He is responsible for the hunger, homelessness and exile of millions—black and white—yet neighbouring countries still dignify him with a hero’s welcome. Christina Lamb reports on the tolerance of tyranny
When Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, took his seat for the new session of parliament on 25 July, it was on a specially designed leopard-skin throne flanked by two giant elephant tusks. Next to him sat his young wife, Grace, in a chair artfully positioned on a zebra skin. Stuffed leopards and antelope heads adorned newly painted walls. The parliament needs many kinds of reform, but a Changing Rooms-style make-over was not on anyone’s list, particularly given that Zimbabwe is in the midst of what the World Bank calls the worst economic crisis of any country in peacetime.
While Mugabe was showing off his redesign on national TV, less than a mile away Memory had to crawl to get into the cardboard hovel that now passes for her home. Twice during the past month she had been arrested for selling cups of sadza (porridge) on the streets of Harare to try to earn money for her two sons to go to school. “The police took my pot, fined me and held me three days,” she said, coughing, as she showed me the waist-high dwelling on the dusty ground. “Mugabe has turned us into beggars.”
At night she suffers nightmares about the government bulldozers that destroyed their home last year, smashing beds and wardrobes, her husband’s carpentry workshop and everything they had ever worked for.
Thabitha Khumalo, a courageous mother-of-two from Bulawayo, has been arrested 22 times. Her crime: campaigning against a critical shortage of tampons and sanitary towels caused by Zimbabwe’s economic crisis, forcing women to use newspaper, which often leads to infection. On one occasion Thabitha was tortured so badly that her front teeth were knocked up her nose; on another she had an AK-47 thrust up her vagina until she bled.
To Memory, Thabitha and millions of other Zimbabweans forced by their government into hunger, homelessness or fleeing the country, it is a mystery why the man responsible for their plight continues to be treated like a hero in the rest of Africa. Not only does he receive standing ovations whenever he appears at pan-African gatherings, but Malawi has even named a new road after him. The Robert Gabriel Mugabe Highway from Blantyre to the Indian Ocean ports of Mozambique, opened by the Zimbabwean president in May, is a huge embarrassment for the European Union, which funded it and has sanctions in place against Mugabe and his regime.
The multimillion-dollar road has become such a symbol of Africa’s failure to deal with Mugabe that the Malawian police have to guard the plaques bearing his name day and night. Even so, last month a group of 20 men armed with machetes and pangas managed to overcome them and smash the signs.
“Zimbabwe is a test case for the African continent on how we deal with dictatorships and black-on-black repression,” said Nelson Chamisa, spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), when we met in Harare just before Easter. He shook his head as I counted out the huge stack of notes needed just to pay for our coffee, a bill of more than a million Zim dollars (the official inflation rate is 1,042 per cent). “So far it seems to be failing.”
A deputy president of a neighbouring country told me he was at the second inauguration of Thabo Mbeki as president of South Africa in 2004, when Mugabe walked in and the entire audience rose in applause. “I was so embarrassed,” he said. “How can we in Africa complain about the west when we applaud such a tyrant?”
As a result of Mugabe’s land reform the countryside looks blighted by a terrible scourge, and four million Zimbabweans depend on food aid. Many more subsist on roots and fried termites, and the country’s life expectancy has dropped to the lowest in the world—just 34 for women. Yet the programme responsible was recently described as “commendable” by Isak Katali, Namibia’s deputy minister of lands. “We feel if Zimbabwe did this, we can do it in the same manner,” he said.
As someone who has travelled back and forth reporting on the country since 1999, witnessing the demise of what was one of the most affluent and educated countries on the African continent, this attitude seems inexplicable. Yes, Mugabe was a liberation hero, leading his country to independence from Britain in 1980, but surely that does not excuse him all subsequent excesses?
It is the silence from neighbouring South Africa that is hardest to understand. South Africa is the place most affected by Mugabe’s actions, hosting more than two million refugees from Zimbabwe, who get blamed for crime and stealing jobs. Every day, hundreds more desperate Zimbabweans attempt the journey across the crocodile-infested Limpopo River. South Africa is also best placed to do something—it could literally pull the plugs, switching off both credit and electricity.
