Autumn-Winter 2003
Notes from a Visit to Zimbabwe

By Richard Czujko

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In 1890 a small group of adventurers, the Pioneers, travelled north of the South African border under the patronage of Cecil Rhodes to establish a new British colony. They stopped at a place that became the capital, Salisbury, and the colony itself was subsequently named Rhodesia. A mere ninety years later the Union Jack was lowered for the final time in the capital, renamed Harare, as the last of Britain’s African colonies was reborn as the independent state of Zimbabwe. In the intervening period, there had been rebellions, land grabs, European settlement and an impressive amount of development culminating in a ruinous guerrilla war. 

April 18, 1980 should have marked the beginning of a new era of democracy, but the people of Zimbabwe soon found that the end of foreign colonialism did not mean the end of oppression. The ruling elite of President Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party established themselves as the new tyrants. Almost immediately disturbances broke out in the new nation’s second largest city, Bulawayo, home of the minority Ndebele (also known as Matabele). Mugabe, himself of the larger Shona tribe, accused elements of the Ndebele guerrillas, his erstwhile allies, of being responsible for the unrest, and in a nationwide broadcast made a chillingly prophetic statement. In impeccable English he declared, “ I cannot allow… lawlessness to establish a reign of terror,” vowing he had a “clear and unshirkable responsibility to act…in full protection of the people.” But it took several years before he finally crushed Ndebele resistance with his North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade, butchering thousands in the process. With the troublesome Ndebele vanquished, Mugabe and his party proceeded to entrench themselves in power. 

Later a new threat emerged, the formation of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), an opposition coalition headed by a former trade union leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. Matters came to a head when Mugabe announced there would be a referendum in early 2000, when he asked Zimbabweans to give him and his party virtually unlimited powers. He lost that referendum, and this marked a turning point in his reign. His confidence shaken, Mugabe set about exacting revenge. The MDC was declared to be a front organization for the whites, and as a result white farmers and their workers were targeted by Zanu-PF. White farms were invaded by “war veterans,” supposedly guerrillas who had participated in the liberation war of twenty years earlier, though many of these so-called veterans were still in their twenties and could not have participated in that conflict. They were in fact mainly recruits from the ranks of the unemployed. Many farmers were driven off their lands and several murdered, most of the farms then earmarked for expropriation. The economy of Zimbabwe rapidly worsened, with frequent food and fuel shortages accompanied by rampant inflation. Then, in a hotly disputed presidential election in early 2002, Mugabe was declared  the winner. The international community’s reaction was to impose limited sanctions on him and his party henchmen. Undeterred, he introduced draconian laws to limit press freedom, and the police were ordered to forcibly break up street protests.

This was the situation in Zimbabwe when I set out to travel there from South Africa by road, my first visit in nearly three years. 

As I approached the Beit Bridge border post I felt some trepidation, expecting at least long delays, but I need not have worried. The immigration official was so taken aback at the sight of a real visitor that he promptly stamped my passport and waved me through. There were signs posted warning the unwary to beware of pickpockets, but no tourists other than  myself were anywhere in sight.

During the drive along the largely deserted A4 towards Harare, the southern part of the country appeared to be more arid than usual for mid-May, but I recalled that the rainy season had not been a good one. Then I noted more disturbing indicators of what the country was going through: trucks marked “Drought Relief-Priority Vehicle;” a group of about a hundred people queuing for maize meal in the main street of a small town; and graffiti on a road sign declaring “MDC rules”--the majority of the Ndebele, who live in the south, voted for the opposition. The stone and wood carvers were still displaying their wares along the roadside, but there were no tourists to buy them.

Another striking example of the divide between the more prosperous north and the poorer south was the prevalence of  “scotch carts,” conveyances pulled by donkeys, in the south, though few to be seen further north. I also noted that the police in the south rattled around in Land Rovers, while their northern counterparts had Mercedes patrol cars. The impression was clearly that the ruling elite was deliberately neglecting the south.

