Thursday, April 3, 2008

Change in Zimbabwe, at last

When I first went to Zimbabwe, in 1990, I had spent the previous several years raising funds for political prisoners in South Africa and Namibia. I was an admirer of Robert Mugabe because of his support for the ANC, and because he had overturned the expectations of people who expected him to be a tinpot dictator. He had improved health and education in the rural areas, welcomed foreign investors, and given farms back to white commercial farmers who had fled the country. I was troubled by the massacres a few years earlier in Matabeleland — in retrospect I should have been a lot more troubled — but I thought Zimbabwe could have ended up with a leader much worse than Mugabe. By the end of my six months in the country, I had changed my mind. It was an election year, and thugs belonging to the ruling party’s “youth league” were intimidating and beating up supporters of the opposition. The opposition candidate for vice president was shot, though he survived. Other people who were inconvenient to the government tended to die in car crashes, sometimes in collisions with armored vehicles. Joshua Nkomo, the widely respected leader of the ZAPU party, had been harmlessly neutralized as a minister without portfolio. I saw him at a ceremony for the tenth anniversary of the country’s independence — a huge sad man in a suit, staring at his lap. Meanwhile the ruling ZANU party was finishing construction on a new and brutal-looking tower in Harare. Eighteen long years later, Zimbabwe’s economy is in ruins and its people starving. When I was there, the largest bill in general circulation was a blue note worth twenty Zimbabwean dollars. As I recall, it was worth about ten dollars. In January this year, the government printed new money:

On Jan. 18, Zimbabwe’s reserve bank put a $10 million bill into general circulation, a maroon-tinged piece of paper with a sketch of water gushing through a dam that might well have symbolized the escaping value of the note itself. Worth enough at the time to buy a chicken, it now will barely buy a few eggs, with a value of about 40 cents.
As I write, Mugabe has admitted that ZANU has lost control of Parliament, but he has not yet stepped down. I hope he does so soon, that there is a peaceful transition of power, and that foreign governments and aid agencies provide the country with help that actually promotes development and not debt and dependency.

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