Magazine article The New Yorker

HANGING ON; Comment; Comment

Magazine article The New Yorker

HANGING ON; Comment; Comment

Article excerpt

One Sunday afternoon last month, members of Zimbabwe's opposition party, Movement for Democratic Change, were gathering--for a prayer meeting, they said--when President Robert Mugabe's security forces descended on them, firing tear gas, water cannons, and bullets. One person was killed, and at least fifty others were injured after being taken into custody. When the M.D.C. leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, a former trade-union activist, arrived at the police station, Mugabe's men repeatedly bashed his head against a wall, then detained him, too. Mugabe has always been rough with the M.D.C., a party formed eight years ago to challenge his dictatorial powers, and Tsvangirai has been arrested and knocked around many times before, but this time he was badly disfigured and his skull severely lacerated. These are actions that most dictators would cover up, but several days later Mugabe held a public rally to commend the police for their use of force, and to warn Tsvangirai and his followers that they could expect more violence. True to his word, Mugabe unleashed his goons on a nationwide rampage that resulted in hundreds of his opponents and critics being dragged from their homes and offices and beaten.

The shamelessness of Mugabe's brutality--and his gloating pride in it--aroused the attention of the international press and diplomatic corps. But the story of Zimbabwe's violent misrule and national degradation is not a new one. Mugabe, who is eighty-three, came to power in 1980 as a leader of the long and bloody liberation struggle against the white-supremacist regime of Ian Smith's Rhodesia, and he has always used his hero's mantle as cover for terrorizing his opponents, real and perceived. He has murdered thousands of his people and deprived the rest of meaningful freedom. In the process, he has transformed one of Africa's most prosperous and promising countries into one of the poorest and weakest on earth.

Zimbabwe's inflation rate is already more than seventeen hundred per cent, the highest in the world, and the International Monetary Fund warns that it could exceed five thousand per cent by year's end. Unemployment is around eighty per cent, and the average income is less than a dollar a day. With chronic food shortages and no medical system left to speak of, life expectancy has plunged from sixty years, in 1990, to less than thirty-seven years (the shortest anywhere), while the infant-mortality rate has increased by more than fifty per cent. Not surprisingly, as many as three million Zimbabweans--a quarter of the population--have fled the country. Yet last week Mugabe's information minister, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, declared, "There is no crisis whatsoever in Zimbabwe."

Mugabe has sworn that he will not relinquish power before his hundredth birthday. He is obsessed with the fiction that he is Zimbabwe's legitimate leader, and his assault on his nation--an attempt to control his people by squeezing the life out of them--has steadily intensified since the emergence of the M.D.C. He seems to be punishing Zimbabweans just for considering that he could be replaced. But Mugabe, who is as clever as he is crude and perverse, blames his opponents for the unrest. According to his rhetoric, they are terrorists and agents of white imperialism, and whatever hardship the country may be enduring is the price of its ongoing fight for freedom. …

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