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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 August 2005, 18:10 GMT 19:10 UK
Opposing Mugabe 'no easy task'
John Simpson
By John Simpson
BBC world affairs editor

It seemed almost inevitable that last week's strike in protest against the bulldozing of illegal housing in Harare and elsewhere would be a flop.

Opposing President Robert Mugabe is not easy.

Group protesting against Zimbabwe government
Protesting against the government requires a lot of courage

The media in Zimbabwe, now entirely under the strictest of controls, carried no mention of the strikes.

The main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, joined in only the day before they were due to take place.

The police warned that they would attack any street protests ruthlessly.

That meant they would shoot people down in the streets if necessary.

So coming out in protest required serious courage. And in any society - let alone a quiet, essentially gentle one like Zimbabwe - not many people are prepared to become martyrs.

Even those who are, know that their efforts will often be vitiated.

President Mugabe's men have infiltrated every opposition group inside Zimbabwe.

The police know what they are planning as soon as they have reached agreement.

This infiltration has now spread to Britain, where government supporters appear at opposition meetings and sometimes openly threaten the people there.

Mr Mugabe, sensing his opponents' weakness, attacked them last week in the only places where they matter: the capital, Harare, and two or three other centres of population.

By bulldozing the ramshackle huts which illegal street-traders have built for themselves, he was striking a blow at the people who hate him most.

The police forced some people at gunpoint to pull down their own houses.

Market traders

Thirty thousand people are thought to have been arrested.

The traders have often drifted to the cities because of the collapse of the rural economy.

They deal in black market goods, especially sugar, and act as illegal money-changers, where people can turn the rands and pounds and dollars which their friends abroad send them into Zimbabwean currency.

And they usually provide the foot-soldiers for any anti-government demonstrations which may be going.

Now, they have to live rough in the cold of the southern hemisphere winter.

Eventually, many will start drifting back home.

It is another victory for Mr Mugabe.

As ever, he has an impressive explanation: "The current chaotic state of affairs where small- to medium-scale enterprises operated outside the regulatory framework and in undesignated and crime-ridden areas could not be countenanced much longer," he declared.

I have met and interviewed Robert Mugabe on various occasions over the years.

He likes giving his opinions, but you sense as he listens to your questions that he has little but contempt for you.

The outside world shows little serious interest in Zimbabwe, beyond indulging in occasional ritual condemnation of him

He is used to feeling cleverer and more articulate than anyone he comes into contact with - and he despises those he thinks are less intelligent than he is.

Which happens to be most people.

As a result he has done as he likes with Zimbabwe, wrecking the lives of most of its inhabitants.

So far he has got away with it.

His ministers and his security chiefs are not necessarily evil people, though many of them have become corrupt through serving him.

If it were not for him, most would probably be reasonable enough public servants.

He dominates them utterly. They find themselves, one of his former ministers told me, tongue-tied and stupid in his presence.

It is impossible to argue with him, even if anyone dared to do so.

Free society

So what can the outside world do about a man who ruins his own country and murders his own people, yet cannot apparently be dislodged from within?

No-one is going to invade Zimbabwe, that is for sure. After all, it does not possess oil. South Africa, which could bring down Mr Mugabe through economic pressure if it chose, has clearly decided to do nothing of the sort.

In any decent, free society, the Mugabe government's actions would be regarded as a serious crime against human rights.

The entire resources of a once wealthy state have been used to enslave it and make it destitute.

Robert Mugabe has not done all this on his own. Without his ministers, his civil servants, his policemen and soldiers, his regime would collapse.

Police officers in Zimbabwe patrolling on a farm
Many 'illegal' street traders have come from rural areas

The outside world shows little serious interest in Zimbabwe, beyond indulging in occasional ritual condemnation of him.

France has moderately friendly relations with him still.

And although the Catholic hierarchy in Zimbabwe has been among his bravest opponents, the Vatican still managed to give him international recognition by inviting him to the funeral of Pope John Paul II.

If the international community cared about Zimbabwe, it would try the president and his senior officials in absentia for their crimes.

