As Zimbabwe goes, so may go all of southern Africa

June 23, 2000|By Trudy Rubin

PHILADELPHIA - This has been an awful year for sub-Saharan Africa, as violent conflicts have proliferated and HIV/AIDS has spread.

So this weekend's elections in the beautiful southern African nation of Zimbabwe have become an important indicator of whether the downward slide can be halted. The contest involves all the key questions haunting the continent: the prospects for democracy, the chances for economic growth and the ability of African leaders to work together to solve Africa's problems.

If Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe continues to stir up violence against supporters of the opposition - and other African leaders remain silent - then the slide will surely accelerate.

Beatings, kidnappings, rape and murder are the tactics Mr. Mugabe's supporters are using against the Movement for Democratic Change, which stood to pull a stunning upset in Parliament in a free and fair election. Amnesty International has accused the Mugabe government of instigating or condoning the election violence. Workers from Mr. Mugabe's ruling party ZANU-PF have fanned out through the countryside, threatening MDC supporters.

The aging Zimbabwean tyrant has tried to divert attention from this thuggery by instigating a campaign to seize land from white commercial farmers. Black veterans of Zimbabwe's liberation struggle have invaded more than 1,000 white-owned farms. The land issue is real, but the timing of the seizures is an obvious pretext to win rural votes.

Mr. Mugabe's support base is rural, and he is willing to destroy Zimbabwe's economy to keep it. Many rural poor don't know that the reason Britain and other Western donors reneged on a 1998 scheme to fund land reform was Mr. Mugabe's failure to assure that the land would go to the poor, not to his cronies.

Instead, the current invasion of white farms is destroying Zimbabwe's major export crops and throwing tens of thousands of black farm workers off the job. Those workers know they don't stand to get the land; news reports indicate that many of them support the opposition.

So does another productive sector of the economy, urban trade unionists and mineworkers. Maybe that is why the Marxist-oriented Mr. Mugabe backed down from a recent pledge to seize foreign-owned mine assets when he addressed a recent election rally in the biggest mining region. If the mines went to corrupt cronies (as have previous commercial farm takeovers), those mineworkers would probably lose their jobs.

Middle-class professionals in the cities are also supporting the MDC. They, too, are frustrated that their standard of living is collapsing, even as Mr. Mugabe wastes millions each month supporting 11,000 Zimbabwean troops he dispatched to fight in Congo's civil war.

Of course, there is good reason for Mr. Mugabe to keep the troops in Congo. Congolese President Laurent Kabila has offered a major diamond concession to a Zimbabwean company with close ties to both Mr. Mugabe's government and the commander of the Zimbabwean soldiers.

Mr. Mugabe's madness is hurting the whole region. Trade and investment in Mozambique and South Africa, along with currency values, are affected badly by Zimbabwe's economic collapse. Zimbabwe's instability affects its neighbors, even though they observe the rule of law.

So Zimbabwe's opposition looked to South African President Thabo Mbeki and Mozambican President Joaqim Chissano for help in guaranteeing fair elections. The Clinton administration, too, is relying on an association of southern African leaders called SADC, as part of a strategy to encourage African regional organizations to take more responsibility for handling Africa's problems.

Neither Mr. Mbeki nor Mr. Chissano, however, has been willing to criticize Mr. Mugabe publicly, preferring instead to use quiet diplomacy. Mr. Mugabe is an old friend, a fellow fighter for liberation against white rule, and South African officials say there's no use driving him into a corner. But so far, quiet diplomacy hasn't worked.

Mr. Mugabe is blocking election monitors from Britain, the United States, even Kenya and Nigeria. If Zimbabwe's election results are distorted by violence, the region's leaders will face a critical choice.

If they do nothing, Mr. Mbeki's pledge to lead an African renaissance will be tarnished. The Organization of African Unity's pledge to bar any regime that comes to power by arms will be negated. And a bad year for Africa will become that much worse.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her via e-mail at

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