Zimbabwe on the threshold

African autocrat's rule tottering after decades of corruption, excess

September 29, 1999|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- President Robert Mugabe, one of the last great African autocrats, is leading his country into its 20th year of independence with its economy imploding and his control under growing threat.

"It started off very well, but ended up very badly," said Morgan Tsvangirai, once a Mugabe loyalist but now a major challenger to the so-called father of Zimbabwe's freedom from British colonialism in 1980.

Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change, an umbrella group of trade unions, social, church and civic organizations, is the first national opposition party to confront Mugabe in the former Rhodesia.

In a country where one urban worker can support 10 rural dependents, the group's influence stretches across this undulating high plateau, from the Limpopo to the Zambezi rivers.

A textile worker, miner and union organizer, Tsvangirai, 47, invites comparison to Solidarity's Lech Walesa in Poland -- a relative unknown springing from the workplace to prominence by facing down an entrenched regime. But there is an even closer precedent next door in Zambia, where organized labor led the 1991 campaign that ended Kenneth Kaunda's 27 years in power.

"It's the beginning of the end for Mugabe," said John Makumbe, a political science lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe. "Anything that can go wrong is going wrong in Zimbabwe. There are lots of people saying, `Enough is enough.' The man must go."

Mugabe's ouster would send reverberations around southern Africa as it tries to adapt to South Africa's new post-apartheid assertiveness and forge regional political and economic solidarity in the face of continuing wars in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Near-dictatorial power

But Mugabe retains near-dictatorial power over both the machinery of state and his ruling Zimbabwe African National Union- Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). To dislodge him would take little short of political revolution.

"The Presidential Powers Act allows Mugabe to do what he likes, when he likes and without any restraint," said Mike Auret, director of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in Zimbabwe.

One of the most blatant examples of this has been Mugabe's decision to commit 10,000 troops to fight an unpopular and costly war for Laurent Kabila in Congo without seeking parliamentary or voter approval.

Mugabe exercises control through a network of political patronage. He is above civil and criminal law, and can be impeached only by a vote of 100 of the 150 members of Parliament, of which all but three belong to his party.

The result is a country in crisis, with an annual inflation rate approaching 70 percent, unemployment above 50 percent and more than half the population in abject poverty. Its government is riddled with corruption and ineptitude.

And, casting a shadow over all is HIV-AIDS, a medical, social, economic and environmental disaster that causes 2,000 deaths a month.

"The problem with our government is they know these things but they simply can't handle them, so they don't handle them -- and that's the end of it," said Auret. "The government has run out of ideas."

The Mukashi family experience reflects the grim realities of Zimbabwe. Janet Mukashi, 27, has to come up with ideas daily to feed her husband, Michael, 29, and their sons Joseph, 8, and Joel, 3, in their modest home in Harare.

She says the daily diet that used to cost 20 Zimbabwean dollars now costs about 100. That's the equivalent of about $3, but it is a sum the family cannot afford on the few dollars her husband earns at the odd jobs that he has taken since being laid off as an auto electrician.

The eggs they used to have have disappeared from breakfast since the price quadrupled. These days, it's just porridge. The chicken she used to serve on weekends is now a rare treat.

Official Zimbabwe

If the lives and times of ordinary Zimbabweans are bleak, this did not stop Cabinet members from recently voting themselves a nearly 200 percent wage increase. The raise was reversed Sept. 21 in the face of popular outrage. What hasn't been reversed is the tripling of senior army officers' salaries and the doubling of all military pay, moves widely interpreted as an effort to keep the army loyal in case of an anti-Mugabe uprising.

"If Mugabe had stepped down in 1995, he would have stepped down with his reputation intact," said Tsvangirai. "But now his reputation has been severely damaged because of the mistakes, the crisis the country is facing."

As a labor leader, Tsvangirai became a voice for rising popular discontent. He first demonstrated his independent power by bringing the country to a standstill in December 1997. Shortly afterward, he was attacked and beaten in his union office. He identified his three assailants as government thugs, but they were acquitted.

"We are dealing with a party and a government which is inherently violent," he said. "There is no security. Risks are omnipresent."

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