When President Robert Mugabe needs spiritual sustenance, he returns to his birthplace at Kutama Mission, an hour's drive from the capital Harare. There, Zimbabwe's aging liberator-turned-autocrat wanders his pig and maize farm or visits his alma mater, St. Francis Xavier College, an imposing Catholic boys' school that provides instruction for the sons of Zimbabwe's élite. Mugabe trained as a teacher at the mission school, and it remains a sanctuary for him, a place where he can walk freely and think in peace. It was to St. Xavier's that he returned in triumph after winning the 1980 elections that ended white rule. It was here, in the school's simple, light-filled church, that he married his second wife, his former secretary Grace, and it is here that he attends Mass and talks to God. Mugabe's farm and St. Xavier's share a fence. The presidential mansion is so close to the school "that you can just shout out, 'Mugabe,' and he will hear you," says an elderly caretaker at the school. Does anyone shout out? "No," laughs the caretaker. "Shout and they will shoot."
Mugabe has never been one for listening. For the past two decades he has stamped out dissent, exiled opponents within his own Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party and violently suppressed the Ndebele, the smaller of Zimbabwe's two main ethnic groups. On March 9 and 10 he faces his toughest challenge yet: a presidential poll against Morgan Tsvangirai, 49, a charismatic former union boss whose Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), formed in 1999, came close to beating ZANU-PF in 2000's parliamentary elections. Mugabe, 77, is fighting tough, both threatening and bribing Zimbabweans to vote for him. He has pinned his political future to a massive land redistribution program and a series of verbal attacks on Britain, Zimbabwe's former colonial ruler. Land, says Mugabe, is the last colonial question. "I will die holding my country. That is why we went to jail, that is why we went to war," he declared at his campaign launch rally this month.
But there are two versions of the country Mugabe rules: the official one and the real one. In the official world, the one promulgated by the President and his backers, Zimbabwe is a strong developing nation whose progress has been sabotaged by white imperialists led by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, or B-liar as Mugabe has dubbed him, and his "gay cabinet." According to this version, Zimbabweans would have enough to eat if only the country's white farmers would stop stockpiling grain in an effort to undermine support for Comrade Mugabe, as the state-owned media still call the President. Officially, it takes just 55 Zimbabwe dollars to buy one U.S. dollar. If that means a beer costs the equivalent of U.S. $8 or a bar of soap is U.S. $6, well, blame it on the racist West. The thousands of "war veterans" who occupy commercial farms are effecting an agrarian revolution, or at least they would be were it not for the lack of rains. Opposition supporters? Thugs and murderers and, worse still, backed by a Britain that wants to get its hands back on Zimbabwe's land. Laws banning criticism of the President and outlawing news items that could "cause alarm and despondency" are designed to strengthen democracy, not hurt it.
In reality, Zimbabwe is a country on the brink of economic collapse. The land occupations and drought have forced the government to import maize, and the United Nations World Food Program will soon begin feeding Zimbabweans for just the second time since independence. Inflation is running at more than 100%, unemployment has hit 60%, the economy has shrunk by one-fifth over the past three years, and on the parallel market one U.S. dollar will buy more than 300 Zimbabwe dollars. In the real Zimbabwe, Mugabe is despised by many, not worshiped by all, and his government is seen as corrupt and out of touch. Gangs of government-trained youths regularly beat opposition supporters. Once the breadbasket of southern Africa, Zimbabwe is now a basket case.
The economic problems have worsened over the past two years, ever since Mugabe encouraged "war veterans" many are too young to have fought in the liberation war to occupy commercial farms, mostly owned by whites. Few Zimbabweans question the need for land reform, but many dislike Mugabe's methods. The President's fast-track program of land redistribution has ignored court rulings and regularly turned bloody: both black farm workers and white owners have been beaten and killed. Zimbabweans see the land reform program as a cynical attempt to shore up Mugabe's rural support base and exact revenge against the white farmers, who have thrown their backing behind the MDC and Tsvangirai. "The trouble is Mr. Mugabe never thought that his part in history would disappear," says Patrick Kombayi, an MDC mayoral aspirant in Bulawayo, a one-time student of Mugabe's and a senior guerrilla fighter in the liberation war against the white government of what was then Rhodesia. "And now he's actually cheating the war vets. He's using them as political condoms, and when he's finished with them he'll just toss them away like rubbish." That will be easy to do: few of the land occupiers many are working the fields, some are not have been given title to their new farms; they are there at the discretion of the government.
To be fair, most of the few thousand white farmers who stayed on after independence had failed to change with the times. When Mugabe came to power, he reached an unspoken agreement with the farmers: continue producing for the nation, but keep out of politics. "Basically for 20 years we lived the life of Riley," says Paul Hanly, 36, a third-generation white Zimbabwean and a former branch chairman of the Commercial Farmers' Union. "We didn't really have a plan about the future. We were just bumbling along hoping the threats from the government weren't serious." Says Roy Bennett, a tobacco farmer and outspoken MDC Member of Parliament: "The whites are guilty of being opportunistic, looking after themselves, not looking beyond their comfort zone. At the same time the government was never serious about giving the land back."
