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Tuesday, 11 April, 2000, 16:01 GMT 17:01 UK
Zimbabwe's shattered dream
By Joseph Winter in Harare
On 18 April, 1980, Zimbabwe became independent and hopes were high that it would be "different".
Zimbabweans of all races had seen the decline of the African countries "north of the Zambezi" and would avoid making the same mistakes.
Twenty years on, corruption and mismanagement have brought a once promising economy to its knees and an ageing political leadership refuses to give way, despite evidence of its growing unpopularity.
When he took power, Robert Mugabe had enormous international goodwill, replacing the white minority rule of Ian Smith's Rhodesia.
The economy was relatively well developed, the country could feed itself and infrastructure such as roads were in good shape.
Although two-thirds of the white community left fearing black rule, those who stayed were told they were an integral part of society and the economy.
Zimbabwe embarked on a programme of mass education and health provision.
Even today, literacy rates are the highest in Africa. Again, this won plaudits at home and abroad.
Apartheid South Africa played a major role in stirring things up and Mugabe reacted by sending the North Korean-trained 5th brigade to terrorise Zapu's south-western strongholds into submission.
Many thousands were killed and some even talk of a genocide against Nkomo's Ndebele people.
Official reports into the atrocities have never been published. However in 1987, the two parties united and civil war "a la" Mozambique or Angola was avoided.
Mugabe the socialist had to go cap in hand to the IMF. They lent the money, but demanded economic liberalisation.
Robert Mugabe now says that agreeing to these demands was his biggest mistake, as he relinquished economic control to his "enemies in the west".
Most economists respond that the reforms were only implemented half-heartedly and so were doomed to fail.
To make matters worse, the stench of corruption was wafting out of government offices, yet no action was taken.
The economy went from bad to worse. Inflation is now running at 50%, while two-thirds of the population is estimated to live below the poverty line.
The lack of economic hope for Zimbabwe's youth is a major reason why Mugabe's Zanu-PF party is now deeply unpopular in urban areas.
And it seems to many that the president either does not understand the problems or he simply does not care.
He unilaterally decides to send 11,000 troops to a far-off war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, never mind the haemorrhage of scarce resources this entails.
He announces a radical programme of land reform, without a plan of what to do with the land after he has seized it from the white farmers who earn much of the country's foreign currency.
And he insults the donors who might bail him out, calling the British prime minister a "gay gangster".
Despite the many warning signs, it still came as a massive shock when the government was defeated in a constitutional referendum in February.
The people had said they wanted the president's powers curtailed but they were asked to vote on a document retaining a strong president.
They overwhelmingly said No. Since then, the previously unthinkable, a defeat for Zanu-PF in this
year's parliamentary elections, has become a distinct possibility.
The MDC inherited a national structure and power-base from the unions, along with charismatic leader, Morgan Tsvangirai.
Since masterminding the No campaign in the referendum, the MDC has built up a wave of popular momentum and for the first time since the guerrilla war, Mr Mugabe is on the back foot.
Even senior officials in his own party have told him to leave but he insists on clinging to power.
The response has been to return to "the glory days" of the war against colonialism.
The MDC is labelled "a front for racist white interests". Ex-guerrillas are sent onto farms owned by whites to intimidate them and rural voters.
Then, the war veterans and Zanu-PF supporters attack a peaceful opposition march, singling out whites for vicious beatings, while the police stand by.
Fears are growing that Zanu-PF will do anything to remain in power. Some war veterans have warned of a military coup if the party loses the elections.
While Tsvangirai and the MDC are unknown quantities as a government, they would benefit from the same international goodwill and donor support that Mugabe enjoyed 20 years ago.
Maybe this time, it would not be squandered.
Zimbabwe still boasts a relatively diversified economy and reasonable infrastructure and, thanks to Mugabe, a skilled work-force.
Economists say things could turn around quickly "with the right management".
But it will take many years to create enough jobs to satisfy the massed ranks of the young unemployed.
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