Meanwhile in Africa...
February 5, 2007 2:21 PM   Subscribe

You will be thoroughly beaten. Zimbabwe, in economic decline for years, may be accelerating towards collapse. Its inflation rate recently hit 1281%, the highest in the world, and a strike by public doctors that began six weeks ago has now spread to nurses, electrical workers and (today) teachers. Those that aren't allowed to strike, like police, are quitting. Last month, Zimbabwe's top judge warned that underfunding had (possibly intentionally) left its judiciary largely unable to function, the nation's electricity provider recently announced that it's broke, its sewage plants started breaking down and polluting urban water supplies, and international observers warned (based on satellite photos, since the government won't allow them in) that famine is looming. In the past, President Robert Mugabe's response to the growing destitution has been to forcibly evict poor urban slum residents into the countryside and bulldoze their homes, to prevent them from organizing politically and to make it difficult for rights organizations to monitor them. Now, he's canceling the 2008 presidential elections (for now, saying that they'll be held in 2010, in conjunction with parliamentary elections, to save money) and ordering security forces to jail and torture political activists. The situation may be approaching a breaking point.
posted by gsteff (48 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Regime Change
posted by Xurando at 2:29 PM on February 5, 2007

That's just sad
posted by jouke at 2:31 PM on February 5, 2007

The good news is that he's invited the white farmers—who he evicted from their lands a few years ago—to return and work the land as tenant farmers. I'd be surprised if any of them took that offer.
posted by adamrice at 2:37 PM on February 5, 2007

let's just pretend for a second they're sitting on a fuckload of WMDs, OK?
posted by matteo at 2:38 PM on February 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

It's been broken for a while. To bad, up untill a few years ago, the country was one of the best off in Africa. It also used to be a net food exporter (yet, some idiot on slashdot was like "Why live where you can't grow food, no wonder there is a famine!")
posted by delmoi at 2:39 PM on February 5, 2007

This is a classic example of what happens with forced wealth redistribution. They took away the farms from the 'rich' white people who had previously run them, and gave them to poor black people who had no idea how to successfully run a farm. They didn't redistribute the wealth, they destroyed it. And when you're dealing with your food supply, of all things, a poor outcome is a life-threatening situation.

I haven't followed Zimbabwe that closely, but it wasn't doing that badly before Mugabe took over. I assume he continued his pattern of forced theft from people who knew how to create wealth to those who didn't in other sectors. You can import food if the rest of the economy is functioning; the fact that the whole thing has collapsed makes me believe that other sectors must have been destroyed by giving them to Friends of Mugabe.

Using tax revenue to create new opportunities for underprivileged citizens is laudable. Destroying your economy because you don't think it's "fair" is not.
posted by Malor at 2:40 PM on February 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

According to the World Health Organization, Zimbabweans have the shortest life expectancy world-wide--the average life span has halved to only 35 years old today from 69 in 2000.


Some close friends of my family live in Zimbabwe and I really hope that they've gotten out. They've been thinking about doing so for years, since Mugabe's government has been largely running the country into the ground, and I hope they've actually taken steps to do so. This sounds awful, to say the very least.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 2:43 PM on February 5, 2007

Malor: it had nothing to do with trying to be "fair" it had to do with political patronage. Mugube was trying to pay off his supporters.
posted by delmoi at 2:46 PM on February 5, 2007

With a bit of colonial-bashing thrown in.
posted by athenian at 2:48 PM on February 5, 2007

Didn't Mugabe report once that he admired Hitler?
posted by A189Nut at 3:12 PM on February 5, 2007

Thanks, gsteff, there's been maybe one article about Zimbabwe in the NYT over the last month, so this is a real eye-opener. It's also a great example of how to do a breaking news post right. Thanks again.
posted by mediareport at 3:22 PM on February 5, 2007

Malor's interpretation seems woefully simplified. Zimbabwe's situation is an extreme version of the problems faced by many countries emerging from decades+ of colonialism.

You have a foreign power that comes in. They subjugate the indigenous population with military force and keep it marginalized economically and culturally. Those few natives who gain some measure of authority under the colonials are usually corrupt, or thugs, or both. When the colonial power begins to wane, you have a country run by systems that were designed to serve the imperialist power, not the indigenous people. Now you have people struggling to jump into running governments and economies that may have little or no connection to the traditional forms of life known by the natives. There are some who have some inkling of how to work these systems, but again, these are the corrupt, and they take advantage of the suddenly released rage of the formerly subjugated for their own ends.

