Mugabe: Outstaying His Welcome

27 March 2005

Mugabe: Outstaying His Welcome

By Gwynne Dyer

Like the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Cuba’s Fidel Castro, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe is a revolutionary who would have served his people best by dying a long time ago. Instead, at the age of 81, he is now deliberately starving people who refuse to vote for his Zanu-PF party in the parliamentary elections on 31 March. Perhaps no one individual can claim the credit for ruining a whole country, but Mugabe would certainly lead the contenders.

When Robert Mugabe became president of Zimbabwe a quarter-century ago, after a long guerilla war led by Zanu-PF had finally overthrown the white minority regime of what was then Rhodesia, he inherited a country with a decent infrastructure and rich agricultural resources. Far too much of the land was in the hands of a mere 4,000 white “commercial farmers”, but Mugabe basked in the good-will of the international community and he had both the money and the time to address that problem. He didn’t do it.

During the early 1980s, Mugabe devoted his efforts to suppressing or swallowing up rival guerilla movements and their political parties by any means available — including the massacre of thousands of civilians in Matabeleland — and then he just stopped bothering. His religious and political background (Catholic mission school and Marxist politics) ought to have made him a defender of the rights of the downtrodden, which in Zimbabwe’s case meant above all landless rural blacks, but land reform was too much trouble.

Zimbabwe did fairly well despite Mugabe. It was impossible to defend the fact that white farmers owned most of the good land in the country, but they did grow enough to feed everybody with plenty left over for export. A property-owning and even factory-owning black middle class appeared in the cities, though too many of them owed their prosperity to their political connections. Zimbabwe looked okay — but it really wasn’t keeping up.

I went back to Zimbabwe in 1995 for the first time since the end of the liberation war, and the contrast with South Africa was stunning. It was only one year since the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa, and I had just come from the rural northern Transvaal, hardly the richest part of the country — but across the river in Zimbabwe was a different world. Nobody was starving and most of the kids were getting at least a few years of school, but despite a fifteen-year head-start on South Africa as a post-colonial, non-racist society, Zimbabwe’s black majority were hugely poorer than their counterparts in South Africa.

That was Mugabe’s fault. It was not written in the stars that Zimbabweans had to be many times poorer than South Africans; they were poor because their leader lived off the laurels of his liberation war glory and didn’t bother about the economy or social justice issues. And since ordinary Zimbabweans are not stupid, they noticed what was wrong (although they held their tongues because it really was not wise to be seen as a dissenter).

Then, in order to secure Zanu-PF’s hold on power forever, Mugabe held a referendum in 1999 to change the constitution and turn Zimbabwe into a one-party state. That gave everybody an opportunity to say no, so they said it loud and clear, rejecting the proposal, and Mugabe has been running scared ever since. He’s a bit old to learn new tricks, so that mainly means confronting the local whites, blaming everything that goes wrong on the “colonialists” and “imperialists”, and beating up, jailing, starving or killing those Zimbabweans who defy Zanu-PF.

The land reform that should have begun over twenty years ago, with compensation for white farmers who were gradually bought out and training and financial assistance for black farmers who were given a piece of the huge commercial farms, was done by violence, without compensation, in less than two years. Huge amounts of land have simply fallen out of production– Mugabe himself admitted last week that only 44 percent of the confiscated land is being used properly — so production of maize (mealies, corn), the staple food crop, has fallen by almost half. Not only are there no exports to bring in foreign exchange; one-quarter of Zimbabweans are slowly starving.

To make matters worse, last year Mugabe stopped international aid organisations from distributing food in Zimbabwe: “We are not hungry. Why foist this food on us? We don’t want to be choked,” he said. He probably did it more out of pride than malice aforethought, but the effect has been to make everybody in famine-stricken areas totally reliant on buying food from the government-controlled Grain Marketing Board. And in many areas where support for the opposition has been strong in recent elections, the GMB will only sell food to Zanu-PF members.

If you fall afoul of Zanu-PF in today’s Zimbabwe, do not expect the police or the courts to help you. And don’t expect parliament to help you, either: well over half of Zimbabweans would probably vote against Mugabe and his cronies in a genuinely free election, but an estimated two-thirds of voters will take the safer course and cast their ballots for Zanu-PF candidates in the actual election on 31 March. And so it will go until Mugabe is removed either by death or by his own colleagues.

Zimbabwe would probably be a lot happier place (and Mugabe would be revered rather than execrated) if he had died in, say, 1981.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 6. (“During…trouble”; and “That was…dissenter”)