November 04, 2005

Gukurahundi Murambatsvina

Reading log this trip: Adam Hothschild King Leopold's Ghost. Ryszard Kapuscinski The Shadow Of The Sun. Giles Foden The Last King of Scotland. Philip Gourevitch We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed Along With Our Families. Andy McNabb Bravo Two Zero. Albert Camus L'√Čtranger. Dian Fossey Gorillas in the Mist. Armistead Maupin Tales of the City. Russell Hoban The Mouse And His Child. Michela Wrong In The Footsteps Of Mr. Kurtz. Graham Hancock Lords Of Poverty. JK Rowling Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Jon Ronson The Men Who Stare At Goats. Patricia Highsmith Edith's Diary. Doris Lessing Shikasta. Gerald Seymour Archangel. I might be forgetting a couple. On deck: JM Coetzee Disgrace and Sandra Brown Hello, Darkness.

Salisbury no more

Harare is a very pretty city. Much greener than Bulawayo. There are trees anywhere, and not just anonymous greenery; many streest are lined with long processions of tall trees, flamboyants and jacarandas aflame with brilliant orange and purple flowers, whose branches arch into one another to form a colourful arboreal shade structure. There is modern architecture, glass and chrome; there are many stores and banks; there is a golf course and a Botanical Gardens, and pleasant suburbs of large houses on large estates. It certainly looks bigger and wealthier than Nairobi, although it's neither.

You'd never know there was a fuel shortage. When it first hit, maybe a year ago, the city shut down. Bulawayo is still semi-paralyzed; but here in the capital city, between the black market that has swelled to meet the enormous new demand, and the 'fuel coupons' you can buy at banks - if you have foreign currency, and if you line up for an hour - the streets buzz with activity. People line up everywhere, often at ATMs. Money is so cumbersome that ATMs run out quickly, so everyone takes out their maximum daily amount immediately, which usually means four separate transactions, which means a very slow line indeed. Some things are rare or unavailable - SIM cards for phones, March 4 razor blades - but mostly, you can get what you need, if you've got the forex, and if you can stand the hassle.

Driving with relatives of mine - which is as thorough a description as I'm going to give in this medium - some ten kilometres west of the city proper, we passed a capsule history of the country's last six years.

"You see that field over there?" my relative asked. I looked over. A mostly flat field, studded with the granite boulders and kopjes so common in the Zimbabwe landscape, strewn with trash, rubble, tufts of grass, and occasional one-room tin-roofed shacks. "That was a big commercial farm, grew maize and potatoes, some tobacco. A white farmer. The war vets came, five years ago, and stole it from him."

"You know what we mean, when we say 'war vets'?" my other relative asked. "They didn't really fight in the war."

I nodded. I'd followed the news from far away; I knew. A big, chaotic militia of mostly-young toughs who had, over a period of a year, taken over most of the country's white farms, often by violence. A militia too disorganized to earn the name 'paramilitary'; a militia led and supported by the government.

"After they took the land, they started putting up buildings on it. Shacks, like those new ones, but also little houses, vegetable gardens, there was a market, all this land here was covered with them, people everywhere. And then, earlier this year, the government, the same government that put them there, sent in bulldozers and flattened everything, destroyed everything, threw them all off the land. And now there's nothing there at all."

Operation Murambatsvina, they called it. "Clean up the trash." Bulldoze thousands of houses, whole shantytowns, trading stalls, markets - sometimes markets that had been officially constructed by the government, and inaugurated by government officials, within the previous year. Beat up and throw out the flower sellers and artists who have sold their wares outside the hotels and parks of Harare as long as anyone can remember. Render an estimated 700,000 people homeless. Attempt to 'clean up' the entire informal economy. More than half of Zimbabwe's economy, at a conservative estimate, is informal. Destroy houses built on stolen land by the same "war vets" you sent five years ago to steal the land.

"The more you think about it," my relative said, "the less sense it makes."

Those "war vets" weren't war vets; but there was a war here, of course, a long and bloody one, and the country is run by its veterans. Mugabe's Korean-trained guerrilla army fought Ian Smith's regular forces and Selous Scouts paramilitary for years, until finally, in 1980, in the face of overwhelming numerical superiority and international pressure, Smith handed over the reins of power.

