In Time of Famine

R.W. Johnson reports from Zimbabwe

When I was in Harare recently I inquired about an old naturalist I’d known there. He knew he had cancer, had told his friends he’d finished his book, was all through and would like to be cremated. Since nothing works in Zimbabwe any more he’d got in a nice store of mopani logs and was sure his friends would know what to do. They did. When he died they came round, wrapped his body in a blanket, made a funeral pyre and stood around it, glass in hand, till it burned low. The few doctors left in the country are so badly paid that it wasn’t hard to get the various necessary certificates made out. Anywhere else DIY cremation might raise eyebrows, but not here.

Travelling across Zimbabwe these days brings to mind one of those films like The Day of the Triffids, where a familiar reality has been transformed into nightmare by some sudden calamity. Things are eerily quiet even in town. The street vendors flogging everything from fruit to wooden carvings have long since been chased away, the state having realised that a prospering black market means little VAT is collected; all law and order has gone; the shopfronts are the same, but now there is just emptiness where people used to be; and the people you do see don’t just look ill, they look as though they are dying. In some ways conditions are back to the desperate days of the early colonists, and there are still a few whites – game-rangers and the like – able to live with that.

The Chinese are here in force, their mineral prospectors stalking through the game reserves. Mugabe has high hopes of Beijing and even offered to hand over major mining concessions. The Chinese were greatly interested until they realised that the concessions on offer were already being run by large Western mining companies; it would be politically dangerous to cross them.

A newspaper headline tells you that the former Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile-Mariam, who long ago was given refuge in Harare, has now been found guilty of genocide by a court in Addis Ababa. It seems so natural that Mengistu should be here – for years now, I have been running into members of his entourage shopping in the suburbs – that it doesn’t seem at all surprising that Mugabe has refused to give him up to the Ethiopians. By all accounts it was Mengistu who in 2005 advised Mugabe to nip opposition among shanty dwellers in the bud by launching Operation Murambatsvina, in which 700,000 homes were knocked down and the people who lived in them forcibly removed to the countryside. All told, the Murambatsvina affected two million people and already it seems to have killed between a quarter and a half of them, mainly as a result of exposure, illness and starvation. What is spooky is to read in the chargesheet against Mengistu that during the Red Terror of 1977-78 he was responsible for the deaths of 1.5 million people as a result of forced removals and that he deliberately hid the fact that there was a famine in Ethiopia. For here we are again with forced removals and the pretence that there is enough to eat. Ever since he destroyed commercial agriculture with the farm invasions of 2000 and 2001, Mugabe has routinely denied the existence of a famine: Zimbabweans, he insists, don’t need food aid. Had donors not ignored this nonsense, and made at least some food aid available, the death toll would have been even higher.

Starvation has been the biggest killer, but the meltdown of the economy and of the healthcare system has many diverse and often fatal effects, particularly when allied to the repeated campaigns – often carried out at gunpoint – to force people to change their lives in accordance with the latest twists and turns of government policy. Malnutrition increases sixfold the rate at which people with HIV die of Aids, a rate further increased by stress. Given that the government has made malnutrition a permanent and almost universal condition, and vastly increased stress levels by operations such as the Murambatsvina, it is hardly surprising that Aids deaths should have soared. Large numbers also die as a result of quite minor accidents and ailments, now that the hospitals are either death-traps or non-existent. Many die trying to leave the country across the crocodile-infested Limpopo, the Kalahari desert or through the Kruger National Park. The population has shrunk so rapidly and to such an extent that many believe it is now under ten million (some put the figure as low as eight) instead of the 18 million there should have been had nothing untoward happened. Even allowing for the four million who are believed to have fled, several million are simply missing. The highest estimates suggest that six million have died. The minimum estimate, two million, is already more than twice the number who died in the Rwandan genocide. The fact that the margin of uncertainty is so wide is itself a measure of how close to total breakdown the country now is.

Ever since the farm invasions began, Mugabe has insisted that the ‘new settlers’ will soon be as productive as the farmers they displaced. In fact, the cash crops have all collapsed and the only question is whether enough maize can be grown to prevent further starvation. So far the answer has been ‘no’. Mugabe’s solution, Operation Maguta, is now in progress: the army descends on rural villagers, chops down their orchards and tears up their vegetable patches, with the crazy ambition of forcing them to grow maize, often in areas where maize doesn’t grow.

Travelling through Zimbabwe leaves one in no doubt about the scale of the catastrophe. The entire country seems dazed by mortality and depression. One sees dead bodies in the grass, and when they are picked up they are simply dumped in pits. In the space of less than fifteen years, life expectancy has fallen from 62 to 34 years for women and to 37 for men, by far the lowest in the world. In a population weakened by five consecutive years of chronic food shortages, and with inflation heading up from 1050 to a predicted 2000 per cent, making all traded goods unaffordable except to a tiny elite, the death rate among the remaining population – among whom orphans and the old are over-represented – is bound to be more fearsome with every passing month.

