Zimbabwe: Wild ride on a low road

The wheels of justice grind exceeding slowly - and nowhere much slower than Zimbabwe.

Sithole was the pre-independence leader of Zanu before being ousted by President Robert Mugabe, and his bid to contest the presidential election in April last year unnerved Mugabe more than a little. Accordingly, an uprising of 'Chimwenje' bandit soldiers in Sithole's home in the Chipinge-Mozambique border area the previous year and a plot to assassinate Mugabe were discovered.

Sithole was arrested for treason, then released on bail to spend the past I2 months continually appearing in court merely to have his case postponed as the state searched for more evidence. Sithole, aged 78 and ailing, continues to suffer both indignity and anxiety as the autumn of his life slips away.

Meanwhile, Strive Masiyiwa, a bright young clean living businessman, has been battling in court for three years to provide a private cellular phone service. He contends that the government's refusal to allow this is a breach of his constitutional right to freedom of speech. In an unprecedented move, the Supreme Court in January ruled that if the government did not issue him with a licence, the court would do so.

At one point vice president Joshua Nkomo got off his sickbed to jump to Masiyiwa's defence, ordering the formidable minister of posts and telecommunications, Joyce Mujuru - formerly the freedom fighter Teurai Ropa ('Spill Blood') and wife of ex-Army commander, Rex Nhongo - to cancel the tender awarded to Telecel, a consortium of Zairean, American and 'proper' indigenous businessmen which happened to include her husband's business partner, James Makamba MP, and Mugabe's nephew, Leo Mugabe.

Mujuru not only ignored the order - a serious act of defiance, as Nkomo was acting president at the time: many saw this as Nkomo's political demise, sanctioned by Mugabe - but herself ordered Masiyiwa to surrender all his equipment, worth some Z$60 million, to government-Telecel and threatened to jail him 'for unauthorised importation of sensitive equipment'.

Masiyiwa struck back, winning a High Court order to suspend the tender award pending its investigation for irregularities. Telecel's response was to announce that they had applied for 'an order of perpetual silence' on the entire issue, to the considerable amusement of the public.

The paranoia of the powerful

These episodes illustrate the intolerance of Mugabe and his ruling Zanu (PF) to any opposition or show of independence whatsoever. Why bother, many ask, since it is increasingly clear that the present leadership is determined to hang on, come what may. Speculation in some quarters is that the secrets are now 'too tall and too wide' to allow the slightest possibility that anyone else could get access to them by coming to power. Whatever the reason, the government appears paranoid.

Most recently, the Harare municipal Independent candidate, Priscilla Misihairambwi - previously the campaign manager of the lone but outstanding Independent MP, Margaret Dongo - exposed gross rigging in the voters' roll. She was not only promptly disqualified as a candidate for being only 29 instead of 30, the minimum age set in last year's arbitrary new Urban Councils Act, but was actually arrested for being the wrong age.

Far from the government promoting transparency, accountability and the rule of law (as we were promised), each week the screw of dictatorship is turned tighter. Laws such as the Urban Councils Act are introduced to whittle away human rights and ensure that the party stays in power, and the constitution is repeatedly amended to suit the government.

The constitution has now had its 14th Amendment which, among other provisions, overturned a Supreme Court ruling enabling women to live with their foreign husbands in their own country. Strangely, women's non-governmental organisations felt they had won a victory by removing men's right to have their foreign wives permanently resident. All that has been achieved is that now everyone has to apply through the (notoriously corrupt) department of immigration but NCO women often seem to feel their equality is a more important issue than other human rights.

The amendments to the Welfare Organisations' Act, now called the Private Voluntary Organisations' Act, enable government to interfere at will with NCOs, to the extent of dismissing elected committees and boards and appointing their own choice, and taking over their funds and assets - the real object of the exercise according to cynical observers. This Act was prematurely invoked last year to remove from office 12 Association of Women's Clubs committee members, including the chairperson, Sekai Holland.

In January the Supreme Court ruled that a section of the new Act - whereby persons can be removed without the opportunity to defend themselves - was unconstitutional, and that the women should be reinstated, but so far the government-imposed committee is still in place.

The 'mother of all weddings'

Since Focus's last major report from Zimbabwe {Focus No 3, June 1996), government rhetoric has been all sweetness and light, with Mugabe's wedding in August to his 32-year-old former secretary, Grace Marufu, epitomising the fairytale.

This was 'the mother of all weddings' as the fawning government-owned Sunday Mail put it: a Catholic ceremony attended by 20 000 invited guests, including Nelson Mandela and other African leaders, conducted by the Archbishop with all the pomp and ceremony of the Mother Church and blessed by the Pope himself.