This would be a salutary reminder that serving an octogenarian with no clear successor is a short-term and dangerous thing to do. The day of reckoning is coming closer.

There would be no shortage of evidence, from President Mugabe's appalling massacres in Matabeleland in the 1980s right down to the present day.

Short of a national uprising, there is probably no stopping Robert Mugabe, who has slaughtered so many of his people and ruined the lives of the rest.

But if his closest supporters understood that they would have to pay the price for his crimes, they might be less willing to serve him so slavishly.


Your comments:

There is a major problem in that there is no viable and strong opposition in Zimbabwe. The MDC is opposition of sorts, but to many, the party is neither ready nor fit to govern. Maybe, better the devil you know. The last elections have cemented the fact that Mugabe will have a grip on Zimbabwe until the day he dies, even if he does retire in 2008! The scariest bit is that even those who wish to replace him from within his party do not come across as being the sort of people who will make a change for Zimbabwe. The people of Zimbabwe are a gentle and hardworking people as can be seen in the many NHS hospitals in this country. If they weren't, Ian Smith may not have lasted as long as he did! Like a lot of other African countries, Zimbabwe is going to have to hit rock bottom before it has a chance to bounce back and that will be when a new community minded and honest group (probably presently unknown) win control. After Zimbabwe, watch out for Namibia and South Africa ! to have their growing pains.
Benjamin, Birmingham, UK (previously Harare, Zimbabwe)

What utter propaganda from John Simpson! This is the same kind of rhetoric and demonizing that got the US into trouble in Iraq. The people of Zimbabwe are not stupid, nor weaklings. They in their majority have accepted and voted for their government, warts and all. Those who complain are mostly disgruntled 'Rhodie' whites, misinformed foreigners and general malcontents with power-hunger ambitions. All this because Mugabe had the courage to take back land that was stolen from the people of Zimbabwe. Let us not ignore the psychological impact of that on Africans. Do you not wonder why he gets a standing ovation wherever he goes in Africa? You cannot orchestrate that kind of reaction. All this comes down to is Western fury at the loss of white privilege and the subversive example that creates.
George Dash, Canada

I'm afraid that my respect for Nelson Mandela has fallen enormously as a result of his inactivity over Zimbabwe. No one in the South African government can seriously believe that Mugabe rules through the democratic will of the people. They can do something about it (any intervention by the UK would be dismissed as racist, of course). And the fact that they haven't is a very sad indictment. After so many years of the wrongs of the empire and UDI, you can understand why some think that any form of self rule is better than what preceded it, but, in this case, that is clearly not true.
Richard Morris, UK

John Simpson is an astute and analytical observer. It is a pity though that even though he recognizes the problem of the generality of Zimbabweans, he can not pass any policy on how outside governments can bail out the masses. A number of Western countries are not able at all to confront the Zimbabwean situation because they have nothing to gain. If there was oil in Zimbabwe, or any other interests of the Western world, we would have seen an immediate intervention long time ago. Zimbabwe today is a sad state. It is shameful for anyone to identify himself/herself as Zimbabwean as this would automatically render feelings of resentment and abhorrence. How long will the whole world watch from a distance without taking steps to make sure that such dictatorship is not allowed to prevail?
Sikhulile Nyathi, United Kingdom

Mr Simpson is right in saying the Zimbabweans are a quite and gentle group and it is for that very reason that they need the help of the outside, more able world to help them through this catastrophe. The world has watched for far too long as the independent press has been shut down, a lot of people have moved out and I hope it will not take another 'Sudan' for the world to help out. I'm sure with the help of BBC and the likes of Mr Simpson we will get that help soon
Roberto Chirasha, Washington DC, USA ex Harare

As a Zimbabwean in the 'diaspora', John Simpson's article hit the nail on the head. The world is indeed in a sorry state when a man like Mugabe is allowed to continue his dictatorial oppression unabated - simply because the country does not possess anything of 'value' to the international community. Well, here's a different example: how about the thousands upon thousands of wild animals, supposedly protected and most of them endangered, that have been slaughtered as a direct result of Mugabe's land-grab policies. Were those not worth saving?
Justin Marabini, London, UK

