Stephen: Today may be the best chance yet that Zimbabweans have had to end President Robert Mugabe’s three decades of violent rule and economic mismanagement.
By Martin Sherrard, The Age – July 31, 2013
It’s a cliche, but Zimbabwe was once known as the breadbasket of Africa. Now it’s the basket case of Africa.
Its large-scale agriculture meant that it produced enough food for its people and there was a surplus that was exported.
But then the big farmers, all of them white, were beaten or murdered and driven off the land so the farms could be “indigenised”. If you go looking for those farms now, they are covered in weeds, the machinery and infrastructure often sold as scrap metal because there was no other use for it.
Some of those evicted farmers moved to neighbouring Zambia, setting up farms and even exporting food to Zimbabwe.
But the absurdity didn’t end there. Many thousands of farm workers, black Zimbabweans, were left unemployed in the “indigenisation” process, which contributed to an unemployment rate now estimated at 85 per cent.
The blame for this madness on a national scale can be pinned on one man: Robert Gabriel Mugabe.
With no food and no income, the economy imploded. The inflation rate passed 500 billion per cent in 2008 before going into the trillions, and the Zimbabwe dollar was worth less than the paper it was printed on.
Sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States didn’t help, but the damage had already been done.
Yet Mugabe, who came to power in 1980 as head of the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF), the major force in the two-decade war against white minority rule, clings to power. He will turn 90 in February.
While the country is nominally a democracy, Mugabe has built up a reputation as a vote-rigger.
The last election, in 2008, was abandoned due to violence that claimed the lives of dozens of opposition officials and many more ordinary Zimbabweans.
Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change – Tsvangirai (MDC-T), led the primary presidential election comfortably but pulled out of the run-off vote because of violence against his supporters.
A power-sharing arrangement brokered by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) the following year allowed Mugabe to retain the presidency and Tsvangirai (whose party won the most votes in the parliamentary election) to become prime minister.
The economy only stabilised after some MDC-T MPs took over ministries in 2009 – and the Zimbabwe dollar was killed off in favour of using foreign currencies.
Under MDC-T Finance Minister Tendai Biti, the economy has grown every year since 2009 – it’s up 3.4 per cent this year and inflation is expected to fall to 3.9 per cent.
But the first election since 2008 begins today, with Mugabe saying he wants to bring back the Zim dollar.
Unlike the last elections, this time there has been no violence to speak of. But it’s too early to tell if there will be vote fraud. It’s also too early to tell what will happen if Zanu-PF refuses to accept defeat.
On Sunday, MDC-T official Morgen Komichi was arrested after reporting to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission that marked ballot papers had been dumped. These papers were from separate polling for army and police held two weeks ago. Police say they will detain Mr Komichi until he tells them who gave him the ballot papers (the police and army are unashamedly pro-Mugabe).
There are allegations in the local media that China is helping to bankroll Mugabe’s election campaign, which contravenes electoral laws. But this is a small matter compared with the violence and fraud of 2008, and people in the street when Fairfax visited the country in mid-July are confident that this election will finally bring change.
”Things will get better,” Gideon says in Masvingo, in the country’s south-east. He doesn’t name any of the parties, nor the two main presidential candidates, but his tone says what his words don’t.
When I talk to Jacob, a man in his mid-30s, in Bulawayo, he too avoids using names. He says that even though the economy has improved since the last elections, it is still tough. He has a daughter at kindergarten and can’t afford the $US50 a term school fees, which will increase to $US200 a term by the time she reaches high school.
Jacob is wearing a Zanu-PF T-shirt with the party’s slogan “Indigenise Empower Develop Employ” on the back and a picture of Mugabe on the front. I ask him why and he replies that “it’s only a disguise”.
There is a genuine fear of a return to the days before the 2008 elections, when the Zimbabwe dollar collapsed.
“There was no food in the shops,” Jacob says. “Only toilet paper.”
There was also violence, the reason for Jacob’s protective colouring.
In the north-west of the country, at Victoria Falls, touts are making a living out of the country’s embarrassment, selling worthless Zimbabwe dollars as souvenirs.
Michael is selling a wad of Zimbabwe dollars for $US15, a collection of a dozen that includes everything from $1000 to $20 billion notes.
Michael is open about his intentions: he will be voting Tsvangirai. He says that even the ethnic Shona majority, who overwhelmingly voted Zanu-PF in the past, have had enough of Mugabe.
“It’s not about tribalism,” Michael says. “There are lots of Shona who want change.”
The collapse of the economy has also led to a diaspora, and there are about 2 million Zimbabweans in South Africa, mostly doing low-paid jobs and sending money home. In the past few years there have been several murderous mob attacks on Zimbabwean and other migrant groups around Johannesburg, driven by claims that they are taking jobs away from South Africans.
I meet Peter in a village near Bulawayo. He has just returned home on leave from South Africa.
“I am a refugee there,” he says. “But what can I do?”
He says he manages to survive because he is Ndebele, an ethnic group which uses the Zulu language, and he passes himself off as Zulu.
What Peter can’t understand is the hatred. He points out that during the last decade of apartheid, the recently liberated Zimbabwe gave sanctuary to South African refugees. He doesn’t say who he will vote for, but like everyone else, he wants change.
Mutare, in the far east of Zimbabwe, is Shona heartland. Mugabe is Shona, and has relied heavily on Shona votes to keep him in power. It is a Saturday and the streets are almost deserted but on the outskirts of town, a crowd of 20,000 is attending a Tsvangirai rally at the football stadium.
The scene is repeated the following day at Masvingo, two hours’ drive to the west. It is still Shona country, but Tsvangirai attracts a similar crowd to the stadium there. There are scores of people wearing red shirts, the colour of the MDC-T.
“We are going to see president Tsvangirai,” one redshirt says.
At the rally, Tsvangirai is like any other politician.
“Vote MDC and you will live a better life . . . there will be plenty of money that you will not be able to finish spending,” he says. “If you vote Zanu-PF, the Zim dollars will be back and you won’t be able to buy anything, just like what happened during those days.”
The reality of Zimbabwe’s economy hits me at a shop in Masvingo. I am handed my change, and at first I wonder what it is. It is hard to make out the image of George Washington, or the number 1 that should be visible at each corner. It is a US dollar bill, grubby almost beyond recognition. The coins are South African rand. It’s not as complicated as I first think – the rand is 10 to the US dollar, so there are a thousand cents to each greenback. But dirty or not, it’s stable.