questionable sociology PhD by the University of Zimbabwe, having enrolled on the course only two months earlier, and there have since been calls from Zimbabwean academics for her to give her doctorate back.

Makoni is sure the end of the Mugabe era is very close and “when he goes the door will open for us to rebuild and restore a modicum of esteem and decency and respect for ourselves.” However, he does fear a desperate attempt by the Mugabe dynasty to hang on to power and can’t discount the widely despised Grace. “Grace wants to be there. It’s unbelievable but it’s true. She wants to be president. That’s how irrational we have become.”

‘Drive the rubbish out’

Zimbabwe’s economic desperation is there for everyone to see on the streets of the major cities. The roads are potholed, the lifts in most government buildings are either out of order or barely working, traffic lights at major intersections operate sporadically, there are constant power outages as the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA) struggles to keep up with demand.

The pavements of the capital are crowded with vendors selling every type of goods you can imagine, and now they have spilled out onto the cities’ streets in numbers that grow every week. These are not poor uneducated people from the rural areas – these are former teachers, office administrators, car mechanics, skilled factory workers, all victims of a collapsed formal economy, all claiming this is the only way they can pay for their children’s education and put food on the family table.

The African Development Bank estimates that at least two-thirds of working Zimbabweans are now engaged in the informal economy. Now the Mugabe government has threatened to use military force to drive these vendors from the streets in what many observers see as a repeat of the army’s attack 10 years ago on the country’s squatter settlements, known as Operation Murambatsvina.

The real motive behind Murambatsvina was to clear Harare of large communities of dissatisfied citizens who had voted for the opposition MDC in recent elections – and in that light it was a great success. The voice of the urban poor was temporarily silenced.

Today, however, the vendors provide a more complex problem as they are organised, articulate and economically desperate, and there is no reason to believe that Zimbabwe’s spiralling unemployment will correct itself in the foreseeable future. At the 2013 election Mugabe’s key campaign pledge was to create two million new jobs but, given the economic circumstances, he may just as well have promised to create 20 million.

But take a short car journey from Harare’s chaotic city centre, into the northern suburbs and beyond, and you will see the opulent lives being lived by those “political elites”. Many of Zanu PF’s major beneficiaries live in Borrowdale Brooke, the country’s most exclusive suburb.

The Mugabe family have their “blue roof mansion” there, a lavish 25-bedroom house surrounded by high walls and heavily armed guards, and one of Zimbabwe’s richest and most controversial figures, Philip Chiyangwa, is also there. And recently the former Reserve Bank governor, Gideon Gono, another Zanu PF insider, gave his daughter an extremely expensive house in Borrowdale Brooke as a wedding present.

Further north along Enterprise Road is another suburb, Gletwin, where the ruling elite has also been pouring money into ostentatious property development. Here three-storey mansions one would expect to see in Beverly Hills are under construction, the most recently completed being owned by the Chief of Police, Augustine Chihuri.

Such visible examples of wealth amid the grinding poverty most of the country is enduring are shocking even to old Africa hands. One long-term Western diplomat now based in Harare told me that nowhere else on the continent had he seen wealth flaunted with such impunity and “nowhere else have I seen such segregation between the privileged and the poor”.

Sanctions as smokescreen

Mugabe blames white colonials generally for his country’s current plight, and US and EU “sanctions” specifically for the parlous state of Zimbabwe’s economy. While the invasion from Europe during the Victorian era may have destabilised a rural, tribal people and indeed exploited them in the 20th century, most of today’s black Zimbabweans are so-called “born frees”, born after independence and thus having no experience of colonial exploitation. They do not share their president’s views.

The cover of sanctions is also tenuous, to say the least. But they have provided Mugabe with a convenient smokescreen for more than a decade. Local economist John Robertson says that “the whole issue of sanctions was the most generous gift the West could have given Mugabe because he’s played it out as the entire reason for the failure of the economy after the so-called land reform programme.

“In fact the US and the EU have fed this country throughout the bad years.”

For all that, Mugabe, as head of the African Union and chairman of SADC for the past year, has chosen to take an even more vituperative stance, stridently anti-West, anti-colonial and anti-white. But despite his drip-feed of provocation and the constant anti-European rhetoric the people of Zimbabwe remain remarkably free of bigotry.

Young white Zimbabweans have grown up without the colour prejudices that tainted their colonial forefathers while young, equally well-educated, black Zimbabweans who have travelled and worked in the West share none of this antipathy with Mugabe and the Zanu PF Old Guard. And even the older citizens who lived through the upheavals that came with transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe show a good will and forbearance that observers say will outlast the Mugabe regime.

Makoni says he has mixed feelings about Zimbabweans’ gentle forgiving nature “as it has been part of our undoing.

“That we can tolerate so much abuse makes it tempting to characterise us as cowards but then so much of what we have done in the face of this cruel, brutal regime has been extremely brave.

“One thing is certain. Mugabe has abused us.”

Like everyone else, Makoni is waiting for the old man to die.

This is an abridged version of an article published by the international magazine Newsweek.

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