The fact that the couple already had two children together (another is imminent) while Mugabe's late wife, Sally, was still alive, seems to have been overlooked despite the children in question being prominent guests at the wedding. Defenders of the faith have been hard pressed to explain it all away and not a few Zimbabweans took comfort in the fact that Mandela and Graca Machel rather stole the show.

The question of the presidential succession - a hot issue earlier last year - has quietened down and taken on a new dimension, as the young First Lady appears likely to prevail on the ageing patriarch to run for another term. There is even talk of a dynasty becoming established.

The costly wedding - supposedly paid for privately though the Zimbabwean army had a sum deducted from its salaries towards it - was an affront to the majority of Zimbabweans, whose living conditions are poor and deteriorating.

Practically the next day, as if on cue, the nation's nurses - who are paid a pittance, who had not received their promised salary increases, and whose traditional Christmas bonus had been stopped the previous year- went on a strike which spread to the entire civil service. This caused chaos as the borders choked up, hospitals did not function and court cases piled up, The government appeared stunned and nervous.

The minister of public service, labour and social welfare, Florence Chitauro (a former nurse and supposedly a trade union leader herself), was severely rattled, but no more so than another minister who it is widely believed, had to be forcibly restrained from firing on a crowd. The party, meanwhile, was reduced to swearing that if it had to go down, it would go down fighting. The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) coordinated the strike and demonstrated its power. The government eventually capitulated after three weeks, blaming lack of consultative structures for the mess, though it was actually caused by the government's poor priorities, unfulfilled promises and arrogant refusal to negotiate.

The lesson the government learned was that it must be much tougher with strikers. In November, when the nurses had still not received the promised increases - they were being paid 10 cents (five South African cents) an hour for night duty - they and the junior doctors came out on strike once again. This time government was tough right from the start, tear gassing nurses and innocent bystanders, including babies and pregnant women, outside Harare Magistrates' Court.

This provoked solidarity calls for a general strike by ZCTU, but this time the strike, unplanned and badly organised, flopped. Eventually a number of nurses and the junior doctors' leaders were dismissed for striking, leaving the hospitals with severe shortages of staff. The government threatened that it would employ foreigners instead but none were recruited, presumably because of the low salaries offered. Zimbabwean doctors and nurses flock abroad for precisely this reason, leaders in the brain drain.

The government also repeatedly insisted that it had no money for salary increases or for more medicines and equipment - but then awarded itself salary increases of up to 165%. University students were next - and were less than amused when their loans were halved. This ruling was then modified - if they apply their hardship cases will be 'considered' - but this did not prevent demonstrations breaking out as the 1997 academic year began.

Austerity - and the high life

Now the (1997-8) Budget looms, and the Finance Minister, Herbert Murerwa, who had promised the World Bank and IMF that the Budget deficit would fall from 11% to 5% of GDP this year, is blaming the projected deficit - steady at 11 % - on the pay increases to the civil service awarded to end the August strike.

This is partly true, but the second phase of Zimbabwe's Economic Structural Adjustment Plan (ESAP), supported by the World Bank-IMF, rests on the premise that the civil service would be drastically reduced in size. The strike was an opportunity for government to do just that, but it made no such move, for the 180 000 government employees are part of a highly politicised public service, largely recruited on political patronage lines.

A crisis could erupt if the promised World Bank-IMF loans, already withheld to see whether the country performs in line with ESAP, are further withheld. Meanwhile the cripplingly high interest rates have been reduced and there is talk of the promised privatisation of the parastatals. This, however, appears to be a simple rearrangement of government finance: loans for financing the privatisation are to be disbursed to the Zimbabwe Investment Trust for groups of indigenous business organisations to enable their members (all party members) to buy shares.

Despite the squeeze, the government still hankers to host 'prestige' events. Thus in September Mugabe chaired the World Solar summit in Harare, and the summit's fund raising chairman, Peter Pamire, a snazzy dressing millionaire indigenous business leader, appealed for donations of Z$60 million in order to accommodate every world leader in style, a style which necessitated the special importation of Mercedes Benzes.

In the event the appeal target was not reached but this hardly mattered as only a handful of leaders accepted the invitation, none of them from a major country. The final destination of the Mercs is still a matter of speculation. To add insult to injury, Telecel provided delegates with the first cell phone service, using this edge to get their government-owned service on the market long before anyone else, especially the main private contender, Strive Masiyiwa's Econet.

Joint ventures with foreign companies are the new economic panacea, together with straight sales of national assets to select foreign investors. A Malaysian company, YTL, made a secret too-good-to-be-missed offer to buy Hwange Thermal power station late last year, and the sale was hurriedly concluded over the heads of the directly concerned Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority, whose chairman, Solomon Tawengwa, complained and promptly lost his post, along with the rest of his board.