And to say that the white farmers knew how to "create" wealth is a bit disingenous. They came in, imposed a plantation style system that benefited them on the native people, and took wealth. Now the poor who were under the thumb of the colonial powers are forced to take over a system based on their own oppression and tied into a global market that exerts enormous pressure on them. They have little or no room to alter economic or political systems to suit their needs, and no time to become educated on the world they have suddenly been thrust into.
posted by papakwanz at 3:23 PM on February 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

The situation may be approaching a breaking point.


Jeebus. When are things "broken?" When the sky rains blood and people give birth to jackals?
posted by tkchrist at 3:24 PM on February 5, 2007

Malor, Mugabe's a fascist dictator who doesn't give a rat's ass about redistributing wealth to the "underprivileged citizens" of his country. If you're going to make broad generalizations, familiarize yourself a bit more first with the specifics.
posted by mediareport at 3:24 PM on February 5, 2007

Malor writes "I haven't followed Zimbabwe that closely, but it wasn't doing that badly before Mugabe took over."

Mugabe's been President or Prime Minister for over 25 years. His slide into incompetence has been recent and precipitous. He wasn't a bad leader for the first half of his tenure, and he established a reputation as one of Africa's most competent heads of government. He's still widely respected and popular across the continent. Starting around 1998, though, he just started to lose it.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:25 PM on February 5, 2007

I know next to nothing about Zimbabwe, but I do not think the situation will get any better before it get way way worse.
posted by Vindaloo at 3:26 PM on February 5, 2007

I think Malor's saying we should invade and give the farms back to the rich white people. You know, that's the only way it can ever work.
posted by tehloki at 3:27 PM on February 5, 2007

I'm surprised the country hasn't completely dissolved yet, or that Mugabe hasn't been deposed. But maybe the army is out of bullets.

As mr_roboto said, Mugabe and Zimbabwe were doing well just ten years ago. And then, something in Mugabe went south.

When it's to the point that other AIDS-ravaged sub-Saharan countries have a higher standard of living than you do, it's bordering on As Awful As It Can Get.
posted by dw at 3:58 PM on February 5, 2007

Something tells me Zimbabwe doesn't have a lot of oil.

Ah. Yep.

Well, there's your problem, right there.

(that's disgust and sarcasm, people)
posted by zoogleplex at 4:05 PM on February 5, 2007

"I'm surprised the country hasn't completely dissolved yet, or that Mugabe hasn't been deposed. But maybe the army is out of bullets."

Bullets cost money, and in Zimbabwe probably all need to be imported. From the looks of it Zimbabwe's import purchasing power is rapidly diminishing. Of course, Mugabe's probably got a few hundred million dollars in hard cash and gold that he can spend, and he probably will.

Also, cold and malnourished people don't fight very well, so a popular revolution is probably impossible.

This is just plain ugly, about as ugly as humanity gets.
posted by zoogleplex at 4:12 PM on February 5, 2007

papakwanz, not everything can be blamed on Britain. Mugabe's not some African hero standing up to white oppression — Archbishop Tutu described him as 'a caricature of an African dictator'.
posted by matthewr at 4:13 PM on February 5, 2007

Land reform has been done elsewhere with success. Nothing about Mugabe's land reform, especially since the late 90s, has suggested competence or goodwill on his part, and not simply due to the weaknesses of his controlled economy or the already-grave problems of dealing with the crimes of colonialism. He is simply another dictator. But, without oil, Zimbabwe won't be seeing much US attention. It's a disgrace out there.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:15 PM on February 5, 2007

Amazing the amount of people who, when discussing Zimbabwe, jump to the conclusion that the terrible situation in that country must be as a result of colonialism. Zimbabwe was a colony of Britain for only 74 years, with another 15 odd years under white minority rule. Robert Mugabe has already ruled the country for more than a third of the time the British did - and in that time, for a while, managed a successful economy, until his botched and bloody redistribution of land lead to the country's economic collapse - pushing his country from being one of the most stable, profitable and literate on the continent, to the verge of anarchy.

And yet some people still seem to think its more important to point a finger at British colonialism than Mugabe's bloody-handed incompetence. When they do, they effectively say two things. Firstly that the poor black people are too powerless to break free of the bonds of their history - that they are doomed to fail because of the inescapable legacy of colonialism. Secondly they effectively condone the tyranny of men like Mugabe - as if they're saying, he's not to blame - he's merely trapped by the history of colonialist oppression.