One way to understand what is happening is to see things as Mugabe does. Every speech he makes reminds one that he is stuck for ever in the era of the liberation struggle. During the many years of Ian Smith’s white minority regime, it seemed there was little that Mugabe’s party, Zanu, could do in the face of white power. Zanu’s armed wing, Zanla, was no match for the better trained and better equipped Rhodesians, and Mugabe dreamed in vain of driving out the white farmers and seizing their land. Only when Mozambique threw off Portuguese rule and provided sanctuary for the Zanla guerrillas did the military balance become less unequal.

Finally, when South Africa withdrew its support for Smith a deal was struck to hold democratic elections in 1980. Mugabe was furious: he had no intention of submitting himself to a plebiscite which might not go his way; but Julius Nyerere in Tanzania and Mozambique’s Samora Machel insisted. In the end Mugabe found a way of cheating on the terms of the deal, infiltrating his guerrillas into as many villages as possible, a strategy that guaranteed victory. On the one hand, the villagers enthusiastically supported ‘our boys’; on the other, they were terrified of them, for they knew ‘our boys’ were willing to torture and kill without mercy in order to impose their authority. That had been the way Zanla dominated these villages during the war and it now guaranteed a monolithic Zanu vote at the polls. Christopher Soames, the British pro-consul sent out to supervise the election, knew exactly what was going on but balked at the notion of taking military action to get the guerrillas back into their camps or, alternatively, declaring the vote null and void. In the end he drew a veil over it and, making the probably correct assumption that Zanu would have won even a properly free election, declared Mugabe the winner. Mugabe could hardly believe his luck. (The story had a sequel at Namibian independence ten years later, when Sam Nujoma’s Swapo guerrillas were supposed to be confined to their camps for the duration of the first free election. Mugabe advised Nujoma to do exactly as he had done and infiltrate his guerrillas into the villages. The South African army, far less squeamish than Soames, cried foul and killed some six hundred of them in a virtual turkey shoot. Publicly, the great powers denounced Pretoria’s bloodletting; privately, they were hostile to Nujoma and Mugabe. I was there at the time and even the Soviet ambassador was blunt on this score. But Swapo won the election anyway, just as Zanu had done.)

In the main, Mugabe let the white farmers be, and at first independent Zimbabwe prospered. But Mugabe had two plans of action, to be brought into play at the first sign of opposition: land seizure, and crushing the peasantry. In the mid-1980s, when Ndebele opposition became apparent, the army was sent into Matabeleland to murder, rape and torture the peasantry into a state of compliance. Mass rallies were held at night at which peasants were forced to sing Zanu songs while being beaten and beating others, or watching a chosen few being tortured and executed. It was a routine that exactly expressed the combination of terror and enforced support on which the regime depends.

When, in 1988, the radical Edgar Tekere broke away to run against Mugabe in the 1990 presidential and parliamentary elections, Mugabe responded by threatening to launch invasions of white-owned land and to dispossess the farmers. Anyone who seemed likely to support Tekere was intimidated, and five of his candidates were murdered to make the point. Once the Tekere threat faded, so did Mugabe’s interest in expropriation and land reform. For the majority of the population, rural folk living on communal land, the bottom line was that, in time of famine or shortage, food, seeds and equipment were – and are still – handed out only on production of a party card.

When the rise of the Movement for Democratic Change in 2000 provided Mugabe with his strongest opposition to date, it became clear that two groups had escaped his control: the growing class of urban-dwellers and the 2.25 million farm-workers and their families living on white farms. The latter lived under the umbrella of a successful white paternalism. The racist die-hards had all left at independence, and only those farmers who accepted black rule remained. They made sure that no one on their farms went short of food and provided their own (rough and ready) law and order and elementary medical care, while their wives ran farm schools and schemes for Aids orphans. As long as the workers voted solidly for Zanu-PF Mugabe could ignore the fact that they were largely beyond party control, but when, in 2000, they voted massively against him, he immediately resorted to land invasions and expropriation. While he was annoyed with the whites (who had also voted for the opposition) and eager to use their farms as a new form of presidential largesse, the main point of chucking them off the land was to remove the buffer of paternalism that had prevented Zanu-PF from lording it over the farm-workers in the way it did over other peasants. Teams of thugs moved in and the workers and their families were put through the same horrific socialisation process that the Ndebele had suffered – murder, torture, rape and, above all, endless beatings while being made to sing party songs. At the end of this they were evicted, and left to fend for themselves.

