Zimbabwe's rich in no rush for change

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WHITE egrets peck on mown grass verges near the Serenity Nursery as ornamental palms flutter outside high-security walls. In the wooded hills behind the red-brick Heritage School, there are glimpses of the huge roofs of Hollywood-style mansions.

This is Borrowdale Brooke, on the edge of what Harare residents call the "dale-dailies", plush northern suburbs populated by the capital's elite: ministers, army generals, bankers, new Chinese investors and whites who have managed to withstand a decade of economic turmoil.

Robert Mugabe's nephew, Phillip Chiyangwa, lives in a white Spanish-style villa with a helipad. Chiyangwa, a property mogul who counts a Humvee among his fleet of luxury vehicles, has a computerised system to help him select what to wear from a dazzling array of designer suits.

In the run-up to presidential elections next weekend, Chiyangwa has spent thousands of pounds bringing international football matches to Zimbabwe's state TV in a bid to improve the popularity of the 84-year-old president's ruling Zanu-PF party.

It is the rich elite who are desperate to see Mugabe win Saturday's polls, warned Harare's recently consecrated Anglican bishop, Sebastian Bakare, in a pastoral letter last week.

Bakare, who is locked in a bruising battle with ousted pro-Mugabe bishop Nolbert Kunonga, castigated the "few who manipulate the situation to their profit. They hold on fast to what they have."

Change – chinja in Shona, the language of the majority – is the slogan of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) of former trade unionist Morgan Tsvangirai, who is leading in the latest opinion poll with 28.3% support, compared with Mugabe's 20.3%. Independent presidential candidate Simba Makoni, a former member of Mugabe's cabinet, is also promising changed leadership.

But for the political elite, "a changed future is very unwelcome", Bakare said.

With his catastrophic white land grab, launched in 2000, and last year's onslaught against businesses, Mugabe has wrecked a once prosperous economy.

With inflation running at more than 100,580%, shoppers needed Z$15m to buy a loaf of bread this week, half a farm worker's monthly salary. A single toilet roll cost Z$25m .

Many Zimbabweans are living on sadza wejongwe, the staple mealie-meal porridge laced with a salt-water mixture they have to pretend is chicken soup, a state newspaper admitted last month. But Borrowdale Brooke Spar supermarket shows no signs of hardship.

The store's car park is packed with Mercedes and BMWs. Its gleaming aisles would not be out of place in Scotland.

Fancy some Cocoa Pops? A box will set you back Z$275m, way over a domestic worker's monthly pay. Granulated chlorine for the pool? That'll be Z$2.8bn per two-litre container, not far off the Z$3.4bn monthly salary Mugabe awarded teachers last week.

The Zimbabwean president said they should be "very happy" with that.

Borrowdale Brooke Spar is where the sleek and the satisfied shop, tiny mobile phones stuck to their ears. "Yes, things are fine, business is good," laughs one man.

Zimbabweans joke that they have the highest IQ in the world because they queue for hours for scarce commodities. Shoppers queue at this Spar, too, but only because they have to wait for those in front of them to get their laden trolleys past the checkout.

One man's bill on Friday for meat, orange juice, cabbage and bottled water came to Z$24bn – about 400 at the parallel market rate but a staggering 400,000 at the official rate Mugabe uses.

"Someone important," whispers the checkout assistant. The supermarket is owned by the Mashonaland East governor, Ray Kaukonde.

It was spared the ravages of last year's price blitz. Earlier this month Kaukonde, who is also a partner in a lucrative car dealership, appeared at a rally pledging his support – and that of his province – to Mugabe. "You will see that we are still behind you," he said.

In a country where poverty levels hover around 80%, money talks.

Zimbabweans are fascinated by the rich and famous, such as Jocelyn Chiwenga, wife of Constantine Chiwenga, the commander of Zimbabwe's armed forces.

She shops at an exclusive interior design store in Borrowdale and made 0.5m selling sugar snaps and mange-touts from a seized white farm to the west.

Transport magnate Isau Mupfumi, from the eastern border city of Mutare, was a policeman less than 10 years ago. Now he lives like a football star, maintaining a fleet of at least 10 high-powered vehicles, including a fuel-guzzling Humvee.

"I drive it when I want to relax and savour everything," Mupfumi told the state Manica Post newspaper late last year.

"People should not see my buying cars as a show-off. The fact that I buy top-of-the-range is simply that I can afford them."

Mupfumi – who the party absolved of black market fuel deals last year – is standing as a Zanu-PF candidate for the Mutasa-Nyanga seat in the upper house.

Mugabe operates his government "along feudal lines", says local economist John Robertson. The president has granted land and privileges such as fuel concessions, duty-free imports and absurdly low exchange rates to a few hundred top officials "so they remain loyal to the party".

