From Breadbasket to Basket Case

Tuesday's World Events   —   Posted on February 15, 2005

(by Priya Abraham, – In southern Africa, Zimbabwe’s loss has been Zambia’s gain. The autocratic rule of Robert Mugabe has sent more tourists flowing north to the little known Zambian side of the Victoria Falls and has forced displaced Zimbabwean landowners to start new farms in Zambia. Now Zambia even exports grain to Zimbabwe, a once unfathomable thought considering its food shortages of only two decades ago.

Such a turnaround has been possible only because Zimbabwe has tumbled so fast. Mr. Mugabe, by seizing land from his country’s wealthiest farmers, has single-handedly crammed decades’ worth of economic decline into five years. The once-prosperous side of the former Rhodesias–and once one of Africa’s most stable countries–Zimbabwe has degenerated into a police state. With famine, unemployment, and political crackdowns now common, and worsening, Zimbabweans hold little hope–even with parliamentary elections scheduled next month.

In the face of international condemnation, Mr. Mugabe has refused to allow an independent electoral commission to monitor the March vote and has denied his opponents access to public media. His government has shut down independent newspapers, and journalists who practice without government accreditation are subject to two years of imprisonment. Most foreign journalists have been expelled or have left; BBC correspondents are banned altogether.

So it’s not surprising that opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai would take his campaign across the border to Zambia’s capital, Lusaka. Harassed at public forums in his homeland, Mr. Tsvangirai has ready access to media, displaced Zimbabweans, and community leaders across the border. He met last month also with Zambia’s president, Levy Mwanawasa. That encounter followed meetings with the heads of state in South Africa, Ghana, and Nigeria–and recognition that as political agitation within Zimbabwe grows more difficult, the country’s only hope may lie with its neighbors.

Mr. Tsvangirai told WORLD, “This crisis can only be resolved through free and fair elections. If the stalemate is allowed to continue it will be allowed to have a contingent effect on the continent. It could degenerate into conflict.” After months of toying with a boycott, his party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), decided on Feb. 3 to contest the March election. But members are resigned to an unfair fight. Mr. Tsvangirai’s regional tour–at a time when he should be campaigning at home–reveals how crucial opposition leaders believe outside pressure is to restoring true multiparty elections. “It’s a defining moment for the country,” he said.

For almost three years, authorities in Zimbabwe barred Mr. Tsvangirai from leaving the country while the high court considered treason charges brought against him just two weeks before he ran for president in 2002. The government accused him of trying to assassinate Mr. Mugabe, and Mr. Tsvangirai lost that election amid widespread polling fraud. After his surprise acquittal last October, Mr. Tsvangirai began his regional tour, cautioning neighboring leaders that these parliamentary elections also seem doomed for rigging.

Even without full-blown conflict, Mr. Tsvangirai and his party followers are used to living dangerously. Ask him how many times Mr. Mugabe’s thugs have tried to assassinate him, Mr. Tsvangirai laughs. “I can’t recall how many,” he said. “The most dramatic was when I was almost thrown from a 10th-floor window in 1997.”

But the stats on intimidation are serious. In the last three to four years, his party estimates that Zimbabwe’s intelligence service, police, and army have killed 450-500 MDC supporters, raped 2,000, and displaced 10,000 from their homes. All but three or four of their members of parliament have been arrested or beaten, he said. “I’ve got my treasurer here who lost his eye because of incarceration,” Mr. Tsvangirai said, waving his left hand toward a bespectacled man, Fletcher Dhulini Ncube, reading a newspaper on the next sofa. He is diabetic, and authorities delayed treating him until it was too late to save his eye.

Zimbabwe’s woes began five years ago, with Mr. Mugabe’s forced land redistribution program. Mugabe “war veterans” from the fight against white rule demanded that land from the country’s 4,500 white-owned commercial farms be parceled to blacks. Already unpopular, Mr. Mugabe saw it as a chance to consolidate a dwindling power base, and he dubbed the radical program a redressing of British colonial dominance.

Not surprisingly, the land invasions have caused disastrous disruptions to farming. Zimbabwe’s white farmers may have controlled the choicest arable land, but their crop exports also provided much of the country’s income and fed the population. Further, white-owned farms employed about 300,000 mostly black workers.

Zimbabwe once exported corn, wheat, and soybeans, but now has to rely on food imports. Zimbabwe also was once the world’s second-largest exporter of tobacco. Now tobacco production has fallen from about 240 tons a year to about 71 tons last year.

Hunger statistics are more horrifying: Seven million Zimbabweans are in danger of starvation, almost three-quarters are unemployed, and inflation is more than 300 percent–the highest in the world. The decline is easy to see, according to David Coltart, an MDC lawmaker from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city. He traveled the length of Zimbabwe last month. “I’ve driven along these roads for the past 50 years and it’s painfully obvious that there aren’t half the crops in the ground,” he said. His party estimates that 4,000 people a week are dying from a brutal combination of food shortages and the country’s AIDS epidemic.

