Piling the pressure on Mugabe

Robert Mugabe's talks with opposition leaders continue as he  ponders how to give up power without being prosecuted for his abuses. Aoife Kavanagh reports from Bulawayo


Mary Ndlovu sets down a plate of freshly baked cinnamon cake on the coffee table – a minor miracle in a country that has run out of flour – and eases her long frame into a creaking wicker chair. “Zimbabweans don't rebel because they are afraid”, she says. “They are beaten down, and more than anything they are concentrating on feeding themselves and their families.”

There was surprise in 1972 when Edward Ndlovu, a prominent politician in the struggle against white rule in what was then Rhodesia, married the young white Canadian academic he met while in exile in Zambia. Mary recalls the fuss their marriage caused: “They said I was a CIA spy and all sorts of things”.  

A widow now, Mary lives alone in the suburbs of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city. The last of her three children left a year ago, pushed out by the country's crumbling economy which saw inflation soar again last month to its current rate of 15,000 per cent, by far the highest in the world. “I told them I did not blame them for leaving, I don't even know myself how much longer I can stay, though it would break my heart to go.”

Bulawayo is the largest city at the heart of opposition territory in Zimbabwe. The Ndebele people, who make up most of the population of the area, have suffered more than most at the hands of President Mugabe. They are old rivals of the country's largest tribe, the Shona, who dominate his  ruling party, Zanu-PF. The darkest time for the Ndebele was in 1984, when Mugabe unleashed his thugs from the Fifth Brigade special forces on the people of Matabeleland. His recruits tortured, murdered and starved the population in an effort to root out political opposition. Some 20,000 people died.

“The Ndebele people have long memories”, Mary explains. “As bad as things are now, the fear of a repeat of 1984 means they have no appetite to take on Mugabe.”

Instead, the people living in the dense townships circling Bulawayo quietly suffer the disastrous consequences of Mugabe's rule. Water shortages are commonplace, forcing people to dig their own wells and take a chance on using unsafe water. But the gamble is not paying off, as outbreaks of diarrhoea are soaring. The weakest are the children and people suffering with long-term illnesses who are dying in greater numbers than ever before.

In rural areas, people are going days without a meal. This part of the country is always last in the queue for food rations. Many are surviving on a small amount of mealie meal – the staple diet in Zimbabwe, as well as roots, trees and what grows on the ground.

“Literally millions of lives have been ruined, de-humanised. All their life chances have been taken away”, Mary explains. “Now they are cheating each other on the streets of Johannesburg”, she says, referring to the millions of Zimbabweans who have fled the country for South Africa, most of them living there illegally.

If there is one chink of hope for the people of Zimbabwe, it is the fact that the ruling party, Zanu-PF is finally engaged in talks with the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change. The negotiations, chaired by South African President Thabo Mbeki, are aimed at reforming the constitution and ensuring that presidential elections, due to be held next March, are free and fair. It's an impossible task, given Zimbabwe's long tradition of election campaigns marked by violence and intimidation. The talks have been described as fragile and painfully slow, but the fact they are taking place at all is hugely significant.

Long-time observers of Zimbabwean politics will tell you that wild horses would not drag Zanu-PF to talks with their rivals unless Robert Mugabe believed they had no choice but to participate. The fact is, the devastating impact of his off-the-wall economic and political policies are truly hitting home and Mugabe is weaker now than he has ever been.

“We are taking the first step in a 1,000-mile journey,” says Sydney Masamvu, a veteran Zimbabwean journalist, now with the International Crisis Group which focuses on conflict resolution, in Johannesburg. Masamvu worked for 10 years with the independent Daily News newspaper in Harare, until the ruling party shut it down. “President Mugabe has crossed the Rubicon, even those around him realise that sooner or later he must go,” says Masamvu.

Money talks, and Mugabe's political cronies who have benefited hugely from their loyalty to him over the past three decades are watching their farms, businesses and savings collapse in value. Mugabe will never be pushed out over concern for the millions of Zimbabweans suffering under his rule, but the vested interests of the political elite may force a change of leadership.

“They want to enjoy their loot in their lifetimes”, Masamvu declares, “and he is a liability to their loot”.
The devil, though, is in the division. Mugabe's leadership  has been marked by his success in dividing his party, preventing any effort to push him out. There is no obvious heir to the throne and any move against him would be suicidal without the support of the majority of the party.

His determination to hold onto power is partly motivated by what will happen when he steps down. Mugabe has watched Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia, face the wrath of the international courts and it is believed he fears a similar fate if he gives up power. He is also keenly aware that Taylor was offered assurances that he would enjoy a peaceful retirement free from prosecution, but that those promises made were not kept. While not formally on the talks agenda, one source close to the negotiations confirmed that “the issue of an amnesty has been raised”. It's understood, too, that the only amnesty the 83-year-old leader would accept would be one agreed to by politicians across the political divide in Zimbabwe. Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of one faction of the divided opposition Movement for Democratic Change believes that talk of an amnesty for President Mugabe is premature. However, during an interview in Harare Village asked him if an amnesty might help persuade President Mugabe to step down. “There have been gross human rights violations over the last 30 years of his rule”, Tsvangirai said,  “so you cannot ignore the cries of victims. At the same time you do not want to look at Mugabe as an obstacle to progress, and we have no intention of being vindictive”.

Back in Bulawayo the hundreds of people queuing up on Robert Mugabe Avenue for bread have little faith in negotiations going on in South Africa. “This is a society turning in on itself, everybody is cheating each other to survive”, said one Catholic priest who has worked in the area for more than a decade. (He does not want to be named, because he fears his work permit will not be renewed if he criticises the government). He explains how murder rates have doubled in Bulawayo in the past year and families are fighting over the smallest things. “People cannot wait for talks and more talks before things get better”, he says. “They need help right now, before thousands more are forced to leave and it is too late for this country”.