Thursday, July 01, 2004

A Method to the Madness

Trust the Economist to put forward the most convincing explanation yet of just what Robert Mugabe's trying to accomplish by wrecking his country.

YOU have to admire Robert Mugabe's chutzpah. First he makes life so miserable for Zimbabweans that busloads of them emigrate. Then he asks the fugitives to send money home to prop up the regime that drove them out in the first place.

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Confidence cannot return unless private property rights are respected. There is no prospect of this with Mr Mugabe in charge. This month his land minister floated the idea of abolishing all freehold land tenure and replacing it with leases of up to 99 years. The government then back-pedalled a bit, though Mr Mugabe probably preferred the unadulterated plan. If all land belonged to the state, he could dole it out to his supporters and take it back if they proved disloyal.

Mr Mugabe sees property-owners as a threat. Many middle-class Zimbabweans (most of them black) have irritating ideas about democracy, and have the means to make themselves heard. They bankrolled the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), an opposition party that would have won the last two national elections, had they not been rigged. Mr Mugabe feels safer when whites and white-collar blacks leave the country: then they cannot vote.

He pushes them out in various ways. Employing thugs to break their fingers is one. Confiscating private property is another. But he also uses more subtle techniques. For example, last month, his government ordered the country's private schools to reduce their fees or close. Armed police were sent to enforce the edict, so most schools complied. Given rapidly rising costs, this guarantees that standards will fall, which will prompt more middle-class parents to emigrate.

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The state education and health systems, the proudest achievements of Mr Mugabe's early years in office, are imploding. Only four years ago, primary school enrolment was 95% for boys and 90% for girls. Last year it was 67% for boys and 63% for girls. Zimbabweans are so broke that they cannot afford state school fees of $4 a term. Infant mortality has doubled in a decade, and life expectancy has fallen from 60 in 1992 to a projected 35 next year.

The Mugabe miracle

As recently as 1997, Zimbabwe was twice as rich as the median sub-Saharan nation. Now it is crashing towards the norm. In keeping with this theme, Mr Mugabe is trying to replace the relatively sophisticated, pluralistic society that Zimbabwe once had with a stereotypical African patronage system. To enter university or to find a job as a teacher, it now helps enormously if you first join Mr Mugabe's youth militia.

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A general election must be held by early next year. The regime is stockpiling imported maize. With donors barred from the country, it hopes to use its monopoly of the national staple to reward its supporters and starve the opposition. The media are shackled, the leader of the opposition is on trial for his life, and the judiciary has been so thoroughly nobbled that the MDC's lawsuits contesting the results of the last election won't be processed before the next election is held.

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South Africa's president, Thabo Mbeki, told President George Bush last year that the Zimbabwean crisis would be solved by now. But he has made no serious effort to resolve it. At times, he has claimed that the MDC and ZANU-PF were in secret talks, though both parties denied it. He refuses to put any pressure on Mr Mugabe to respect the will of his own people, though he could. “South Africa could end the madness in a week, without a shot being fired,” fumes a black Zimbabwean businessman in Johannesburg, “simply by threatening to cut off the electricity and blockade the borders. But they won't.”
The anonymous Zimbabwean businessman sees something many are unwilling to face up to - were Mbeki really of a mind to do so, he could end Mugabe's reign overnight. The reasonable conclusion to draw is that Thabo Mbeki likes what he sees going on in Zimbabwe.

One has to hand it to Robert Mugabe, though, as it's obvious he studied his Marxist textbooks thoroughly during his years in exile; his strategy is a textbook application of Uncle Joe's methods - starve the obdurate "kulaks" into submission, and use the mostly artificially induced scarcity that arises to reward those who are willing to dance to your every whim.