SPEAKING before his death almost exactly 11 years ago, Ian Smith, prime minister of Rhodesia from 1964 to 1979 and a controversial figure by any standards, said that he would happily walk down any street in Harare — Salisbury in his time — but that his successor Robert Mugabe dare not.
Smith’s implication was that Mugabe’s dictatorship, even then a heady mixture of despotism and kleptocracy, had made him a figure of hate. He believed that without the
protection of his Praetorians, Mugabe’s safety could not be guaranteed — and that has been the case for nearly four decades. He also implied that Zimbabwe was then incapable of self-governance. Though history has confirmed that dystopian view, Smith’s tacit — at best — racism remains as provocative and as cutting as it ever was. Sadly, however, the figures and the absence of opportunity that almost defines that country justifies his pessimism.
Zimbabwe was even then an economic basket case. Poverty and hunger had, once again, become defining characteristics of a country blessed with spectacular agricultural resources largely squandered when development-orientated white farmers were driven from industrial-scale farms. Today Zimbabwe does not have anything the West would recognise as an economy beyond subsistence farming. Unemployment stands at an incomprehensible 95%. Tragically, Zimbabwe has regressed to that ancient darkness that has been the historical lot of mankind for far too much of our history.
GDP for the country is difficult to establish, another consequence of Mugabe’s chaos, but figures between $600 to $700 a year per capita are generally accepted. That’s below what was achieved in England before the Industrial Revolution of 1750. Essentially, Zimbabwe doesn’t have an economy but it does have a population of more than 16m souls.
Those statistics did not embarrass, much less cow, the 93-year-old Mugabe. Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Durban in May, he showed the permafrost disdain of a Marie Antionette: “Zimbabwe is one of the most highly developed countries in Africa and after South Africa, I want to know which country has that level of development,” he said. His audience was less constrained than his subjects at home — they were beyond the reach of his Gestapo— and when the dictator spoke, they laughed at his claims.
Mugabe, so obviously corrupt and spectacularly unhinged, has run his unfortunate country since 1980, an achievement that makes him the oldest head of state in the world.
To put that in context, he has run Zimbabwe for four years longer than Gerry Adams has led Sinn Féin.
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai has said Mugabe should resign after the military seized power. Mugabe, his wife Grace, and key figures from her faction are under house arrest in Harare. Even still, Mugabe insists he is Zimbabwe’s only legitimate ruler. Regime change is under way and the nature of that change is all that remains to be established. It must be hoped that it is bloodless and that it leads to the rejuvenation of a potentially rich country that has suffered far more than its share under the rule of this insane tyrant.
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