A nation on the edge: What’s next for Zimbabwe?

Michael Holman
Financial Times

Its leader is ailing, its economy collapsing: the FT’s former Africa editor asks what lies ahead for the beleaguered country of his youth

“ZIMBABWE is dead.” It was the matter-of-fact tone of the local businessman, the note of exhaustion, of resignation and, above all, of defeat, that was more revealing than the bleak pronouncement itself. Had I left my return to the country that nurtured me too late? I wondered. It had been 15 years since my last visit. This was my first day back.

Would I be conducting yet another journalist’s postmortem, a political autopsy on a nation that had surrendered, beaten into submission by three decades of Robert Mugabe’s despotic rule? Or would I find grounds for hope amid the forecasts of doom?

For years, Africa’s political Houdini has rigged elections and got away with it. Now Mugabe is discovering that a rigged economy is ultimately bound to collapse. The state is running out of US dollars, creditors are running out of patience. On top of all this, the country is gripped by a severe drought, which has left a third of its 15 million people reliant on food aid. The frail 92-year-old autocrat is trapped, caught between reality and mortality.

I had been given a rare 10-day media visa for Zimbabwe, with no conditions or travel restrictions. It was a chance to explore, to refresh memories that stretched back to my arrival as a five-year-old child in a small town called Gwelo, since renamed Gweru, and to recall the events that helped shape the country’s violent transition from minority-ruled Rhodesia to an independent Zimbabwe.

By my mid-teens, in the early 1960s, the reverberations of the African nationalist revolution sweeping the continent were being felt even in sleepy Gweru. A diary that I kept as a boy scout records the absence of the scout master, called up for police reservist duty; the flight of Belgian refugees from the tumultuous birth of an independent Congo. In Rhodesia, tensions between the two main African nationalist parties erupted into violence, and clashes in Gweru’s black townships became frequent, the start of the country’s painful transition to independence in 1980.

Within a day of being cleared to visit, in late August, I was on a flight to Harare. The first 24 hours in the city reminded me of the opening sentence of a dispatch by a veteran foreign correspondent, based in Afghanistan. It had been a slow news day, indeed, a no-news day, but he rallied to the task of providing a daily story: “A nightmarish air of normality hung over Kabul last night.”

So it was in Harare. But the appearance of normality was short-lived. The day after my arrival, the sounds and scents of violence drifted through the open window of my city-centre hotel room: the pop of tear-gas canisters, the distant cry of an angry anti-government crowd, smoke from a burning car forming a grey plume, stark against the blue spring sky.

In the hotel lobby, security staff lowered a steel shutter over one door and stood ready to wind down the other. Hours later, all was quiet. A “nightmarish air of normality” once again prevailed.

“Zimbabwe is dead,” repeated my companion, in the same flat, dispassionate manner. We were driving through Harare, once known as Africa’s “garden city”. Today it is a sprawling mix of security-walled homes and gated compounds, bleak slums, pavement markets and well-stocked malls. Jobless youths hang around street corners, emaciated children beg at traffic lights.

There was no future, no jobs, said my companion. Corruption flourishes, he went on, so-called ­tenderpreneurs thrived, a breed who use inside knowledge to make a mockery of the tender process, inflating costs while lowering standards.

But where could he and his family go? Follow the example of as many as a million of his fellow citizens in the past decade or so and cross into South Africa? But the neighbouring nation has difficulties of its own. Foreigners are not always welcome.

My companion was one of the lucky ones. A teacher-turned-trader, part-time entrepreneur and occasional taxi-driver, he owns a plot on which he grows maize — although not for his family: the crop is sent to relatives in the countryside. Reversing the traditional direction of trade, workers in the city are now feeding the farmers. The drought, the worst for three decades and embracing much of southern Africa, is taking its toll.

Like most Zimbabweans — at least half the population is under 30 — he had no direct experience of the era of white rule. He had no experience of the guerrilla campaign that brought nearly 90 years of white domination to an end in a war that intensified in the 1970s and cost more than 20,000 lives. He was too young to have known the relief of peace.

Communist terrorist

And he had not heard Mugabe deliver a remarkable speech of reconciliation when he took office in 1980. Then the FT’s Africa correspondent, I had looked on from my seat in a packed, pulsating stand. The Union Jack was lowered; the black, red, green and gold of the new national flag took its place. The man reviled by many white Rhodesians as a “communist terrorist” turned forgiving pragmatist. The reggae thump of Bob Marley boomed out. It was a night when Harare became a giant street party.

Since then Mugabe has become synonymous with despotism, a man who brutally suppressed opposition in the province of Matabeleland in the 1980s and presided over the often violent seizure of the 4,500 white-owned farms, launched at the end of the 1990s. His black opponents fared no better. He abused the civil rights of his critics and rigged elections, flouting the law and emasculating the judiciary — gradually becoming the caricature of a liberation hero who stays too long in power.

Early in my stay I did see Mugabe, but briefly, and at a distance, at the annual Harare agricultural show. A convoy of police cars and armoured personnel carriers had escorted the presidential limo to the entrance of the VIP stand. I caught sight of a shuffling, unsteady old man in a dark suit and a wide-brimmed hat, propped up by solicitous aides. The ever-present ambulance that trails him in public was at hand, a reminder of his mortality. Show-goers looked on, their faces expressionless.

