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.

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