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Last Updated: Monday, 13 August 2007, 12:53 GMT 13:53 UK
What next for chaotic Zimbabwe?
Grant Ferrett
BBC News, South Africa

The gaping holes in the security fence between Zimbabwe and South Africa give a hint of the determination of many Zimbabweans to leave their country.

Robert Mugabe
Many observers think that Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, has too much power

During a late-night drive I spotted 12 holes along one 10-metre stretch alone.

As fast as the South Africans repair the fence, new holes are cut.

One estimate suggests that three million Zimbabweans have fled across the border in recent years.

One illegal Zimbabwean migrant, Christopher, explained to me how so many people manage to breach border security.

When he decided to leave several years ago, he phoned a contact in South Africa who cut the fence to order for a fee of 50 rand (about US$7) and provided transport for an extra fee.

He said those who are caught by the South African authorities and deported often try to cross the border illegally again on the same day.

"The government of Zimbabwe is not looking after people. It's beating people, it's shooting people," says Christopher.

"There's no law in Zimbabwe. The law is for the president only."

New constitution

In the space of just seven years, Zimbabwe has managed to transform itself from one of Africa's most stable and prosperous countries to one of its poorest and most chaotic.

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Inflation is the highest in the world (the government has stopped publishing the figures) and millions are expected to need food aid in the coming year.

How might the trend be reversed?

The root of the problem is, according to many observers, the concentration of too much power in the hands of President Mugabe.

Repeated constitutional amendments since Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980 have had the effect, in the words of the opposition faction leader, Arthur Mutambara, of allowing Mr Mugabe and his party to "get away with murder."

The solution, in theory at least, is equally clear. Zimbabwe needs a new constitution.

It should, according to Trevor Ncube, a Zimbabwean newspaper publisher now based in Johannesburg, envisage "a Zimbabwe that gives all its citizens a stake in society, rather than one which is dominated by a clique that is pillaging the country."

The apparently simple solution also requires free and fair elections (voting is due to take place by March next year), the formation of a government which reflects the views of the majority and the replacement of 83-year-old Mr Mugabe.

A Zimbabwean woman crawling under a border fence to South Africa
More Zimbabweans are fleeing illegally in search of better lives

Zimbabwe's former Information Minister Jonathan Moyo, who is now a strident critic of the government, says this last point is not sufficient to end Zimbabwe's crisis, but is absolutely necessary.

"Obviously there'll be no solution as long as Robert Mugabe remains in power," he said.

"For most Zimbabweans, the situation is a living hell, and he is the biggest part of the problem."

Only once the political problems have been resolved will Zimbabwe's economy be brought back under control.

Economists say Zimbabwe either has to kick its habit of printing money, or should abandon its own currency altogether in favour of the South African rand or the US dollar.

At the same time, several billion dollars in international aid would be needed to stabilise the economy.

And many of those millions of Zimbabweans who have fled abroad could play a key role in rebuilding if they were to return.

In denial

Even so, it could take many years for the country to return to its previous position of relative prosperity.

Sultan Barakat of the Centre for Post-War Reconstruction and Development at York University says the trick is to capture as much international attention and resources as possible within the first three or four years of any transition, before the rest of the world loses interest.

Zimbabwean shoppers looking at empty shelves
With inflation the highest in the world, Zimbabwe will require millions in food aid this year

What remains frustratingly unclear, though, is how to reach the point at which this advice can be implemented.

The opposition is weak and divided. Mr Mugabe's determination to remain in office appears undiminished.

His party has become factionalised and has failed to coalesce around a single, alternative candidate.

Nor does the government even acknowledge, in public at least, the scale of the current problems.

Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu told the BBC: "Really, the Zimbabwean people are a happy lot, and that's why you don't see any demonstrations.

"Zimbabwe is opening up and the people are responding positively. They see opportunities. Zimbabwe is on course to become the Singapore of Africa."

Zimbabwe's crisis could continue for a considerable time yet, according to some observers, as more and more people are driven from the cash economy back to subsistence.

Daniel Makina, a Zimbabwean finance professor at the University of South Africa, laments the tendency of his compatriots to "normalise the abnormal."

He believes they have become so wrapped up in the struggle for daily survival that they have lost the long-term view necessary to help rebuild their country.

If he is right, Zimbabwe could be drifting ever further from resolving its problems.

Zimbabwe: Out of Control. Two-part series broadcast on BBC World Service radio on Monday 13th August and Monday 20th August. Also available as a podcast.




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