Ian Oliver: Tarnished diamond, once the jewel of Africa
TIME is running out for Zimbabwe which may be on a crisis course to a point of no return, writes Ian Oliver
To the casual and uninformed visitor Zimbabwe appears to be an affluent and thriving country with an abundance of luxury cars in the cities and well dressed people wearing the very latest fashions. The shops supply all necessities to those who can afford them, although by UK standards the goods are extremely expensive.
But, for the majority of people, this comfortable world is beyond their wildest dreams and they struggle to survive in the most appalling conditions of squalor. Just a few kilometres from the city centres there are squatter camps comprising mud huts covered with corrugated metal or polythene sheeting populated by people who suffer the most extreme privations with no social support or hope of improvement. Their lives are, to borrow from Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, truly “nasty, brutish and short”.
These camps have no utilities, and basic human needs like water supplies are obtained from fractured pipes or disused mine shafts; generally the people who occupy them have been victims of deliberate evictions and violently cruel treatment. During periods of hot weather their pathetic attempts at growing food supplies fail and during the rainy season they exist in a sea of mud with no possibility of staying warm and dry.
Disease is rampant and life expectancy is now one of the lowest in the world. Unemployment exceeds 90 per cent but the extreme irony of this situation is that Zimbabwe is an incredibly mineral-rich country that has the potential to be agriculturally successful. Relatively recently it supplied food surpluses to neighbouring countries.
Tragically, that is no longer the case, and once fertile farms have fallen into disuse and are beginning to revert to bush because of compulsory land seizures that have deposed successful farmers and agricultural incompetence by many of those who now possess them. Farms are still being occupied under a policy of land redistribution and every week there are reports of white farmers losing everything with the threat of extreme violence.
Cities like Bulawayo are verging on bankruptcy. Rates and utility services are so expensive that the majority can no longer afford to pay them with the result that the income has fallen to crisis levels. In May Bulawayo’s employees had not been paid for four months with the few who have jobs taking strike action.
Basic services have ceased to function. The sewers are blocked, there are regular prolonged and unannounced power cuts, and water supplies are limited or frequently disrupted by burst water mains.
The roads have many unrepaired pot holes, and the sad joke is that if you drive in a straight line you are likely to be arrested for being under the influence.
During the last 20 years Zimbabwe has changed from a well-run country into one which is based on a dependency culture. There is now a whole generation of people who have no idea of what it was like when it had a flourishing economy and therefore have no comparison against which to measure their dreams and expectations, other than what they see on television and the internet.
The education system is expensive and many cannot afford the fees that are demanded so that literacy is clearly falling to a level where the future for the recovery of the country looks bleak. Many of those who should be able to support the development of democracy have left for better prospects elsewhere.
On top of that, the debate about a new constitution shows little sign of becoming a democratic reality and the fragile coalition government set up under the ‘Global Political agreement’ in 2008 under which Morgan Tsvangirai, the president of the Movement for Democratic Change, became Prime Minister is nearing the end of its life so that there is immense political instability and conflict.
The dominant party ZANU:PF is intent on returning to the pre-agreement situation but there is friction and uncertainty about who will be the successor to an ageing president Mugabe.
Strangely, there is a widespread but false optimism that the next elections may be free and fair and the longed for transition to a peaceful and democratic government will happen soon.
This is desperation rather than reality and few truly believe that the current crisis will end happily. There are regular reports of political violence to compel support for the president and there is widespread fear in the rural areas. Voting registers are deliberately inaccurate thus denying universal suffrage. Further there is international reluctance to invest in a country that follows a policy of indigenisation which compels companies to allow share ownership of 51 per cent to the government.
Sadly Zimbabwe is faced with another enormous problem which those in authority seek to deny, namely the spread of illicit drugs which carries with it a massive danger to public health. In a country where AIDS/HIV, Hepatitis, TB and blood-borne diseases are already pandemic this is the last thing that it needs and yet little is being done to recognise and combat the problem.
My wife and I have just returned from seven weeks in a country we have been visiting for 20 years trying to lend support to deprived people our small charity – the A to Z Trust (Aid to Zimbabwe). There is a desperate need for educational support and vocational training to enable people to learn vital skills and whilst we have been able to develop that in a limited way the need is vast and international awareness of the tragedy that prevails is limited.
For the first time I was the victim of an attempted robbery in a main street in Bulawayo at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon.
No harm was done and no loss incurred but the surprising thing is that there are not many more of these incidents in a country where there is desperate despair, little hope of a decent life and no genuine expectation that this heart breaking and unnecessary human catastrophe will end soon.
Outside help is desperately needed and we must not ignore this suffering otherwise Zimbabwe will remain one more example of grossly abused human rights.
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