Thursday, August 06, 2009

Can a Team of (Bitter) Rivals Heal Zimbabwe?

Alex Perry/Harare

My neighbor on the flight is chatty. When I ask why he's going to Harare, he tells me he is an investor. I'm curious. Zimbabwe's economy has collapsed. The government of President Robert Mugabe has destroyed the country's currency. Several million people need food aid, millions more have fled, and an outbreak of cholera — that sure mark of destitution — has killed close to 5,000 and infected 20 times that number in the past year. What's to buy in Zimbabwe? "Graves," my neighbor replies. "Private cemeteries. Other places, I'll do minerals, farms, forests. In Zim, I'm in death."

In the past decade, Zimbabwe has become a repository of stories of the nightmarish and grotesque. The southern African nation is (or should be) a place of plenty, a former food exporter that was ruined, beaten and starved by the ineptitude, corruption and paranoia of its aging dictator, a liberation hero who led Zimbabwe to independence but — in a familiar African refrain — came to personify all the tragedy and broken promise of a continent. I'd had my own brief disaster there in April 2007, when, the day after I arrived, the subject of my very first interview asked me to wait while he ran to do a quick errand, returning minutes later with two policemen. I spent five days in jail before I was tried and fined for reporting without accreditation. Now, on my first trip back, my companion seemed to be confirming that Zimbabwe's long night endured.

That was certainly my expectation. Zimbabwe's history has been marked by turbulence since 1965, when the white minority government of the country, then called Rhodesia, unilaterally declared independence from Britain. After a long and bloody guerrilla war, the black majority finally took power in 1980, with Mugabe as independent Zimbabwe's first leader. He has ruthlessly held on to the position ever since. In March of last year, his Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) lost a general election to Morgan Tsvangirai's opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Refusing to accept the result, Mugabe turned his security forces on his own people, killing more than 100, arresting thousands and displacing tens of thousands. But this February, with the economy in free fall, Mugabe agreed to share power with Tsvangirai. Mugabe would remain President, Tsvangirai would be Prime Minister, and their parties would split the ministries and Cabinet.

On a continent where democracy is taking root more firmly each year, the deal was welcomed as an important step away from the habits of the past. Ever since, however, Mugabe and ZANU have blocked and delayed Tsvangirai and the MDC. When I caught my plane to Harare, the new state was still only partly formed and Mugabe was deriding the MDC as "insolent." Worse for Tsvangirai's supporters was the sight of their leader smiling and shaking hands with a man whose forces had repeatedly tried to kill him — and them. For years, Tsvangirai had told them that a new era awaited one thing: Mugabe's departure. If Zimbabwe really was a nation in transition, as Tsvangirai insisted, how come the old tyrant was still in charge?

A Prayer for Deliverance

My journey to seek an answer to that question started with a surprise. The former driver of some √©migr√© friends of mine met me at the airport, and soon we hit a traffic jam. Two years earlier, traveling in Zimbabwe had been a logistical feat that involved prearranging fuel stops. Now I was stuck in a line of cars outside — another surprise — a packed mall, complete with restaurants, furniture stores and a buzzing supermarket.

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