In Zimbabwe, strongman being put to the test Economy, aid to Congo place pressure on Mugabe

November 22, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- These are threatening times for President Robert Mugabe, 74, Southern Africa's longest-serving strongman.

An imploding economy and involvement in an unpopular war abroad are combining to put Mugabe's 18-year rule under unprecedented pressure. There is a growing sense that this nation of about 12 million is entering its transition into the post-Mugabe future.

"We are very close to change," said Lupi Mushayakarara, chair of the Institute for the Advancement of Freedom, funded by financier George Soros. "Mugabe might be thrown out. That possibility exists. The government has collapsed. If they are not careful, they will just be swept away, and we will degenerate into a classic African chaotic situation."

Twice this year, the impoverished townships around this capital city have exploded in spontaneous, violent riots during protests against escalating food and fuel prices, which are controlled by the government.

The 340,000-strong trade union movement has staged weekly daylong strikes -- the most recent of them taking place Wednesday -- to protest government mismanagement, and a nascent opposition has started to coalesce in a democracy that has been a virtual one-party state since its historic 1980 "liberation" from white minority rule.

Behind the crisis is the collapse of the Zimbabwean dollar, which has been in virtual free fall, plummeting in value from 10 to 36 against the U.S. dollar during the past year.

The causes are many.

They include government overspending, endemic corruption, deployment of the army to fight a $1 million-a-day war for President Laurent Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and a wilting confidence in the crucial farming sector, which is threatened by redistribution of land to the poor.

The local dollar's collapse has pushed the inflation rate toward 40 percent, raising living costs beyond the reach of the poor, who are also the angry.

"Politically, the government gets more and more unpopular every day," said John Legat of Fleming Martin Zimbabwe Research, a leading monitor of national trends.

Mugabe, a former mission teacher, political detainee and co-founder of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) came to power under a socialist banner.

He became prime minister and then president after Britain negotiated an agreement on independent elections between blacks and whites here, ending a century of colonialism in what was known as Rhodesia.

"Nobody really has the courage to stand up to [Mugabe]," said John Robertson, an analyst who runs Economic Information Services here. "Some people might feel their lives are at risk. But others feel that if their name was crossed off the patronage list, it might cost them a great deal of money.

"He is very deeply embedded, but I think all the events are moving in a new direction."

A new force

Helping to chart that direction is Morgan Tsvangirai, 46, secretary-general of the 350,000-member Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, a new force in the land. He is viewed as a potential presidential candidate.

This month, Tsvangirai, a peasant son and former mine union official, ordered a one-day "stay away" from work to be staged every Wednesday.

The first two stoppages reduced the usual midweek bustle of this capital and other major cities to a Sunday-like quiet that must have been noticed in the president's office.

Tsvangirai, who survived an assassination attempt in December, has no illusions about the precariousness of his role as a government critic.

"It's risky," he said. "So many forces have an interest in the status quo. So many people have benefited from corruption, cronyism, paternalism. They are mostly occupied with retaining power rather than providing leadership."

The unions, which negotiated a 35 percent pay increase this year, are demanding another 20 percent to offset a 67 percent boost in fuel prices ordered by the government this month.

The government has said the price increases are essential for the viability of the state's oil procurement agency.

Deep impact

The impact is deeply felt in places such as the crowded township of Chitungwiza, a high-density suburb of humble, back-to-back homes on potholed roads 10 miles outside Harare.

People such as Lingiwe Shambare, a mother of seven, suddenly found themselves paying 25 cents for about a quart of paraffin oil for cooking and lighting instead of 3 cents, and 25 cents for a bus ticket to town instead of 10 cents. The prices of corn and other staples have doubled.

More increases are expected.

"Where can we get that sort of money?" asked Shambare, who lives marginally on the $80 a month her husband earns as a messenger. "We are now suffering."

Shambare's neighbor, Caroline Kujeke, 19, mother of a 15-month-old girl, said, "It's very hard for us to survive. Everything is [priced] so high, and there is nowhere to complain."

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