Harare is morose under the rains, more drenching this year even than last year, and longer than most can remember; five or seven centimetres, day after day. It’s made the water table too high and water lies permanently on the surface, sewage floating in it, for the city’s long-neglected sewage system is on the point of collapse. This wouldn’t be easy for anyone to bear, but it’s particularly hard for the residents of Harare, who point to the colossal mansion which the mayor, Solomon Tawengwa, is building for himself and the Mercedes cars which he and his municipal colleagues have awarded themselves. Most angry of all are the council workers whose pay cheques bounced. They went on strike despite a ban on strikes decreed last year by President Mugabe, in the wake of a second round of urban riots caused first by food and then by fuel price hikes, themselves the result of a 60 per cent devaluation of the Zim dollar (which, having started life at two to the US dollar, is now 67 to the US dollar). Mugabe wasn’t bothered by the council workers’ strike any more than he has been by the recent teachers’, doctors’ and telephone-workers’ strikes. It is ZCTU, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, that he fears.

ZCTU had organised mass stay-aways in protest against the food and fuel price rises (which then turned into riots); and mindful of the implicit challenge to his power which ZCTU poses, Mugabe wants to make sure that there won’t be any such stay-aways in the future. To make the Government’s displeasure clear, mysterious assailants burst into the office of ZCTU’s secretary-general, Morgan Tsvangirai, in December 1997 and beat him up. His deputy, Isidore Zindoga, was attacked at the beginning of this year by three men, one of them believed to be a police officer, who beat him unconscious with an iron bar. Tsvangirai told me when I visited him a few weeks ago that he managed to identify the men – they were all former guerrillas in Zanla, Mugabe’s one-time liberation army. The plan, he believes, was to throw him out of the window – his office is on the tenth floor. The police did nothing when he identified his assailants, so now, he says, the union is pursuing its own inquiries. He laughs, not because it’s funny, but because Zimbabwe used to be the sort of place where the proprieties were observed and it feels almost surreal that now they’re not.

The potholes in the roads and the overflowing sewage are the result of municipal corruption. The fact that most phones don’t work is more or less due to the Telecom strike. The occasional power and water cuts are a bit harder to fathom, as is the fact that bank computers send out crazy statements every month. Far more important, there is no mealie meal – the staple African diet – in the shops. Neither the Government nor anyone else seems sure why this is, but meanwhile hunger looms. One thing is certain: as and when it appears its price will have greatly increased. Inflation is running at 47 per cent and shopkeepers, who can’t be sure that today’s takings will buy tomorrow’s supplies, often opt for pre-emptive price increases. With interest rates at 55 per cent, car purchases have fallen by half (causing job losses in the country’s Mazda assembly plant) and the property market has frozen solid: the whites who are flocking abroad are renting, not selling, their houses (building societies have anyway stopped extending mortgages). White Zimbabweans talk almost exclusively about the economic facts of life and how mad they are – the politics have been mad for quite a while. Ian Smith was invited to give a seminar at the University of Zimbabwe not long ago and was greeted as a hero by an overflowing hall of black students.

The recently released Zimbabwe Human Development report (funded by the UNDP) shows all too clearly the straits to which the Mugabe regime has brought Zimbabwe, once one of Africa’s richest and most developed countries. Per capita income has fallen back to what it was a generation and more ago and the grotesque expropriation of wealth by the governing élite (every minister is rich and most are at least dollar millionaires – US dollars, that is) has produced one of the most unequal societies in the world. Poverty is increasing rapidly. Sixty-one percent of the total population are now below the poverty datum line and 45 per cent are ‘very poor’ (i.e. have incomes 40 per cent or more below that line). The latter ‘very poor’ group includes 75 per cent of the rural population and 39 per cent of town-dwellers, with the worst-off living on the old communal lands and in the resettlement areas. As the UNDP report puts it, ‘in addition to the mis-targeting and inefficiency of social spending programmes, corruption contributes significantly to poverty and inequality ... The tax base is shrinking due to tax-evasion, the maldistribution of resources, poor tax administration and disproportionate exemptions favouring the better-off and the well connected.’