The next day I set off for Gweru, a 180-mile drive along the spine of Zimbabwe, following the so-called high veld into the heart of the country. What had happened to the landmarks of my youth: had the town’s clock tower, erected by Jean Boggie, the wife of an early settler, become a casualty of the new reality? Or did it still stand in the shadow of the Midlands Hotel, whose upper-floor rooms with their high ceilings open out on to broad verandahs, where my family had stayed during our first weeks in Gweru, in the early 1950s? We were typical immigrants — my mother South African, my father a Cornish-born teacher who had been based in South Africa during the second world war.

The clock tower erected by Jean Boggie, the wife of an early settler, which still stands in Gweru

And what of the schools I went to, the stores frequented, the cinema attended? How had the town library fared? It had been a haven for me during a demanding year. Arrested at dawn in August 1967, in my room on the university campus in Harare, I had been served with a government notice declaring me a “threat to the maintenance of law and order”, and restricting me, then a 19-year-old student “troublemaker” and renegade, to the “European” area of Gweru.

After a night in the cells of Harare central police station, I was driven to my home in what was then a little town of some 15,000 whites and 35,000 Africans. And there I stayed for the stipulated year, reading voraciously.

Warnings that I might be held up on this trip at predatory roadblocks were unfounded. There were fewer than half a dozen, manned by bored policemen, no doubt supplementing their salaries with arbitrary fines levied for trivial or nonexistent traffic offences. But as I travelled south, I realised something was missing. Where were the bicycles, that ubiquitous workhorse of Africa, its ownership as much a measure of wealth as cattle or a new corrugated iron roof on a peasant farmer’s hut?

I started keeping count, excluding the bikes that appeared in the towns: the number barely reached double figures. And where were the vegetable vendors, the curio sellers, the side-of-the-road pedestrians, striding to unknown destinations? There were only a handful in a landscape of parched golden veld and flat-topped msasa trees under a blazing clear sky — and hardly a white face to be seen.

At their peak, “Rhodies” — or white Rhodesians, the group to which I and my parents belonged — numbered no more than 250,000. A majority were immigrants, mainly from South Africa and Britain, attracted by the fine climate, the open-air life, cheap domestic servants, and believing the myths propagated by state-controlled media. They were portrayed as successors to the pioneers of the 1890s, forming a bulwark against the approaching communist menace, united in their determination to overcome international trade sanctions imposed by the United Nations in response to the unilateral declaration of independence from Britain by prime minister Ian Smith in 1965.

They developed a remarkable maintenance culture, keeping Morris Minors on the road, steam locomotives on the rail tracks, ageing Viscounts and Dakotas in the air. Import substitution flourished: local manufacturers produced everything from marmalade to wine. But there was a brutal, repressive side to white Rhodesia. They voted overwhelmingly and regularly in support of the Rhodesian Front, a party that endorsed segregation. Their government tortured suspects, bombed refugee camps and forced 200,000 rural dwellers into fenced “protected villages” that soon became little more than rural slums. In the scathing words of Donal Lamont, the Roman Catholic bishop of Mutare, the perpetrators were “moral pygmies”.

Now only about 2,000 whites remain, many of them trapped in poverty, dependent on charity to survive. As for the white farmers, all but a handful have now left, many driven off their land by violent mobs. Mugabe claimed he was redressing a historical injustice but there was no orderly redistribution of the farms. They were given to cronies, generals and party officials, reward for past favours or for services to come: injustice heaped on injustice.

One of my earliest memories of Gweru is being rescued by one of the men who delivered groceries ordered by white householders and carried in huge wicker containers strapped to the front of their bicycles. I was five, and had run away from kindergarten. I began the long, hot journey home and was spotted by a “delivery boy” on his rounds. He scooped me up, deposited me in his basket and delivered me to my grateful parents.

Decades later I return to find that Boggie’s clock still stands. It has been painted a sickly shade of green and is strung with coloured lights, baubles on a fading dowager. But there it is, a squat survivor of a bygone age, a monument to tolerance, or a defiant survivor of the colonial era.

I have a cup of tea at the Midlands Hotel and a visit to a balcony room, under the elegant curving arches. Then I set off along the main street, once dominated by Meikles department store, until I reach the post office and the town council offices. I look in vain for Le Marche, the café where I met friends on Saturday mornings for a cool drink; Pelidis store, once a cavern of army surplus uniforms, is no more; the Royal cinema, strictly off-limits to Africans, but where Indians and “coloureds” (mixed race) were allowed entry provided they sat in the back row, has long been closed.

I turn off the main street and stop outside a red- brick building. It is the memorial library, unchanged but for a protective steel gate at the entrance. It is as busy as ever. The books are grubby and well thumbed, the reading room full. A little further on I stop in front of an imposing entry gate and a grand assembly hall. It is Chaplin High School — the alma mater I share with Ian Smith. The hall is named after its benefactor, Sir Alfred Beit, who made his fortune at the turn of the last century. Another surprise awaits me. The name of the primary school I attended so many years ago is also unchanged: Cecil John Rhodes primary school, reads the sign outside. Sir Alfred Beit, Sir Drummond Chaplin, Cecil John Rhodes: enthusiastic colonialists all.

