An ordinary Zimbabwean is laid to rest, wrapped in plastic. He died of cholera

As Robert Mugabe’s cronies prepare a lavish 85th birthday party, the people wait in vain for a ‘unity’ government to rescue them. Daniel Howden reports

Richard Mutoti was not celebrating Robert Mugabe’s 85th birthday yesterday. Neither were his friends and family. Instead, they were lowering his body into the ground at Granville Cemetery outside Harare. The 59-year-old was wrapped in a plastic bag to prevent the mourners from contracting the cholera that had emaciated his body and killed him.

Mr Mutoti was put to rest amid earth mounds, evidence of the appalling legacy of Mr Mugabe’s misrule, which Zimbabweans will be coerced into celebrating this week. The cholera victim, from Harare’s impoverished Budiriro 4 district, had been discharged from a cholera isolation camp on Friday and sent to die at home. He was lucky to have lived so long; Rectar Musapingo, in the grave next to him, died on 22 January, eight months short of his 40th birthday.

Twisted blue and white flowers, fashioned from shreds of plastic, lie about between black metal name-plates offering a roll-call of the dead, few of whom had survived for even one-third of their President’s lifetime. Some of the mourners may have seen yesterday’s Herald newspaper on their way to the funeral, proclaiming that “Comrade Mugabe has been in the trenches slaving so that you and me could live a life of dignity”. The only dignity left to the Mutoti family was a white cloth, used to conceal the cholera bag in which their loved one was interred.

The state mouthpiece had over five pages of gushing praise for the President, a former schoolteacher born at a Jesuit mission station in Kutama in 1921. “Like a mighty crocodile, you have remained resilient, focused and resolute against all odds,” said an advertisement from the Defence Ministry, in an unintentional echo of the title of author Peter Godwin’s scathing indictment of Mugabe, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun. It gushed on: “If everyone gives just a fraction of what comrade Mugabe has given this country, we will be up there with the most advanced countries in the world.”

There was no mention in the Herald’s editorial that during his stewardship, Zimbabwe’s life expectancy has been slashed from over 60 to the lowest in the world, at 34 for women and 37 for men. Like so many of the incomprehensible statistics that haunt this southern African nation, these figures are woefully out of date. They were based on data collected four years ago – before the cholera epidemic, before the ranks of the hungry swelled from three million to more than five million.

The number of cholera deaths similarly trails events. According to the World Health Organisation the death toll from the five-month epidemic stands at 3,759, with 70,000 reported infections. Experts say these figures, which have already surpassed the UN’s worst-case scenario, are a fortnight out of date.

The inflation rate is astronomical, the currency worthless – the government long abandoned the Zimbabwe dollar for the US dollar or the South African rand. And the difficulty Mr Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party has been experiencing in raising money for a lavish party, planned for 28 February, seems set to disprove the African proverb that “you can never finish eating an elephant”. The scale of this economic meltdown has left the party’s February 21st youth organisation – set up for the annual drive to pay for the birthday party – short of their $250,000 fundraising target. It will have to stage extra events this week to secure the money.

Zimbabwe’s new Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, was due back in Harare last night after a fundraising mission of his own. He has visited Cape Town in search of the first instalments of what he claimed would be the $5bn needed to rescue Zimbabwe’s economy. He was not expected to be invited to a private celebration hosted by Mr Mugabe’s notoriously extravagant wife, Grace, at their lavish mansion in Harare’s affluent suburb of Borrowdale last night.

Among the likely guests were the same inner circle that witnessed Mr Mugabe crush, co-opt and overwhelm his last serious power-sharing partner, Joshua Nkomo, in the 1980s. He was known as “Father Zimbabwe” to his followers, many of whom were massacred during the Gukuranhundi killings. His demoralised Zapu party was absorbed into Mr Mugabe’s, creating Zanu-PF in 1987.

After 10 days of the new unity government, shades of that history lie over the current experiment. None of the conditions laid out by Mr Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) at the swearing in have been met. Political prisoners remain in custody; the central bank governor, Gideon Gono, who has bankrolled the kleptocratic regime at the cost of ruinous inflation, is still in his job.

The business-as-usual situation is leading an increasing number of Zimbabweans to accuse the MDC of being co-opted. Jenni Williams, leader of the protest movement Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), says the unity government is a sham. “This is a government for politicians, not the people,” she told The Independent on Sunday. WOZA has for long periods in recent years been the only group prepared to mobilise people in public demonstrations, and Ms Williams says nothing has changed: “This is co-option, not power sharing; it’s a unity government in name alone.” She also suggested that MDC MPs were unlikely to be any more immune to corruption than their Zanu-PF counterparts. “They all come from the same political culture of corruption,” she said.

Ms Williams warned that aid budgets secured by Mr Tsvangirai and his colleagues could spark a feeding frenzy among the country’s “me-first” politicians. “MPs get to know about tenders, especially now with increased aid flows,” she said. “MPs will be first to be able to benefit from these tenders.”

Ms Williams, who calls herself a “Matabele-Irish”, thanks to her mixed grandparents, has been arrested 33 times. But she says that police harassment has been worse since the new administration took office. WOZA members arrested for peaceful demonstrations in Bulawayo last week were “humiliated” by being forced to remove their underwear in front of other people and undergo anal cavity searches.

Ms Williams was later called in for talks with senior police officers, only to discover they expected her members to stop their activities under the unity government. “They think the change should be on our side, not theirs,” she said. “I said to them that change is coming to Zimbabwe, there will be a truth and reconciliation commission and you’ll have to own up to what you’ve done.” She said an assistant commissioner of police laughed and said: “Good luck”.

The 46-year-old is currently on remand for what police have called “exciting people”. “Is it a crime to excite people?” she asked. “People are dying of cholera, people are starving to death.”

Every day in Zimbabwe

34 people die as a result of the country’s cholera epidemic.

6,328,767 is the percentage increase in the real rate of inflation.

40 political prisoners still wait for release under the “unity” government.

600 people flee to neighbouring South Africa.

565 Zimbabweans are infected with the virus that leads to Aids.

20 grammes of maize is the UN daily ration after recent cutbacks.

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