Challenging Mugabe

As public anger rises in Zimbabwe, what are the chances of peaceful political change?

Harare is morose under the rains, drenching this year more even than last year, more than for longer than most can remember;
5-7 cms a day, day after day. The water table has risen so high that water lies permanently on the surface. There is sewage floating in it for the city’s long-neglected sewage system is on the point of collapse. Angry residents contemplate the magnificent mansion that Mayor Solomon Tawengwa is building for himself and the Mercedes cars that he and his municipal cronies drive around in. Even angrier are the council workers whose pay cheques all bounced last year. They went on strike, unheeding of the ban on strikes recently pronounced by President Robert Mugabe in the wake of the second round of urban riots. The first were caused by rises in food prices and the second by fuel price hikes — the result of the 60 per cent devaluation of the Zim dollar last year. (It started life at 2 to the £, is now 67 to the £).

Mugabe and his government were no more bothered by the council workers’ strike than by other recent strikes by teachers, doctors, and telephone workers. The strike ban is aimed not so much at them as at the mass stay-aways organised by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU). This is the one organisation that has managed to channel the seething discontent of the urban poor and therefore presents an implicit political challenge to the government. Just in case the government’s displeasure needed emphasising, mysterious assailants burst in and beat up ZCTU’s secretary-general Morgan Tsvangirai in his office in December 1997 while his deputy, Isidore Zindoga, was beaten unconscious last month by three men, one of them believed to be a police officer.

The potholed roads and the drifting sewage derive from municipal corruption, while the fact that most phones do not work is approximately due to the telecom strike. The occasional power and water cuts are a bit harder to fathom, as is the fact that bank computers no longer seem to work, sending out crazy statements every month. Far more important, there is no mealie meal — the staple diet — in the shops, apparently because of foul-ups by the government’s marketing board. Every day the government promises that mealie meal will soon be in the shops. One thing is certain: as and when mealie meal appears its price will have greatly increased. Meanwhile bread, rice, potatoes and other substitutes are also sold out. Inflation is running at 47 per cent and shopkeepers, unsure what will happen to the currency next or that today’s takings will buy tomorrow’s supplies, often opt for pre-emptive price increases. With interest rates at 55 per cent car sales have halved (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.

The recently released Zimbabwe Human Development report (funded by the UN Development Programme) is eloquent on the straits to which the Mugabe regime has reduced Zimbabwe, hitherto one of Africa’s richest and most developed countries. Per capita income has fallen back to what it was a generation or more ago and the grotesque expropriation of wealth by the governing elite (every minister is rich and most are at least US dollar millionaires) has produced one of the most unequal societies in the world. Poverty is increasing rapidly: 61 per cent of the population is now below the poverty line and 45 per cent are “very poor” (ie have incomes 40 per cent or more below that line). This latter “very poor” group now includes 75 per cent of the rural population and 39 per cent of urban-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 well connected.” Zimbabwe has fallen from 111th place in the 1991 human development rankings to 130th place last year.

Zimbabweans are now suffering rapid declines in health and life expectancy. Some 1.6 million of the country’s 12 million population are HIV positive; 23 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 that many cannot afford but not long ago it sacked all the nurses. Currently, of the country’s 16 district hospitals five are still lying idle two years after being built, through lack of medical staff. The family with whom I was staying could count four deaths of relatives in the last year due to easily curable diseases such as TB and laryngitis. Aids deaths have accelerated from 100 a week last year to 220 now. By the end of 1999, 400 000 will have died of the disease.

The Zimbabwean state is, at many points, ceasing to function. The parastatal oil company, Noczim, looted by its managers, has run up a debt of Z$4 billion. The department of social welfare has announced that it lacks 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 over ten years now the government has talked of building the giant Tokwe-Mukovsi dam to create several huge sugar projects in the Masvingo area. This would also provide 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 contractor. The delivery of public services is now 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 thus far not materialised. Unless the government speedily finds the money the Paris Club of banks will blacklist Zimbabwean public institutions, making it impossible for them to borrow.

