Zimbabwe Then and Now
by Oakland Ross
Harare -- It is nighttime when I return to Zimbabwe, and what I
notice first are the street lamps.
They don't work, or most of them don't. Many are
beginning to list precariously to the side. Not a few have fallen
down, and their rusting corpses sprawl across the tousled blond
grass in the African darkness.
Among the pillars that remain standing, many have lost their lamps, and now the headless standards tilt above the boulevards of this lofty and still beautiful town, like so many giant, decapitated dandelions.
Am I wrong to worry about such things?
Is it pointless to complain about malfunctioning street lamps in a country of 11.5 million people, most of whom live on less than a dollar a day and can only dream of ever possessing a car? I'm not sure I know the answer to that question. But, here in the Zimbabwean capital, there is plenty to worry about. My concerns range from street lamps that don't work to people who don't have homes.
Lately, hundreds of thousands of Zimbabwe's urban poor have been rendered homeless by riot police, who have descended upon shantytown after shantytown, first evicting all who lived there and then demolishing everything in sight.
For one reason or another, the presence of nearly three-quarters of a million people in or near the cities no longer suited the government of President Robert Mugabe. He, or one of his underlings, ordered them gone. And it was done.
This wave of evictions is only the most recent of many man-made disasters to strike Zimbabwe. For all the wrong reasons - land seizures, unpayable debts, rigged elections, food shortages, and now a massive assault upon the poor - this country has stumbled into the news on a sadly frequent basis during the past few years.
Mugabe's campaign of evictions has been brutal and merciless, and it has called down a torrent of international condemnation upon the government of a nation I once described as "an African scale model of heaven."
Once upon a time, that was an apt description.
For nearly two decades, this country seemed to shine a light of promise upon an entire continent, but that has all changed now and Zimbabwe has transformed itself into a place of shadows and failure, a mean little dictatorship, a collapsing state.
Many people thought this would never happen. But it has happened, and I'm trying to understand why. How did this country get from where it used to be to where it is now? At first glance, there might not seem to be a connection between tottering old street lamps that mostly don't work and the forced evictions of some 700,000 unfortunate city dwellers, but I think there is one.
I used to live in Zimbabwe. For nearly three years, from 1987 until 1990, I rented a small, white-stucco bungalow at 69 Selous Ave. near Seventh St. in a mixed-race neighbourhood of central Harare called The Avenues. It was a modest dwelling but a fine one, with a big fireplace in the living room, large windows, antique wooden trim and plenty of light. A white-blossomed bauhinia tree presided in the front yard, and an avocado tree and plantain shrubs guarded the back. Red bougainvillea climbed the surrounding walls. Poinsettia shrubs decorated the drive.
Those were the glory days.
Seven years earlier, Zimbabwe had emerged from the ruins of a white-run pariah state called Rhodesia, following a long and bloody bush war that had pitted race against race. Some 30,000 people were killed in that conflict, most of them black.
When majority rule came, many people worried that the country's new black leaders would unleash reprisals against the white-skinned folk who once had hoarded political power and material wealth for themselves. But those worries proved to be unfounded.
Instead, something apparently wonderful was born, a young African republic where everything worked pretty well, where people generally got along, where there was mostly adequate rainfall and where one species of flora or another was in blossom every month of the year.
The new government was headed by a former school teacher and sometime rebel leader named Robert Mugabe, and he surprised many by pursuing a policy of reconciliation - at least with regard to white people, who held a near monopoly on modern technical and managerial skills.
Mugabe did not love Zimbabwe's fair-skinned few, but he did need them, if only to keep the electricity running, the trains on time and the currency afloat. It seemed to work.
Granted, a lot of whites did leave. The European population here had peaked in the 1970s at about 300,000. By the time I showed up in 1987, there were perhaps 100,000 white people left in the land, but you got the feeling that they meant to stay.
Those, after all, were Zimbabwe's glory days.
At the time, the residential areas of Harare were divided into two very different sorts of worlds, defined by a pair of quintessentially Zimbabwean euphemisms.
You had the so-called "low-density suburbs," the rambling, green neighbourhoods that surrounded the city, their names pulsing with memories of Albion - Mount Pleasant, Borrowdale, Avondale, Ballantyne Park, Chadcombe.
In these airy neighbourhoods, the pampered rich led lives of ease and grace that must have been achingly difficult to give up. They drove Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs. They shopped for groceries at the Bon Marche supermarket in the neighbourhood mall. They had ample servants. They played golf and tennis and polo. Elsewhere, you found the "high-density suburbs," where the poorer sort of black people dwelled. But these were not wretched places. People took care of their houses, adding flourishes and ornaments as they found the means. They planted flowers in the window boxes.
In those days, even if you were poor, Zimbabwe was a pretty good place to live. If you were well off, it was celestial. On weekends, you could go hiking in the Eastern Highlands along the border with Mozambique, a dramatically beautiful region of roller-coaster hills, sheer rock faces and plummeting waterfalls.
Quaint little inns sprouted among the pine groves, with
fireplaces in every room and tea service on the terrace at 4 p.m.
On a clear day, you could climb to the summit of Mt. Nyangani,
the highest point in the land.
Or you could head north from Harare and while away the hours boating on the marian blue waters of Lake Kariba or camp near pods of hippos by the shores of the Zambezi River in the Mana Pools National Park. To the northwest, Victoria Falls - "the smoke that thunders" - spilled into its narrow gorge on the northwestern border with Zambia. To the south, loomed the stirring, stonewalled precincts of the Great Zimbabwe, the ancient city that gives this country its name.
You didn't notice Harare's street lamps back then. You noticed the jacarandas and flamboyants, the flame trees and poincianas. You noticed the weather.
