Assessing Zimbabwe After 10 Years

On the anniversary of independence, Zimbabwe's reputation for pragmatism is on the line amid a struggle to liberalize the economy and arrest political monopoly

ZIMBABWE celebrates its 10th birthday on April 18, amid both celebration and soul-searching. Born after a bitter struggle against white minority rule, Zimbabwe has forged - out of disparate racial and ethnic forces - a nation in relative peace.

High unemployment and sluggish economic performance prompted the government to ease economic controls. But despite trends in Eastern Europe, and even in some African countries, President Robert Mugabe appears as determined as ever to move toward a centralized political system.

Political opponents responded by launching the Zimbabwe Unity Movement (ZUM) last year to pursue neither ethnic nor racial goals, but rather to slow the country's headlong rush toward a one-party state.

``The bottom line,'' says Jonathan Moyo, an outspoken political analyst at the University of Zimbabwe, ``is that it is dangerous to seek economic liberalization under conditions of monopoly politics.''

Up to now, with the negative precedents of Mozambique and Angola (where white residents left in droves), Mr. Mugabe has taken a pragmatic approach. Despite his reputation as a hard-liner, he agreed to special white representation in parliament for an initial seven years. Although 5,000 whites owned half the country's best land, no farms were expropriated.

John Brown, president of the still largely white and conservative Commercial Farmers Union, recalls his apprehension at independence. But, he adds, ``I had the opportunity of attending a meeting addressed by Robert Mugabe. Shortly after I was able to appreciate that we had a man who had the ability to take control of the situation. Of course, we have all had to adjust. But I, for one, have no doubt about being a Zimbabwean - I'm not a visitor here.''

After an initial bitter struggle between the two main ethnic groups here - the majority Shona, who largely supported the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and minority Ndebele who mostly backed the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU), led by Joshua Nkomo - the two sides have now effectively merged.

``To all intents and purposes, the country is peaceful,'' says Nicholas Ndebele, director of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission. Human rights abuses, he says, do continue to occur, particularly recently in the ruling ZANU's handling of Edgar Tekere, formerly a colleague of Mugabe, and now head of the Zimbabwe Unity Movement. The ZUM lost a challenge to Mugabe's ZANU party in last month's election.

A late starter in developing its economy, Zimbabwe learned key lessons from other African nations' mistakes. Many countries ignored agriculture in the rush to industrialize. Today, Zimbabwe's 800,000 peasant farmers - though they live in the country's most ecologically fragile zones - are able to feed the country. This leaves Zimbabwe's commercial farmers, whose productivity compares favorably with counterparts in the United States and Canada, free to produce for export.

Efforts to redress the gross social imbalances between the tiny white and majority black population have also been encouraging. Today, Zimbabwe has one of the lowest infant-mortality rates in Africa. Black women, regarded minors all their lives under colonial law, now enjoy equal legal status.

Yet there also have been major disappointments. Although the country's economy has performed better than the African average in its first 10 years, there has been less than $100 million in new foreign investment. This year, a staggering 300,000 graduates will join a labor market where only 10,000 new jobs will be created.

``Ten years after independence,'' says Ezekiel Mutasa, a leading computer expert and entrepreneur, ``I'd have expected Zimbabwe to be more industrialized, along the lines of the Singapores and Taiwans, because certainly we had more opportunities than most.'' Last year the government announced a new investment code, but the government has continued to drag its feet over crucial economic measures like removing controls on prices, wages, and foreign exchange.

Finance Minister Bernard Chidzero has promised to liberalize trade, but Zimbabwe has been reluctant to take budgetary steps needed to get support from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

A senior banker here says that ``whatever they may be saying in public, those in power are still wedded to the belief of a centrally controlled economy.''

Last year, the ruling ZANU Party mapped out a future course based on a Marxist one-party state. At a press conference shortly after the last month's elections, in which the government won 116 out of 120 seats, Mugabe said he regarded this victory as a mandate to do away with opposition parties. Zimbabwe's rural population could even back him in a referendum.

But the idea of a one-party state sits uncomfortably with Zimbabwe's relatively well-educated urban elite. The late Willie Musarurwa, one of Zimbabwe's most respected political commentators, said that ``even if the people voted for a one-party system en masse, that does not make it desirable or less harmful. We have to move together with the rest of the world.''

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