In Zimbabwe, people power fails to ignite

In the past four months, spontaneous democratic movements have transformed Ukraine and Lebanon. In South Africa, the masses overthrew decades of autocracy when the racist apartheid regime fell in 1994.

But here in Zimbabwe, one of six countries the US calls "outposts of tyranny," there has been no people-powered revolution. Many ask why the democratic wave that has swept Africa since the cold war's end - bringing multiparty voting to Zambia, Ghana, and other nations - has bypassed Zimbabwe, once seen as a shining light of the continent.

Instead, things here are getting worse. Zimbabwe's once-vibrant economy is collapsing under semi-socialism - with at least 127 percent inflation, 70 percent unemployment, and 4.8 million people verging on starvation. Its government tortures critics, gags the media, and uses food to gain support. Experts expect another flawed election March 31.

Yet, so far, there's been no revolt. Observers cite several reasons. President Robert Mugabe is still revered as colonial-era liberator despite his brutality. And the opposition hasn't unified behind a figure akin to Nelson Mandela or Ukraine's Viktor Yushchenko.

"There's been no spontaneous combustion" - despite several sparks that could have ignited it, says Chris Maroleng, a Zimbabwe expert at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria, South Africa.

He's referring to the relatively strong political opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). In 2000, it won 57 seats in the 150-seat parliament - and will try to expand on its minority in next week's elections. In 2003, for instance, the MDC organized stay-at-home strikes in its "final push" to oust the government. The government beat demonstrators and jailed MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai. But people didn't rise up.

Some analysts attribute the lack of response to poverty and AIDS. "When people are starving, it's awfully hard to promote democracy," says Robert Helvey, president of the Albert Einstein Institution in Boston, who has worked recently in Zimbabwe. Some 4.8 million of the country's 12 million people urgently need food aid or they could starve, according to a recent report by the Famine Early Warning System Network, based in South Africa. Referring to Ukraine's Orange Revolution, Mr. Helvey says, "You can't have 1 million people sitting in the streets of the capital for 17 days. There's not going to be food for them."

Then there's AIDS. In 2002, the official HIV infection rate was 27 percent, one of the world's highest. And it's thought to have gone up since then. "Who's got the energy to protest?" asks Mr. Helvey.

One Harare activist, who declined to be named, cites Zimbabweans' "amazing passivity." He explains that two policemen could pull up to a dissident's house in an urban, anti-government area, beat the person badly, and drive away unhassled. "In South Africa in the 1980s, police could never do that," he says with exasperation. "They were terrified of the townships, because they'd get stoned or mobbed."

Another reason may be Zimbabweans' lingering sympathy for their octogenarian president, Robert Mugabe. He fought the white colonial government to achieve independence in 1980 - and has been the country's only leader since. For two decades he led a relatively peaceful nation that was southern Africa's breadbasket and a regional economic powerhouse. "It's like he's your father," says Mr. Maroleng. "He may do bad things, but he's still your father."

Maroleng also worries that southern Africa's black leaders and intellectuals have been slow to criticize a black peer like Mugabe. Compared to the clarity of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, many people haven't seen it as "quite as black and white - no pun intended," he says.

Even Mugabe's harshest critic, Roman Catholic Archbishop Pius Ncube allows, "There's still a love-hate relationship" between the masses and Mugabe. "People are confused." [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Ncube's name.]

Many also give Mugabe credit for shrewdness. Despite a comfort with brutality - including the apparent killing of thousands of opponents in the 1980s - Mugabe hasn't recently provided the opposition with a rallying point, as did Syria with its apparent assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Instead, Mugabe has hobbled Mr. Tsvangirai, the opposition leader, with treason trials and other harassments. "If he had imprisoned him, you'd have another Mandela," says Maroleng. "If he'd killed him you'd have a martyr" - like Hariri.

Because of Mugabe's cunning, he says, Zimbabwe has neither.

Nor does it have a figure like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a unifying moral force in the anti-apartheid struggle. Zimbabwe's churches are divided, as is civil society and the political opposition.

Archbishop Ncube is perhaps the closest thing to a Zimbabwean Tutu. Posters of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi adorn his office walls in Bulawayo. He rails at the regime's tricks. "Did you know there are 800,000 dead people on the voters' roll?" he asks.

But in the capital, even anti-Mugabe clergymen criticize Ncube. "He represents a bitter minority" in his home area, says Methodist Bishop Levee Kadenge. "He can't speak for all of us."

But unity may yet emerge. Many churches have joined a campaign to "Raise the flag of Zimbabwe in prayer." It's a nationalistic approach that insulates churches from government criticism that they are agents of Western powers.

With economic frustration rising, some say a blatantly rigged election could bring people into the streets. "If they steal it this time, people will say, 'Enough, enough!' " says Casmere, who works at a Harare rental-car firm.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to In Zimbabwe, people power fails to ignite
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today