Instead, President Mbeki has relied on so-called “quiet diplomacy”. This involves sending letters that Mugabe ignores and occasionally extracting minor concessions. One was the use of transparent ballot boxes in the last election. Mugabe immediately turned this to his advantage by warning people that he could see how they voted.
Some even accuse Mbeki of complicity, suggesting that South Africa has benefited from the influx of well-educated Zimbabweans into areas such as financial services. A report by the South African Institute of International Affairs blames his tolerant approach for deterring firmer action by other members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). “Apart from complicity with some other SADC countries in keeping the Zimbabwe issue off the agenda at successive SADC and African Union meetings, the South African government has actively supported Zimbabwe in blocking motions of censure against Zimbabwe in international forums, most notably the UN Human Rights Commission,” claims the report, A Nation in Turmoil: the experience of South African firms doing business in Zimbabwe.
As I arrived in Johannesburg recently for a week-long visit, I wondered if there was an element of denial in the Zimbabwe situation similar to Mbeki’s stance on Aids, which he refuses to accept is linked to HIV. One of the first things that struck me was the absence of posters warning about Aids or advising the use of condoms, such as those you now see everywhere in Africa. Yet South Africa has one of the highest rates of infection in the world; almost six million of its people are living with HIV. “We spend more time at funerals than we do having our hair cut or shopping,” said a fashion-conscious friend, “but to Mbeki Aids is not an issue.”
However, denial is not the whole story. Within a day in Johannesburg, I experienced at first hand the difficulties of engaging with Zimbabwe. I was due to address a lunch about my new book on the country, and should have realised the nature of my audience when the man next to me said: “Rhodesia used to be a wonderful place—they didn’t let blacks walk on the pavements.”
When I commented that it was nice to be back in Joburg, where I had lived in 1994, in “the exciting days of Mandela taking over”, there were audible tut-tuts. It soon became clear that I had myself a group of “when-wes”, people who refer nostalgically to the old days when black people could not vote and knew their place. During the entire discussion not a single person referred to the neighbouring country as Zimbabwe, its name for the past 26 years. They insisted on calling it Rhodesia.
When later I described the lunch to an old friend, Barney Mthombothi, editor of the Financial Mail and one of South Africa’s leading political commentators, he laughed heartily. “For Mbeki to take on Mugabe would be to be seen as allying with these people,” he said. “That’s the problem.”
This does not mean that Mbeki is happy about the situation. His party, the ruling African National Congress, has little affection for Mugabe’s Zanu-PF; during the liberation struggle it had much closer ties to Zapu, the rival movement led by Joshua Nkomo. Friends say that Mbeki is so frustrated that he never refers to Mugabe by name, but as “that man up there”. One of his closest advisers, Aziz Pahad, the deputy foreign minister, stated in May that the Zimbabwe situation required “an urgent solution”. It was widely regarded as an admission that quiet diplomacy had failed.
Power at all costs
But what to do? “Mugabe has very successfully portrayed the Zimbabwe crisis as an anti-colonial and anti-imperial problem, and in so doing has forced other African countries to support him,” explains Brian Raftopoulos, programme manager for the Cape Town-based Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, himself an exile from Zimbabwe. “To criticise Mugabe is to be seen as pro-western and anti-African.”
The issue of who owns the land in Africa is one of the biggest challenges for post-colonial governments, particularly in Zimbabwe, where both whites and blacks consider themselves indigenous. It was without doubt unfair that most of the good land remained in the hands of white people 20 years after independence, but only a warped mind could call what Mugabe has done land reform. Of the 4,500 commercial farms that were seized, the vast majority have ended up not in the hands of landless people but, through Mugabe’s web of patronage, in the hands of cronies from the ruling Zanu-PF, military commanders, high court judges and even the Anglican bishop of Harare.
The western media share the blame for making the land invasions look like a racial issue by focusing on white farmers. Some newspapers even put the plight of white farmers’ pets on their front pages but neglected the hundreds of thousands of black farmworkers who were left with neither home nor job, and many of whom were tortured or raped.