Of the country’s 12 million inhabitants, 1.6 million are HIV positive and by the end of 1999, 400,000 will have died of Aids. Twenty-three per cent of the population do not have access to clean water and the public hospitals are collapsing. Desperate for revenue, the Government has not only imposed stiff hospital fees which many cannot afford, but not long ago it also sacked all the nurses. Of the country’s 16 district hospitals, five are still lying idle, two years after being built, for lack of doctors and nurses. The family with whom I was staying had lost four relatives in the last year from infections that in the normal course of things would be easily cured.

The Zimbabwean state is, at many points, virtually ceasing to function. NOCZIM, the parastatal oil company looted by its managers, has run up a debt of Z$4 billion. The Department of Social Welfare has announced that it lacks the transport to ship grain to 54,000 starving families in Guruve district. Zimbabwe has some of the best sugar-growing land on the planet and for more than ten years now the Government has talked of building a giant dam to create huge sugar projects in the Masvingo area, as well as providing power and incomes to the area’s 1.5 million inhabitants who currently need food aid every year. Work on the dam finally began last April but has now halted because the Government has failed to pay the Italian firm building it. The delivery of public services is so poor that there is increasing talk of tax and rates boycotts. The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation has defaulted on a loan from a Canadian bank and the Government’s guarantee cover has not so far proved operative. Unless the Government finds the money very soon the Paris Club of banks will blacklist Zimbabwean public institutions, making it impossible for them to borrow. The ZBC itself, of course, broadcasts nothing but praise of Mugabe and is in general so dire that you wish it would shut down.

The state-owned Air Zimbabwe was long plagued by Comrade Bob’s habit of commandeering its planes and kicking their passengers off whenever he wanted to go on one of his frequent shopping trips abroad, but this situation at least has been somewhat eased by the purchase of a DC-9 for his new wife. This gallant, indeed almost playboy gesture by Mugabe, who, at 74, describes himself as ‘an old young man’, loses nothing from the fact that the plane, ‘Big Bunny’, as it’s called, used to belong to Hugh Hefner. But Air Zimbabwe has other troubles: an acute shortage of spares and uniforms, a thumping deficit and the hostility of British customs officials, who have threatened to ban its planes from British airports because of the persistent smuggling of contraband goods on the part of AZ staff. The AZ management has recently found it necessary to caution airline staff against smuggling illegal immigrants – contraband people – and has also suspended one of its flight captains for flying on a forged pilot’s licence.

‘Big Bunny’ apart, most Zimbabweans have never got over Comrade Bob’s marriage to Grace, celebrated with enormous extravagance as the ‘wedding of the century’, and are still agog that a Catholic archbishop chose to solemnise an occasion attended by the already grown-up children of this previously adulterous union. Mugabe’s late wife Sally was so rich that Bob had to prevent the public getting wind of her will but Grace has already shown herself willing to shoulder the burdens of this tradition. Her enormous mansion in Borrowdale was built, it is now revealed, on land bought from the state for less than a seventh of its commercial value. Grace seems wondrously unaware of her Imelda-like image and preaches energetic sermons on ‘family values’ which even the most family-minded Zimbabweans receive with stony scepticism. But one shouldn’t be too tough on her: Bob’s deputy, Joshua Nkomo, has interests in 16 farms, while the Army chief, General Solomon Majuru – who, as Rex Nhongo, led the first guerrilla attack on a white farm – changed his name by deed poll to avoid the embarrassment of being known as the country’s largest landowner with 17 farms, apparently forgetting that changes of name had, by law, to be published in the press.

Despite all this Comrade Bob still from time to time declares his devotion to the principles of Marxism-Leninism which, together with his threats to expropriate white property without compensation, is more than enough to ensure that foreign investors give Zimbabwe a wide berth. The Government’s spendthrift ways, its steady refusal to slim down a state administration bloated by patronage, and the élite’s determination to steal everything that’s not nailed down and quite a bit that is, have delivered Zimbabwe into the hands of the IMF and the World Bank. Meanwhile ministers bilk on whatever bills they can, the infrastructure falls to bits before one’s eyes and the state searches ever more desperately for new sources of tax income. School fees in the collapsing state education system (seven thousand teachers have been fired) are now so high that many parents are having to take their children out of school, and for the first time in a century illiteracy is increasing. All imported luxury goods – defined widely to include cars and many foodstuffs – were already subject to a 100 per cent tariff: the plan is to levy a further 100 per cent on top of that. I’m sorry for my friends, who fought Smith so tenaciously, did all they could to help Mugabe and now recoil in horror from the Government.