I think this is rubbish. Zimbabwe is in the state it finds itself for a number of reasons - none of them are to do with colonialism. The main reason is the horrific incompetence which developed in Mugabe, but their are other reasons, such as the shameful way other African leaders failed even to criticise him. The impact of colonialism is just a rather unfortunate red herring.
posted by prentiz at 4:17 PM on February 5, 2007 [3 favorites]

Has anyone heard of the idea that he might be suffering from advanced syphilis symptoms?

This might his recent mental decline.
posted by snailer at 4:20 PM on February 5, 2007

durr.. "This might explain his recent mental decline."

The rampant inflation has also created a booming business in fuel vouchers. It's illegal to import fuel or to buy it with foreign currency, but this service allows people to SMS fuel vouchers to their relatives in Zimbabwe.

Inflation has gotten to such a bad level that the money ("bearer cheques") has expiration dates on it now.
posted by snailer at 4:24 PM on February 5, 2007

Coming soon to a South American country near you!
posted by Falconetti at 5:01 PM on February 5, 2007

The Economist magazine maintains that South Africa could have shut Mugabe down a few years ago. South Africa supplies Zimbabwe with electricity. Zimbabwe has been unable to pay its electricity bills for some time. Had South Africa shut off the electricity this would have shut down Zimbabwe and probably brought Mugabe down.

The Economist then says that the South Africans will not do this because of loyalty toward 'Comrade Bob'.
posted by sien at 5:02 PM on February 5, 2007

Zimbabwe is essentially dead; the real question is just how bad will it get. other words, will the collapse of Zimbabwe drag down the neighboring countries and turn into a regional war, or not?
posted by aramaic at 5:10 PM on February 5, 2007

Emphasizing one of Malor's points, it is not easy to run a farm profitably, though it is dead simple to have a farm. People who can run farms profitably are not unskilled labor even though they may appear to be bumpkins and have fun poked at them here and at other sites. Without crash courses in agronomy, water management and chemistry I will give odds against any reader's ability to show a farm in the black within five years of being handed cropland and machinery - no matter where in the world the cropland is.
posted by jet_silver at 5:13 PM on February 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

loyalty toward 'Comrade Bob'

The whole not wanting a million refugees thing might also have something to do with it.
posted by Wolof at 5:14 PM on February 5, 2007

As an aside...this “oil” business....suddenly people are hawks when it comes to nation building in a tyrannized African nation? How, exactly, is this a military problem? Indeed, how is it our problem in the U.S.? I’m not of course advocating that the U.S. not help, nor do I think it’s outside of our interests to do so. But suddenly the U.S. is the asshole for not doing what loads of people are arguing they shouldn’t have done in Iraq in the first place or indeed even Afghanistan? Where’s the U.N. on this? Or does that only count in criticizing the other guy’s policy?
So we go in to Zimbabwe, everyone hates our guts even though we’re trying to help them and a few guys get killed in a nasty way by local warlords (well, they signed up, they deserved it, right?), and we pull out because suddenly it’s no fun anymore. Yeah, been there, done that. No, thanks.
We can argue all day about the motives behind Iraq, but the bottom line is that didn’t require a military solution absent an immanent threat. Same deal here. Doesn’t matter how much oil is somewhere else. It sucks and we should get on that not only for humanitarian reasons but because chaos anywhere is a threat to civilization everywhere.
But as for this “Hey, why aren’t you sending guys off to fight and die for this pet project there instead of this other bullshit thing here?” Yeah, screw that noise. Pick up a weapon and do it yourself sparky. Otherwise, let’s send in the U.N., some NGO’s, some diplomats and set up some systems and maybe some troops just to cover those specific operations. People want to help themselves, great, if not, there’s nothing being done at gunpoint to make them itchy.
posted by Smedleyman at 5:32 PM on February 5, 2007 [3 favorites]

I never said everything was due to Britain, but many, many of the root causes of Zimbabwe's problems lie in their past history as a colony.
Zimbabwe is in the state it finds itself for a number of reasons - none of them are to do with colonialism. is a ridiculous overstatement and a blatant attempt to dodge blame for past wrongdoings. That's like saying that the current problems of African-Americans have nothing to do with slavery, or the current problems of Native Americans have nothing to do with the US government decimating their population and progressively taking over all their land. Direct results? maybe not. But there's a legacy from past oppression, and Mugabe is one of the thugs I mentioned in my first post who steps into power to use that legacy for his own ends.
posted by papakwanz at 5:54 PM on February 5, 2007

I think Malor's saying we should invade and give the farms back to the rich white people. You know, that's the only way it can ever work.