Yet what Mugabe has done is not about race or righting the perceived injustices of colonialism. It is about power and one man’s determination to hang on to it at all costs. If there was any doubt about that, it was surely removed last year with the launch of Operation Murambatsvina (meaning “Operation Drive Out the Filth”), in which Mugabe’s bulldozers destroyed the homes and livelihoods of 700,000 people like Memory and her family.
At 82, Mugabe is nothing if not cunning, and he has been an unlikely beneficiary of the war in Iraq. “His job has been made easier by western leaders like Bush and Blair and what they are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan,” says Raftopoulos. “Not only has this taken attention off Zimbabwe, but it’s enabled him to plug into a growing sense of anti-imperialism in the third world.”
The last thing Mbeki wants is to look like the bully boy of Africa, and although it is easy to criticise South Africa, it is not so easy to come up with solutions. Zimbabwe’s opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, a former trade unionist who left school at 13 to support his family, has failed to impress. When the opposition party recently split, Mbeki tried to bridge the gap by bringing the leaders together in Pretoria. Tsvangirai refused to attend the meeting, and then claimed he had never been invited, prompting an exasperated phone call from Mbeki. The opposition’s ineptitude has left Mbeki turning to Mugabe’s Zanu-PF in the hope of finding a so-called “Zanu-lite” figure to replace him. But the Zimbabwean ruling party itself is bitterly divided between two rival successors.
“South Africa is pursuing a policy of stability rather than democracy,” complained Tsvangirai on a recent trip to Britain. “They are very suspicious about any change of government.”
Yet little in South Africa provokes such hand-wringing as Zimbabwe. A regular theme at dinner parties is the question: “Are we going to go the same way?”
As was the case in Zimbabwe, most farmland in South Africa is still in white hands, and the country has its own problem of farmers being killed. Roughly 1,700 such murders have occurred since the start of majority rule in 1994, far outnumbering the 18 killed in Zimbabwe’s land-grab campaign. “They’ve become so common we hardly report them,” admits Tim du Plessis, editor of Rapport, South Africa’s Afrikaans-language Sunday newspaper. “And some cases are just too grisly, where soles have been skinned off the feet and farmers’ wives murdered in baths of boiling water.”
The big difference is that these killings were not instigated by the government. Instead, they seem motivated by financial gain and part of a nationwide epidemic of violence, in which 18,000 people were murdered last year.
Unlike Zimbabwe, South Africa now has model policies in place for the restitution of land of those who were displaced by the apartheid regime. The legislation includes validation by the land claims courts and compensation at market value. Progress has been slow, however, and more than a decade after the end of apartheid less than 5 per cent of commercial farmland is in black hands. Not surprisingly, there are growing signs of impatience. New possibilities of legalised expropriation were introduced in March and a more hardline agriculture minister has just been appointed.
“We’ve got lessons to learn from Zimbabwe,” said the South African deputy president, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, at a recent conference in Pretoria. “How to do it fast. We need a bit of oomph. So we might want some skills exchange between us and Zimbabwe.” Although the remark was made with a smile, the laughter was muted.
Christina Lamb is foreign affairs reporter for the Sunday Times. Her new book, “House of Stone: the true story of a family divided in war-torn Zimbabwe”, is available from Harper Press (£14.99)
Hard to defend
“The issue of whether an elected president of Zimbabwe continues to be the elected president of Zimbabwe is surely a matter for the Zimbabwean people.”
Thabo Mbeki, president of South Africa, refusing to criticise the political chaos in Zimbabwe, October 2000
“The problem is that Mugabe didn’t lose as some people would have wanted him to lose. If you don’t lose as somebody wants you to lose, that is an offence.”
Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, responding to allegations of electoral malpractice in Zimbabwe, January 2004
“Zimbabwe should be for Zimbabweans. Africa for Africans. This is our sacred land . . . We died for it and the whites have no place in Africa as they belong in Europe.”
Libya’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi, touring Zimbabwe in July 2001