Why does Africa applaud Mugabe?
When Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, took his seat for the new session of parliament on 25 July, it was on a specially designed leopard-skin throne flanked by two giant elephant tusks. Next to him sat his young wife, Grace, in a chair artfully positioned on a zebra skin. Stuffed leopards and antelope heads adorned newly painted walls. The parliament needs many kinds of reform, but a Changing Rooms-style make-over was not on anyone's list, particularly given that Zimbabwe is in the midst of what the World Bank calls the worst economic crisis of any country in peacetime.
While Mugabe was showing off his redesign on national TV, less than a mile away Memory had to crawl to get into the cardboard hovel that now passes for her home. Twice during the past month she had been arrested for selling cups of sadza (porridge) on the streets of Harare to try to earn money for her two sons to go to school. "The police took my pot, fined me and held me three days," she said, coughing, as she showed me the waist-high dwelling on the dusty ground. "Mugabe has turned us into beggars."
At night she suffers nightmares about the government bulldozers that destroyed their home last year, smashing beds and wardrobes, her husband's carpentry workshop and everything they had ever worked for.
Thabitha Khumalo, a courageous mother-of-two from Bulawayo, has been arrested 22 times. Her crime: campaigning against a critical shortage of tampons and sanitary towels caused by Zimbabwe's economic crisis, forcing women to use newspaper, which often leads to infection. On one occasion Thabitha was tortured so badly that her front teeth were knocked up her nose; on another she had an AK-47 thrust up her vagina until she bled.
To Memory, Thabitha and millions of other Zimbabweans forced by their government into hunger, homelessness or fleeing the country, it is a mystery why the man responsible for their plight continues to be treated like a hero in the rest of Africa. Not only does he receive standing ovations whenever he appears at pan-African gatherings, but Malawi has even named a new road after him. The Robert Gabriel Mugabe Highway from Blantyre to the Indian Ocean ports of Mozambique, opened by the Zimbabwean president in May, is a huge embarrassment for the European Union, which funded it and has sanctions in place against Mugabe and his regime.
The multimillion-dollar road has become such a symbol of Africa's failure to deal with Mugabe that the Malawian police have to guard the plaques bearing his name day and night. Even so, last month a group of 20 men armed with machetes and pangas managed to overcome them and smash the signs.
"Zimbabwe is a test case for the African continent on how we deal with dictatorships and black-on-black repression," said Nelson Chamisa, spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), when we met in Harare just before Easter. He shook his head as I counted out the huge stack of notes needed just to pay for our coffee, a bill of more than a million Zim dollars (the official inflation rate is 1,042 per cent). "So far it seems to be failing."
A deputy president of a neighbouring country told me he was at the second inauguration of Thabo Mbeki as president of South Africa in 2004, when Mugabe walked in and the entire audience rose in applause. "I was so embarrassed," he said. "How can we in Africa complain about the west when we applaud such a tyrant?"
As a result of Mugabe's land reform the countryside looks blighted by a terrible scourge, and four million Zimbabweans depend on food aid. Many more subsist on roots and fried termites, and the country's life expectancy has dropped to the lowest in the world - just 34 for women. Yet the programme responsible was recently described as "commendable" by Isak Katali, Namibia's deputy minister of lands. "We feel if Zimbabwe did this, we can do it in the same manner," he said.
As someone who has travelled back and forth reporting on the country since 1999, witnessing the demise of what was one of the most affluent and educated countries on the African continent, this attitude seems inexplicable. Yes, Mugabe was a liberation hero, leading his country to independence from Britain in 1980, but surely that does not excuse him all subsequent excesses?
It is the silence from neighbouring South Africa that is hardest to understand. South Africa is the place most affected by Mugabe's actions, hosting more than two million refugees from Zimbabwe, who get blamed for crime and stealing jobs. Every day, hundreds more desperate Zimbabweans attempt the journey across the crocodile-infested Limpopo River. South Africa is also best placed to do something - it could literally pull the plugs, switching off both credit and electricity.
Instead, President Mbeki has relied on so-called "quiet diplomacy". This involves sending letters that Mugabe ignores and occasionally extracting minor concessions. One was the use of transparent ballot boxes in the last election. Mugabe immediately turned this to his advantage by warning people that he could see how they voted.
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