Sign Up

Zimbabwe: Hope After Mugabe?

Despite its great potential, why has the country been in decline for two decades?

January 18, 2005

Despite its great potential, why has the country been in decline for two decades?

The people of Zimbabwe are open, friendly, hospitable and among the best educated in Africa. They should be rich. There is plenty of land in Zimbabwe, much of it ideal for raising cattle or growing wheat, corn and tobacco.

Under the ground lie reefs of gold, platinum and other precious ores. The country has a modern banking sector, skilled manufacturers and adequate roads.

And yet Zimbabwe is a mess. Two decades after independence, Zimbabweans are dramatically poorer — and can expect to die more than a decade younger.

In 1980, the average annual income in Zimbabwe was $950 and a Zimbabwean dollar was worth more than an American one. By 2003, the average income was less than $400, a Zim dollar barely bought a 50th of an American cent — and the Zimbabwean economy was in freefall.

AIDS was largely to blame for Zimbabweans' shorter lifespans, but the fact that they had — according to the World Health Organization — the least efficient health service in the world probably didn't help. So what went wrong?

For an answer, look at the portrait that hangs on the wall of every government office, in every hotel lobby and above the cash register in every shop. A grandfatherly figure gazes back, a man with big glasses and a tiny velcro-strip moustache in the middle of his top lip.

Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's ageing president, is too subtle to foist a full-blown personality cult on his countrymen. But still, no one dares to remove his picture.

The hero of the chimurenga, the bush war for freedom from white rule, Mugabe has been in power without a break since that struggle ended in 1980. When he first took office, things went well.

The world was glad of any alternative to the white supremacist regime of Ian Smith and showered Zimbabwe with aid. The civil war was over and sanctions had been lifted.

Mugabe spoke of racial reconciliation. The rains were good and the national mood was optimistic. The first two years after independence saw startling economic growth of 28%. It did not last.

In 2000, at the official exchange rate, an American dollar was worth 55 Zimbabwe dollars. But you could not possibly buy an American dollar at this rate.

Black market dealers charged between 80 and 100 Zim dollars for an American one. Two years later, the official rate was unchanged, but the black market rate had shot up to more than 1,000 to one.

Only the government could buy real money at the official rate and only by using the threat of force. Exporters were obliged to hand over a big chunk of their hard-currency revenues to the government at the official rate. In effect, the government was stealing their money, pushing some into bankruptcy and forcing others to start smuggling.

Mugabe's lingering socialist sympathies provided him with a moral justification for ruling the whole country in much the same way as he commanded his guerrillas during the liberation war.

Rather than signing laws and letting Zimbabweans live freely under them, he issued orders and expected them to be obeyed. This is a sensible way of running an army — but not a modern economy.

Zimbabwe's tragedy is especially poignant, because the country — which was once the British colony of Southern Rhodesia — has so much going for it. It enjoys a warm, gentle climate and is so beautiful that it should be choking with tourists.

Besides the sun, wildlife and waterfalls, it has music, art, flowers and delicious food. In springtime, the jacaranda trees carpet the streets with blue petals.

The wine may be lousy, but the beer is excellent — and the beefsteaks in Bulawayo are the tastiest I have ever eaten.

Mugabe's campaign of terror also — unsurprisingly — destroyed the tourist trade. Since the violence was not random, but directed at the opposition, tourists were actually quite safe unless they visited farms or attended political rallies.

My wife Emma and I, for example, went canoeing on the Zambezi River at the height of the troubles and suffered no frights except from the wildlife. While on foot in the bush, we interrupted two lions at an intimate moment. The male roared his annoyance. If we had run away, he would doubtless have chased, caught and eaten us.

But fortunately our guide stood his ground and roared back. The cats slunk off. In two weeks, we encountered no human hostility at all. But our guide told us he had no other customers for months and expected none.

The shortages of fuel and foreign currency hurt every firm in Zimbabwe. The lights stayed on only because South Africa supplied electricity on credit to avert an economic collapse and a flood of refugees across the border. And perhaps on the assumption that, when the dust settled, South Africa would end up owning the Zimbabwean power grid.

Hundreds of companies went bust. Mugabe accused them of deliberately sabotaging the economy. Contrary to what many people assume, a change of government in Zimbabwe could mend matters.

To stop Zimbabweans from drowning, the most important step is to remove Mugabe's foot from their heads.

Investors, whether local or foreign, will never feel safe putting money into Zimbabwe while he is still in charge. But if a new government promised to stop the seizure of private property, many would be reassured.

Mugabe cannot rule forever and though there is no guarantee that his successor will be any better, it would not be difficult to improve on the old man's record.

A new government could end the shortages of fuel and hard currency at a stroke, simply by allowing the prices of fuel and hard currency to reflect what these things actually cost.

To curb inflation, a new government would simply have to avoid spending beyond its means and printing money to fill the gap. A new government that did these things would attract torrents of aid and debt relief.

Zimbabwe still has a sizeable middle class, an independent press, a functioning civil society and the most diversified African economy outside South Africa.

If Mugabe's successor were to turn out not to be a despot, Zimbabweans could soon start farming, manufacturing and entertaining tourists again.

It would take years to repair the damage Mugabe has inflicted on his country — but Zimbabweans are up to the task. All they need is a less vampiric government.

Adapted from “The Shackled Continent” by Robert Guest © 2004 Smithsonian Books. By arrangement with Smithsonian Books.