Letter from Harare

So many people have written to send us their best wishes and to let us know that we are in their thoughts at this time, that I have decided to write a short analysis of the situation here, almost three weeks after the election. I apologise to all of you who have written to us personally for this "semi-public" response. I hope you understand, and know that once things have settled down (whatever and whenever "settled down" actually means in Zimbabwe) we will be back in touch properly.

There has been a huge amount of interest by the international community, diplomatic and media, and by the general public, in the Zimbabwe crisis in the past three weeks. Much of the reporting has been very good. Some has been extremely poor. All of us, pretty much without exception, were caught up in the euphoria in early April when it became clear that the MDC had swept the board, and Mugabe was "finished". Well, that was a mistake, wasn’t it?

It might be a good idea to start with the reasons why Mugabe is so unlikely to step down quietly. There are around 500 people for whose benefit Zimbabwe is currently run. Perhaps it’s a thousand. Certainly it is less than a tenth of a percent of the population. They are senior members of the ruling party, of the armed forces and security establishment, and a select few around those key members. Imagine, if you like, that Zimbabwe is a village, with a chief; a Dare, or council of elders; and a few hundred villagers.

There are then several thousand goats, and chickens, and head of cattle, and guinea fowl. And there are a few million stalks of maize, and soya, and Marula trees. The livestock and the crops are more or less disposable. The village can’t survive if there are none at all, but no individual goat or stalk of maize isnecessary to the well-being of the village.

On the other hand, all the five hundred inhabitants know each other, are connected to each other, and although sometimes there are falling outs, they all look after one another when necessary. This is not just an Orwellian metaphor. It is quite clear that the elite, the five hundred, or a thousand, have no more sense of responsibility to the people than a farmer does to his chicken, or his corn. Of course, he’ll look after it up to a point; but he’ll have no compunction about cutting its throat or taking a scythe tothe field if that’s what’s needed.

These five hundred, or a thousand, surround Mugabe. They are his entire constiuency. They ensure that he hears only two messages from his people: "The country will be colonised again if you don’t keep fighting" and "Everything is fine and everybody loves you." It’s a Potemkin State. There’s a lot of talk about the economy bringing Mugabe down. This pre-supposes that those in charge need to preside over what we would consider to be a functional economy. I don’t think this matters to them. They are quite happy to run an economy that is primarily based on subsistence agriculture.

Hungry peasants have always been Zanu PF‘s primary constituency. Aspirational middle class urbanites are always going to want freedom and a functioning economy. So these are the choices facing those who are not connected to the system; They can retreat to the villages, and pray there is enough rain and cow shit to grow a crop to feed their family. Or they can leave their families behind, and sell newspapers at the traffic lights in Jo’burg. Or work as a gardener in Botswana, or a taxi driver in Luton. Any way to earn real money, which they can then send backto keep their families alive.

There are two ways to do this. You can either send money through the banking system, pay a thousand Rand or Pula or Pounds into a bank account in Zim, and have your relatives withdraw it in Zim dollars (it is virtually illegal to draw – or own, or spend – foreign currency within Zimbabwe). If you use the bank, you will be reimbursed at a rate of 60,000 Zimbabwe Dollars (ZWD) to the Pound. The alternative is to use the black market, where the rate is better. A lot better. Two thousand times better, to be precise, this week. On the black market a pound fetches 120 million ZWD.

Unfortunately, the elite controls at least 75% of the black market in cash. So as long as they can take a hundred Rand, or a thousand Pounds, and exchange it for bundles of worthless paper that could easily be printed on a photocopier, they will get richer. The only way they can lose is if people refuse to accept Zim dollars, and insist on what we call "real money". The elite can stop this happening (they do stop this happening) by making it a criminal offence to own foreign currency. So if you want to buy a loaf of bread – currently 30 million ZWD you can either change at the official rate of ZWD 60,000 to the Pound, which means it costs £500, or you can change your money on the black market rate of ZWD120 million to the Pound and pay 25p for it – thereby keeping the elite in the manner to which they have become accustomed.

This works well for them, obviously. It works even better when they can go to the Reserve Bank and buy their US dollars for the official rate – in other words, pay one fifth of a cent for each dollar they buy. There’s not quite enough money in the Reserve Bank to go round, as the economy falters. But there’s certainly enough to pay off a loyal lackey with fifty thousand pounds to buy a new Mercedes every now and again – for which he pays £25. Yes, that is TWENTY FIVE POUNDS, for a new Merc. Tax free, of course. Just the promise of this possibility is enough to keep most of them quiet. Sorry. To keep ALL of them quiet.

The big multinational mining companies that run the Platinum mines and the Gold mines pay a royalty to the government – rumoured to be a million Poiunds a day, directly to the President’s office, for the Impala ZimPlats Platinum mine at Ingeze. That pays for Isreali communication intercept equipment and water canon, and Chinese AK 47 bullets and spare parts for the APC’s, and South African fuel for the President’s motorcade. A tiny bit of this also goes to schools and hospitals and fixing the roads and keeping Air Zim in the air and sewerage and electricity and everything else that a functioning state is supposed to provide forits people.