Approaching the more verdant countryside closer to Harare, I was struck by the eerily deserted fields. Kilometre after kilometre, the farmland had reverted to bush occupied by roaming cattle and random shacks. Some of the fields still sported shrivelled maize stalks, now dwarfed by weeds, while wood from felled trees lay stacked next to the road. The farm invasions had changed the landscape. White farmers, many of them veterans of the second world war, who had colonised vast tracts of land had been replaced by  new colonists-- Mugabe’s supporters. As the Economist of 29 June 2002 put it, “...the land is usually handed out to ruling-party loyalists, rather than skilled farmers.” 

Former farmhands have also been forced off the land and currently languish in refugee camps, while many of the white farmers have moved to neighbouring states such as Botswana and Mozambique, emulating the Pioneers of 1890. Yet, despite the harsh treatment accorded them, some of their plight was surely self-inflicted. They occupied a special place in the history of the country and were generally well to do, with holiday cottages in the lake country or the mountains and their children boarding at private schools. In Survival Course, Chris Cocks describes the farming community as a “dreadful social strata, an archaic colonial hangover.” In certain areas farm owners even refused to socialize with their own white managers. More than one white Zimbabwean  told me that, while they sympathised with the plight of the farmers, they felt they--the farmers--had it coming to them.

A bizarre footnote to the journey northward was the occasional appearance of wheelchairs that would appear out of nowhere, their occupants clutching tin cans, careening down the centre of the road, desperate circumstances driving them to duel with road trains, buses and cars in the hope of earning a few dollars. But Harare itself looked normal enough, notwithstanding a report in a local newspaper that the U.S. State Department had warned Americans about deteriorating conditions in the country. The police maintained a visible but low-key presence, with regular roadblocks on main routes. I was stopped once but subjected to only a cursory search. There was no shortage of fuel at the time, though residents assured me this was a temporary blessing and that shortages were bound to reoccur. A persistent story doing the rounds was that Libya is supplying Zimbabwe with fuel in return for land. If true, this would make Libya only the latest in a long line of colonisers. In December 2002 the government  ran out of foreign currency to pay for fuel imports and motorists were forced to queue for days to obtain a few litres. A grim joke  circulated that the Christmas road-death toll should be the lowest in history. 

Meanwhile, President Mugabe has himself been following the example of former European colonial powers in becoming involved in the internal affairs of a foreign country. He sent troops to the Congo ostensibly to assist the government fight off rebel forces, but also in hopes of exploiting mineral deposits there. At night I heard transport aircraft thundering overhead, which locals claimed were bringing back casualties in body bags. No private aircraft, apart from civilian airlines, were allowed to operate at night, I was informed, and no one is sure how many Zimbabwean soldiers have died, as the government is very secretive about this.

The poor are rarely to be seen in the capital. Modern Japanese sedans grace the streets; four-wheel-drive vehicles and satellite dishes are commonplace. Most street and traffic lights were operational, and the city was generally clean, the garbage still collected twice a week. I stayed in one of the more affluent suburbs where it was quite safe to walk the streets. But virtually every house had high concrete walls or hedges, a reminder that crime is very much a problem. As one businessman remarked, “At the end of the day people retreat behind their eight-foot walls and watch cable TV.” He was referring to well-to-do black and white alike. The poor have no such diversions and are at the mercy of the ruling party’s marauding bands of thugs. Ironically, in one of the major suburban shopping malls the black security guards wear British- style police helmets, and even the main square in the capital's centre is laid out in the shape of the Union Jack.

