Some things you just need to go and see for yourself. What is life really like under Robert Mugabe, a man so popular he has won all elections since 1980? In Chapter One, I arrive in Bulawayo.
Statistics of Zimbabwean farm murders appear hard to come by, but in neighbouring South Africa land reforms aimed at black empowerment have had similar results to those in Zimbabwe. In "The Great South African Land Scandal" Dr. Philip Du Toit argues that while land redistribution in South Africa is occurring at a slower pace than Zimbabwe, the programme is no less insidious. By 2015 over 1500 farm murders had occurred in South Africa since 1994, and the figures are much higher if smallholdings of land are included. Many of these farms have also fallen into unproductive waste, due to lack of expertise or any interest in farming by those taking over the farms. Government purchasing of these farms has therefore been a huge waste of taxpayer's money. South Africa became a net importer of food for the first time in 2007.
Back in Zimbabwe, Mugabe has been and continues to be openly hostile to all white farmers. The following comments were after my visit, but the land "redistributions" (the term somewhat sanitising the nature in which many have occurred) had been taking place for over a decade:
The documentary "Mugabe and the White African" provides a shocking look at land redistribution, intimidation and violence in Zimbabwe:
The prevailing atmosphere was such a contrast to what I found when visiting neighbouring Zambia the following week. Locals told me how the country was welcoming white farmers who were fleeing Zimbabwe, and encouraging them to use their expertise there. An October 2015 Al Jazeera report also showcased Zimbabwean farmers starting again in Mozambique following requests and land leases from that national government. Zimbabwe's neighbours have clearly seen the benefits of the employment and economic development that this investment brings.
Massacres and Bulldozing
Suffering under Mugabe is certainly not the preserve of whites however. Black Africans have also fallen victim to his brutality. Mugabe is from the Shona tribal majority. In 1983, three years after coming to power, he is widely believed to have been behind the Gukurahundi massacre of an estimated 20,000 of the minority Ndebele people in their heartland of Matabeleland. An Ndebele man I spoke to in Bulawayo (in 2010) concurred (unprompted by me) with this view of Mugabe's involvement, involvement also backed up by later 2015 newspaper reports detailing newly declassified Australian diplomatic cables that speak of the issue:
Ndebele were seen as being supporters of the then opposition party Zapu, and this attack being a means to cripple this opposition.
Mugabe has bulldozed shantytowns during Operation Murambatsvina in 2005, leaving approximately 200,000 people homeless. He has violently cracked down on opposition MDC politicians, and their supporters. Voting can be a dangerous affair in Zimbabwe. Even Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the MDC was arrested and beaten while in police custody in 2007, resulting in his admittance to intensive care for a fractured skull and internal bleeding. The evidencing cameraman, Edward Chikombo, who allegedly dared to smuggle footage of Tsvangirai's injuries to foreign media, was abducted and murdered shortly after.
I found it incredible that Tsvangirai could maintain at least some semblance of a working relationship with such a tyrant. While many citizens can't vote without intimidation, many have voted in another way - with their feet. Some 3 million Zimbabweans have fled to neighbouring countries, predominantly South Africa, over the last few decades.
In order to maintain this oppressive regime, Mugabe naturally needs a few people on his side. In the joint government with the MDC, Mugabe's Zanu-PF conveniently maintained control of the army and the police. Un-uniformed thugs that intimidate opponents are also thought to be on his payroll. Some 200 people were murdered during the 2008 elections. Remarkably, Tsvangirai still outpolled Mugabe, but with less than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff was called. Tsvangirai decided to pull out of the run-off process, for fear that more Zimbabweans would be killed. A compromise power sharing agreement was eventually reached, following Southern African Development Community (SADC) involvement and South African mediation.
Operation Hakudzokwi (No Return) - military sent to Marange diamond fields
Naturally, pliant and compliant police and military forces are central to Mugabe's iron grip on the Zimbabwean presidency. The discovery of rich diamond reserves in Marange district in 2006 gave Mugabe the opportunity to reinforce this essential loyalty. After first allowing a free-for-all by the citizenry on Marange's diamonds, the police and then the army were sent in to oversee operations. Members of both enforcement units have used their power to take large financial benefits from the extraction, smuggling and sale of diamonds. This has been done through the use of beatings, slavery, torture and the murder of more than 200 miners and local villagers. Human Rights Watch interviewed over 100 people connected to Marange diamond mining, including police and soldiers. It's shocking June 2009 report provides overwhelming evidence of these, and many more atrocities. Despite this, Zimbabwe's Minister of Mines, Obert Mpofu is quoted as follows in an excerpt from the Human Rights Watch's report:
Mpofu's attribution of mass mine murders to fighting amongst illegal miners is both ridiculous and disgraceful. The Human Rights Watch report just does not back this up. So numerous and varied are the examples and witnesses of atrocities at Marange that one can only conclude that the police and army's involvement in the deaths was at least comprehensive, but more likely entirely responsible.