Mugabe should realise that 1980 was light years ago, and despite his academic intelligence, none of his policies have been implemented in reality with any dialogue, sensitivity, scale or appropriateness. He has perfected partisan self-exculpation and morbid self-justification to a fine level. Zimbabwe will probably undergo a second Chimurenga revolution between the state beneficiaries and the dispossessed. South Africa is seeing the crystal ball; the honeymoon is over.
DJ, Kingston, Canada

John Simpson's article is the most informed and insightful of any I have read about Zimbabwe. We who live here, long for change and to be part of the world again. It seems it is not ever going to happen.
Susan, Harare, Zimbabwe

This is true about Mugabe. He has a low regard of anyone especially if you are not a member of his tribe as shown by his previous statements that in a certain suburb of Harare that resides totem less people (in reference to citizens of Malawian origin). If he is that clever, have we ever heard the history of his father. Let us have it.
EJ, Harare, Zimbabwe

Illegal housing? Imagine the police with guns and dogs raiding the back gardens of houses in the Home Counties in England and burning all the garden sheds and glass houses. The purpose is fear and intimidation of those struggling to survive. To remind them that any uprising would be stopped with unlimited force. Mugabe's failed his people, his country...
Sisi, UK

In addition to Simpson's observations, it is important to note that Mugabe has been nourished on a political diet of flattery, sycophancy and shameless praise-singing. He now thinks he is a demigod beyond human error. Mugabe is impervious to any reason from any quota. His case is typical of all dictators - militarising the state, abuse of the police, lavishly rewarding his cronies, intimidating the population using the cruel Central Intelligence Organisation, and also personalising the presidency. Because of his greed for power and wealth, when he dies, his sycophants are going to go for each other's throats, creating more confusion.
Chenjerai Hove, Stavanger, Norway

Because you are unable to control Zimbabwe like a stooge, you call him all names. How was Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, governed under Ian Smith? Blacks were killed everyday or doesn't that matter. I wish we in Africa had lots of Robert Mugabes. Stooges like Morgan Tsvangirai are a disgrace to Africa.
Kwasi Pabi, Accra, Ghana

The Simpson article, like most compiled by members of the western media about African leaders can best be described by just one word, nonsense. We Africans appreciate the concern of the outside world regarding issues in Africa but don't like people calling our leaders murderers. President Mugabe is a true African patriot and people hate him because he is not afraid to speak his mind.
Philip Buchanan, Morrisville, PA, USA

Thank you for this report. It's true. Mr Simpson you are the only one out there who cares for us Zimbabweans today. My friends and church mates will be sleeping outside because the destroyers are in my area. My question is: Where is the organisation called the United Nations if it's also for us. If possible tell its officials that they don't care. Shame on them. Maybe America might come to our help. But most of all we still have hope in God. May the world pray for us. Mr Simpson may God bless you.
Anonymous, Harare

I think there is another element that Mr Simpson did not mention: Any action by the western world to rectify this issue would be seen by sub-Sahara Africa as potentially racialist. After all, very few nations other than the United Kingdom give any coverage to the mismanagement of Zimbabwe.
John Cole, USA

John Simpson's report does not have anything new, which has not been said before. In a recent African poll Robert Mugabe came third in the greatest African ever because taking the land from the white minority was one of the greatest acts of the 20th century by an African. Greater than Mandela being made president.
Derrick Kerr, London, England

John Simpson is right - Zimbabwe has no oil or significant mineral wealth so is of no interest to the First world. However, I don't understand why full sanctions were imposed on the Ian Smith government for lesser crimes than Mr Mugabe is committing, come on the First world you have to put a stop to his nonsense!
Samantha Smit, Lusaka, Zambia

I just cannot understand why countries of the civilised world stand by and let his tyrant rule, we go into Iraq, Afghanistan, why not Zimbabwe?
Alan Bailey, New Mills, UK

Mr John Simpson's article about Zimbabwe is journalism at its best. He told the truth that the conventional press hides. My best wishes for Mr John Simpson.
Roberto Alvarez, Miami, Florida




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