Zimbabwe’s Chaos: The Powerful Thrive
Published: August 3, 2007
BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe, July 28 — Earlier this month, shortly after Zimbabwe’s president, Robert G. Mugabe, proposed legislation mandating a gradual transfer of all businesses to what he called “indigenous” ownership, a Zimbabwean businessman said he received an unexpected telephone call. The caller, a stranger, said that he represented a group of indigenous investors.
The investors, he said, would like to discuss the merchant’s plans for complying with the coming ownership law.
There is a flip side to Zimbabwe’s economic decline, critics and analysts contend, and this is it: As 11 million or more people descend into destitution, a tiny slice of the population is becoming ever more powerful and wealthy at their expense.
No one outside of Mr. Mugabe’s inner circle, of course, can say with certainty why he has pursued policies since 2000 that have produced economic and social bedlam. For his part, Mr. Mugabe says Zimbabwe’s chaos is the product of a Western plot to reassert colonial rule, while he is simply taking steps to fight that off.
Among many outside that circle, however, the growing conviction is that Zimbabwe’s descent is neither the result of paranoia nor the product of Mr. Mugabe’s longstanding belief in Marxist economic theory. Instead, they say, Zimbabwe is fast becoming a kleptocracy, and the government’s seemingly inexplicable policies are in fact preserving and expanding it.
“Their sole interest is in maintaining power by any means,” said David Coltart, a white opposition member of Parliament. “I think their calculation is that the rest of Africa is not going to do anything to stop them, and the West is distracted by Iraq and Afghanistan. The platinum mines can keep the core of the elite living in the manner they’re accustomed to — just in a sea of poverty.”
There surely are other views.
One influential member of the governing ZANU-PF party said Mr. Mugabe, now 83, was rushing to empower long-suffering black Zimbabweans before he died.
This, he said, explains why the government seized thousands of white-owned farms early this decade, and why Mr. Mugabe ordered manufacturers and merchants last month to reduce their prices by 50 percent and more. To him, it also explains why Mr. Mugabe now proposes to require that every Zimbabwean business be controlled by native Zimbabweans.
“The old man wants to leave a legacy,” said the politician. “He’s in the twilight of his life, and he wants it to be remembered that he left something to Zimbabweans.”
Yet in interviews in Zimbabwe, Mr. Coltart’s view was widely shared by blacks and whites alike, many with no political ax to grind. Even the governing party politician allowed that whatever the aims of Mr. Mugabe’s policies, their execution had gone terribly awry.
Zimbabwe’s farm seizures destroyed the nation’s rich agriculture industry, and, as a form of patronage, vast tracts of land were handed over to party elites with little experience or interest in farming. The looming takeover of businesses is expected to produce the same result.
“Some of these people, his cronies, are being greedy,” the ZANU-PF official said. “That’s the tragedy of this country. Those who benefited from land reform are also going to benefit from this takeover.”
The circumstantial evidence that Zimbabwe’s decline has become a zero-sum game, in which one side’s loss inevitably is the other’s gain, is not easy to ignore.
Zimbabwe’s plummeting currency — 200,000 Zimbabwe dollars now buy a single American dollar on the black market — has rendered the salaries of working Zimbabweans all but worthless. Yet the official exchange rate is not 200,000 to 1, but 250 to 1. Those with connections to the government’s reserve bank are widely said to buy American dollars cheap, sell them dear — and reap an 800-fold profit on currency transactions.
Mr. Mugabe’s government declares currency trading illegal, but regularly dumps vast stacks of new bills on the black market, still wrapped in plastic, to raise foreign exchange for its own needs, business leaders and economists say.