Visitors to Harare soon learn that there are two immediate hazards: dodging rim-bending potholes and avoiding the road where the president’s mansion is located. As some South African tourists discovered a few months back, stopping outside the mansion after dark to ask the heavily armed guards for directions can lead to instant arrest. Those tourists were released after a night in jail, but others have reportedly been shot. I found that the officials I encountered in the city conducted themselves in a correct manner, and there was none of the desperate bribing that one hears of in some developing countries. In fact, I had the sense I would probably be arrested if I attempted to bribe an official. Everything seemed normal on the surface, but occasionally the more menacing aspects of life became apparent. A bystander interrupted a conversation I was having with a woodcraft vendor about the lack of tourists thereabout. The bystander declared, “We don’t want tourists,” after which the vendor promptly clammed up. The bystander was probably a government spy.

And, despite the superficial air of prosperity, the underlying mood was sombre. Inflation is a serious problem for poor Zimbabweans, especially for pensioners living on fixed incomes. Foreign currency is unobtainable without the right connections, so there is a thriving black market (euphemistically termed the “parallel market”) where an American dollar could fetch upwards of 600 Zimbabwean dollars (the official exchange rate was about 60). Maize meal, sugar and cooking oil were unobtainable during the time of my visit, and it is surely no coincidence that these are staple items for the poor. A European diplomat confided that he obtained his supplies of maize from a white farmer who is a long-standing supporter of Mugabe and therefore unaffected by the farm invasions. He also told me that the European Union was prepared to assist Zimbabwe with drought relief and AIDS programs but only if such help was done through non-governmental agencies. This is precisely where aid efforts have floundered, despite the rampant spread of HIV/AIDS, with an infection rate estimated at one third of the population, according to the United Methodist Church website ( "AIDS Pandemic Hits Hardest in Africa," by Lesley Crosson, 29 October 2002,  http://gbgm-umc.org/health/aidsafrica/africahardesthit.cfm. The Zimbabwe government wants total control of any relief that enters the country. Conversations with Zimbabweans were often underlined with a nervous, “So far, we are O.K.” 

The independent newspapers disparagingly call the ruling elite “chefs,” and the independent Daily News, whose reporters are regularly arrested, is the one most on sale at road intersections. Zanu-PF headquarters has been nicknamed the “shake-shake” building, since it resembles a saltshaker. It is situated on a road called Rotten Row.

The elections held at the beginning of 2002 saw blacks and whites queuing together for hours in Harare, where the general assumption was that if you were white you must vote for the opposition MDC. As the majority of urban blacks themselves voted MDC (Harare has an opposition-party mayor), this mutuality of political interests has tended to improve relations between the races.

Another cause for concern during the period of my visit was the government’s decision to discontinue the British “O” and “A” level examinations and replace them with a Zimbabwean certificate. Pupils who wished to write the British examinations will probably have to travel to adjoining countries. As one teacher put it,  “Mugabe wants a nation of uneducated serfs. This will force a lot of blacks as well as whites to leave the country.”

In the midst of the prevailing gloom, a local amateur theatre company was presenting a traditional production of The King and I, with a mainly white cast performing in front of an appreciative, predominantly white audience. The message, intentional or not, was clear: Mugabe, like the King of Siam, should abandon autocratic rule and allow democracy to take root.

The contrast between the promise of post-colonial prosperity and the reality of the repressive regime that actually followed seemed somehow symbolised by a wrecked car that had been left for a month on the pavement just a few feet from the entrance to the imposing glass-and-steel Reserve Bank building. The crooks who had used the car abandoned it after crashing it into a wall. And there it remained on Samora Machel Avenue, no one bothering to remove it.

I had one more adventure before I was out of the country: a night journey by bus to the South African border--not a trip for the faint-hearted. Several times the driver had to take evasive action to avoid oncoming vehicles running without lights, or donkeys taking their rest in the middle of the road. At the border, passengers were required to step through a shallow basin of liquid that was supposed to prevent the spread of foot-and-mouth disease, but it felt that by doing so what I was really doing was inoculating myself against the woes of the troubled nation I was leaving.

(An offspring of East European refugees, Richard Czujko was born in Zimbabwe and has lived in South Africa for the past 25 years.)