In a poll deemed dubious by regional observers and dismissed as a sham by the opposition, Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF won 78 of 150 seats. 30 of the remaining ones will be filled by the President’s appointees, giving him a 2/3 majority and free hands to alter the constitution. A mere two weeks before the 25th anniversary of independence and majority rule, Zimbabwe’s democratic system is in bad shape – though not, perhaps, as bad as that of Zimbabwe itself.
Below is Part II of my bid to shed some light on the background for this.
Experience shows that land resettlement is often a key to successful decolonization. It has played a positive role in South East Asia, its absence causing problems in South America. And as far as Zimbabwe is concerned, few would dispute that the land distribution status has long been ripe for reform. By the late 1990s, the about 70,000 whites, representing 0,6% of the population, owned 70% of prime agricultural land while a million black households toiled the drought-prone earth in cramped colonial-era reserves. Millions of landless peasants lived in abject poverty.
The government and the white farmers had both been complacent in this matter. As noted in the
previous installment, Mugabe had hesitated to interfere with the plantations, favoring other ways of developing the countryside. On their part, white farmers had used a constitutional clause entitling them to refuse resettlement. But this clause expired in 1990, and two years later an act was passed empowering the state to buy land compulsorily for fair compensation.
Here was a window of opportunity for a peaceful and just redistribution. However, few if any peasants were in fact resettled during this period. Instead corruption and nepotism reigned, plantations being acquired by a wealthy elite of ministers, MPs, party officials, army officers, and business cronies.
At the same time, a plummeting economy in the wake of the IMF and World Bank austerity programs triggered a series of national strikes and sent Mugabe’s popularity nose-diving all over the country. Something had to be done, and what better than to single out white farmers as a foil for discontent?
In 1997 Mugabe announced that half their land would be confiscated for redistribution; when the Supreme Court struck this decision down, it was promptly restaffed to yield the desired ruling. In 1999 he proposed a new constitution allowing expropriation without compensation. Yet this was widely perceived as a trojan horse for another constitutional clause, entrenching presidential powers. And in February 2000 a broad oppositional coalition buried the proposal in a referendum. Disenchanted black peasants had declined the bait, failing to mobilize for Mugabe.
Shaken by the reemergence of effective opposition, the party bosses plotted a new strategy. In Leninist style they would form a vanguard for ‘leading the masses,’ eventually winning back their gratitude and trust. On February 22, Mugabe told state television: “The land question has not been resolved. The people are angry and if we let them vent their anger, they will invade the farms and then [the farmers] will come to us for protection.”
This was the cue for a lengthy campaign of violent farm invasions, conducted ostensibly by veterans from the War of Independence. These were led by Dr. Chenjerai Hunzvi, who proudly sported the nickname ‘Hitler.’ (Hunzvi later won a seat in Parliament before dying from AIDS.) Over the following two years some 3900 of the 4500 white-owned plantations were seized by the ‘war veterans,’ most of whom were clearly too young to be such. Transported in government and party trucks, the ragtag militia was reportedly spearheaded by members of the 5th Brigade – the very same North Korean-trained army unit that in the mid-1980s massacred 20-30,000 ethnic Ndebeles. The intelligence services were also involved in the action.
The attacks on white commercial farmers, extending in a few cases to murder, attracted no lack of Western media attention. Mugabe used this international condemnation to bolster his nationalist narrative, portraying the carefully organized mob rule as a continuation of the war of liberation against ‘white colonists.’ But the well-publicised violence against whites was not even the darkest side of the campaign.
Firstly, the most fertile land was abruptly handed over from skilled professionals to inexperienced farmers in a time of drought. Food production collapsed, causing starvation and making ‘the bread basket of Southern Africa’ reliant on international food aid. This agricultural breakdown rippled through the entire economy, boosting unemployment and sending inflation up from an annual rate of 32% in 1998 to some 600% in 2004 (it has lately declined somewhat). The impact on wildlife and environment was similarly dire.
Secondly, while white farmers usually had funds to fall back on, the resettlement spelled disaster for 400,000 farm workers and their families – some 2 million people in total.
Not only did they bear the brunt of the violence; most being immigrants from Malawi, Zambia or Mosambique, they had few alternative options. More than 150,000 former farm hands are now internally displaced. Others remain trapped on the farms, laboring for the new owners – many of whom, predictably, are anything but landless peasants – in slavery-like conditions with limited access to clean water, food, and health care. Targeted as opposition supporters, they have also been subjected to political ‘re-education’ and denied humanitarian aid.
Thirdly, to consolidate his militia, Mugabe created 150 internment camps around the country. Here young people between 10 and 30, some of them abducted, have been brutalized and brainwashed so as to become obedient party tools. It is difficult to overstate the horrors of the camps, replete with racist indoctrination, torture and homicide training, and systematic gang rape of girls by the young male conscripts.
In turn, the ‘graduates’ have engaged in farm invasions as well as in assaults on the opposition, centered on the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) led by trade unionist Morgon Tsvangirai.
A separate entry would be needed to do justice to the quashing of the opposition. Suffice it to mention that Tsvangirai has been charged with treason twice; that a harsh security act grants the government free hands to crush dissent; and that even foreign correspondents have been tried under a law curbing freedom of the press. Mugabe has vilified the MDC as tools for the white farmers and, absurdly, for the #1 enemy of the people – the ‘imperialist’ Tony Blair. (The latter designation is ironic, considering that Mugabe waged a genuinely imperialistic war in the DRC from 1998 to 2002.)
The 2000 and 2002 elections were notorious travesties. Though not as violent, the recent one has been slammed both by the MDC and by the international community; even Mugabe’s hand-picked observers were unimpressed.
The obstacle for the MDC is not just the outright fraud and intimidation tactics of Mugabe’s regime, including food aid manipulation. It is also a first-past-the-post system which over-represents ZANU-PF’s rural base at the expense of urban constituencies. Furthermore, the rural airwaves are reserved for government channels. But if a vestige of democracy survives, the ongoing urbanization should benefit the opposition in the longer term.
Meanwhile, Zimbabwe faces a silent catastrophe whose neglect may well be the future’s harshest indictment of Mugabe’s reign. The AIDS prevalence rate is 25%, the fourth highest in the world; the HIV infection rate is now the highest. According to UNICEF, AIDS kills a child every 15 minutes. One in five children have been orphaned; another projected 160,000 will lose a parent this year. As starvation depresses the immune system, the AIDS pandemic is aggravated by the famine. Zimbabwe’s hospitals, in shambles from underfunding, are swamped. Yet Uganda’s miracle shows that such dismal trends can be reversed, and Zimbabwe’s 90% literacy rate might have helped doing so, were the government not busy clinging to power by waging a war that ended 25 years ago.
Once celebrated as an African success story, Zimbabwe will on April 18 mark its quarter century of independence in a state of isolation like that of Rhodesia after 1965. And in his residence near Harare, Ian Smith may well be crowing, “Didn’t I tell you so?”