Back to the dark ages

From The Economist print edition

The last person to leave may not have any lights to turn out

Peter Schrank

IT IS hard to imagine that things could get any worse in Zimbabwe. But, sure enough, day by day, they do. Since the opposition, NGOs
and church groups organised a protest rally that was brutally crushed
in March, the police and militias have been intimidating, arresting and
beating up political opponents, journalists, lawyers and ordinary
people alike. The government has even warned the Catholic bishops, once
considered inviolate, to shut up or suffer the same fate. Meanwhile the
inflation rate has passed 2,200%; last week the national power company
announced that it would ration electricity in cities, possibly to a
meagre four hours a day, just as the southern hemisphere’s winter is
starting to bite.

Power cuts are already frequent, but the latest blackouts mark a new
low. Residents of Harare, the capital, have been rushing to get
firewood and paraffin, though a domestic worker’s monthly wage can buy
only five litres (1.3 American gallons) of paraffin or two litres of
cooking oil. Many companies, already operating at about 40% of
capacity, say the cuts will force them to reduce their working hours
even more. “The whole thing is a nightmare,” says Lovemore
Mandebvu, who runs a small furniture-making factory in Harare.
“We don’t know when we will have power and when it goes. This is
affecting our output. Then at home water runs out when you are bathing,
and the electricity goes while you are cooking.” Hospitals must
use gas stoves, coal-fired boilers, fuel generators, solar power and

staples like maize are becoming harder to buy. The official rate for
the Zimbabwe dollar is 250 to the American one, but the street value is
now closer to 32,000. Many Zimbabweans survive only thanks to the 3m or
so friends and relatives who have emigrated. Every day desperate
Zimbabweans cross the Limpopo river, braving crocodiles and
occasionally drowning, to try their luck in neighbouring South Africa.
Trapped into illegality there, many are exploited and abused.

Those who stay face the increasingly arbitrary power of the police
and militias. Since the crackdown in March, there have been raids on
Harare districts such as Highfield and Glenview, known opposition
strongholds, where random beatings and arrests have become common.
President Robert Mugabe’s government claims that the opposition
Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is responsible for the violence and is behind a wave of bombings. The MDC says
the bombs are planted by the police to justify repression. Last week
lawyers protested against the arrest of two colleagues and the routine
defiance of court orders by the police. A march was dispersed and
several lawyers assaulted.

The latest efforts of Zimbabwe’s neighbours to improve things are
still going nowhere. After the violence in March, the Southern African
Development Community, a regional club of 14 countries, mandated South
Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, to encourage negotiations between Mr
Mugabe and his opponents. But the International Crisis Group, a
Brussels-based think-tank, says that Zimbabwe’s ruler has shown no
willingness to co-operate with the regional initiative to prepare the
ground for presidential and parliamentary elections due next year, when
Mr Mugabe looks likely to run again. At present, there is little chance
the elections will be fair.

But some of Zimbabwe’s neighbours are sounding exasperated. Last
week the Pan-African Parliament, a talking-shop with a secretariat in
South Africa, said it would send a mission to investigate human-rights
abuses. Mozambique’s energy company, a big supplier of Zimbabwe’s
electricity, may switch off power unless it gets paid. And South
Africa’s government, long in denial about the crisis on its doorstep,
has just granted political asylum to Roy Bennett, the MDC treasurer who fled Zimbabwe to avoid another arrest. It turned down his application last year.

Still, this rare build-up of pressure was released last week when,
to the dismay of the United States, the European Union and many others,
Zimbabwe’s minister of environment and tourism, Francis Nhema, was
elected to chair the UN Commission on
Sustainable Development, where he will preside over discussions on land
and rural development. Astonishingly, the UN‘s
African members, whose turn it was to hold the rotating post, could
think of no better candidate than one from a country whose agriculture
has been largely destroyed by its government’s catastrophic policies.
Like many other Zimbabwean bigwigs, Mr Nhema himself pocketed a farm
that was confiscated a few years ago—and has already let it lapse
into ruin.

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