The climate here is spectacular. This is especially true in winter, which begins in June and ends in September, when every day is like the most idyllic late-summer days you remember from your childhood. At nightfall on the high veldt, the winter temperature plunges, and often it is cold enough that you can see your breath, even as the poinsettia are in bloom.
I often wonder how I ever left. But I did leave. I departed Zimbabwe on a moonlit night in the southern summer, 15 years ago. I gritted my teeth, closed the door of the house at 69 Selous and headed for the airport. I thought I would never be back.
But I have returned, for different reasons, twice in the 1990s and now for a third time.
On a Thursday afternoon during my 1998 visit, I boarded an Air Zimbabwe Boeing 737 in Harare, bound for Bulawayo, the country's second-largest city. The passengers included a group of legislators and their aides, for parliament had just risen and they were flying back to their constituencies. I found myself seated beside a man who turned out to be an MP from the ruling party. When the flight attendant trundled by with the drinks trolley, we each asked for a scotch.
"We are equal," joked the MP.
He seemed to be an affable fellow, and we chatted about this and that, as the plane knifed eastward through the African sky. We had a second round of drinks, and at some point I mentioned that I was a journalist. That was a mistake.
First, there was silence, and then the death threats began. The MP assured me, loudly enough so that other passengers could hear him, that I was a dead man. He said he had arranged for the murder of journalists before, that he could do it again, and that I would be dead before I reached my hotel in Bulawayo. I guess he wasn't serious, because here I am. But he certainly wanted me to think he was serious.
That was Zimbabwe in 1998, when the country's headlong tumble into political despotism and economic chaos was already underway, although its trajectory was not yet apparent. Some say Mugabe began to change in 1992, following the death of his first wife, Ghanaian-born Sally Mugabe, who many believe played a steadying role in the marriage. No such effect is exerted by Mugabe's current mate, the former Grace Marufa, who was the president's secretary before their 1996 wedding.
Not long after the stunningly extravagant wedding celebration,
the country's economic troubles began to take palpable form
- or, as a woman of my acquaintance puts it: "Everything
First, the government embroiled itself in a costly war in Democratic Republic of the Congo. Later, Mugabe presided over what's now known as the "land grab," when gangs of thugs launched an assault on the nation's mostly white-owned commercial farms, backbone of the economy.
Twelve white farmers were killed, hundreds more were dispossessed, nearly 200,000 farm workers lost their livelihoods and the Zimbabwean agricultural industry promptly assumed the bottom-heavy dimensions of a certain Eurasian fruit, genus Pyrus, family Rosaceae.
And things just got worse. Faced with mounting discontent and the threat of electoral defeat, Mugabe turned into a tyrant, out and out. It's generally agreed that his government stole the last two elections.
Now, more than two-thirds of the labour force is unemployed and there is chronic hunger in the land. The government has exhausted its foreign reserves and cannot pay for critical imports, including gasoline and diesel fuel, both of which have been in scarce supply for months, causing immense queues of abandoned automobiles that have formed like barnacles around the country's gas stations.
The power goes off for hours each day. The roads are beginning to deteriorate. Between 20 and 25 per cent of the adult population is infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS - not the government's fault but bad news just the same.
This year, the annual inflation rate is expected to top 300 per cent. People shuffle around Harare laden with great wads of Zimbabwean dollars that will barely cover the cost of lunch. "I carry 4 to 6 million dollars with me wherever I go," one affluent Harare resident told me.
"You never know when you might find something you'd want to buy, like fuel or something."
Mugabe continues to blame white people for most of his problems, but the truth is that Zimbabwe's few remaining Europeans are marginal now in almost every respect - marginal and getting on in years. They have their burglar-alarm systems and their sports clubs, and not much else, apart from shockingly devalued real estate.
For a long time, it was possible to pretend this country was not going pear-shaped by degrees but, in fact, Zimbabwe's services and systems have been deteriorating for years, and now they are poised to go splat. Just look at the street lamps in Harare.
Or consider the recent campaign of evictions - Operation Drive Out Trash, as it's known.
People here have all sorts of theories about why the government would lash out against the urban poor in this way. Most of these theories attribute all sorts of Machiavellian motives to the authorities, but I wonder if other, more mundane forces are not also at work.
"Everyone in Zimbabwe is very happy about this clean-up," gloated the minister of state security, Didymus Mutasa. "People are walking around Harare saying, 'We never knew we had such a beautiful city.'" It's a telling remark, although not for the reasons Mutasa may imagine.
I suspect that the minister of state security, like others in power here, longs in his innermost heart for Zimbabwe to be the way this territory was in the old Rhodesian days, prior to 1980, when there were no urban squatters or shantytowns to spoil the view of those who dwelled in the fine houses with the big German cars parked outside.
Nowadays, of course, it is Mutasa and his ilk - and not a compact of privileged whites - who occupy those houses and drive those cars.
If you ask me, the authorities who drove hundreds of thousands of poor people from their homes were not acting as brutish politicians so much as they were acting as snobs.
Incompetent snobs. Snobs with bulldozers and no sense.
Even sworn opponents of the Mugabe regime agree that urban migration in this country had got out of control - far too many people living in unsanitary conditions on unserviced land - and that something needed to be done.
But the government ignored the problem for years, allowing the situation to fester and grow, until finally it became unmanageable and all reasonable solutions were beyond the available means. Disaster ensued.
In much the same way, authorities have been allowing Harare's street lamps to topple, one by one, until eventually none will be left standing. Then, in the star-studded darkness of the African night, what will Robert Mugabe do? What options will he have?
After all, if you wish to run a modern nation-state with a modern economy, you do need certain facilities. You need passable roads. You need schools, hospitals, factories, electrical power plants. You need street lamps.