30 August 2008

Zimbabwe: Godwin looks at Mugabe Pt. 1

by Peter Godwin, in Vanity Fair, September 2008

The true Mugabe plotline differs from the accepted one. It goes like this: From the very start his default reaction to any political threat has been a violent one. During Zimbabwe’s first democratic elections he kept his guerrillas in the field, where they spread a chilling message: Vote for Mugabe or “the war goes on.” In the early 1980s, when he encountered opposition in Matabeleland from remnants of his former ally Joshua Nkomo’s forces, he sealed off the province and, as noted, laid waste to it. He called the action Operation Gukurahundi, using a Shona word that refers to “an early rain that clears away the chaff.” Estimates of the chaff vary from 10,000 to 25,000 dead. Through all this Mugabe got a free pass from the West. During the Cold War he was seen as pro-Western. Mugabe was also able, as a leader of the so-called Front Line States, which opposed white-ruled South Africa, to leverage the specter of apartheid. If you attacked Mugabe, he immediately painted you as a pro-apartheid apologist. That changed when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, in 1990; Mugabe had to play second fiddle. Mandela later made light of Mugabe’s predicament: “He was the star, and then the sun came up.”

By the late 1990s, Zimbabwe’s economy was in a shambles—corruption, misrule, and a disastrous military intervention in Congo had all taken their toll. To buy favor, Mugabe resorted to expropriating land and giving it to his supporters. The full story does not bear repeating here; land reform was certainly overdue and had been stalled for many reasons. But Mugabe did what he always does when there is something he needs: he employed brute force. And because the first victims were white—farmers who had their property jambanja’d (seized and occupied), and who in some cases were assaulted or murdered—the Zimbabwe story suddenly piqued the interest of the Western media. This is why the year 2000, when the farm seizures hit the headlines, is mistakenly seen as Mugabe’s watershed—the year he went bad. The truth is he had been bad long before that.

. . . The most recent World Values Survey shows that Zimbabweans are today the world’s unhappiest people. Their economy has almost halved in size in the past 10 years. The unemployment rate is more than 80 percent. About half of all Zimbabweans are reliant on food aid. Officially, some 20 percent of the population is afflicted with H.I.V./aids. Zimbabwe today has the world’s shortest life span—the average Zimbabwean is dead by age 36 (down from age 62 in 1990). As a result the country now has the highest percentage of orphans on the planet.

I first moved to Zimbabwe in 1984. I missed most of the bloodshed and only saw a country trying to look forward, though there were often stories of fond remembrance told me by older Africans.

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