Black professionals flee Zimbabwe's ills


Immigration: South Africa gets an influx of educated workers escaping misery under President Mugabe.

September 11, 2005|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - The 2-month-old baby arrived at the hospital in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, severely dehydrated. A young doctor, Samukeliso Dube, sent word that she needed help inserting a central intravenous line.

Dube waited, but no one came - a staffing shortage meant the inexperienced doctor was on her own. The baby died. "I thought, I cannot continue like this," she said, recalling the 2003 incident.

And she didn't. Dube, now 29, moved to Johannesburg, joining a growing number of black Zimbabwean professionals who have left for South Africa, Britain and elsewhere to escape a worsening economic and political situation.

The exodus of white farmers from Zimbabwe after the government forced them off their land gained international attention. But the once-prosperous nation of 12 million people is also quietly hemorrhaging well-educated black lawyers, accountants, doctors and entrepreneurs, many still in their 20s and 30s.

The brain drain is impoverishing Zimbabwe intellectually, experts say, and will make it harder to repair the medical, educational and commercial structures that have edged toward collapse under 81-year-old President Robert G. Mugabe's rule over the past five years.

"When it comes to rebuilding Zimbabwe, what if people don't come back with these skills?" said Alice Bloch, a City University of London sociologist who has studied the diaspora. "Obviously, some key skills that are needed are not going to be in the country."

No one knows exactly how many professionals have departed. A survey of 500 Zimbabweans that Bloch completed this year for the International Organization for Migration found that 29 percent of Zimbabweans moving to South Africa had college degrees, compared with a national average of college-educated in Zimbabwe of 4 percent.

At the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa's most prestigious university, 34 staff members are Zimbabwean - and all but five began working here after 2000. That is when Zimbabwe's economy began sliding and Mugabe began concentrating power through a series of elections criticized by Western observers as unfair.

Expatriate Zimbabweans who can afford it send relatives vital shipments of cash and goods. And in one of the survey's more hopeful signs, Bloch said, only 12 percent ruled out ever returning.

But transplanted Zimbabwean professionals here are so focused on settling into new lives and finding jobs that it is hard to engage them on their home country's future, said Daniel Molokele, a 30-year-old Zimbabwean lawyer and Dube's husband.

Molokele is working with a coalition of nongovernmental organizations to plan a February conference where professionals can begin planning for Zimbabwe's reconstruction, whenever that day comes.

Molokele is in frequent contact with dozens of educated Zimbabweans here, including Bheki Moyo, who is pursuing a doctorate in political science and working at a think tank in Pretoria. Moyo left Zimbabwe in 1999 amid hints of the problems to come, and he said he dreams of going back to teach.

"I must contribute to the country one way or another," Moyo said. "When my retirement age comes, I want to see myself in that country."

Moyo is 30 and does not plan to retire for 25 years. Asked whether he thinks it might really take 25 years for his country to rebound, he said: "It might take 20."

The United Nations has condemned a government slum-clearing operation that it said left 700,000 Zimbabweans homeless or jobless. The country is nearly broke, and Mugabe has asked South Africa for a grant of several hundred million dollars. The unemployment rate is about 70 percent.

Yet there is no sign that Mugabe is losing control, and the main opposition party is considered too weak to challenge him.

Many of Zimbabwe's problems can be traced to 2000, when Mugabe encouraged dissatisfied veterans of the liberation war to seize white-owned farms, even though most did not know how to run a farm. When the corn and wheat harvests plummeted, Mugabe shunned foreign aid.

Inflation shot up as the government kept printing money to cover its spending. Three years ago, 55 Zimbabwean dollars bought a U.S. dollar; it now takes 17,500 at the official exchange rate and 40,000 on the black market.

A lack of foreign currency has stripped store shelves of basics such as cornmeal. Sporadic fuel deliveries to gas stations are gone in minutes.

Dube is the eldest of eight children. Her father was the caretaker of a public school, while her mother sold homemade goods. She attended public schools and studied medicine because she was "one of the smartest students" and that was what the smartest students studied.

In 2000, as Zimbabwe's slide began, she graduated from the University of Zimbabwe medical school in Harare. For the next two years she interned at two public hospitals in Bulawayo, the country's second city.

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