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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 June, 2003, 11:30 GMT 12:30 UK
Zimbabwe's brutal police tactics
Tim Butcher
In Bulawayo

At first sight the soldiers and police patrolling the wide, sunny thoroughfares of Bulawayo - Zimbabwe's second city - seemed slightly comical.

Their uniform hasn't really changed since the country won independence 23 years ago so they were wearing the same baggy serge trousers and itchy "woolly pullies" used in Britain in the era of National Service.

State police on the attack
Zimbabwe's state police are quick to break up gatherings

To my eye they looked like extras in a rather amateur period drama.

But I can assure you there was nothing comical about their tactics.

Encouraged by President Robert Mugabe's increasingly despotic regime, the security forces in Zimbabwe now treat any street gathering as a potential protest march.

Any time the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) even hints at calling a general strike, the response of the authorities is brutal.

Swish go the sjamboks, their heavy animal-hide whips, as the police beat anyone who get in their way, and hiss go the tear gas canisters.

Under the draconian Public Order and Security Act recently passed by the regime - much tougher than similar legislation enforced by the white, minority-rule government in the days when the country was known as Rhodesia - a gathering of three people is not just a crowd, but a potentially political event that needs explicit police authority.

Now in a city the size of Bulawayo, an old market town built in the colonial era, groups of three or more are quite common. So the police are kept constantly busy.

They beat people queuing at the main bus terminus in Lobengula Street; they chase people away from the nearby Catholic cathedral whenever a funeral is held; even a car crash outside Haddon & Sly, Bulawayo's oldest but now emptiest department store, is enough to cause police Land Rovers to screech up in attendance.

Rubberneckers soon become sore neckers as onlookers are manhandled and beaten. But the really striking thing about recent political skirmishing was that I could not see a single white person involved.

'Great lie'

For three years of increasing chaos in Zimbabwe, Mr Mugabe has been repeating ad nauseam his great lie - that it is all about white farmers and land. If only the greedy white farmers would hand over land stolen from black Zimbabweans during colonial times, all would be well.

The real story of Zimbabwe is of a brutal, unpopular elite clinging to power at the expense of the majority. And to fall for the lie about white-owned farms is to miss the point completely.

Zimbabwean Prime Minister Robert Mugabe
Mugabe blames white farmers for ongoing failings

Out in the townships to the west of Bulawayo, the true victims of the crisis are to be found.

Thousands of black, semi-urban Zimbabweans, who went to school, got degrees and saved their wages have seen their quality of life destroyed by Mr Mugabe's economic mismanagement.

People like Nkosi Kunene, a 21-year-old carpenter from Tshabalala township, have simply been left behind economically.

His salary used to be enough to live off. He had to work hard five days a week - including a daily two-hour trudge to save on the bus allowance - but he could afford regular food, new clothes every so often, and he could save enough to dream of paying the lobola bride price that would allow him to marry his long-term girlfriend.

He told me this over a meal of grilled chicken in a fast food restaurant. It was his first full meal in a month, and when the bill came I saw why.

Inflation and exchange rate collapse meant a modest meal for two cost me 13,000 Zimbabwean dollars - a little more, Nkosi said, than he earns in a month. Somehow the food did not taste quite so good after he told me that.

Unlikely hustlers

Out on Bulawayo's avenues - specially designed by the early colonists to be wide enough for a span of eight oxen drawing a wagon to turn round - a strange game of cat and mouse was being played by the police and illegal money changers.

Everyone knows the army and the police are the greatest profiteers from black market currency trading
Zimbabwean money changer

Now I had always believed money changing was in some way underhand, but in Bulawayo the black market for exchanging money has been cornered by female members of the Zionist Christian Church.

Clearly the ZCC is pretty light on usury because hundreds of its female congregation were at it. They were easy to identify in their white turbans and gowns, carrying unfeasibly large bags needed to hold bricks of increasingly valueless Zimbabwean dollars.

Every so often the women would melt away into the crowd as the police staged another swoop.

"They have to have the occasional crackdown," said one of the money changers in impeccable English.

"But it is only really for form's sake. Everyone knows the army and the police are the greatest profiteers from black market currency trading."

And with that she was gone, leaving me to wonder whether the police would arrest me if I dared to queue behind two other people to buy the local newspaper.

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