Africa's Imperiled Dream

The work permit stamped in my passport was still valid. But last week, without any official explanation, I was expelled from Zimbabwe, a "prohibited immigrant." I broke no laws during the nine years I lived in Zimbabwe, working mostly as a journalist. If there is a case against me, it should be stated and proved. I have a right to defend myself. But rights do not mean very much in Zimbabwe these days. My deportation was illegal. Still, it is no worse than what is done to the people of Zimbabwe. The Army raids black townships and indiscriminately beats people. A militia directed from the State House terrorizes rural folk. Mobs led by veterans of the liberation war of the 1970s invade commercial farms and evict farm workers. Riot police assault opposition parliamentarians. Saboteurs blow up the press of the only independent daily newspaper. The BBC correspondent was expelled along with me, and stringent new regulations for foreign correspondents were announced. Local reporters with the independent media are routinely harassed and beaten up by militiamen. Zimbabwe has turned into a police state.

When I arrived in 1992 from Rome, this beautiful country--and all southern Africa--seemed poised for takeoff. Apartheid was ending in South Africa, Angola had a fresh peace agreement and Mozambique seemed to have emerged from its civil war. Their neighbor, my new home, set an inspiring example. "Zimbabwe shows that an African country can work," I told friends. Its roads, cities and parks were well kept. Trains ran on time. Nearly every child went to school. Hospitals were adequate. People had enough to eat. There wasn't a great variety of goods on offer, but the basic stuff was there. I liked it so much that I left my good job as a spokesperson for the United Nations World Food program after two years and decided to stay on as a freelance journalist, turning down another assignment in Rome.

But the ground was shifting. Because of "structural adjustment," tuna and disposable diapers appeared on the shelves--but the poor were saddled with new school and hospital fees. By 1997 UNICEF and Oxfam were reporting rising child and mother mortality rates. Poverty rates spiraled: from 40 percent to 79 percent, according to official government figures. The good news was the birth of human-rights watchdogs, an independent press and a trade-union movement with teeth.

Slowly but steadily, the ruling party's popularity eroded. As parliamentary elections approached last spring, President Robert Mugabe's government was desperate. Human-rights monitors reported tens of thousands of cases of beatings, arson, rape, kidnapping and destruction of property. Mugabe unleashed his private militia, the so-called war veterans, to torture and kill; 31 opposition supporters were murdered. (And still, a nine-month-old opposition front, the Movement for Democratic Change, won just under half the seats in Parliament.) Today Zimbabwe is on the brink of leaving the roster of civilized nations. It cannot meet the conditions: an independent judiciary, a free press, an independent reserve bank, respect for the rule of law and human rights, a concern for the welfare of citizens, a professional and honest civil service.

The world should mobilize to oppose Mugabe's outrages. Yet the commonwealth is silent. Will it wait until a Ken Saro Wiwa is hung before issuing sanctions? Do countries have to descend into full anarchy before the world pays attention? By then it is far costlier to pick up the pieces. South African President Thabo Mbeki's silence is the most baffling of all. Is he reluctant to criticize Mugabe out of African respect for the elderly chief? Does his pride prevent him from reversing direction and admitting that quiet diplomacy has failed? He parades his theory of a Pretoria-led African Renaissance on the world stage but says nothing as South Africa's leading trading partner wages war against its own citizens.

Zimbabwe's lesson now seems to be how shallow democracy's roots remain in southern Africa. The region's political parties, born of armed struggle, so far remain undemocratic. Fundamentally their leaders do not believe anybody else has a right to rule. The dominant parties of Angola, Mozambique and Namibia all accept democracy's trappings--as long as their hegemony is not challenged. When it is, they respond by tightening the screws. In Zimbabwe, all that's now out in the open. "We have degrees in violence," boasted a senior Zanu-PF official during elections last year. I spent four days in hiding with my daughter while officials hunted us in spite of a court ruling allowing us to stay until last Friday. If it were not for my concern for my daughter's safety, I would have remained in Zimbabwe and challenged my deportation. There are times when you have to stand up for your principles against bullies. This is the time for the world to stand up for the people of Zimbabwe before its rulers completely destroy the country and, with it, the dreams of the region.

Africa's Imperiled Dream | News