He has been extremely careful to toe the party line ever since - so much so that he was made a member of the Central Committee at the party's congress in Bulawayo in late November. He is now well-acquainted with the Malaysian system, and extols the virtues of BOOT (Build, Own, Operate, Transfer) ventures to attract private investment from the correct people to support the right group of local businessmen. These latter are now given a 10 point advantage over other bidders by Harare Municipality, of which Tawengwa is Executive Mayor.

Tawengwa's position was not won without controversy - the opposition Forum Party of Zimbabwe challenged the municipal elections in the High Court last year and forced a re-run in Bulawayo and Harare. The second time round the Zanu (PF) candidates still won, but a suit alleging misuse of presidential powers to run the election is on appeal to the Supreme Court. (The government, as if tacitly conceding the case, hurriedly passed the new Urban Councils Act to replace such presidential powers in future).

Meanwhile, the financial packages granted to Executive Mayors make a mockery of their supposedly socialist orientation. These include a luxurious house, a chauffeured Merc, domestic staff, a free phone, etc - and led to vociferous protests from ratepayers.

The Harare mayoral residence, last year estimated to cost $5 million, is now revealed to be costing upwards of $ 14 million, with such luxuries as two swimming pools and pseudo-Victorian furniture. It is estimated that at least 500 low-cost houses could be built for the same money. Such houses are badly needed for the thousands of homeless who live in plastic bags in places such as Radcliff Holding Camp, which resembles the worst parts of Gugulethu or Calcutta.

The false promise of indigenisation

Indigenisation of the economy is being pushed more and more, but, as the Masiyiwa case illustrates very clearly, 'indigenous' is not synonymous with 'local', or even 'black'. Indigenous business groups like the Affirmative Action Group (led by Philip Chiyangwa), the Indigenous Business Development Corporation (led by Ben Mucheche) and the Indigenous Business Women's Organisation (led by Jane Mutasa), are closely linked with the ruling party, though they often display an aggression which is all their own.

Thus the AAC took militant action to block the auction of its bankrupt members' sequestrated property in Bulawayo, an action likely to prejudice their future access to credit. One local businessman, Roger Boka, has over the past two years financed a series of aggressive and openly racist full page press advertisements, and was recently reported to have physically attacked staff at Thompson Publications for a report they had made. His much vaunted 'indigenous' tobacco auction floor, though way behind schedule, is to be opened with a 'State-of-t he Art Opening Speech by His Excellency President RG Mugabe and 17 head of cattle to be slaughtered including pigs, chickens and goats'.

Most recently there has been a move to legalise affirmative action for blacks against whites in business with the ironically named draft Prevention of Discrimination Bill. This provides for discrimination to promote groups that have suffered from past discrimination, with provision for removal of licences, property and business rights, in an attempt to force banks and businesses to favour blacks.

The Bill is targeted at white businesses and farms and is likely to aggravate already strained black-white race relations even further, as well as offering opportunities for even more widespread corruption because of the arbitrary grounds for prosecution and property seizure.

The Banana affair and 'foreign practices'

This draft Bill also carries forward the President's power to outlaw any organisation 'in the public interest' and 'in the interest of public morality'. The notion of the state being the guardian of public morality suffered a severe blow last month with the Banana scandal.

The High Court lifted its report restrictions and it was revealed that ex-President Canaan Sodindo Banana - a Methodist minister, United Nations 'eminent person', and former university professor

and poet who wrote his own version of the Bible, 'The Gospel according to the Ghetto' - abused his position to rape and sodomise junior policemen, palace guards, and others.

It appears his rampant homosexual appetite was well known among high ranking government officials, including vice president Muzenda and possibly Mugabe himself (who was in prison with Banana) right back from independence. They might all have got away with it had not one victim, Jefta Dube, lost his cool on being taunted as 'Banana's wife' and shot the taunter dead.

For a week Zimbabwe reeled from the shock of this court case which revealed behaviour by a president second only in its scandalous nature to that of the Central African Republic's Bokassa. Some suggested that this was merely just the tip of an iceberg but all waited with bated breath to hear what Mugabe would say, for the President fancies himself as the leader of a world campaign against homosexuals. Yet his stubborn silence over the whole issue appears to have had the desired effect. Incredibly, the affair is already forgotten by most people - if they ever knew.

Strangely, Mugabe was also virtually silent over the death of Peter Pamire two weeks later in a car accident, though in a country where the term 'car accident' is understood as an arranged death this merely led to a proliferation of rumours.

Hitherto Mugabe had condemned homosexuality as a 'foreign curse' and before the Banana scandal broke he had been relentless in his attack on the gay community. For the second year running, the climax came during the August Book Fair when the gay and lesbian group, CALZ, tried to have a stand.

Last year Mugabe referred to them as aberrant perverts, 'worse than swine', and called on civil society to deal with those found guilty, an appeal which led to ugly physical attacks on GALZ members by party stalwarts. The elderly politician, Michael Mawema, himself no angel, placed an advertisement in the government-owned press in March, calling for death to 'sexual perverts'. CALZ fears its members will be severely persecuted because of the Banana scandal.

