ZIMBABWE has come up with a bizarre proposal to solve the food crisis threatening half its population with starvation. It wants to bring in obese tourists from overseas so that they can shed pounds doing manual labour on land seized from white farmers.
The so-called Obesity Tourism Strategy was reported last week in The Herald, a government organ whose contents are approved by President Robert Mugabe’s powerful information minister, Jonathan Moyo.
Pointing out that more than 1.2 billion people worldwide are officially deemed to be overweight, the article exhorted Zimbabweans to “tap this potential”.
“Tourists can provide labour for farms in the hope of shedding weight while enjoying the tourism experience,” it said, adding that Americans spent $6 billion a year on “useless” dieting aids.
“Tour organisers may promote this programme internationally and bring in tourists, while agriculturalists can employ the tourists as free farm labour.
“The tourists can then top it all by flaunting their slim bodies on a sun-downer cruise on the Zambezi or surveying the majestic Great Zimbabwe ruins.”
The notion that oversized, overpaid Americans could be enticed into paying to spend their holidays working free for those who seized the country’s commercial farms illustrates how far the Mugabe regime has descended into a fantasy world.
This is a government that boasts of bumper harvests when 5.5m of its people need food aid; that negotiates to buy Russian MiG fighter jets when the country is bankrupt; that shows constantly smiling dancing Zimbabweans on state television (known locally as the “Bums and Drums” channel) when two-thirds of the working population has fled.
It was the regime’s paranoia about letting anyone see what was really happening that prompted last week’s attempt to ban some British cricket correspondents from entering the country to cover the England team’s controversial tour.
This report is the result of travelling undercover for 10 days, meeting people secretly. Had we been caught, we could have faced two years in jail under draconian new media laws. Almost everyone interviewed refused to be quoted by name for fear of reprisals; this is a place where people really do disappear in the night. Some of those we met were subsequently visited by secret police.
It did not take long to see what was going on. Mazowe Valley is less than an hour from the capital and a drive through the area revealed the shocking destruction that Mugabe has wreaked on this sad but beautiful country.
It used to be described as the bread basket of southern Africa, with neat fields of maize and soya growing in rich red soil and farmers notching up world records for yields. Rows of giant greenhouses sheltered roses that earned important foreign exchange, as did fields of miniature vegetables to sell in British supermarkets.
In 10 years of visiting Zimbabwe, I have often been through Mazowe and its model farmland. Today it is a series of fallow fields, overgrown with grass, weeds and thorny scrub, as if some deadly scourge had swept through the valley. There are orchards of dead citrus trees, greenhouse frames stripped of their plastic roofs and the broken, twisted poles of what were once floodlights and irrigation systems.
Security fences have gone. Trees have been chopped for firewood. Even the telephone wires have been looted.
Gone, too, are the panga- waving “war veterans” who manned almost every entrance two years ago. Most of the war vets and settlers who were bussed in to take over the farms have been moved out so that party bigwigs can move into the houses.
The valley’s closeness to the capital makes it particularly desirable and a list of the farms’ new inhabitants reads like a roll call of the Zanu-PF hierarchy.
Among them are Grace Mugabe, the president’s wife; her brother Reward Marufu; Joseph Msika, the vice-president; Moyo; Solomon Mujuru, the powerful former army commander whose wife has just been nominated for vice-president; the governor of Mashonaland Central; the minister for state security; the police chief and various army commanders.
Other beneficiaries of the controversial land programme include the Anglican bishop of Harare and 15 high court judges.
“The programme was not about land reform at all—it’s about the political survival of Zanu-PF,” said John Worsley-Worsick of Justice for Agriculture (Jag) which represents commercial farmers. “Part of the programme was to make more and more people complicit. In every sector of society, people were bought off.”
With parliamentary elections due in March, the programme has been accelerated. Of 4,500 white farmers, only 300 remain on farms. More than 600,000 farm workers and their families have lost their livelihood. “There will be no farmers left by the elections,” said Worsley-Worsick, whose office walls are covered with land eviction notices.
A rose farmer whose wife pleaded that he not be identified gave a running commentary as we drove. “This was Foyle farm, the biggest dairy farm in the country, now Grace Mugabe’s. This was Wally Barton’s farm—beautiful farm, maize, soya beans, nothing grown the last three years since he went to Canada. This was Norman Kinnaird—he held the world record for cotton. This was Old Man Bailey—he had a ballroom upstairs, now Jonathan Moyo’s.
“That was the top cattle chap Angus Black—his old man walked into the dam after their farm was seized.
And that was our old family farm—in 50 years we never missed a season.”
What we should see at this time of year are fields of maize about 1ft high and tractors fertilising the land. But nobody has planted. The few settlers left have been provided with no seed or equipment. Cultivation is restricted to a few subsistence plots, an odd sight on huge farms that averaged 2,500 acres.
On one we watched two men leading a pair of donkeys pulling a plough round and round in small circles. According to Jag figures, food production has dropped by as much as 90% since the farm seizures began in 2000.
At the silos of the Grain Marketing Board in Concession, a few years ago one would have seen long lines of trucks delivering maize from the surrounding farms. Instead there was just one truck of wheat and a line of women showing party cards to get food. An official admitted that the only maize available had been imported from South Africa.
“The long-term objective is the creation of an elitist Shona group which will control everything,” said Worsley-Worsick, referring to Mugabe’s tribe. “There will be no middle class and everyone left will be subsistence farmers totally dependent on the rulers. If it first means starving half the people in the country, they are quite happy to do that.”