For ordinary Zimbabweans there are now more pressing concerns. Over the past few months, people around the country have started lining up for maize meal, the staple diet. "I've never done that," says Sheila Mpofu, 64, a house cleaner in Bulawayo, who says she remembers the excitement at independence. "I voted and we hoped for a better life. And things did get better for a while, but now things are worse. Food is expensive and there's never enough money. As an old lady, as long as I can buy some food and some clothes, I'm happy. But I can't even do that."
The MDC, which draws most of its support from educated urbanites, says it will concentrate on economics, not politics. "Zimbabwe is a multiethnic, multiracial country. Let's just accept that and get on with fixing our problems," Tsvangirai told a breakfast meeting of Harare businesspeople recently. "We need to find a lasting solution to this land issue so it doesn't come up at every election." Tsvangirai says if he wins power he will not seek retribution against Mugabe, though there will be some "transitional justice." As he told TIME: "We have to create some sense of security for Mugabe if he's not to become a stumbling block. Let him go to his little place in Kutama and we'll forget about him, and hopefully he'll forget about us."
But Mugabe has no intention of being forgotten. As opposition support grows a November Gallup poll put Tsvangirai 8 percentage points ahead of Mugabe the President has urged his supporters to defend themselves, physically if necessary, against the threat of the MDC, whose leaders he dismisses as Britain's "running dogs." The government has trained a youth militia to harass and attack opposition supporters; anyone not carrying a ZANU-PF card risks being beaten. The police mostly turn a blind eye to such violence and actively defend the militia and farm occupiers. When Time visited a group of "war veterans" on a farm outside Harare two weeks ago, police arrived within minutes and told the visitors to "just go." The MDC claims more than 100 of its supporters have been killed in the past two years. The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum says the violence is escalating ahead of the March election: in January alone there were at least 16 political deaths.
In Zimbabwe's official world, most of the violence is blamed on the opposition. The state-owned media, on which most people still rely, describe beaten MDC supporters who seek refuge in safe houses as "murderers" hiding in "killer houses." The mastermind of the propaganda war is Minister of Information and Publicity Jonathan Moyo, a professor of politics and until three years ago one of Mugabe's fiercest critics. So complete has been Moyo's conversion and so outrageous some of his statements that Zimbabweans joke he is in fact still an opposition supporter determined to destroy ZANU-PF from the inside. Moyo, who was not available to speak to Time, has all but banned foreign reporters from visiting Zimbabwe. "Thomas Jefferson said it was better to have newspapers without government," Moyo told CNN recently. "He was very wrong. It is far better to have government without newspapers."
The government has appointed many of its supporters to the courts, ensuring sympathetic judgments, and has also enlisted the support of the army's senior ranks. In January, in a clear reference to a potential Tsvangirai victory, an army general warned that Zimbabwe's armed forces would not support a leader who hadn't fought in the liberation war. "These are the kicks of a dying horse," says Raphael G., 49, who fought white rule before becoming a nurse in Bulawayo and would not give his full name for fear of reprisal. "And by the way, the last kicks of a dying horse can be very dangerous. They can kill."
Despite the climate of fear, some Zimbabweans remain quietly hopeful. That Mugabe and the ruling party are kicking so hard shows how seriously they take the opposition challenge. In most African countries, opposition parties are easily cowed or divided. In Zimbabwe, real democracy seems to be emerging, despite the hurdles. And while the economy is surviving on hope, Zimbabwe's infrastructure roads, telephones, factories remains relatively intact, especially when compared to that of its northern neighbors. "We're just holding on, but we're on the edge of a major calamity if we don't start making changes soon," says John Robertson, an economist in Harare. "The absurdities are mounting."
Mugabe insists that Zimbabwe does not need election monitors but merely "observers." Last week he wavered on whether to accredit European Union observers and then barred the delegation's head for making "political statements." Government critics fear Mugabe will attempt to rig the election if his intimidation tactics aren't enough. In any case, the outcome of the election is likely to rest with those who have been born since 1980. For this group Mugabe's role as the great liberator means nothing. "That's history, not food on your plate," says Lovemore K., 19, an unemployed recent high school graduate in Harare. Notes Bulawayo maid Ketty Charrie, who at 40 remembers the euphoria of independence but now sees an uncertain future for her children: "Things have changed. As an individual you see that and so when the time comes to vote you know what to do." Or as many Zimbabweans whisper these days when the election is discussed: "Nyararai zvirimumoyo (Keep quiet). It's in my heart."