Mugabe, a member of the country's majority (80%) Shona tribe, had as his chief lieutenant one Joshua Nkomo, one of the minority Ndebele, historically as warlike as the Zulus, with whom they were linked. Two years after independence, Mugabe ousted Nkomo from his cabinet; this sparked civil unrest that resulted in the arrest and massacre of tens of thousands Ndebele near Bulawayo by the Korean-trained Gukurahundi brigade. (See Peter Godwin's excellent book Mukiwa for details.) The newly independent country was already on the verge of cracking and disintegrating -

- but it didn't. In fact, despite years of terrible drought, it began to thrive. Mugabe turned out to be an intelligent and pragmatic leader. He and his cronies lived the high life, of course, but a lot of money trickled out to the rural poor as well, and with some of the richest agricultural land in all Africa, and a three-stooled economy built on mining, tobacco, and tourism, the country prospered. It wasn't quite Botswana or South Africa, but it was miles, leagues better than Zambia or Mozambique, or anywhere in Central or West Africa. It was a success story.

And then, as far as I can tell, about six years ago, Robert Mugabe went crazy.

Samora Machel, the hero of Mozambique, had one piece of advice for Mugabe: "Don't make our mistake. Don't throw the whites out." Mugabe didn't - and fifty thousand white farmers, twenty years after independence, continued to own and farm most of Zimbabwe's best land. (A brief land-buyback plan, financed by Britan, was cancelled after it was discovered that Mugabe's cronies were getting all the land.) I suppose that stuck in his craw. Rather than wait to buy them out, or wait for the next generation to abandon Zimbabwe for other pastures - which would have happened in many cases, I assure you - he sent the "war vets" to take them all by force. Some of them were turned into shantytowns; many, most, were given to friends and cronies of the government. Almost none of the farmland went to people who knew anything about farming. And the tobacco crop vanished; the food crop vanished; the tourists, spooked by the reports of widespread violence, vanished; and the economy went into its current nosedive.

The story is so old it's almost tiresome. Idi Amin and Mobutu did the same thing. Nationalize the economy; blame everything on a local ethnic minority (Asians, in Amin's case; the Belgians, for Mobutu); steal everything they own, then give all the farms and businesses and other assets to people who know nothing about managing them; watch, sometimes genuinely bewildered, as the resulting businesses are run into the ground, rather than becoming the expected endless supply of golden eggs; then blame Foreign Powers and the weather, as the government-mouthpiece Herald newspaper here never tires of doing.

In the Congo and Uganda, economic disaster was followed by the rule of the gun, simmering violence throughout the country, and eventual civil war. I don't think that will happen here. But you can't rule it out.

Talk to any Zimbabwean about The Situation, and eventually they'll mutter something like "Mugabe is an old man." Then they'll look at the ground and say "You shouldn't really talk about it. People will think you're a spy or something." They'll half-laugh. Then they'll change the subject.

I'm very aware of being white here, unlike in any other African country; because here, the assumption is that I'm a white Zimbabwean. It's not an assumption I'm comfortable with.

We went to the Bird Park the other day, my relatives and I, an idyllic spot on the shores of Lake Chiveru from which Harare gets its water. Twenty years ago, it was a patch of barren, swampy land. Today, along with the bird sanctuary from which it gets its name, it has a simple hotel, a swimming pool, a pier for yachts, docks for powerboats, horses and Shetland ponies to ride, a cafe, a football pitch, waterfront restaurant under construction, a planned game park, and a playground for the underprivileged Zimbabwean schoolchildren who come every day. The owner employs sixty people.

The owner, a white Zimbabwean, middle-aged, bluff and sturdy, intelligent eyes in a weatherbeaten face, also, while I was there, sent two of his employees, armed with clubs, to beat and drive off people who had walked for five kilometres to fish from the lake from the edge of his land. When asked why so many wild birds came to roost and feed on his land, he said, squinting with anticipation, "Because they know they're protected. They know if any coon comes here, I'll whip his ass with a stick until his nose bleeds!"

Mugabe may have gone crazy - that's the only explanation for Operation Murambatsvina that comes to mind - but he's crazy like a fox. His latest brilliant political stroke is to reintroduce a Senate, which he abolished in 1985. With this he has thrown the opposition into disarray, and maybe destroyed it.

The leader of the MDC opposition wants to boycott next month's Senate elections, saying fighting them would be a waste of time and energy, and would simply allow Mugabe to set the agenda. Which is true; between direct appointment (of 16 positions), violence and vote-rigging, and Mugabe's continued undoubted popularity in poor rural regions, the government would almost certainly win any contested Senate election. But not fighting means that government Shona officials will represent Matabeleland, scene of the Gukurahundi massacres, and that thought incenses the Ndebele, who form a large part of the opposition. So the MDC is riven with arguments and infighting; there is widespread speculation that they might divide or even disappear, victim of their own internecine squabble.

And meanwhile the country continues to rot.

If there's a lesson in Zimbabwe, I think it's this: progress is highly evitable. Places that once had bright futures can and do decline and fall.


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