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Zimbabwe's Economy Hostage of Political Upheaval in 2001 - 2002-01-01

In the year 2001 Zimbabwe fell to unprecedented levels of political and economic instability. State-sponsored violence flourished, and President Robert Mugabe's government stepped up attacks on the independent media and cracked down on the institutions of democracy, including the judiciary.

If Zimbabweans had hoped that the year 2001 would slow the rapid descent of their country into political and economic chaos, those hopes were soon dashed. In January, by-elections were disrupted by violence, farm invasions escalated, and President Robert Mugabe's efforts to oust members of the judiciary widely viewed as independent were intensified.

During the course of the year, Mr. Mugabe forced four senior judges to retire or resign. Foremost among them was Chief Justice Anthony Gubbay. Despite criticism from international law associations, Justice Gubbay was quickly replaced by Godfrey Chidyausiki, said by Zimbabwean observers to be a government supporter. Within months Justice Chidyausiki overturned an earlier high court ruling that the government's land resettlement program was unconstitutional.

By the year's end the government had identified about 95 percent of the commercial farmland for its controversial resettlement program. The government says the resettlement program is designed to benefit landless Zimbabweans. But the government program has not halted widespread and often violent farm occupations orchestrated by war veterans and supporters of Mr. Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party.

In an annual review of political developments in Zimbabwe, Amnesty International said Mr. Mugabe's land policies are not about land reform, but rather about "rampant torture by the state and its proxies designed to bludgeon dissent." The organization said Mr. Mugabe's government is determined to remain in power by any means, including harassment, arbitrary arrests, assaults, and killings of anyone who stands in its way.

This view is shared by analysts such as Moeletsi Mbeki, board member of the South African Institute of International Affairs in Johannesburg, who says those who oppose or are perceived to oppose Mr. Mugabe are frequently the subject of attack. "There is a campaign really of violence against the opposition party and especially against the electorate that is likely to vote for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change," he said.

Dozens of opposition Movement for Democratic Change supporters have disappeared or been killed, and dozens more, including party leader Morgan Tsvangerai, have been arrested. While some remain behind bars, the courts have dismissed all the charges against Mr. Tsvangerai and several others.

Analysts say the attacks on the opposition are part of a campaign being waged by the ruling ZANU-PF and Mr. Mugabe with the sole aim of maintaining political power.

Tendai Dumbuthsena, a Zimbabwe columnist and former journalist, says the current goal is to return Mr. Mugabe to power in the presidential election scheduled for March. "Everything that he is doing," he said, "from manipulating the election register, denying perceived supporters of the opposition the vote, making it very difficult for young people in urban areas to register to vote because they are unlikely to vote for him, to amendments to the electoral act preventing the presence of observers not sanctioned by the government, etc., etc., to the violence, to the intimidation. All this is designed to guarantee that there can only be one winner when the election is held."

The Zimbabwe government vehemently denies its policies are aimed at anything other than overcoming the inequalities caused by colonial and minority rule and ensuring that ordinary Zimbabweans have access to arable land. Mr. Mugabe and senior government officials reject the charge their supporters engage in violence and accuse their critics of being racist.

The international community, including the European Union and the Commonwealth, has condemned events in Zimbabwe. In December, the United States passed the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act. It will allow the United States to impose so-called "smart" economic and travel sanctions against individuals responsible for the deliberate breakdown of the rule of law and politically motivated violence. Zimbabwe Information Minister Jonathan Moyo said the law was aimed at increasing the suffering of Zimbabweans.

But analysts such as Mr. Mbeki and Mr. Dumbutshena disagree. They support the so-called smart sanctions, but they also say it is the countries of the Southern Africa Development Community, particularly South Africa, that have the real leverage to influence the Zimbabwe government.

For Mr. Dumbutshena, Zimbabwe's neighbors must make it clear to Mr. Mugabe that unless he ensures the presidential election is free and fair by international standards, they will refuse to recognize his government. "I made the point about legitimacy," he said. "If Mugabe realizes that SADC withdraws recognition of his government, he is totally exposed to punitive measures from the rest of the world. If SADC were to reject the outcome of the elections, the African Union would follow suit because it will be guided by what the SADC heads of state say and it will leave him diplomatically exposed."

Both analysts note that Zimbabwe remains highly dependent on South Africa economically. In the early 1980s, at the insistence of the international community, South Africa's apartheid government used economic pressure on the government of then-Prime Minister Ian Smith to force it into negotiations that ultimately ended white-minority rule in Zimbabwe and brought Mr. Mugabe's ZANU-PF to power.

"Well South Africa is the key country," said Mr. Dumbutshena. "You will recall that during the years under Smith, it was when the British and the Americans persuaded South Africa to a hard line on Smith, that the tide decisively changed. That relationship still exists - the relationship of Zimbabwe being largely dependent on South Africa for its economic well-being."

Dozens of local journalists have been harassed or beaten by police or by Mr. Mugabe's supporters. Presses belonging to the independent Daily News were destroyed in a bomb blast days after war veteran leader Chenjerai Hunzvi declared at a rally the newspaper had been "banned in Zimbabwe." Several foreign journalists were expelled and many others denied visas to report in Zimbabwe.

At year end, the government served notice it plans legislation that will impose severe licensing restrictions on journalists in Zimbabwe. The law will go to parliament in early January and makes provision for severe penalties, including lengthy prison terms, for any infractions of the licensing rules.

During the year, the Zimbabwe economy went into free fall. Land occupations prevented many commercial farmers from producing tobacco, the country's largest foreign currency earner. The government appropriated what little foreign currency there was to pay for oil and electricity, but this did not prevent frequent fuel shortages and electricity outages.

Food crops have also been affected, resulting in severe food shortages and skyrocketing prices. By the end of the year, official inflation was running at 103 percent.

In August Tito Mboweni, South Africa's reserve bank governor said "the wheels had come off" in Zimbabwe in the year 2001. In the year 2002, Zimbabweans will be looking to South Africa and other governments in the region, to help them find ways of moving their country forward again.