There are far too many examples of human rights abuses in the report to mention, but they include:
· Multiple military helicopters firing live ammunition at miners, to clear them from the mine site - a co-ordinated attack.
· Miners being chased and shot
· Villagers being beaten on mere suspicion of assistance to miners
· Mutare Hospital (Morgue) reporting of being overwhelmed by over 100 bodies, many with visible bullet wounds
· A separate private hospital's medical officer reporting evidence of 200 dog bite wound victims from Marange
· Lawyer reports of hundreds of children being forced to work unpaid, without food, for many hour at a time.
One quickly gets a picture of what has gone on at Marange by the range of abuses cited. Many police had long been involved in accepting payments from would be miners for access to the mine site, and some police even arranged syndicates with miners. The replacement of the police by the military, the helicopter attacks, and the hunting down and murder of miners suggests that orders came from high up, for such a dramatic and sudden change in the status-quo on the ground.
The full Human Rights Watch report is here:
Obert Mpofu had boasted that these gems would bring in around US$2 billion in revenue per annum, and that Zimbabwe would never need to beg the world for financial help again. As of February 2015, Information Minister Jonathan Moyo had admitted that Marange's diamonds had effectively run out. Little of the money made appears to have made it to the national treasury. Not something that can easily be blamed on the usual culprits, the white imperialists.
Mugabe's rhetoric of reclaiming Zimbabwe from the British plays into his narrative for influencing the population. While there is some historical merit to the argument, the way land redistribution has been handled has been disastrous for the country. Food production has decreased dramatically. There's also been a breakdown of infrastructure, reduction in manufacturing, government spending for favours, involvement in the second Congo war, and robust printing of money to service government obligations in a weakening economy. Inflation ensued.
Economic Meltdown and Hyperinflation
Inflation rose from an annual rate of 32% in 1998, to dizzying heights. Various official and unofficial estimates of the 2008 peak range from 11.2 million percent, to 230 million percent to 89.7 zillion percent!
The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe kept adding zeros to Zimbabwe Dollars, until they could no longer afford the paper the notes were printed on. By the time I arrived in the country, Zimbabwe dollars were almost worthless and US dollars had become the preferred currency for purchasing goods and services.
With Zimbabwe having very low foreign currency reserves, the country was reliant on foreign trade to bring much needed currency of some value into the country. When I arrived, the ATMs were dispensing US dollars. Interestingly, I received several US$2 notes during my time in Zimbabwe, which are apparently something of a rarity in the USA.
I noticed an art exhibition while walking around Bulawayo, and began speaking to the curator who was displaying his own work. He gave me a personal account of how this hyperinflation had affected him. He had gone to Victoria Falls to try and sell some of his paintings to tourists. The falls are on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia, and viewable from both countries. He had crossed in to Zambia for three weeks to sell his paintings. He had a whole suitcase of Zimbabwe dollars at the time. The fact that he had a whole suitcase was evidence that they were not worth a lot (I don't think his painting sales had taken off that much!), but still held some value. When he returned after three weeks in Zambia, his suitcase of money had become almost worthless.
Despite knowledge of Zimbabwe's sporadic violence, I felt fine walking around Bulawayo. The majority of the population are from the Ndebele minority (nationally), the victims of the aforementioned Gukurahundi massacre. I felt a strong empathy and certain kinship towards them. My safety was probably also bolstered by having Fabian, a young German backpacker around. He had made the trip from Pretoria too. We appeared to be the only two white faces on that bus, amid a sea of returning Zimbabweans. I only noticed Fabian, an oddity, upon reaching Bulawayo. With German efficiency, he quoted me the Bulawayo-Victoria Falls train times, immediately scuppering my idea of catching the following day's non-existent train. It made sense for both of us, the only outsiders, to team up and acclimatise to this country together. After devouring a dinner pizza at a US style diner, both of us made the after dark trip to the station together, our fatigue from a gruelling bus journey countered by the promise of beds in the sleeper car, and the greater promise of one of the world's greatest waterfalls.
Stay tuned for Chapter 2 - Train Trip to Mosi-Oa-Tunya (Victoria Falls) - coming soon!