“The chances of a free election are minimal.”
One of the flood of Zimbabweans to have fled the chaos of his homeland, author Peter Godwin tries to find some hope in the wreckage. Original article here.
So, I’m on the train from Perth to Fremantle, trying to stay awake after a 30-hour flight from New York, where I now live, via Stockholm and Kuala Lumpur, when I hear the two young black guys in the seat behind me speaking in Shona, one of Zimbabwe’s home tongues. I greet them in my rusty Shona, and soon we are chatting about home and how bad things have become there. And then the train pulls in at a suburban station and a middle-aged black lady in a nurse’s uniform gets on and sits down next to me. As soon as she picks up that we are Zimbabweans, she joins in - she’s from Harare, it turns out.
“Did you know that Zimbabweans have the highest IQ in the world?” she says. Hmm, that seems a little over-patriotic. “Yes,” she continues, “I queue for sugar, I queue for salt, I queue for fuel, I queue for cooking oil.” And she bursts into peals of laughter at her joke.
A friend of hers, she continues, saw a queue and joined it, as one does in Zimbabwe, even without knowing what it’s for, as it’s bound to be for something in short supply. Usually queues are remarkably good-natured affairs, with people chatting and bonding in the shared absurdity of their misfortune, but this one seemed a little subdued. When he gets to the head of the line, he realises why. There on a table is a coffin with a corpse laid out in it. He had inadvertently been queuing for a body viewing, and these were mourners. She hoots again, and gets off at the next station.
Back in Perth, I am interviewed by the enormously capable artistic director of the Perth International Arts Festival, Shelagh Magadza, who is, you guessed it, yet another Zimbabwean.
Welcome to the Zimbabwean diaspora: energetic, educated, talented and absent.
This is what we’ve come to - a nation wandering the Earth, exchanging mordant jokes on Australian trains, ruing our fate at literary festivals. It’s estimated that nearly 75 per cent of Zimbabweans between the ages of 18 and 65 have now left the country. That’s getting up to Irish Potato Famine ratios. It’s a veritable exodus. Imagine any city - imagine Adelaide - suddenly losing that proportion of its population. That’s how bad things have become in my homeland.
When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, my family memoir set in the collapsing Zimbabwe, ends in about 2004, when my father died. At the time, I remember thinking “the country couldn’t get much worse”.
Boy, was I wrong.
Then, inflation was a few thousand per cent, now it’s up to about 120,000 per cent - way higher than in the Weimar Republic, when Germans loaded up wheelbarrows with money to go grocery shopping. How can one even imagine what 120,000 per cent inflation means? Here’s one flippant example of the effect of the economic calumny that has beggared Africa’s most promising nation: Players teeing off at the Harare golf course usually order a round of drinks before the game so that the barman can line up their frosties on the counter as they come down the final fairway. Members used to pay after they’d finished their beers. Now they pay when they order them. Because, by the time they play a round of golf, the price of the beers has gone up.
There is a harvest of superlatives provided by Zimbabwe’s spin down the vortex of failed statehood. It is the world’s fastest shrinking (peacetime) economy, halving in size since 2000. It has one of the lowest life expectancies - about 35; more orphans per capita than anywhere on the planet; and half its population is malnourished.
Meanwhile, Robert Mugabe, who just celebrated his 84th birthday, recently moved into a $26 million palace, with 25 bedroom suites. And the question, “Why do Zimbabweans stand for it?” has already been answered: they don’t, they leave.
With snap elections due on March 29, there is a new flurry of hope that those who remain will eject him after 28 years in power. Mugabophobes now have two alternative presidential candidates, Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and now the newly declared Simba Makoni, one-time finance minister and technocrat, recently expelled from the ruling ZANU PF party for daring to challenge the Sun King. He is supposed to have the backing of various other ZANU PF heavyweights (and the smaller of the two MDC factions).
But don’t get your hopes up. The chances of a free election are minimal. Quite apart from the fact that the last three have been blatantly rigged, and that the opposition finds it hard to campaign, gets little access to the state-controlled media, and has its canvassers harassed and arrested, the electoral commission that handles the nuts and bolts of the poll says it cannot possibly conduct elections so soon. They don’t have enough ballot boxes, election officers, transport, fuel, money, they say. The basic logistics are impossible.
“What should we do?” I hear you ask. The more we hector and berate Mugabe, the more it enables him to pose as an anti-colonial hero. South African president Thabo Mbeki hasn’t been much help. On the very day that the South African-brokered negotiations broke down, he declared them a success!
In so far as African politics, in particular, is about patronage, I think we need to dial reality past Mugabe, to signal that he is fast becoming an irrelevance, and that the world will turn and he will soon be gone, one way or another. (As someone said on hearing that Mugabe had been ill, “nothing minor I hope”.) The most effective way to do this, I think, would be to pull together a multi-lateral donor conference, in which not just countries, but institutions like the World Bank, IMF and major private philanthropists, pledge amounts that they will start spending, the day after democratic normalisation.
This is a way to unlock our imagination on how reconstruction could start. The amounts pledged would help harness greed to good effect, signalling to the local Zimbabwean elite (who are wondering when to dismount the current horse) how well everyone can do under a new dispensation.
Such a conference, with its resultant document, can also begin the debate on how to fund specific reconstruction areas: agriculture (and different models of resuscitating commercial agriculture), education, health, currency stabilisation, energy, infrastructure, and so on. It also gets us away from a hectoring, negative binary on Zimbabwe to one where we lay out upon a heaving table the glittering goodies that will be available as soon as the venal autocrat is gone.
I think that this would help establish a profound paradigm shift, and change our attitude from one that is purely reactive to Mugabe’s latest felonies, to one that sees beyond him, by writing the tyrant out of the script for Zimbabwe’s future.
Peter Godwin’s latest book is “When the Crocodile Meets the Sun” (Picador, $24.95).