Robert Mugabe will harangue the western world from a podium at the United Nations in New York on Friday, while back in Zimbabwe white farmers continue to be assaulted and evicted, and black opposition activists beaten and detained. Plus ca change.
To a Zimbabwean, it can sometimes feel as if we’re living a time warp.
It is a year ago this month that President Mugabe, 85, agreed to share power with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party that had defeated his ruling Zanu-PF in elections in March, 2008. In February this year MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai was sworn in as Prime Minister of a “Government of National Unity” in which Mugabe would be president. The GNU was supposed to mark a new beginning for a country that plunged from breadbasket to basket-case at warp-speed after Mugabe and ruling party militants launched a violent program of invasions of white-owned farms in 2000.
Instead, Zimbabweans are looking over their shoulders wondering: what’s changed?
In many cases, the behavior of the president and the ministries which his party controls – notably agriculture, the military, and the police – is even more brazen than it was before the power-sharing. Take the all-important land issue. Under the GNU, all land invasions were supposed to have ceased, and property rights respected. Instead, four elderly white farmers have been murdered since the GNU was formed, and the past month has seen a wave of brutal attacks. Last week, a tobacco farmer named Murray Pott was beaten by Mugabe militants on his farm west of Harare. In early September, farmers Ben Freeth and Mike Campbell, the subject of a powerful British documentary, Mugabe & the White African, about their struggle to hold onto their land, had their homes burned to the ground by militia loyal to a Zanu PF minister who has claimed ownership of the farm.
If the recent wave of attacks sound planned and coordinated -- they are. A South African newspaper confirmed it Sunday when it published a secret document, prepared by the lands minister, another Zanu PF official, calling for “continued acquisition of white land,” and “prosecution of farmers resisting to move off the acquired land (to) be expedited.”
My own family have a dog in this fight. My parents, white Zimbabweans of many generations, have struggled for the past nine years to hold onto their backpacker lodge in the eastern mountains of the country, while running a small coffee-roasting business. Last month however, the remainder of the coffee farm from which they source their beans was expropriated. The backpacker business was rendered worthless years ago; coffee looks to be going the same way.
“We thought the GNU was going to be beginning of the end,” my father tells me on the phone from Zimbabwe. “But we now realize it’s still going to be a long road.”
It would be wrong to say nothing has changed since the GNU. The country’s absurd inflation rate, which reached 231 million per cent this time last year, the highest in recorded history, was wiped out at a stroke in January when the government finally legalized trade in the US dollar. Money now has real value. And from the surreal sight of endless empty shopping aisles, there is now food in the shops. Gas pumps have fuel once more, and schools and hospitals that had closed, are slowly starting to reopen. But it is no coincidence that the ministry responsible for this turnaround – finance - is run by the MDC.
“Go to a Zanu PF ministry and nothing is being done,” says one western investor snooping around Harare. “They are all just sitting around lining their pockets. But the MDC ministries have an energy and a dynamism, and that is the future.”
It is in economic matters that the opposition has its one trump card. Their hope is that with the improved economy, the lives of ordinary people will improve so fast that when Mugabe tries to put the genie back in the bottle, the population will not stand for it.
When Mugabe addresses the world at the UN on Friday expect him to rail about colonialism, western imperialism and, his latest bug bear: “Western sanctions”. But there are no sanctions on Zimbabwe. Any company is free to invest in the country. That they have not done so is because the Mugabe government has a habit of breaking the laws of the country and dispossessing its own citizens. Who would invest in a place like that?
What sanctions do exist are targeted American and European Union travel bans on Mugabe and the top leaders of his regime. Under the guise that there is now a unity government, Mugabe wants these bans lifted. After all, it’s no fun not being allowed to travel to the capitals cities of the much-despised west. But Mugabe also wants foreign aid and donor money to come flooding back into the country. So far western governments have been prudent in ensuring what money does go to Zimbabwe is project specific, and does not fill the coffers of the regime. But whether this pressure can finally bring about the end of Mugabe’s 29-year rule, I don’t want to predict.
Douglas Rogers is a journalist and an author of the new memoir "The Last Resort: A Memoir of Zimbabwe" published this month by Harmony Books.