At one farm a local party official called Clever, with large glasses and an uncanny resemblance to Mugabe, was overseeing the reaping of a small field of wheat in pouring rain. Asking if we knew how he could dry the wheat, he said: “We made a mistake. We can’t run these farms. We need the white farmers to come back.”
He told us that the previous week there had been a party meeting at Heyshott school in Mazowe at which Mugabe had expressed horror at the state of the farms.
Some rose farmers have received letters from the governor of the Central Bank asking if they would consider returning, although understandably most would be extremely wary.
Any idea of backtracking by the government seems to be contradicted by the establishment of new land courts to “fast-track” farm seizures. The courts will be presided over by political appointees and will give farmers only five working days to prepare a defence.
More than 2,000 of the farmers driven off have already moved overseas. About half have started new lives in Australia, New Zealand and Britain; and half have gone to neighbouring countries such as Zambia and Mozambique. A big exodus is expected next month at the end of the school year.
Attacking the schools is the easiest way for Mugabe to get the whites—and middle-class blacks—to leave the country. Earlier this year he shut down private schools, accusing them of overcharging. Some closed; others now survive by asking parents for donations.
A biology teacher at Peterhouse boarding school explained: “It costs us Z$10m (£900) a term to educate and look after a child. We are only allowed to ask Z$3m so the rest is donation. But not everyone is donating.”
Although Mugabe has made clear his determination to expel all whites, many are equally determined to stay. On a sprawling estate with two swimming pools, a sauna, Jacuzzi, tree house and motorcross bikes for his children, one former farmer calls a servant for a cold beer and asks: “Who would give up all this for some pokey house and rainy weather in the UK?” Those farmers who have stayed are doing what Zimbabweans call “finding a way”. I met former farmers bottling mineral water, felling trees, selling cigarettes to Angola and manufacturing cooking oil. A large contingent has gone to Iraq to work as security consultants. They are said to be “reliving their Rhodie days”, a reference to Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle against which most fought.
Some have decided to hang on until after the elections in the hope that once he has secured victory for his party, Mugabe will ask the farmers back. But the daily outpouring of hate-speak on the radio has led to a noticeable increase in attacks on whites. “This country has been going through ethnic cleansing, albeit subtle,” said David Coltart, legal affairs spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), after his elderly white neighbour was beaten up last week. “We know from Bosnia and Rwanda that hate speech ultimately works.”
Yet it would be a mistake to see what Mugabe is doing in simple black-white terms. He seems to want the whole middle class to leave and the signs are that he is succeeding.
In all, up to 70% of Zimbabwe’s workforce—some 3.4m people—has fled to escape the political oppression and collapsing economy, according to research by an independent South African church group.
“An estimated 25% to 30% of the entire Zimbabwean population has left the nation,” reported the South African-based Solidarity Peace Trust last week. “Out of 5m potentially productive adults, 3.4m are outside Zimbabwe.”
It is the hard currency that Zimbabwean teachers, engineers, accountants, doctors and nurses abroad are sending home that enables their relatives to survive. The monthly state pension is Z$25,000—about £1.70, less than the cost of a postage stamp to the UK.
Anyone who tries to expose what is going on is quickly silenced. The independent Daily News was closed. Last week parliament passed legislation on non-governmental organisations, outlawing foreign funding and work on human rights or civic education.
Optimism that the MDC would achieve change has faded. Most people believe that Mugabe will remain president as he has stated until his term ends in 2008, by which time he will be 84.
Opponents are left clinging to the hope that the ruling party will implode. Last week Mugabe had to call for unity after some unusually public party infighting in the run-up to this week’s annual congress. The wrangling began after Mugabe directed provincial bosses to nominate Joyce Mujuru as vice-president instead of Emerson Mnangagwa, the parliamentary speaker, who had been regarded as his heir-apparent.
Mugabe was said by the local Daily Mirror to be “chewing nails” as he warned he would expose those “bent on destroying Zanu-PF from within” as “mischievous individuals misleading people by using money from western capitalists”.
Just how many people Mugabe has woven into his evil web becomes clear with a visit to Borrowdale Brooke, a lush golf estate in Harare’s affluent northern suburbs. Amid the watered lawns on which white herons strut, Comrade Bob’s favoured cronies have built themselves palaces.
The army chief’s three-storey white tower on the hill has a drive tiled in diamond shapes—a reminder of the wealth that Zimbabwe has plundered from the mines of Congo. At the back, on a guarded road, is Mugabe’s own new house made of white Italian marble with a blue pagoda-style roof.
In the estate’s new supermarket one can buy anything from Cuban cigars and Norwegian cod to Johnnie Walker blue label whisky at £150 a bottle—equivalent to a teacher’s annual salary.
Mugabe & Co sustain this lifestyle partly by bringing illicit gains back into the country for fear they will be frozen overseas, but mostly through asset-stripping. From the country’s railways (just sold to the Chinese) to the red Draylon armchairs along the Mutare road—clearly purloined from a farm—the whole country seems to be for sale.
Mugabe has now turned his attention to the country’s mines, particularly Zimplat, a platinum mine being developed by a South African consortium including Anglo American, the mining group.
It is expected to become the world’s biggest source of platinum and Mugabe has demanded that the government stake is raised from 15% to 55%, causing the project to be put on hold. And just as the war vets were used to seize the farms, so groups have already moved on to the mines.