The state-owned Air Zimbabwe was long plagued by Mugabe’s habit of commandeering its planes and kicking their passengers off whenever he wanted to go on one of his frequent shopping trips abroad. This situation at least has been somewhat eased with the purchase of a DC-9 for his thirty-something wife, Grace. This gallant, indeed almost playboy gesture by Comrade Bob who, at 74, describes himself as “an old young man”, loses nothing from the fact that the plane, “Big Bunny”, as it is called, used to belong to Hugh Hefner. But Air Zimbabwe has other troubles now: an acute shortage of spares and uniforms, a thumping deficit last year and a threat by the British customs service to ban AZ from British airports due to persistent smuggling of contraband goods by AZ staff. Management has recently found it necessary to caution airline staff against smuggling illegal immigrants — contraband people, as it were — and has also suspended one of its flight captains for flying on a forged pilot’s license.

“Big Bunny” apart, most ordinary Zimbabweans have never got over the president’s wedding-of-the-century to Grace, celebrated with enormous extravagance amid a sea of poverty, and are still agog that a Catholic archbishop chose to solemnise a wedding attended by the already grown children of this previously adulterous union. His late wife Sally exploited her position to become so rich that Bob had to prevent the public hearing of her will, but already Grace has 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 Marcos-like image and preaches energetic sermons on “family values” which even the most traditional Zimbabweans receive with stony scepticism. But it is not fair to be too tough on Grace. Mugabe’s deputy, Joshua Nkomo, now far gone with Parkinson’s disease, 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. However he forgot that such name changes had, by law, to be published in the press.

Despite all this Comrade Bob still periodically declares his devotion to the principles of marxism-leninism. Together with his vehement threats to expropriate property without compensation, this is more than enough to ensure that foreign investors give Zimbabwe a wide berth. Given the government’s spendthrift ways, its steady refusal to slim down the bloated patronage state administration and the elite’s determination to steal everything that is not nailed down and quite a bit that is, the result has been to deliver Zimbabwe into the hands of the IMF/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 revenue. School fees in the collapsing state education system (7 000 teachers have been fired) have now been pushed up a to point where many parents are having to take children out of school and illiteracy is increasing for the first time in a century,. Already all imported luxury goods, defined widely to include cars and many foodstuffs, are subject to a 100 per cent tariff and in March a further 100 per cent on top of that will be levied. Mugabe angrily rejects the criticism of those who blame the government for the economic crisis. It is, he says the fault of greedy western powers, the IMF, the Asian financial crisis and the drought. This latter explanation causes a quizzical raising of eyebrows as the daily torrent continues to bucket down.

Similarly, the government’s sudden imposition of a 5 per cent levy on stock market dealings — “total madness if you ask me” as one stockbroker put it — brought the Zimbabwe stock exchange, Africa’s second biggest, to a complete halt for three days in January until the government retreated in disorder and removed the tax. The simultaneous introduction of a new 10 per cent tax on all property sales, an equally desperate revenue-raising gimmick, remains in place mainly because the property market is in such deep freeze that no one can currently imagine paying it.

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 poll (23 per cent) in the last elections to the fact that voters decided to stay away from voting booths watched over by soldiers with automatic weapons. Almost universally Zimbabweans date the origins of the present crisis to the 1997 pension demonstrations by ex-Zanla guerrillas led by Hitler Hunzvi. When Mugabe gave in to the veterans’ demands — flouting IMF/World Bank demands for budget tightening — he attempted to finance the increase from a new development levy. This was then thrown out as a result of mass popular protest, in which ZCTU emerged as the leading player. When ZCTU organised mass stay-aways over the food and fuel price increases township residents were forced back to work by soldiers stationed on every corner.

Then came the decision to intervene in the Congo war — opposed, polls show, by 70 per cent of Zimbabweans but necessary to protect various mining interests acquired by Zimbabwean politicians. It also serves to show South Africa that Zimbabwe is still the region’s premier power, for nothing has upset Comrade Bob as much as his eclipse by Mandela’s international standing. The Congo intervention has moved the army to the centre of national life and rumours abound about every aspect of this action. No one knows exactly how many Zimbabwean troops have been committed or how many military police were then sent to keep the apparently mutinous troops in order or how much it all costs. Instead of facts there is continuous murmur, gossip and report — that it is all 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 go and fight and that some have been summarily executed.