Meanwhile, vicious attacks on 'foreign practices' have been a prominent feature this past year, funerals being a favoured occasion for such perorations. At one hero's funeral - this particular hero died of war wounds sustained 16 years previously - Mugabe called for the whites to be shot and their bodies thrown to the hyenas and vultures. This surpasses even Joshua Nkomo's attack on whites at his son's graveside last April for bringing 'this foreign curse' of Aids to Africa.

The excesses of most of Zimbabwe's leaders are probably more financial than sexual, however. Large scale corruption and nepotism are suspected in a number of recent tender awards, apart from the Hwange and cell phone deals.

The multi-million-dollar Harare International Airport tender, awarded to Leo Mugabe and an unheard of Cypriot partner, Air Harbour Technology, was revealed to be irregular. Documents obtained by the independent press showed that the Tender Board had placed the AHT bid bottom of its list of five, with Aeroports de Paris top. The French made sure the international community heard about this - as did Germany when Siemens was cut out of a telephone tender with equal irregularity. It was perhaps not coincidental that, in a subsequent round, Siemens won.

Mugabe made a state visit to Cyprus earlier this year, and told the Turks to get out - leading to speculation that this was somehow connected to the airport contract for a great deal of business apparently gets done this way. Thus in March, following the state visit to Zimbabwe by the Prime priority of Minister of Singapore, it was announced that rich socialist Singapore Airlines was to take over the running of leaders and the ailing air Zimbabwe - clearly another behind the majority of the scenes presidential deal.

Corruption has also penetrated the field of grows conservation. A Convention on the International

increasingly Trade of Endangered Species (Cites) inspection has discovered that 80 kg of ivory is missing from the National Parks stockpile, a fact which cannot but embarrass Zimbabwe as it calls for a lifting of the ban on the sale of ivory at the Cites conference to be held in Harare in June. Meanwhile, Kariba Kapenta fishing licences were all withdrawn last year, but are being reissued to 'suitable' applicants, while lucrative hunting concessions are being reserved for indigenous bidders, although favoured whites have somehow managed to keep their stake.

Rich socialists, poor people

Zanu (PF) held its congress in Bulawayo in November -Joshua Nkomo, the national leader of the Matabele, was roused from his sickbed to attend and was filmed embracing Mugabe at the old sacred site of the Matebele kings. At the congress young party members attacked the old guard vehemently for their hypocrisy and lack of action - so now the party has embarked on a new wave of land designation and indigenisation, a policy begun at independence in 1980. Unfortunately both policies have been shown to be corrupt, for

party leaders are the main beneficiaries but presumably the aspiring young activists who led the radical attack want their slice of the cake, too.

The 21st February Movement held its celebration in Bulawayo this year. The movement is a North Korean-style feting of the Great Leader- February 21 is Mugabe's birthday - and exists to indoctrinate children with the glorious story of Mugabe and Zanu and offers special President's scholarships. The movement is led by the party's Secretary for Youth, retired Air Marshal Tungamirai - who is approaching 50.

Some circles believe the movement chose Bulawayo in order to counteract a report prepared by the Catholic Commission for justice and Peace (CCJP) on Gukurahundi, that is, the Matabeleland 'unrest' in 1982-87 when the North Korea-trained Fifth Brigade, which was not part of the regular army, systematically tortured and killed as many as 8 000 Matabele as 'dissidents' against Mugabe's (Shona) government. 'Joshua Nkomo, who at one time had to flee for his life to Botswana disguised as a woman, finally capitulated and ended the genocide with the Unity Accord of 1987, which saw him become second vice president, alongside Simon Muzenda.

Those who call for a Zimbabwe Truth Commission, South African style, often call for investigations into Cukurahundi as part of it, but government labels this a white led plot to cover up pre-independence atrocities. The CCJP report records the Matabeleland atrocities, with names, numbers, dates and affidavits. It is believed that government is doing its best to stop this report becoming available within the country.

Late last year the Matabele were nervously preparing themselves for Nkomo's death but the mighty Joshua was not ready to go yet. It is widely predicted that his death, when it occurs, will trigger another period of Matabele unrest. Meanwhile private investment in Matabeleland as well as public investment for the long-fought-for water pipeline from the Zambezi, for the new university (NUST), and so on - is on hold.

Certainly the hour glass is running out, not only for the old Ndebele warrior, Nkomo, but also for other members of the old guard and for the country as a whole, as international donors back off and the divide between the minority of rich socialist leaders and the majority of poor citizens grows increasingly wide. God in his mercy saved Zimbabwe with the rains this year. Among ordinary mortals the quality of mercy is becoming somewhat strained.