But it is a vanishingly small amount. Most gets poured into the trough. Even the hundred and fifty thousand percent inflation doesn’t interrupt this vicious circle. Prices increase at the rate the Zim dollar collapses. So though a loaf of bread was two hundred dollars fifteen months ago, and is now thirty million, it is still 25p in "real money". So long as the economy is kept alive by Zimbabweans in the diaspora earning "real money" and using the black market to get that money home to their dependents, the purchasing power of that diaspora income doesn’t really change. The relatives back home still get to buy the loaf of bread. The elite still get to keep the “Real Money”. The elite have had their snouts in the trough for so long that they have failed to notice the way the masses have turned against them.

So they have been as astonished this past three weeks by th
e surge of political dissent as those village farmers I referred to earlier would be if the field of corn rose up against them. It is inconceivable to them. For ten years ZANU PF loyalists have convinced themselves that the MDC and the democratic opposition was a creation of the British, the Americans, and the white farmers. Any black member of the MDC is a sell-out and an Uncle Tom.

Zanu have rigged the elections over the past few years, but they’ve never had to rig extensively, and they were pretty sure that this time they’d fixed the problem for good. Therefore they were absolutely flabbergasted when, three weeks ago today, the people of Zimbabwe rose up and threw them out. For three or four days they reeled. Emissaries were sent to Tsvangarai’s people, sounding out options for a government of national unity. Bob’s wife and kids left the country – probably accompanied by the families of most of the top leadership.

There were suddenly fewer new luxury 4×4’s on the road. Building worked stopped on the huge palaces going up around Borrowdale and Hogerty Hill. But then they rallied. It started, it seems, with a group of senior generals – what is known as the JOC – the Joint Operations Command, amusingly the same name given to the military/civilian crisis committee that ran Rhodesia during the Bush War.

Although Mugabe is probably immune from international prosecution, and therefore from domestic legal process, many of his senior military people are not. Mugabe can’t be sent to The Hague tribunals, because they are only for Sierra Leone and Yugoslavia. The International Criminal Court only has jurisdiction on crimes committed after the Court’s inception in 2002. So unless you count Murambatsvina, which was a disgrace but arguably not a Crime against Humanity, Bob is in the clear.

It is his legacy that he worries about, not his freedom. Since then, they have adopted a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand they are frantically stuffing ballot boxes in a secret location – probably within the military headquarters (which is still called "KG6" – though I suspect no one in the security establishment knows that this stands for King George VI, and was so named back in the fifties) in the hope that they can get enough false ballot papers in the boxes to avoid a re-run. And on the other hand, they have turned on their people.

They are aware that widespread killing is not going to be defensible, even among their allies in the Africa Union and beyond – China, North Korea, Iran, and Cuba, (though two MDC activists have been killed in the past week). China in particular has enough problems with human rights activists at the moment. But they are beating and brutalising and burning huts across the country to try to "encourage" people not to vote for the opposition should there be a run-off.

The MDC is utterly hamstrung. Never particularly good at showing courageous leadership when it is most needed, they have cowered and squabbled and acted like rabbits caught in the headlights of a juggernaut. We think Morgan is in exile, though he hasn’t admitted it yet. The MDC has argued that any sign of public dissent will be used by the regime as an excuse to declare a state of emergency, and smash them down. But this is what is happening anyway. Had the MDC brought a hundred thousand people out onto the streets at the beginning of April, we would probably have a handful of martyrs, and a new government. But they had neither the courage, the wit, or the organisational skill to move when there was a chance. Now they cannot get more than three people together without the police and army descending on them. I fear that the moment has passed.

My fear at the moment is that Mugabe and his cohorts are looking at the examples of Burma, China, and North Korea, where over the past fifty years there has been a brutal suppression of democratic popular dissent, coupled with Maoist "back to the land" socio-political policies, and the hegemony of the one-party state.

And despite all these states being roundly condemned for these policies by their neighbouring states and by the international community, they have all survived. It is forty years since Mao’s "Great Leap Forward" led to the deaths of millions through starvation, imprisonment and the criminalisation of free thought. Yet thirty years after Mao died, the Communist party he founded is still in unchallenged power, opposition activists are routinely jailed and beaten, and Mao’s picture hangs in every government office and school. But it is Burma that is probably the best parallel.

In 1988 the military dictatorship which had been in power since 1962 was confronted by a popular uprising against economic collapse and political repression. The military dictator Nhe Win crushed the rebellion with great brutality, and in 1992 felt sufficiently confident to hold an election, which was won by the democrats under Aung San Suu Kyi. This was not the Generals’ preferred outcome. So instead of respecting the result they threw all the opposition leaders in jail – where they mostly remain today – retroactively rigged the result, declared a state of emergency, and have ruled brutally and largely unchallenged ever since.

The outburst of protest in September last year was crushed, several hundred were killed, and despite a little ritual hand-wringing the world turned it’s back. That, I believe, is the calculation that Mugabe and his senior ministers and generals are making today. They reckon that if they can get over this current "inconvenience" they will be able to re-engineer the country to make it a Zanu state for ever – at least in political terms, where "forever" is the next five decades.

What I find most frightening is that already the opposition and elements of the international community are subsiding back into apathy. Already I am hearing people saying, "Well, you know, he’ll get away with it this time, but he won’t last forever, and there’ll be another chance in five years." There won’t be. If he doesn’t go, there will not be another chance.

There will not be another election in five years time unless Z-PF is the only party contesting. There will be no MDC – everyone who opposes Zanu-PF will be in jail or in exile. This is not a game of football. I think we should all remind ourselves this, everyday. There is a rapidly narrowing window of opportunity. This month. Perhaps next. After that, the country will be stolen from us for good.