Friday, December 07, 2007

President leaves behind a people left paralysed by their poverty

from The Independent

By Ian Evans in Harare

The road out of Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, is a survey of disrepair. Broken traffic lights, rusting lampposts, rubbish-strewn scrub planted with maize by hungry people, broken down vehicles, hawkers with pitiful offerings, the choking fumes of cheap fuel.

The road itself leads to the poorer townships, the heartland of the opposition, and some possible answers to questions surrounding Zimbabwe: what has happened to this once-thriving country? And why have its people not risen up against its leaders?

Power cuts here are as mundane as rain showers. Sitting and drinking a beer waiting for a guide, the lights go out along a whole street without anyone raising an eyebrow, let alone a voice. My companions cover their ears, there's a rumble and the generators kick back in.

My township guide duly arrives and we hitchhike through the rain to Hatcliffe. The good news is the electricity is on. The bad news is that there are no street lights.

Two years ago Hatcliffe was targeted in Robert Mugabe's Operation Murambatsvina – Shona for "drive out the rubbish" – when thugs and police demolished shacks and stalls leaving tens of thousands of people without homes or work. He claimed it was tidying up the neighbourhood but human rights workers said that it was collective punishment of opposition supporters.

Within 10 minutes the lights are off again.

The man I have come to speak to is a civil servant but it is his daughter who is more vocal and passionate. A student in her early twenties, she sums up the mood of a desperate nation.

"Ten to 15 years ago we had a good life, things were stable here. Now it is going down and down. It will need a strong political person in [the ruling party] Zanu-PF to change things because we do not think Mugabe will step down. Inflation has ruined everything. You cannot plan or budget and nothing is available. It is OK if you are in Zanu-PF and know people because you can get what you want. But for normal people like us, it is very hard."

There is little optimism here that the talks between the ruling party and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, brokered by neighbouring South Africa, will deliver fair elections next year.

The student is not confident about next year's vote and warns me of potential trouble. "African elections are very different to Western elections. You know there will only be one winner here. People know he will win. He will never give up power," she says.

Afterwards we walk back to my guide's house along the potholed road. I'd got used to no electricity, but no water is difficult. Limited supply from bottles obtained from a school are not enough to flush a now-full lavatory or have a wash.

The morning frees us from the vagaries of power cuts and brings an encounter with a man typical of both of the bravery and frustration of those who will not be cowed into silence by the police state. Harrison Mudzuri, 36, is a teacher and a father of three and he is happy to be quoted and photographed.

"I am not scared. I am motivated because this is a minority party ruling the majority," he says. "If we are afraid we are not going to gain anything. I am prepared to keep up the struggle and am ready to meet death. If we do not keep up the struggle it could mean death anyway – it is a no-win situation."

He has been a teacher for 15 years but has never known conditions to be so bad. His class is supposed to number 30 but he has 48 on the register. But not all turn up each day. "They are too hungry, they have to work or look after their sick parents. People are very poor and education is no longer a priority," says Mr Mudzuri, a member of the militant Progressive Teachers' Union of Zimbabwe.

His earnings leave him below the poverty line which has prompted colleagues to quit and sent once high literacy rates crashing. He has been arrested 12 times and been tortured by secret police.

But not all the people in Zimbabwe are suffering. We visit Borrowdale Brook, a wealthy enclave for Mr Mugabe's ministers, apparatchiks and a world away from Hatcliffe. Building work, manicured lawns, full shops, big cars and a golf club give it the feel of middle England, except this suburb houses Mr Mugabe's out-of-town retreat.

We drive past his high-fenced mansion guarded by troops armed with Kalashnikovs, bayonets drawn.

At the local supermarket, co-owned by the government minister Ray Kaukonde, we find fully stocked shelves, an abundance of fruit and vegetables and wine and spirits with price tags running into several hundred million dollars.

This wealth is beyond the imagining of the 40-year-old woman who runs a nearby orphanage for 60 children with HIV/Aids and who also has the illness for which she struggles to get antiretroviral drugs every month. Her soldier husband died from the ailment as did her two children aged six and two.

Asked why she runs the orphanage, she says: "They are all my children. I just want one of them to call me mummy so I can feel like a mother again."

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