Under the ruthless rule of its despotic strongman, Robert Mugabe, its economy is near collapse and its people live in fear, as the regime cracks down on political opponents. Thousands have died of malnutrition and starvation. So many have been buried in their remote villages that nobody can be sure what is now the country's actual population.
Mismanagement of the economy has produced inflation of an incredible 231 million percent, a figure undoubtedly outdated even as this column is written. The ordinary staples of existence are beyond reach of most citizens.
The public health system is in dire straits. There is a shortage of fuel to run the filtration pumps that provide clean water. Consequently, an outbreak of cholera (which Mr. Mugabe at first declared nonexistent) has taken more than 1100 lives, afflicted thousands more, and spread to neighboring countries.
Foreign journalists are personae non grata and humanitarian workers from the rest of the world are screened and often denied entry. Mugabe recently denied access to former US President Jimmy Carter, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and Graca Machel, the wife of Nelson Mandela, South Africa's legendary foe of apartheid.
Originally Southern Rhodesia (so named by white settlers after the British Empire builder Cecil Rhodes), Zimbabwe achieved African majority rule in 1980 following a guerrilla war in which Mugabe played a significant role. But over time, he dispossessed white farmers of their land and called for them to leave the country. His reputation as an anticolonial freedom fighter became sullied by rigged elections that kept him in power as an increasingly dictatorial ruler, responsible for a failing economy and egregious human rights abuses.
Though various world leaders, including those of the United States, Britain, and France, have called for him to step down, he has defiantly resisted such demands. This resistance has been met with international dismay but little zeal for any effective tangible pressure.
The United Nations Security Council is due to take up the Zimbabwe situation momentarily but Russia and China would surely veto any military action. Even aside from such a veto, European powers such as Britain, France, Belgium, Portugal, and Germany, which have a history of colonial rule in parts of Africa, have little credibility or enthusiasm for a military foray into Zimbabwe.
The United States is untainted by such a colonial background in Africa but is still regarded with suspicion by a number of African countries. Furthermore, Zimbabwe is of little strategic interest to Washington, which has more pressing concerns in the Middle East and Asia.
What of African nations then? Some have deplored Mugabe's excesses, but none seems eager to participate in an African expeditionary force marching upon Harare (formerly Salisbury), the Zimbabwean capital, to depose a leader who helped put the colonial power to rout, however badly he may have turned out.
Some hope for an internal coup. But although some of Mugabe's soldiers ran amok recently, their motive was economic, not political. They were fed up with high prices and their inability to cash paychecks from currency-strapped banks. The government clamped down on the rioters, and has since introduced a new 500 million dollar note, worth about US $10. Still, the military ranks seem restless.
Which brings us to South Africa, the wealthiest and most developed country on the African continent. Its influence is substantial. It has a vested interest in developments in Zimbabwe, its neighbor to the north. Cholera has spread across the border. A steady stream of refugees flees across the border seeking food, shelter, and work.
Yet the South African government has been disgracefully remiss in not using its substantial political and economic heft to end the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe. Thabo Mbeki, the former president of South Africa, is the designated African negotiator supposed to be bringing some harmony to Zimbabwe in the shape of power-sharing between the Mugabe forces and opposition political leaders who claim they have been swindled out of a recent election victory. It is not going well.
The South African government itself includes former freedom fighters in its ranks. Instead of demanding reform or the resignation of Mugabe, they have been treating him gingerly, as one of them. He does not deserve it. Instead of freedom, he has brought despair and tyranny to millions of Zimbabweans.
South Africa fought bravely for its own freedom. It should help Zimbabwe achieve the same.