MY neighbour on the flight is chatty. When I ask why heâ€™s going to Harare, he tells me he is an investor.
Iâ€™m curious. Zimbabweâ€™s economy has collapsed. The government of President Robert Mugabe has destroyed the countryâ€™s currency. Several million people need food aid, millions more have fled, and an outbreak of cholera â€” that sure mark of destitution â€” has killed close to 5 000 and infected 20 times that number in the past year. Whatâ€™s to buy in Zimbabwe? â€œGravesâ€, my neighbour replies. â€œPrivate cemeteries. Other places, Iâ€™ll do minerals, farms, forests. In Zim, Iâ€™m in death.â€
In the past decade, Zimbabwe has become a repository of stories of the nightmarish and grotesque. The southern African nation is (or should be) a place of plenty, a former food exporter that was ruined, beaten and starved by the ineptitude, corruption and paranoia of its aging dictator, a liberation hero who led Zimbabwe to independence but â€” in a familiar African refrain â€” came to personify all the tragedy and broken promise of a continent. Iâ€™d had my own brief disaster there in April 2007, when, the day after I arrived, the subject of my very first interview asked me to wait while he ran to do a quick errand, returning minutes later with two policemen. I spent five days in jail before I was tried and fined for reporting without accreditation. Now, on my first trip back, my companion seemed to be confirming that Zimbabweâ€™s long night endured.
That was certainly my expectation. Zimbabweâ€™s history has been marked by turbulence since 1965, when the white minority government of the country, then called Rhodesia, unilaterally declared independence from Britain. After a long and bloody guerrilla war, the black majority finally took power in 1980, with Mugabe as independent Zimbabweâ€™s first leader. He has ruthlessly held on to the position ever since. In March last year, his Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (Zanu PF) lost a general election to Morgan Tsvangiraiâ€™s opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Refusing to accept the result, Mugabe turned his security forces on his own people, killing more than 100, arresting thousands and displacing tens of thousands. But this February, with the economy in free fall, Mugabe agreed to share power with Tsvangirai. Mugabe would remain president, Tsvangirai would be prime minister, and their parties would split the ministries and cabinet. Â
On a continent where democracy is taking root more firmly each year, the deal was welcomed as an important step away from the habits of the past. Ever since, however, Mugabe and Zanu PF have blocked and delayed Tsvangirai and the MDC. When I caught my plane to Harare, the new state was still only partly formed and Mugabe was deriding the MDC as â€œinsolentâ€. Worse for Tsvangiraiâ€™s supporters was the sight of their leader smiling and shaking hands with a man whose forces had repeatedly tried to kill him â€” and them. For years, Tsvangirai had told them that a new era awaited one thing: Mugabeâ€™s departure. If Zimbabwe really was a nation in transition, as Tsvangirai insisted, how come the old tyrant was still in charge?
My journey to seek an answer to that question started with a surprise. The former driver of some Ã©migrÃ© friends of mine met me at the airport, and soon we hit a traffic jam. Two years earlier, travelling in Zimbabwe had been a logistical feat that involved prearranging fuel stops. Now I was stuck in a line of cars outside â€” another surprise â€” a packed mall, complete with restaurants, furniture stores and a buzzing supermarket.
Tsvangirai was giving a speech the following day in Gweru, three hours southwest of Harare, and I drove down. A priest began the event with a prayer: â€œVisit this place, O Lord, and drive far from it all the snares of the enemy and rescue our nation from all the humongous problems we are facing.â€
Tsvangirai was more upbeat. He acknowledged that Zimbabweâ€™s transition was â€œnot an easy oneâ€ and said the country was in a â€œperiod of uncertainty and anxiety, exacerbated by hardliners who respect no rule of law and care nothing for the national good, putting personal wealth and power above all other considerations.â€ Nevertheless, he said, change was visible. The economy was reviving. Schools and hospitals had reopened. Now that the Zimbabwean currency had been replaced by the US dollar and the South African rand, inflation has fallen from 231 000 000% to 3%. And while Mugabe and Zanu PF were the problem and â€œpose the greatest threat to our nationâ€™s future,â€ Tsvangirai argued, they were also part of the solution. â€œWe must realise and accept that these individuals are Zimbabweans, and we must understand their fears in order to accommodate them,â€ he said. â€œWe seek no retribution.â€
This is Tsvangiraiâ€™s gamble. He wants the people who tried to kill him to believe he bears no grudge. (Since his wife died in March in a car accident in which he was also hurt, Tsvangirai finds himself repeatedly assuring his supporters that the crash was not another murder attempt.) He wants Zimbabweans and the world to rethink how they deal with Mugabe and other African Big Men. Demonising them may be principled and cathartic, Tsvangirai believes, but it is ineffective. Criticism has done nothing to dislodge Muammar Gaddafi in Libya (in his 40th year in power) or JosÃ© Eduardo dos Santos in Angola or Teodoro Obiang in Equatorial Guinea (both in their 30th), while Africaâ€™s most enduring autocrat, Gabonâ€™s Omar Bongo, died in June in his 42nd year in office. Criticism has actually strengthened Mugabe, allowing him to cast himself as a heroic defender of Africa taking up the cudgel, just as he did when he led the fight for independence against racist Western imperialism.
Donâ€™t think of Mugabe as a madman and Zimbabwe as a country in flames, says Tsvangirai. (And he is right that Mugabe has always displayed a consistent, if despotic, logic and that the toll from last yearâ€™s violence would amount to little more than a bad afternoon in Somalia or the Democratic Republic of Congo.) And donâ€™t seek rebellion or assassination â€” thatâ€™s precisely what has hobbled Africa for 50 years. Instead, try showing your enemies respect and turning them into colleagues. Leave the old arguments and conflicts where they belong: in the past. Try peace. Try the future. As Tsvangirai told me a few days later in Harare, â€œThis is not a revolution. This is an evolutionâ€.