You couldn't possibly have gotten any farther from my actual opinion.

It's bad to differentiate people based on skin color. Doesn't matter which way it goes, if you're making a choice based on someone's melanin levels, it's almost certainly going to be a bad decision.

jet_silver's idea is much closer to what I was originally trying to say. Farming is not a simple thing. It's not just a matter of sticking seeds in the ground, watering, and then eating the results. If you remove skilled farmers and replace them with unskilled people, your food output is going to drop sharply.

delmoi and mediareport: I haven't followed this for some years, but I saw the land redistribution program described as being about 'fairness' and 'equity'. It may not have been the TRUTH, but that was how the government of Zimbabwe was painting it at the time(2001 timeframe, I think?) I thought it sounded like a dismal idea, and well, it was.

From other comments in the thread, it sounds like painting Mugabe as a simple thug is just as broad an overgeneralization.
posted by Malor at 6:09 PM on February 5, 2007

I bet the farmers wouldn't get much even if they cultivated cannabis. In Marocco, they get (according to some article I can't find damn) no more then 3% of the profit estimated in 3 billion euro an year.
posted by elpapacito at 6:18 PM on February 5, 2007

Zimbabwe is used to being thoroughly beaten. Their cricket team is abysmal.
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:23 PM on February 5, 2007

Overview of human rights issues in Zimbabwe. Mugabe's scapegoating of gay folks definitely affects my opinion, Malor, but the country's slide into hell has gone hand in hand with Mugabe's slide into becoming a fascist dictator. I'll leave it to you to decide if that means he's a "simple thug" or not, I don't care. The evidence for his fascism is pretty clear.
posted by mediareport at 6:32 PM on February 5, 2007

it had nothing to do with trying to be "fair" it had to do with political patronage. Mugube was trying to pay off his supporters.

What do you think 'fair' means, when translated from populist stump speeches into actual policy?
posted by Slithy_Tove at 7:24 PM on February 5, 2007 [1 favorite]

From other comments in the thread, it sounds like painting Mugabe as a simple thug is just as broad an overgeneralization.

That's right malor - it's all the fault of those white farmers and their western education and modern farming techniques... and the utter horror of colonialism!

That Mugabe is an incompetent and corrput leader is just a minor footnote to history. The fact that he threw out the white farmers and gave their land to "war veterans" who promptly sold off the tractors and machines and put the money in their pockets is not even worthy of historical note. All of this made only a minor contribution to the collapse of agricultural production.

What Mugabe is doing is returing the country to its former feral state, sparsely populated with happy, content hunter gatherers. That happy time of milk and honey before whitey came with his technology and his language and his schools and ideas about good governance.

I don't know where all this talk about collapse is coming from. We should all be rejoicing!
posted by three blind mice at 9:04 PM on February 5, 2007

TBM, you seem to be pointing those comments at me pretty strongly, when we're not disagreeing at all. I was the one who said that throwing the experienced farmers off their land was a very bad idea, remember?

In the sentence you quote, I'm pointing out that the other comments claim he wasn't always insane. Taking them at face value, which is probably dangerous, but.... taking them as granted, he's not a simple thug. A complex one, perhaps, but he's been in charge of Zimbabwe a long time, which was very prosperous for many years under his rule. Maybe he went crazy, maybe he's ill, maybe he just made a huge mistake... but it would appear he did a good job for his first 15 years or so.

Again, that isn't from personal knowledge, just what I've gleaned here. I could be horribly mistaken. But it sure doesn't look like 'thug' sums the man up at all.
posted by Malor at 10:14 PM on February 5, 2007

Yes, three blind mice, because more advanced technology = better people! And thank god Europeans came to Africa to teach them language. Why, before they learned to talk, those primitive -- excuse me, "feral" -- blacks were just grunting and waving bananas around. And yes, institutionalized Western schooling is the ONLY way to educate people. Tribal communities just flung their own shit at each other!

