What surprised me during a recent visit to our northern neighbor is that the situation in Zimbabwe is actually worse and more frightening than it reads or sounds. It's not just the culture of impunity with which the President and his platoons of "war veterans" rain their terror on farmers and opposition city-dwellers alike. Rather, it is the difference in morale and mindset that has marked a change in just a year.
Last February, I went to Harare after the opposition clinched a famous victory in the constitutional referendum, in reality a plebiscite on Mugabe himself. Then, the air was thick with talk of change and renewal. This time, in contrast, the taxi driver from the airport was subdued and anxious as he reeled off the daily miseries and privations occasioned by fiscal profligacies and monetary mismanagement. In fact, the economic consequence of the government's serial violations of democratic and property rights has seen a million jobs lost in the past 18 months, a projected 60% fall in the maize crop and an inflation rate of 55%. But the literally life-and-death situation in Zimbabwe, with its meltdown implications for the Southern African region, masks a host of ironies that would be humorous were they not so dangerous.
The first is President Mugabe's railing against the ghosts of "white colonialism" and "European imperialism." That's especially incongruous since, to win his fifth term in office, he has imported a jackbooted fascism reminiscent of 1930s Europe. The Rhodesian-named and -inspired Central Intelligence Organization (C.I.O.) has perfected techniques of fear and intimidation. The Minister of Information, Jonathan Moyo, denounced me on TV as a "fomenter of violence" and announced that "anyone who wines and dines with Tony Leon is a traitor."And Chenjerai Hunzvi, the leader of the so-called war vets who was an uninvited observer at meetings I held with representatives of Zimbabwe's embattled farming community, revels in his nickname, "Hitler."
But here is the central paradox of the Zimbabwe situation: on the one hand there are assassinations and marauding torture squads which the government does nothing to prevent and which have the earmarks of a "dirty war." On the other, Mugabe still genuflects, on occasion, to a bizarre form of what can best be termed "democratic formalism." There is still the semblance of an independent judiciary, though probably not for long. There's a sizable opposition in parliament, but that institution has no bite to match its brave bark. And a free press still operates under heroic circumstances, although journalists in Harare see a Cimmerian darkness descending on them. It's all clearly unsustainable.
The regional power with clout, South Africa, seems to have invoked the spirit of its apartheid predecessor by insisting on a policy of "good neighborliness" and "noninterference" with Mugabe's regime. An underlying premise of South Africa's stance appears to be to provide a bushel of carrots to ensure that Zimbabwe does not fall apart and drag the region down with it. But in truth, more stick and less carrot might help Zimbawe reverse course, because the situation is already far gone and deteriorating daily. I do not believe in economic sanctions. But a range of measures should be considered, including:
• A freeze on foreign assets and funds owned by individuals, which would include a number of the ZANU-PF hierarchy.
• Restrictions on travel by government ministers.
• An arms embargo, such as the one being applied to UNITA in Angola.
South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki faces a truly double-edged situation. His and the country's most legitimate complaint in global forums is that the world tars all of Africa with the same all-purpose brush, lumping the economically good and the constitutionally democratic together with the vicious and the grotesque. So Zimbabwe is a defining moment for South African policy. It will be the hard, but perfect, place for Mbeki to flag the new African values that South Africa, not Mugabe, represents.