The trouble with evolution, as the prime minister went on to say, is that it sometimes can be â€œslow and frustratingâ€. In the interview, Tsvangirai gave himself five years to transform his country. That may be realistic, but the pace can also make Tsvangiraiâ€™s optimism feel premature. The power-sharing deal set out a timetable for a new constitution by October 2010, but that schedule is already slipping. The more obstacles Mugabe throws in Tsvangiraiâ€™s way â€” the latest came on July 13 when protesting Zanu PF supporters forced the postponement of a conference on constitutional reform â€” the more what the PM calls an â€œirreversible path of transitionâ€ begins to feel agonisingly never ending. On a recent tour of the US and Europe, the PM picked up what the MDC says is $500 million in aid promises, a small fraction of the amount his Finance minister, Tendai Biti, says Tsvangirai needs to
revive the country. The money was a message, says a Western diplomat in Harare, that the world wants more speed.
In Gweru, the sense of frustration was palpable. â€œAre we all doomed?â€ one audience member asked Tsvangirai. The day after the speech, I meet a group of MDC supporters in Bindura, an area of yellow-grass farms and bare granite hillsides an hour north of Harare, who share the gloom. MDC members there were among the worst affected by last yearâ€™s violence. Mangezvo Chenjera, 38, an MDC village councillor, says that last June a Zanu PFÂ mob smashed through the walls of his house, dragged him out, broke both his legs with iron bars and left him for dead in a ditch. â€œTsvangirai,â€ he says, â€œcan say what he wants, but itâ€™s just talk. The people who beat me still walk freely around here.â€
A short drive away, in Chiveso, Gabriel Mangurenje, 39, says he has been beaten out of his home by Zanu PF mobs five times since 2000 and has lost two brothers, both MDC activists, to the violence. â€œOf course we want to see a peaceful approach,â€ he says, â€œbut we also want to see light at the end of the tunnel.â€
Tsvangiraiâ€™s focus on a bright, distant future also takes little account of how firmly Zimbabwe â€” a place of first-generation Toyota Corollas and jukeboxes playing Sade and early Madonna â€” is stuck in the past. To this day, state newspapers and radio stations lead the news with profiles of Zanu PF heroes who have been dead for 30 years. Mugabeâ€™s men obsessively blame Britain, the old colonial power,
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for all Zimbabweâ€™s problems today. Mugabe â€” a man who wears impeccable suits and drinks afternoon tea â€” is â€œhalf African and half British,â€ says his biographer Heidi Holland, â€œand the two halves hate each other.â€
In a Harare hotel, I meet Christopher Mutsvangwa, a Zanu PF supporter, businessman and former ambassador to China, whose clock seems to have stopped at independence in 1980. â€œLosing ([Zimbabwe) was a very traumatic experience for British imperial pride,â€ he says, â€œand they feel it needs to be reversed.â€ Hyperinflation, he insists, was a British fabrication. â€œIt wasnâ€™t generated by anything the government did. It was generated by a British computer.â€
Many of Zimbabweâ€™s old white Rhodesian settlers are just as riveted by the past. They argue that until Mugabe and his supporters give back farms that were appropriated from whites â€” something no Zimbabwean leader endorses as either practical or just â€” there is no hope for economic recovery. When that argument is put directly to Mugabe at an investorsâ€™ conference, the President, 85, answers with a fluent 14-minute history lesson on how Zimbabwe won its independence. The point of this polemic? The responsibility for any problems with land reform, concludes Mugabe, â€œis a British one.â€
A country so fixated on the past and so unwilling to take responsibility for its own condition will have difficulty perceiving its future. A people desperate for change might not recognise gradual adjustment as the real thing.
Yet change is indeed coming. Even the glummest Zimbabwean will acknowledge the reopening of schools, hospitals, shops and factories. And Tsvangirai is adjusting well to his new role, successfully seizing the political initiative from the man who has held it for more than a generation. The contrast between the two leaders was never greater than on Tsvangiraiâ€™s recent foreign tour, during which he was feted by President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. At an African Union summit in Libya, meanwhile, Mugabe stormed out of a meeting with US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson, calling him an â€œidiotâ€ for trying to â€œdictate to us.â€
And 30 years after the partyâ€™s glory days, Zanu PF â€˜s power is finally waning. Partly this is economic; there are fewer spoils to go around. Tsvangirai told me that when he took office in February, the stateâ€™s entire resources ran to just US$4 million. Last November, several hundred soldiers rioted in Harare over poor pay and conditions. Even if Mugabe called on troops to stage a coup and suppress dissent, itâ€™s no longer clear they would obey him. â€œThe emperor is wearing no clothes,â€ says Leonard Makombe, a politics lecturer at the mothballed University of Zimbabwe.
Even now, most Zimbabweans seem to find it hard to admit that their emperor â€” the man who Tsvangirai acknowledges was a â€œnational heroâ€ once â€” might be naked. But for how long?
As I drive back to the airport, Mugabeâ€™s voice comes on the radio. He is speaking at the funeral of yet another hero of the fight for independence. â€œI have delivered to my nation, my people, a Zimbabwe that is free,â€ he says. â€œWe call ourselves Zimbabweans now, and we never called ourselves Zimbabweans before. We never had a flag before, did we? No. We never had a national anthem before, did we? No.â€
A name, a banner and a song â€” the proud appurtenances of Africaâ€™s heroic struggle against its colonial oppressors. Mugabe may be the last man in Zimbabwe who thinks they are now enough. â€” Time Magazine.