You're a complete and utter fool if you think that anyone here is championing Mugabe and trying to justify the violence and horrors that he has brought into being. But to ignore the fact that maybe... JUST MAYBE... decades of oppression by colonial powers may have something to do with the chaos in Zimbabwe is fucking delusional. Is it "fair" or "good" to throw some white farmer off his land, considering he probably didn't have anything to do with the initial European forays into the country? No, of course not, the guy was born into a situation, and he doesn't know any different. But is it right to keep a system in place that thrives off the oppression of indigenous people? No, that's not right either. No one said there's an easy answer (or perhaps any answer) to situations like this. Blame for the current state of Zimbabwe falls upon many shoulders, but to try to shift it onto either exclusively whites or exclusively blacks is irresponsible and unrealistic, as well as possibly betraying some disturbing "us vs. them" racial attitudes.

But then again, it's late, and I've got sand in my vagina anyways, so maybe I don't know what the fuck.
posted by papakwanz at 10:20 PM on February 5, 2007

I think Malor's saying we should invade and give the farms back to the rich white people. You know, that's the only way it can ever work.

It's clearly better than the government stealing the farms from the rich white people, which actually happened, and screwed things up royally. There's no denying that.

But suddenly the U.S. is the asshole for not doing what loads of people are arguing they shouldn’t have done in Iraq in the first place or indeed even Afghanistan?

A lot of people seem to think the U.S. is an asshole for existing. Doubly so if it doesn't do exactly as they want in matters of foreign relations.

many, many of the root causes of Zimbabwe's problems lie in their past history as a colony

The problem wherein Zimbabwe can no longer feed itself is attributable almost entirely to Mugabe's racist policy of land expropriation.
posted by oaf at 10:40 PM on February 5, 2007

posted by Upton O'Good at 10:44 PM on February 5, 2007

But suddenly the U.S. is the asshole for not doing what loads of people are arguing they shouldn’t have done in Iraq in the first place or indeed even Afghanistan?

Iraq was not humanitarian intervention.

Say it with me. Do rosaries of it if you have to.
posted by dreamsign at 1:42 AM on February 6, 2007

I never said everything was due to Britain, but many, many of the root causes of Zimbabwe's problems lie in their past history as a colony.

You are quite correct. It gives d1ckheads with waning popularity a target to divert attention from their own failing policies and prolong the agony for their people. We fscked up bad in Africa, I am as ready and eager as anyone to argue that case. There is simply no way you can blame the extremely rapid decline of this recently prosperous country on us. It was prosperous for a longtime under ugabe. It even got more prosperous under Mugabe and did so for some time. Once his former policies started to be less successful, and the bare facts of his waning popularity began to stare him in the face, he turned to the thing that made him a contender in the first place: radical land reform and finger pointing at the existing land owners. In the transformation from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe that was absolutely the right thing to do. It was a genuine problem that genuinely needed fixing. Did it need fixing in the late 90s in such a radical way? The problem is Mugabe's opinion of himself and what he is entitled to, not the history of the ownership of the land.
posted by vbfg at 2:26 AM on February 6, 2007

Interacting with another country does not necessarily have to involve any military force or coersion.

Somewhat relevant here, and would do well as a mantra for US foreign policy.
posted by asok at 6:38 AM on February 6, 2007

There are like three layers of sarcasm in some of these comments. I'm having difficulty understanding the meaning and intent of these comments.

I like sarcasm too, sometimes, but it can be very helpful to write plainly.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:44 AM on February 6, 2007

Oh yeah, writing plainly is great. Let's just all stop writing sarcastically!
posted by papakwanz at 11:04 PM on February 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

The New York Times weighs in:

Citing a leaked central bank document, Reuters reported Tuesday that prices of basic items like meat, cooking oil and clothes had risen 223 percent in the past week alone.
The central bank’s latest response to these problems, announced this week, was to declare inflation illegal. From March 1 to June 30, anyone who raises prices or wages will be arrested and punished. Only a “firm social contract” to end corruption and restructure the economy will bring an end to the crisis, said the reserve bank governor, Gideon Gono.
The speech by Mr. Gono, a favorite of Mr. Mugabe, was broadcast nationally. In downtown Harare, the last half was blacked out by a power failure.

This may be the worst monetary policy anyone has had in the past half-century.
posted by oaf at 1:52 AM on February 7, 2007 [1 favorite]

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