Robert Mugabe – today an octongenarian autocrat with dwindling support – was once a respected figurehead of pan-Africanism. ZANU-PF, today a parasitic poltical party, was born a proud liberation movement. Land redistribution is reform that then turned sour, captured by politics before triggering the country’s economic collapse. Zimbabwe has become a land of false promises. Mugabe’s regime is eroding: its reputation corrupted, the people frustrated, a nation disillusioned.
In contrast to the largely negative depiction of Zimbabwe we hold today, the country’s early years were highly promising. The decade following independence in 1980 (from Ian Smith’s white Rhodesian government) saw substantial investments in education and health, while the economy – dependent on the agricultural sector – grew rapidly. Zimbabwe was the breadbasket of southern Africa.
The country’s promising future, however, was piece by piece dismantled over the next 30 years by a number of disastrous economic policies and widespread political repression. GDP shrank by half between 2000 and 2009, unemployment reached 90 percent, and at its height in 2008, inflation rose to 500 trillion percent. Over one third of Zimbabwe’s working age population is thought to have emigrated.
As I sat for several hours in a police station in downtown Harare (I was, fortunately, not arrested myself, but there merely to report a theft), I found it difficult not to notice the uncanny way in which the station mirrored the state of present-day Zimbabwe. The building was architecturally charming: offering a modest colonial porch, window sills in faded green, and languid stone steps. It looked as if it had weathered many storms.
Once inside, it became apparent that years of neglect had taken their toll. The walls, once a creamy white, were dirtied by the constant caress of hands. Debris and dust that had fallen from the ceiling lay on the floor like first snow. And the dark wooden floorboards (hidden underneath) had given way to a number of surprisingly large holes. Through a congestion of bodies, it required some effort to navigate myself to the main desk.
The grim looking police officers – armed with with hand guns and Kalashnikovs several decades old – sat around looking bored. Their frozen expressions were difficult to reach. Above the main desk hung a large and rather recent portrait of His Excellency President Robert Mugabe. His fierce eyes were transfixed over the room, which made me uneasy. Although the hair-dye, Botox, and revitalizing drugs failed to conceal his frail age, the man’s ‘presence’ was nonetheless imposing.
No Basket Case
Following the victory of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC in the 2008 elections – together with international pressure mounted against ZANU-PF – Mugabe’s regime consented to a power-sharing agreement. However, four years after Tvangirai was installed as Prime Minister, a new constitution has yet to be written. Repression against the Zimbabwean people continues with impunity, and unemployment is stubbornly hovering around the 75 percent mark.
Zimbabwe should not be a basket case. It has rich agricultural soil, large reserves in diamonds and platinum, and above all, a hard-working and educated work force. Moreover, if the political situation were to stabilize – as the the economy somewhat did following it’s dollarization in January 2009 – Zimbabwe’s highly skilled Diaspora would eagerly return, as would inflows of foreign investment and aid.
Mr. Mugabe is 88 years-of-age, and (rumour has it) suffering from prostate cancer. With little time left for Zimbabwe’s ailing President, talk of succession deals is rife. Joice Mujuru, Zimbabwe’s Vice-President, is believed to be in communication with Morgan Tsvangirai to form a more moderate coalition government, leaving Mugabe and his generals to retire peacefully. However, hardliners like Defence Minister Emmerson Mnangagw, have repeatedly voiced their conviction not to leave quietly.
Uncertainty remains regarding Zimbabwe’s near future. Yet, it is clear that the implementation of a strong, democratic constitution would help curtail the rise of political strongmen, which has been the curse of all too many African democracies (though, no phenomenon unique to the continent). Returning to my aforementioned analogy: the alluring police station, where I spent one of my afternoons in Harare, is in a desperate need of renovation – as is the state of Zimbabwe. As a first step, however, it could certainly not hurt to remove His Excellency President Robert Mugabe’s dreary portrait from the wall.
– Elias Kuhn von Burgsdorff