Mugabe angrily rejects any suggestion that the Government is to blame for the economic crisis. It is, he says, the fault of greedy Western powers, the IMF, the Asian financial crisis and the drought – the rain meanwhile continues to bucket down. The Government’s sudden imposition of a 5 per cent levy on stock-market dealings – ‘total madness’ was one stockbroker’s view of it – brought the Zimbabwe Stock Exchange, Africa’s second biggest, to a complete halt for three days in January. Then the Government retreated in disorder and removed the tax. The imposition of a new 10 per cent tax on all property sales, an equally desperate revenue-raising gimmick, introduced at the same time, remains in place mainly because the property market is in such a state of deep freeze that no one can currently imagine paying it. You look at the wonderful houses and gardens of the Harare northern suburbs, the most charming and spacious I’ve ever seen, and wonder whether these aren’t the bargains of the century. But then what were Ugandan house prices like under Idi Amin?

When Zimbabweans talk, as they increasingly do, of ‘the militarisation of public life’ they are not just talking about General Majuru’s enormous landholdings. Many attribute the low (23 per cent) poll in the last elections to the fact that voters thought it prudent to stay away from voting booths watched over by soldiers with automatic weapons. And most Zimbabweans date the present crisis to the 1997 pension demonstrations by former Zanla guerrillas led by ‘Hitler’ Hunzvi. When Mugabe decided he had to give in to the veterans – flouting IMF/World Bank demands for budget tightening – he tried to finance the increase with a new development levy, but this was met by a huge wave of popular protest, in which ZCTU (again) was the leading player. When ZCTU organised mass stay-aways over the food and fuel price increases township residents were effectively forced back to work by soldiers stationed on every corner. Outside the Presidential palace, scores of guards hold their rifles in a ready-to-shoot position and all have fixed bayonets.

The decision to intervene militarily in the Congo – opposed by 70 per cent of Zimbabweans but necessary to protect mining interests acquired by Zimbabwean politicians – also served to show South Africa that Zimbabwe is still the region’s premier power: nothing has upset Comrade Bob as much as his eclipse by Mandela. The Congo intervention has moved the Army to the centre of national life and there are rumours about every aspect of this action – no one knows exactly how many Zimbabwean troops have gone to the Congo or how many military police were sent to keep the apparently mutinous troops in order, or how much it all costs – so instead there is continuous murmur, gossip and report: that it is costing a million dollars a day; that the Congo rebels are tough, experienced fighters and that Zimbabwean casualties are far greater than the authorities are admitting; that many soldiers have deserted rather than fight and that some have been summarily executed. Very few actual facts are known and such news as there is isn’t encouraging: in the first three weeks of January Zimbabwe lost three helicopters and their crews – losses attributed by the authorities (who are not generally believed) to crashes caused by bad weather. Pessimism is probably appropriate: ever since the Belgians abruptly left the Congo in 1960 armed rebellion has been endemic. It isn’t very likely that the current motley band of Namibians, Angolans and Zimbabweans will have any more success in quelling it than their many predecessors. Knowing that the Congo intervention was unpopular with the Army, that it was expensive and, given Zimbabwe’s parlous public finances, virtually mad, most Zimbabweans wonder how long the adventure can continue and what will finally stop it.

In January the Zimbabwe Standard published rumours of an attempted Army coup which had led to the imprisonment of 23 mutinous soldiers who, it was alleged, had been in touch with an MP and a leading Cabinet minister. The authorities’ response was ferocious: the offending editor and journalist were arrested, handed over by the police to the Army, held and tortured while writs of habeas corpus were contemptuously refused by the military. They were finally released on bail and charged with ‘spreading alarm and despondency’ under the infamous Law and Order (Maintenance) Act (1960), originally brought in to suppress African nationalism. The burly Minister of Defence, Moven Mahachi, insisted that the torture of the two journalists, though authenticated by several doctors, was ‘lies, all lies’ and even suggested that they had injured themselves so as to simulate wounds. At a stroke Zimbabwe seems to have abandoned the rule of law: Comrade Bob didn’t bother to deny the torture charges but simply announced that the journalists had received the treatment they deserved. The detention of a further four journalists followed, together with an announcement that the Government would introduce legislation to control ‘the unpatriotic independent media’. Parliament said nothing and the Chief Justice, who was abroad, stayed there and remained silent while the Attorney-General hastened away on a month’s holiday. It was left to human rights NGOs, as well as other lawyers and journalists and some of the judges, to add their voices to the torrent of international protest which poured into Harare. But not from South Africa, where the Foreign Minister, Alfred Nzo, announced that his country had no wish to tell Zimbabwe how to run its domestic affairs.