What little is actually known about the war is hardly encouraging: in the first three weeks of January Zimbabwe lost three helicopters and their complements — explained by the authorities (who are not generally believed) as the result of crashes caused by bad weather. This popular pessimism is probably wise. Ever since the Belgians abruptly quit the Congo in 1960 armed rebellion has been endemic. Besides Mobutu’s military dictatorship all manner of outsiders have attempted to quell it — the UN, the CIA, French paras, South African, French and British mercenaries and so on. Despite all manner of ferocity and atrocity no one has succeeded for at all long and 40 years on the auguries hardly seem better for the current motley band of Namibians, Angolans and Zimbabweans. Knowing that the Congo intervention is unpopular with the army, that it is expensive and, given Zimbabwe’s parlous public finances, virtually insane, ordinary people naturally wonder how long the adventure can continue and what will finally stop it.
Such was the mood surrounding the publication by the Sunday Standard of rumours of an attempted army coup that had led to the imprisonment of 23 mutinous soldiers who, allegedly, 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, and finally released on bail and charged under the infamous 1960 Law and Order (Maintenance) Act , originally brought in to suppress African nationalism, with “spreading alarm and despondency”. The burly minister of defence, Moven Mahachi, angrily insisted that the story that the two journalists had been tortured, though authenticated by several doctors, was “lies, all lies” and even suggested that the two men had scratched themselves so as to simulate wounds. The affair has created utter consternation for at one bound Zimbabwe seems to have abandoned the rule of law, and though Mugabe kept a low profile throughout no one doubts that he sanctioned it. Parliament said not a word and the chief justice, who was abroad, stayed there and silent while the attorney-general hurriedly departed on a month’s holiday. It was left to human rights NGOs, other lawyers and journalists and some of the judges to add their opposition to the torrent of international protest which poured in on Harare along with the rain.

Belatedly, the ruling party realised that the appalling publicity caused by the incident might cost it dear. And this, of course, is the crunch. Already 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 World Bank $300 million credit facility, with a further $100 million under discussion with the European Union and other donors. Western public opinion finds it less and less obvious that such aid should be extended to a country which shows so little respect for the rule of law and which will only spend it on a foreign war, ordered without any reference to parliament.

A considerable head of steam is building up behind the National Constitutional Assembly. This is 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 now 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 at the end of this month to examine a series of social and economic as well as constitutional issues. The Zimbabwe Council of Churches and a large number of civic groups as well as the trade unions are involved in this initiative. Thus Tsvangirai is assembling a broad opposition front comparable to the South African United Democratic Front of the 1980s. The ideological polarities, however, are the opposite of those seen in South Africa, for it is Mugabe who talks the language of socialism which Tsvangirai and ZCTU have abandoned in favour of classic liberal constitutionalism and the social market economy.

Tsvangirai, though he has steadily denied party political ambitions, sounds 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 elected Zanu-PF MPs and civil society representatives. 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 Zanu-PF and hopes that some of the ruling party’s backbenchers can be drawn into the cause of genuine constitutional reform.

But the reformers face an uphill task. “Mugabe always wants revenge on those who criticise him”, one hears. “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.” Certainly, the government’s currently overwhelming control of the electoral process will have to go 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 has any chance of changing that. As so often in Africa, democrats find themselves half-hoping that donors will cut off aid to maximise that pressure.

But first Tsvangirai, ZCTU and the NCA have got to get through the next two months. As the 20 per cent food price increases ripple through this month, to be followed by the 100 per cent tariff increase in March, the potential for a further explosion of food rioting and social despair is bound to grow.

“We have to contain the people’s anger somehow”, says Tsvangirai. “Already people are saying why are we so slow, why don’t we take 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 leaders of the unions. And that would capsize the national convention we’re trying to call.” Tsvangirai is walking a tightrope as it is and the cutting off of IMF/World Bank aid would make his task more precarious. Fighting for democracy against apartheid was, as Nelson Mandela put it, “no easy walk to freedom”, but fighting for the same things against the corrupt and entrenched forces of African nationalism is no easier.