Last week there was hope in Zimbabwe.
For years after independence, there was hope. After all, despite the wish of small farmers to obtain land taken years before and sold to white farmers, the fact was that the larger farms could produce a surplus that fed the cities. In the meanwhile, export from farms and the various mining industries fed the economy, and with one of the highest literacy rates in Africa, it was hoped that Zimbabwe would become a modern society like South Africa.
Then things changed. HIV began to decimate the population, partly spread because many young men worked away from home to earn a “bride price”, but also spread through the breakdown of traditional restraints on sexuality that came with urbanization. And HIV tended to hit the young, the educated urban dwellers, and the workers and families. The result is young people being cared for by the extended families in the villages, often by grandparents as father then the mother die of HIV.
The second disaster has been periodic droughts. Like Kansas, which was once dubbed the “Great American desert” but is now recognized as part of America’s breadbasket, so too Zimbabwe has potential to feed Africa. The need is for irrigation and specialized crops, fertilizer, and tractors or handplows. Although there are many productive small farms, the country tended to have two type of farms: The small communal fields owned by clans, using traditional methods and producing only enough to feed the farmers, and the large commercial farmers, mainly white from Europe or South Africa.
There was a need for land reform, but instead of selling part of the excess land from large farms to the workers, as Mugabe became less popular, he decided to throw out the white farmers and “redistribute the land”. Alas, he often redistributed it to cronies who didn’t know how to run larger farms, and often the workers, without the organization or capital to get fertilizer etc. merely ended up again as small traditional farmers, able to feed only their own families.
The confiscation of the farms resulted in economic collapse and the unwillingness of outside (mainly South African) investors to invest in other sectors such as mines, for fear that they too would be confiscated, or that with inflation that they could not rely on electricity and basic needs to run factories.
As the economy collapsed, instead of changing economic policies, the Mugabe government merely printed more money, which of course quickly became worthless. This week the inflation rate is 1700 percent.
As Mugabe became less popular, he became more dictatorial. So the last election was won by Mugabe, and indeed even if it was fair he would have won. But Mugabe essentially went out of his way to get votes with a combination of intimidation of voters by youth squads and threats of withholding food aid to villages that voted wrong resulted in repeat elections of Mugabe.
This intimidation worked in rural areas, where people tend to bend with the wind and survive. But some urban areas voted for the opposition.
To “punish” them, Mugabe ordered “Operation Clean up”, which he claimed was slum clearance. But in reality many of the houses and shops were middle class housing, and many displaced had no other place to go. It has been estimated 70 000 people were displaced by the operation, which continued despite protests from the UN, NGO’s and most western countries.
The opposition to that point remained divided and squabbling. However, despite a ban on political gatherings, the churches sponsored a prayer rally. The rally was broken up by Mugabe’s police, but photos of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangarai, face swollen from being beaten and denied medical care in jail for several days, resulted in publicity on international networks and outcry from western nations.
Alas, the only one in position to force Mugabe to change is the South African president, but despite pressure from churches and trade unions, he refused to do so, and Mugabe emerged triumphant from a meeting of local African states.
Since then, Mugabe has pressured his own party to let him run again for president. Those who hoped to succeed Mugabe had opposed it, and the latest rumor is that the vice president might resign.
In the next few weeks, look for more protests and strikes, but also for increased intimidation and jailing of opposition leaders on trumped up charges of arranging bombings or owing weapons.
Where this leads it is unsure. Several scenerios come to mind.
One: Bishop Ncube takes a page from Cardinal Sin and mounts a “people power” revolution. Like Marcos’ thugs, one doubts even Zimbabwean police could stop a peaceful march of tens of thousands of people praying and singing hymns.
Two: Mugabe is assasinated. Traditionally in Africa when kings or tribal elders oppress their people, they are poisoned by persons unknown. Even the great Shaka Zulu was killed when he became delusional. I do not support such an outcome, both because it is wrong but also because it would likely lead to anarchy or civil war as various factions fight for power, as happened in Liberia.
Three; South Africa sends in some troops and removes Mugabe. This is what has just happened in Somalia, and is how the notorious Idi Amin was removed from power.
Four: Mugabe is pressured by Mbeki of South Africa and his own party to resign and allow someone else from the ZANU PF to take over. This would be the best result, but has become less likely in the last week.
The real danger is that Mugabe is aging, and without a clear successor, when he dies, the power vaccum could result in anarchy.
When people say: What could be worse than Mugabe? I say: Charles Taylor of Liberia, or Idi Amin of Uganda, or the civil wars of the central African lake region.