Belatedly, the ruling party realised that the publicity caused by the incident might cost it dear. And this, of course, is the crunch. Disgusted donors have been pulling back in droves, leaving only $700 million pledged this year instead of the budgeted $2.5 billion. Discussions are continuing about the release of a further IMF tranche of $53 million and a $300 million World Bank credit facility, with a further $100 million under discussion with the EU and other donors. Western public opinion finds it less and less obvious that aid should be extended to a country which shows so little respect for the rule of law and is more likely than not to spend the money on an unconstitutional foreign war, ordered by Mugabe without any reference to Parliament. Unabashed, Comrade Bob appears on TV to repeat that the journalists got what they deserved and to demand the resignation of the three supreme court judges who had demanded that the rule of law be upheld. The press, he says, is being corrupted by ‘British agents’ and ‘international fascists’. Tony O’Reilly, a close friend of Mugabe, hurriedly pulled out of the consortium which was about to launch a newspaper in Harare intended to compete head to head with the state-owned and slavishly pro-Government Zimbabwe Herald. Three more journalists are detained and a fourth is sought. I can’t help wondering whether, in the President’s eyes, I’m a British agent or an international fascist. It can’t be a great choice to make while the electrodes are being fastened to your private parts.

There is growing support for the National Constitutional Assembly, a broad front of trade unions, human rights groups and other NGOs which sees constitutional reform – including a change in the electoral system before next year’s Parliamentary elections – as the only peaceful way out of the current impasse. Margaret Dongo, the popular independent MP, has launched a new party, the Zimbabwe Union of Democrats, to fight the election but more attention is focused on the attempt by Morgan Tsvangirai, the ZCTU leader who also heads the NCA, to call a national convention to examine a series of social, economic and constitutional issues. The involvement in this initiative of the Zimbabwe Council of Churches and a large number of civic groups as well as the trade unions suggests that Tsvangirai is assembling a broad opposition front comparable to the South African UDF in the Eighties, though here it is the President who talks the language of socialism, which Tsvangirai and ZCTU have abandoned in favour of classic liberal constitutionalism and the centrist rhetoric of the social market economy. Though Tsvangirai has steadily denied party political ambitions, it looks as if he is beginning to accept the inevitability of a direct political challenge to Mugabe. The Government has now agreed to set up a 240-member Presidential Commission on Constitutional Reform with equal representation for the elected MPs of Mugabe’s party and representatives of civil society. The NCA, though deeply wary of any attempt by the President to take control of the process, is also aware that cracks are developing within his party and hopes that some of its backbenchers can be drawn into the cause of real constitutional reform.

The reformers face an uphill task, however. ‘Mugabe always wants revenge on those who criticise him’ is what you hear people saying. ‘When the students turned out with placards saying “Mugabe must go,” he shut down the university for a whole year. He’s got too much to lose and too much to hide. He’ll do anything to win next year’s elections, including rigging them if necessary.’ At present the Government has complete control of the electoral process: this will have to change if next year’s elections are to be a fair test of opinion: but only a combination of strong domestic opposition and overwhelming donor pressure will bring it about. As so often in Africa, democrats find themselves half-hoping that donors will cut off aid to maximise pressure. Mugabe’s current state of mind is such that for the rest of the country, waiting 18 months for an election seems like waiting for Godot.

‘We have to contain the people’s anger somehow,’ says Tsvangirai. ‘Already people are asking why we are so slow, why we haven’t taken up the challenge. But the Government would love us to call another stay-away so that it would have an excuse to arrest all the top union leaders. And that would capsize the national convention we’re trying to call.’ The unions, he says, have to be slow, they have to consult their members, and of course he’s right, but I peer out at the potholed streets of Harare ten floors below and try to imagine how he felt as the men who invaded the office in which I am sitting tried to throw him to his death. The fight against apartheid was ‘no easy walk to freedom’, as Nelson Mandela put it, but fighting for democracy against the entrenched forces of corrupted African nationalism is no easier. My sympathies, I find, go invariably to those who fought against both.

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