Some, Robertson says, are top military officers who served in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the late 1990s. They were able to benefit from mineral and timber concessions awarded to Zimbabwe and came back with "very considerable amounts of money".

"We know their salaries. They wouldn't have earned that sort of money in five lifetimes. They must have had diamonds to exchange," Robertson says, warning that senior police and military can order those below them to vote for the president.

Constantine Chiwenga has already announced he will salute no president but Mugabe, "who has sacrificed a lot for the country".

In Harare this weekend, fuel queues began lining up outside garages. The next few days could be "volatile", an MDC official warned privately.

Stranglehold on power

1980: Robert Mugabe becomes prime minister after the Zanu party wins independence elections.

1982: Government forces are accused of killing thousands of civilians in a civil war against forces backing Zapu leader Joshua Nkomo, right.

1987: Mugabe and Nkomo unite to form Zanu-PF, ending the violence.

&#149 Mugabe becomes president after changing constitution.

1998: An economic crisis marked by high interest rates and inflation provokes riots.

1999: The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is formed and union leader Morgan Tsvangirai is appointed leader.


&#149 Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF wins a parliamentary election amid charges of fraud and vote-rigging by the opposition.

&#149 Thousands of so-called independence war veterans, backed by the government, seize white-owned farms.

2002: Mugabe wins election pitting him against Tsvangirai, right. Observers condemn poll as flawed and unfair. Commonwealth suspends Zimbabwe.

2003: IMF begins steps to expel Zimbabwe over dues unpaid since 2001. Commonwealth summit agrees to continue suspension, leading Mugabe to pull Zimbabwe out of the organisation.

2004: High Court acquits Tsvangirai of plotting to assassinate Mugabe.

2005: Zanu-PF wins parliamentary election, giving it the majority it needs to change the constitution.

&#149 About 700,000 people lose their homes or livelihoods in the demolition of urban slums.

2007: Tsvangirai badly beaten after he attempts to attend a banned protest rally.

&#149 Mugabe is stripped of his honorary degree from Edinburgh University following a campaign led by students and Scotland on Sunday.

2008: Presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for March 29 pose the biggest threat yet to Mugabe's rule.

Opposition leaders accuse Mugabe of rigging poll

Nelson Banya

in Harare

ZIMBABWE'S main opposition party last week accused Robert Mugabe of rigging the election by changing the law to let police escort voters to polling booths.

Senior police officers have come out in public to back Mugabe, facing the strongest challenge to his rule on Saturday amid a deepening economic crisis.

The election law was changed last year to bar police from coming within 100 yards of polling stations to ensure they could not influence the vote. The change followed South African-brokered talks between the ruling party and opposition.

But Mugabe used his presidential powers last week to reverse the change so police officers would be able to assist illiterate and disabled voters in polling booths.

"One of the players is now acting like a referee and pretending to be a competitor. Are we really in an election or are we in a contest already decided by one man?" said Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the larger faction of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Mugabe will also be facing ruling party defector Simba Makoni in the presidential vote, being held alongside presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections. He said his opponents were Western puppets and prostitutes.

Tsvangirai said opposition concerns over the electoral process – such as irregularities on the voter register – had not been addressed. He complained of limited access in state media and said some of his party's rallies had been blocked.

The party said the distribution of polling stations was skewed in favour of Mugabe's rural strongholds. It also said it was worried votes might be counted centrally rather than at polling stations – making it easier to cheat.

"I will not be part of an illegal process," Tsvangirai said.

Zimbabwe has banned vote observers from countries critical of Mugabe but an observer mission from countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) said it believed the atmosphere was conducive to a fair poll.

"It does not appear likely that anyone in SADC would have the guts to stand up to Mugabe," said Tendai Biti, a senior official in Tsvangirai's faction.

"The SADC observer mission in Zimbabwe can state that the election will be free and fair despite gross and evident electoral abuse."

Makoni said that the electoral playing field was not even, noting limited coverage by state media and that his supporters were being intimidated by members of the ruling party Zanu-PF.

He said: "We remain hopeful, certainly desirous of an outcome reflecting the will of the people but remain anxious and concerned as to the integrity of the process." .

US-based Human Rights Watch has accused the government of using violence to intimidate opponents and using state subsidised food to gain an advantage.

Mugabe warned the opposition against Kenyan-style violence if they lose.

"If Tsvangirai and his group have such plans, they must stand warned," Mugabe told about 20,000 cheering supporters in his rural home district of Zvimba.

"That will never happen here, never, never. We will never allow it."

Mugabe said he would romp to a landslide victory to shame former colonial power Britain, which he accuses of funding the MDC and Makoni.

The veteran leader threatened that his government could in future retaliate against British interests in Zimbabwe, saying sanctions – designed to target Zimbabwe's leaders – were hurting his country.