Paralysed by enormity of the tragedy

ON the same day that the Herald reported President Mugabe in Tanzania expressing his indignation that the West had refused to accept that Zimbabwe held regular elections every five years and had branded his regime a dictatorshi

p, the Minister for Local Government was telling the residents of Harare that they would not be allowed to vote again until 2007.

There appears to be a serious dislocation between Mugabe’s claims and the realities on the ground. He cannot understand how his brutal and suffocating regime could possibly be described as not law-abiding and undemocratic.

This is the same regime that routinely ignores court orders, confiscates the passports of its critics, and holds journalists over a weekend when the state admits it doesn’t have a case against them.

Does Mugabe seriously suggest he is unaware of all this?

Here is a government that in May this year launched a campaign, Operation Murambatsvina, that targeted the urban poor, depriving 700 000 people of their homes, according to a UN report. Over two million lost their livelihoods.

The author of the report, Anna Tibaijuka, was abused by the regime’s spokesmen because they didn’t like her findings. Another UN envoy, Jan Egeland, came in for even worse abuse when he declined to contradict his colleague’s report and described the situation produced by Operation Murambatsvina as a social “meltdown”. In the process “crimes were committed”, he added.

Mugabe had hoped that Egeland would disown Tibaijuka’s report. Instead, after seeing the situation on the ground, he fully endorsed it. So did every other credible observer.

Operation Murambatsvina mar-ked a watershed. While previously Mugabe had been able to cite historical anomalies in the pattern of land distribution as justification for property seizures, in this case it was the poor who suffered the destruction of their homes. But the motive was the same: the liquidation of perceived bastions of opposition support.

At the same time the economy that the government kept dishonestly assuring us was undergoing a turnaround, was in fact in tailspin. Inflation was galloping ahead owing to the state’s incontinent spending habits while agricultural production had in many areas completely collapsed, thus depriving the country of forex.

Ruling-party spokesmen claim-ed all this was the result of drought and sanctions.

In response to the crescendo of criticism surrounding the government’s increasingly desperate measures, the state thought it could block the message by muzzling the press. This attempt to replicate the Burma Syndrome — the prevention of information leaving the country — was partly achieved through reported infiltration by state intelligence, threats from the government’s media commission, and confiscation of the passports of press critics.

But in one key respect the policy backfired. The seizure of Trevor Ncube’s passport two weeks ago generated a storm of protest around the world, particularly in South Africa where the Mbeki government was seriously embarrassed by this clumsy behaviour, and focused an unwelcome spotlight on repression in Zimbabwe.

Freedom of movement is guaranteed not only in the Zimbabwe constitution but in the African Union charter and Article 19 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In other words, Zimbabwe was in violation of its own laws and international laws it had signed up to.

This is the government Mugabe claims is “law-abiding”.

The year therefore ends with the country looking increasingly like a detention camp in which the homeless have multiplied owing to the state’s depredations, the press is under siege for telling the self-evident truth about our delinquent rulers, and the country is rapidly running out of resources of all sorts owing to unworkable and punitive policies.

In the midst of this the opposition has lost its mind and instead of providing leadership to a rudderless nation, has descended into internecine warfare. Nobody is impressed by its antics and Morgan Tsvangirai should be told that in no uncertain terms.

This is the least Merry Christmas on record for a long-suffering population that deserve better but appear paralysed by the sheer enormity of the tragedy unfolding around them. We would like to hope 2006 will be better. But going by precedent that seems unlikely.

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