The same thinking lies behind Operations Murambatsvina and Maguta: Mugabe’s remedy has always been to try to replicate the relationship between Zanla and the villagers first seen in 1975-80. A military-style operation is now announced roughly every eight weeks. The purpose, as a local farmer put it, is ‘to keep reminding them all who is boss, that they exist only at Mugabe’s pleasure. He doesn’t just want surly obedience, he wants them to chant his praises. And by God he gets it.’ Stripped of its radical (socialist, African nationalist) verbiage, it is a feudal relationship with clear echoes of African chieftaincy.

Such a relationship presupposes that life is cheap and plentiful, that, whatever else, there will always be more people. And indeed in Zimbabwe, as elsewhere, demography is destiny. When the first white settlers arrived there were fewer than 250,000 Africans living in Zimbabwe. While much land was, as usual, stolen from the blacks, a lot was simply left unoccupied. Although it suited Mugabe to talk as if white commercial farmers had taken all the land, the truth was that they occupied only a third of it; it was not uncommon for farmers to show you photos of the virgin bush their families had originally brought under cultivation. Thanks to the imposition of colonial law, order and medicine, the population had risen to 2,744,000 by 1950, and by independence, in 1980, to seven million. The first decade of independence saw social improvements of every kind and by 1997 a concomitant population increase to 11.8 million, but Mugabe’s policies frightened foreign investors away and created social stagnation, an ever growing pool of unemployment and increasing political discontent. As the population soared above 15 million or so in 2000 the regime’s inability to provide for its people became all too evident. A lesson was drawn. Mugabe’s henchman, Didymus Mutasa, expressed it perfectly in 2002, when he said: ‘We would be better off with only six million people, with our own people who support the liberation struggle. We don’t want all these extra people.’

Mugabe has got away with it only because Thabo Mbeki, who has stubborn loyalties, has covered for him. By insisting that ‘Zimbabweans must be left to solve their own problems,’ and putting it about that he is involved in delicate and long-running ‘quiet diplomacy’ with Mugabe, Mbeki has used South Africa’s leverage to prevent the Zimbabwe question being addressed in any international forum. When, for example, were Zimbabwe’s human rights abuses last discussed at the UN? Meanwhile it seems likely that the international community will continue to sit back and let Mugabe destroy his country. The recent split in the MDC has put paid to any hope for an opposition to Zanu-PF rule; and while this has emboldened the factions within Zanu-PF manoeuvring for the post-Mugabe succession to come out into the open, it has also given Mugabe an excuse to snatch back his promise to retire in 2008, claiming that he can’t leave the scene with his party ‘in shambles’. No reversal of policy is likely while he remains in office, and he has determined to stay till 2010 or beyond. The major powers have expressed their disgust and imposed elite-level sanctions, but this hasn’t worked. Before contemplating any further action, Britain, the US and the rest look at their interests in the region as a whole and conclude that their priority is to maintain good relations with the regional superpower, South Africa. And since they can’t take a stronger line over Zimbabwe without running up against Mbeki’s interposed resistance, they back away.

A great deal hangs on whether what is happening in Zimbabwe can be termed ‘genocide’, as many people believe it can, for in that case the UN is obliged to act. But the last thing the major powers want is to be called on to mount yet another UN intervention in Africa: it was precisely this that led the Western nations to resist so strongly the use of the term ‘genocide’ to describe the Rwanda killings in 1994. The Convention on Genocide specifies that the target has to be a ‘national, ethnic, racial or religious group’ and makes it plain that ‘deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part’ is included in the definition of what constitutes genocide. Since the Rwandan disaster there has been much focus on devising some form of early warning system. Clearly, the Zimbabwean case is arguable both ways, but the issue is more likely to be settled by UN politics than by legal definition. Juan Mendes, special adviser to the secretary-general on the prevention of genocide, is only too aware that some member states want to trigger the genocide trip-wire as a way of advancing their own diplomacy. Israel, for example, is pestering him to decide whether recent pronouncements by President Ahmadinejad do not constitute the sort of racial hate speech that should trigger the early warning system.

With millions already dead in Zimbabwe it is absurd to ask whether intervention is necessary. The question is who will bring it before the UN. In this respect, South Africa, in its first vote as a Security Council member, put down a heavy marker by siding with China and Russia in opposing any condemnation of the regime in Burma. This vote, which reversed South Africa’s previous position on the issue, has brought a torrent of criticism down on Mbeki’s head: its rationale, quite clearly, has been to secure Russian and Chinese support in heading off any attempt to galvanise the UN on the issue of Zimbabwe. Such terrible loss of life in a country which is a once and future Commonwealth member might be expected to produce some response from the other Commonwealth states. But the Commonwealth, like the US, defers to Britain on this issue and Blair appears to have decided to do nothing. During the Rwandan crisis Clinton fiercely opposed intervention and looked hard the other way while the genocide proceeded. Then, in March 1998, with his term ending, he issued an apology for his inaction, showing those who wished to be convinced that he had a heart after all. Maybe Blair will end his term with a similarly self-serving expression of regret.