Mr. Mugabe has tried to contain the crisis with a heavy combination of propaganda and political brutality. Government officials assert that Zimbabwe does not need food aid. Public posturing on famine rivals only North Korea for surrealism: The government advertises manual labor on stolen farms as a new tourist attraction. Obese Western tourists, one state-run newspaper boasted, could sweat off pounds then “top it all by flaunting their slim bodies on a sun-downer cruise on the Zambezi or surveying the majestic Great Zimbabwe ruins.”

Public uprisings against these conditions, for now, are kept in check. The Public Order and Security Act of 2002 makes demonstrations illegal and frequently allows police to break up meetings critical of Mr. Mugabe’s party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, or ZANU-PF.

A law passed last December bans foreign nongovernmental organizations involved in “issues of governance.” In practice, the definition is so broad it could restrict charitable groups and churches, opening the door to religious persecution. Taken together, many Zimbabweans aren’t waiting around for change: 3.5 million have fled abroad, a quarter of the population. Some 300 white farmers have settled in neighboring Zambia and Mozambique.

Despite the exodus, no real pressure has come from other southern African countries, particularly regional powerhouse South Africa. African leaders long have tolerated rottenness in their ranks, particularly in the first generation of anti-colonial independence fighters. So far South African president Thabo Mbeki has opted for a line of “quiet diplomacy,” talking to both opposition leaders and the government, but treating Mr. Mugabe as an honest broker.

“Instead of having solidarity with the people, the emphasis has been on solidarity with the leaders,” Mr. Tsvangirai said. “This blind loyalty to a wayward brother–I don’t subscribe to that.”

Zimbabwe’s crisis is not grabbing international headlines as it did after the first violent farm invasions, but the country is facing ever-worsening decay. Mr. Tsvangirai has a remaining treason charge to combat, this time for allegedly agitating for Mr. Mugabe’s violent ouster. “Zimbabwe is no longer a breadbasket,” Mr. Tsvangirai said. “It’s a basket case.” He realizes that as bad as it is in his country, it may have to get crushingly worse before it gets better.

A farmer’s story

By all appearances, exile in Zambia isn’t so bad. Sipping a Coke Light and smoking a Peter Stuyvesant on a sunny afternoon in an upscale restaurant in Lusaka, one Zimbabwean farmer defies his violent past. He moved to Zambia in 2002, two years after a band of about 200 drunken and armed invaders overran his homestead and forced out his family.

The farmer requested anonymity because he fears reprisals against his wife and three children, who still live in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. He has already attracted his government’s scrutiny. Last year agents from what he believes is Zimbabwe’s intelligence service sneaked across the border into Zambia and showed up at his doorstep to harass him. But this isn’t Robert Mugabe’s territory, and the farmer locked the agents up on his property and succeeded in having them deported.

Like dozens of other Zimbabwean farmers who fled to Zambia, he now grows tobacco for export. In Zimbabwe, the farmer grew corn, soybeans, and wheat on 1,700 acres northeast of Harare. It was an elaborate operation: In all his irrigation system was 31,000 yards long and drew water from two rivers up to nine miles away.

“If you go to my farm today, there’s nothing going on,” he said. He has heard from some of his former farm employees that only about 50 acres of his farmland is in corn cultivation now, for the personal use of the invaders. “What upsets me the most is how the world can allow one man–one individual–to destroy a nation.”

Western countries have put a travel ban and sanctions on Mr. Mugabe and his officials, but the octogenarian president, for now, has won the rhetoric war. He routinely derides British and U.S. criticism of him as “Western imperialism,” and opposition leaders like Morgan Tsvangirai as its agents. Playing on old colonial hurts is still a popular tune. “Mugabe made this into a race issue,” the farmer said. “Once you throw that down Tony Blair’s throat, what’s he going to do? There’s historical imbalance.”

When the land invasions in 2000 were imminent, many white farmers, including the tobacco farmer WORLD interviewed, flocked to support opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s party. The farmer described Zimbabwe’s would-be president as a “brave man,” but thinks he can change little in the current stifling political atmosphere. And with racial tensions, the nagging fear remains that even a new government will target whites again.

Still, the farmer hopes renewal will come. He is a fifth-generation Zimbabwean whose ancestors were some of the first British settlers in Rhodesia. Unlike his peers, who have resettled their families in Zambia, he sees the country only as a “business destination.”

He still dreams of his farm the way it used to be. “Let’s say we could go back and operate under the conditions we had before,” he said. “I don’t think you could ever say no to that. If there’s compensation, maybe I’ll just take it. It’s a nice thought, to go back to your home, but would it ever be the same?”

Reprinted here Feb. 15, 2005 with permission from