“What are you doing here?” the smartly-dressed executive asked me in a whisper as he handed me local currency across his desk in the upstairs floor of a Bulawayo bank. “You should leave as soon as possible.”
That was twelve years ago, in 2001, when Zimbabwe’s political repression and economic collapse had not yet reached their absolute depths. I was with a motley crew of travelers–musicians, revelers, former soldiers–en route from Johannesburg, South Africa to a farm outside Lusaka, Zambia for the “Solipse” festival, a trance party to coincide with a total solar eclipse that would trace a path through sub-Saharan Africa. It was a crazy trip, a 20-hour drive that took two days because the beleaguered bus driver kept stopping to let the kids smoke pot, and because we swung clear of the violence-plagued, politically-tense capital, Harare.
We had an hour’s break to stop for lunch, and I took the opportunity to buy some Zimbabwe Dollars so that I’d have some local currency. At that time, the official exchange rate was something like 35 Zim dollars to 1 U.S. dollar. That was just before the absurd hyperinflation that saw the exchange rate rise to exponential levels. And already–as I would learn, sadly, in Lusaka–almost no one in Africa would buy Zim dollars.
Bulawayo was thought to be calmer than Zimbabwe because it was more hospitable to the country’s trade-union-led opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change, headed by Morgan Tsvangirai. The MDC had arguably won the 2000 parliamentary elections, but Robert Mugabe–in power since 1980–and his Zimbabwe African National Union-Popular Front (Zanu-PF) party had stolen the election, brutally.
Always a bit shaky, Zimbabwe’s democracy ran into real trouble in the late 1990s, when the country began facing financial problems and political unrest, and Mugabe used state coffers to buy the continued support of the so-called “war veterans” of the guerilla campaign against white rule. Mugabe also began targeting the most vulnerable groups as scapegoats–notably, gays, who were barred from participating in public events.
In early 2000, Mugabe unexpectedly lost a constitutional referendum that would have extended his powers. It was the last free and fair election Zimbabwe would ever see. The repression began with a campaign of so-called redistribution of land held by white commercial farmers, who were besieged by the war veterans–and, increasingly, killed when they refused to leave their farms. Many of them simply fled the country.
The farms were then “redistributed” to members of the ruling party, and the country’s agricultural sector, once the backbone of its economy, collapsed. Neighboring South Africa refused to intervene, since the ruling African National Congress shared Mugabe’s enthusiasm for racial redistribution and the view that national liberation movements, once in power, should never be dislodged, even for black opposition parties.
In an inexcusable act of diplomatic negligence, President George W. Bush gave his full confidence to then-South African President Thabo Mbeki’s sham efforts to urge a solution to the Zimbabwe crisis, and so it continued. In recent years, the country has stabilized somewhat, with a national unity government and a new constitution, but Mugabe continues his old ways. He “won” last week’s election with 61% of the vote.
The opposition, and international observers, cried foul, but there is little they can do. It is almost certain that large numbers of Zimbabweans continue to vote for Mugabe quite legitimately, even if not a majority, because they have no memory of there ever being another option, and because they are convinced that bread comes through a Zanu-PF ballot. It is a failed democracy in a failed state–at least as long as Mugabe is alive.
It is a terrible fate for a beautiful and fertile country, which once boasted high literacy rates and exported food to the rest of the continent. Its farmers are now turning out produce for Zambia and Nigeria; its best and brightest young people now plan their futures in London, New York and Johannesburg. I don’t know where that bank teller is today, but somewhere I still have 100 Zim dollars left that I could never exchange.