NEW YORK — The phone line to my parents’ game farm in eastern Zimbabwe is working again, and their backpacker lodge, void of guests for many years, is being re-thatched in preparation for a hoped-for tourist invasion during the 2010 Soccer World Cup.
There’s food in the shops in their home town Mutare, once more, and, most importantly, no sign of the local “war vets,” 25 thugs who terrorized them and their lodge workers during the violent 2008 presidential election, when Zimbabwe seemed on the brink of war.
And yet, when I call my father from my base in New York to ask him how things are progressing back home, I’m a little disturbed by his response.
“Of course it’s better than it was a year ago,” he says, “but if I look behind me I see a giant animal with huge tusks just biding his time to smash up all the furniture.”
The elephant in the room needs no introduction. It’s 12 months now since President Robert Mugabe, under pressure from his political enablers in South Africa, agreed to share power with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change which had defeated his ruling Zanu-PF party in the 2008 general election.
In February 2009, MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai was sworn in as prime minister of what is called the "government of national unity," and the two parties began to divvy up the ministries. Foreign currency was made legal tender, wiping out Zimbabwe’s surreal hyper-inflation at a stroke, and civil servants began to get paid again, meaning schools and hospitals re-opened. My parents even had friends in the new MDC-led parliament, including a dynamic young black MP from their area named Pishai Muchauraya. The country appeared to be righting itself.
But, for my father, the optimism of those days is slowly disappearing.
“We all thought that was the beginning of the end, that the old bugger was finally going to go. Now we realize he’s not going anywhere. This is still going to be a long road.”
On Oct. 15, senior MDC member Roy Bennett was arrested in Mutare, my parent’s home town, and is set to stand trial on “terrorism” charges. In protest, the MDC have withdrawn from participating in the government of national unity cabinet and council of ministers meetings, and the power sharing agreement is frozen, quite possibly on the brink of collapse. Perhaps it should not have come as a surprise. Bennett has been the MDC’s Deputy Agriculture Minister designate since the start of national unity government, but Mugabe adamantly refused to swear him in.
But even before Bennett's arrest, my parents were getting unpleasant reminders of what lies ahead. Since 2007 they have earned a living running a small coffee roasting business, buying beans from friends who had somehow kept hold of their farm in the surrounding Vumba mountains. In October, however, those friends lost most of the remainder of their farm to Mugabe’s land invaders, and the roasting business is on the verge of collapse.
Under the terms of the unity government, all land invasions should have ceased, but instead they continue with impunity — and the full blessing of Mugabe. In western Zimbabwe, meanwhile, white farmers who won a case in a southern African court declaring the expropriation of their farms illegal, are caught in a small-scale war with land invaders. All this, and President Mugabe was still brazen enough to tell foreign investors at a mining conference in Harare in September that “property rights and the rule of law are fully respected in Zimbabwe.”
The very make-up of the unity government is the part of the problem — and Mugabe’s trump card. Consider diamonds. In October last year, before the coalition government came into being, the Zimbabwe army seized control of the lucrative Marange diamond field, located not 15 miles from my parents’ home. More than 200 civilian diamond panners were killed in the military onslaught, an action strongly condemned at the time by the MDC. But when Human Rights Watch released a report in June detailing the extent of the military atrocities, the deputy minister of mines in the GNU — an MDC appointee named Murisi Zwizwai — denied anyone had been killed.
Co-opting the MDC in this way, slowly compromising them and turning them on to the trappings of power is, says another friend, an economist in Harare, Mugabe’s whole plan.
“Nothing has changed,” he tells me. “The Old Man is still in charge. He’s the master at manipulation, he sets all the rules, and the MDC are falling for it. Mark my words, he’ll still be in power in 10 years time. He’s just too cunning, the old fox.”
Zimbabwe is a nation of paradoxes however, and there is another narrative. It goes like this: in a mere seven months, despite no control of any security ministries, the MDC’s stewardship of the economy has brought a marked improvement in the lives of ordinary people. Last year people could literally not buy food. Today there is bread in the shops, and money has real value.
Tsvangirai’s aim is that economic change will be so swift, that when Mugabe tries to put the genie back in the bottle, the population will not stand for it. Indeed, it seems at least some foreign investors are taking note. In July, two major investor conferences in Harare were sold out, and I was astonished recently when an American friend informed me that he had resigned from his lucrative job at Goldman Sachs to start an investment firm — in Harare. A Brooklyn neighbor meanwhile, a Swedish diplomat, has just informed me that he’s moving with his wife and three small children to Zimbabwe: “to help effect change.”
My investor friend can sound like an evangelist, but I cheer up when I hear his spiel: “This is an old regime,” he explains, “and it’s on the way out. Some of them are quite literally dying. It might kick and bleat for a while, but there’s no stopping the momentum against it. Change is coming and I want to be there, on the ground, as it happens.”
After hearing this I call my father once more and tell him this rosy forecast, and for a moment I sense him cheer up. But then, when I suggest he pass on the news to Pishai Muchauraya, his MDC friend in parliament, his mood darkens again.
“I would,” he says, “but the police have just arrested him, too.”
In the background I hear the sound of crashing furniture.
Douglas Rogers is the author of "The Last Resort: A memoir of Zimbabwe" published by Harmony Books, a division of Random House.
Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.