I look into my old classroom, sit in the shady garden and reflect. Poor Zimbabwe! It has suffered much at the hands of its rulers, white and black, since its inception in the late 1890s. It was built on fraud and deceit, the early settlers misleading local chiefs about the treaties they were persuaded to sign and the concessions they granted. An insurrection followed in 1894, known as the first chimurenga. By the 1940s Rhodesia had been formally divided, roughly half and half. The better half, including the best farmland, became the “European” area; the African majority got the other half. Which leader, Mugabe or Smith, has done more damage, I wondered? Which system — white rule or Mugabe’s rule — has caused more pain?

In style of leadership, the two could hardly be more different: Smith lived modestly; Mugabe milked state resources and built himself a vast mansion. Both men ran a de facto one-party state; both rode roughshod over their critics. Smith triggered a race war; Mugabe subjugated Matebeleland. Smith may have bequeathed a healthy economy but he also passed on a poisoned chalice, brimful with a toxic mix of past injustice.

Back in Harare, I meet a senior government official and ask about the statue that I briefly spotted outside the building.

“Rhodes?” “Livingstone,” he replies. “Another colonialist,” he adds, smiling.

The day before I leave for London an envelope is slipped under the door of my hotel room. It contains photocopied pages of the prologue to a book by Timothy Holmes called Journey to Livingstone: Exploration of an Imperial Myth. Several passages are underlined, but one stands out. It’s an extract of a letter from the Victorian explorer to a friend: “My objectives are not merely exploratory,” he writes. “(The) ostensible object the development of Africa and the promotion of civilisation but what I tell to none but such as you in whom I have confidence is thus I hope it may result in an English colony in the healthy highland of central Africa.”

Zimbabwe, it seems, is more tolerant of past colonisers than South Africa, where the wounds of apartheid remain sensitive. Rhodes lies undisturbed in his grave in the Matopos hills; Livingstone stands within sight of the president’s offices. 

I have a final session with the same official, relaxed and amiable. Nothing in his manner suggests stress or tension, yet he is in the front line of the change that is only a heartbeat away. The president may insist he is alert, but he is showing signs of his age. The official mocks the opposition alliance of at least a dozen parties. Imagine the rivalry as the 2018 election gets closer, and competition intensifies for the top job and winnable seats. Mugabe’s best-known opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, is already ruled out on the grounds of ill health.

But Mugabe’s party, the ruling Zanu PF, has its own problems. Senior officials have been purged, or have resigned. Who will take over when Mugabe goes? The tough vice-president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, a guerrilla veteran, close to the army and in charge of food security, leads the field. Much may depend on the manner of Mugabe’s going.

And what about Grace Mugabe? Does the president’s wife really think she can take over? The official shrugs and suggests that much of the talk is the product of the Harare bubble, Zimbabwe’s “Westminster village”. “Never forget that Zanu PF is a party of the rural areas,” he says. I suggest that a transition to the post-Mugabe era is already under way and that the ruling party may be better prepared for the negotiations that surely lie ahead than they are given credit for. He neither demurs nor denies.

One of my last meetings is with Eddie Cross, a brave and outspoken opposition MP for the Movement for Democratic Change party. The economic pressures, he says, are remorseless. “Our national debt is now approaching three times our GDP; interest on the debt alone is equal to one-third of all spending. The budget deficit has spiralled out of control. The civil service is being paid with virtual money by electronic means but they cannot draw their salaries out of the banks… This state of affairs simply cannot go on.”

Since the dollar is the national currency, there is little room for manoeuvre. Terms for fresh lending from the IMF and the World Bank, however, include a demand for transparency that would expose the patronage on which the ruling party depends. And the strains are starting to tell. There have been delays in paying the army and teachers; social media is increasingly critical, demonstrations and stay-aways (protests made by staying away from work) are becoming more frequent.

Zimbabwe is far from “dead”. The country is free of religious divisions — although cursed by ethnic and clan tensions — and still has supportive neighbours, a battered but surviving infrastructure, a broad English-speaking skills base and a talented diaspora longing to return home. And above all, the military are still — for now — in the barracks.

It’s the eve of my departure. I pack my bags. One of my novels, set aside as a farewell gift, has a passage from Camus’ The Plague. The doctor in the rat- infected, cholera-struck town of Oran in Algeria, prepares for bed and turns on the wireless:

“And from the ends of the earth, across thousands of miles of land and sea kindly, well-meaning speakers tried to voice their fellow-feeling. ‘Oran, we’re with you!’ they called emotionally. But not, the doctor told himself, to love or to die together and that’s the only way. They are too remote.”

At the airport I watch passengers embracing loved ones and imagine I can hear the traditional southern African words of farewell, part blessing, part exhortation. It signals the start of a journey to a new and challenging destination — but a journey that is made alone. “Hamba kahle, Zimbabwe, hamba kahle — go well.”


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