Exiled journalist's return to Zimbabwe

The crew were told to prepare for landing. My heart was pounding. How would I be received in the country I fled in a blaze of death threats nine years ago?

Even dead, they would get me, the man from Mugabe's spy agency, the CIO, had warned. My corpse would be shred into "mince meat" even if I returned to Zimbabwe in a coffin for burial, he told me when our paths crossed in Johannesburg.

I had been branded a "sell out", and an enemy of the state for my reports in the foreign media on how the ruling party and its supporters waged their land war against white farmers and then tortured and murdered hundreds of black opposition supporters. The decision to leave my homeland permanently came after I was told I was a dead man walking and after the arrival of an A4 brown envelope filled with live ammunition and containing chilling words in red telling me I was marked for death.

So now, nearly nine years on, as the captain tells the crew to prepare for landing my heart is pounding.

In the years of my exile, Zimbabwe has been dragged through bloody violence, economic collapse and political chaos. But the "unity government" formed in February last year has, for now, survived, and I am risking a return home.

"Things have changed," I've been told. The MDC leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, now Prime Minister to Robert Mugabe's President in the power-sharing government, is among those who reassure me I will be safe. But Roy Bennett, the MDC MP, broke his exile on the strength of similar assurances only to end up sharing a cell with the uncollected corpses of prisoners. I wonder, belatedly, if my decision to accept an invitation to a UN-sponsored media conference is wise.

As the plane touches down at Harare International I recall how somebody has just been arrested for the "crime" of describing the 86-year-old president as an "old man". My own characterisations of the geriatric leader as a "clueless buffoon" in The Independent and in the free South African press would surely guarantee me lengthy incarceration if warrants were activated.

I've also had the dubious distinction of appearing twice on a list of 17 "saboteurs" whose passports would be seized if they ever returned, because they had "badmouthed" the country abroad. The High Court nullified the order. But this is a regime still defined by its flagrant disregard for the rule of law and the decisions of the Zimbabwe courts.

The officer at the passport desk looks at my documents, appears to recognise me, and then smiles and, in our native Shona, offers a warm welcome waving me through. But the Zimbabwe I find on the other side of immigration is certainly not the Zimbabwe I grew up in nor the Zimbabwe which once held so much hope for Africa. It is not even the Zimbabwe I fled in February 2002.

From the airport I am taken into town in a UN vehicle, but we are immediately plunged into darkness as there is no power in the entire eastern part of the city. "Life without electricity, water and proper sanitation is the norm here," the driver mutters.

Next morning, Christopher Mutsvangwa, the media czar in the ruling party Zanu PF and a former ambassador to China, approaches the podium at the conference. He prefaces his speech by welcoming me and urging me to feel safe "even though we don't see eye to eye with you on many issues". I begin to feel a bit more at ease.

I grew up in Chi Town, the local slang for Chitungwiza, a dormitory town built during Ian Smith's apartheid regime to confine blacks from the Harare factories outside working hours. We had severe overcrowding – a population of 250,000 swelled to quadruple that figure soon after independence – but it was nevertheless a liveable place. I cannot think of a single day in my childhood when we went without running water or electricity. Cousins my age from rural areas would visit us to take advantage of our electric light to read and prepare for exams.

Now the Chitungwiza I revisit to find my ageing parents is a sprawling place of three million people. Here, the claim that things have improved since the deal that brought the MDC into government seems scarcely credible. The consequences of Mugabe's misrule are everywhere. The roads are pocked, not by potholes but by huge gullies. Even in my borrowed 4x4 it is a challenge to navigate them. The "unity government" may have halted Zimbabwe's economic freefall but the neglect of infrastructure here seems total. Rivers of sewage water, from burst septic tanks, meander through the gullies. Nothing that has broken seems to have been repaired for years.

Ten years is a long time not to have seen one's parents in their own home. So I expect my father, now 72, to drop everything when I arrive. He rushes to hug me but quickly returns to direct his hose-pipe into containers lined up in his yard. Water supplies have just been restored after three months and he must fill as many buckets as possible before the taps go dry again. "This is how the country has become," he says sadly. The filled buckets will keep him away from the long queues at a public borehole, for a few days at least. Just as we go inside the house, the electricity re-connected some two hours earlier after a long power-cut snaps off again. My welcome meal of Sadza (maize meal porridge) is cooked on firewood.

My parents' stories about everyday survival are distressing enough although hardly remarkable by Zimbabwe standards. They, at least, consider themselves well off because of the modest sums that my sister and I send back in dollars. None of the friends I grew up with in the area remain. Some have died. Others have long since fled abroad. And those who stay live in dread of becoming ill.

State hospitals, once staffed by the best-trained doctors and nurses in the region are not just in tatters. Locals call them mortuaries. At one stage ox-drawn ambulances had to be introduced because of crippling fuel shortages. Mothers prefer to midwife their daughters at home rather than send them to give birth in the clinics. Scarce drugs are available only to those who can afford bribes. And basic equipment like bandages is still lacking. "Being admitted to a ward is like being put on death row," I am told by a neighbour.

I went to a bottom-of-the-ladder township high school but we had excellent teachers. Zimbabwe, after all, had a proud and impressive education system. Mugabe himself had started his career as a schoolteacher. Our school, which was called Seke 4, had a decent science lab and a workshop for wood-work and metal-work.

Even a poor shirt-factory worker like my father could afford our school fees on his wages because the economy was stable. Now, at one school, a teacher tells me they use candles in place of bunsen-burners. Even though school attendance has improved since the crisis reached its trough in 2008, in many rural areas the schools remain closed because the salaries are too low to retain teachers, and there are no books. In the cities, children who would be in class if they could afford the fees can be seen scavenging at dump sites.

For a country that was considered affluent by African standards, the squalor is heart-breaking, but I keep being told that things were a lot worse before the formation of the coalition government. "We once went 13 months with no running water. At least now, we get it back after a month – two or three months at most," explains a neighbour.

The shops, empty two years ago, are again replenished with goods imported from South Africa. The abolition of the Zimbabwe dollar in favour of the US currency has restored some semblance of economic functioning. And the violence that marked the peak of the crisis in 2008, when Mugabe embarked on his murderous spree to cling to power in a presidential run-off vote, has ceased in most urban areas – though MDC supporters at meetings to discuss a new constitution have been attacked in recent days.

"The only items we could find in shops during 2008 were shoe polish, tissue paper and sometimes candles," says a friend. "Now you can get anything as long as you have the bucks. Above all, we are enjoying some peace."

But the goods in supermarkets are so out of the price range of the majority as to be irrelevant. A civil servant's average monthly wage is US$150 yet the average household electricity bill is double that amount despite constant power cuts.

Unemployment is running at 90 per cent and once-thriving local industries are either gone or running at just 20 per cent capacity. The influx of capital required to revive them is not forthcoming. Though Western donors continue to pour in humanitarian aid, the EU and US say the new government has still not made enough progress to justify direct budgetary aid.

In Eastview Gardens in the Harare suburb of Eastlea I retrace my steps for the first time in nearly a decade to the once-comfortable residential complex I moved into after I started my career as a journalist and married. It was a symbol of upward middle-class mobility and seen by many as a place for the "lucky few". Residents had well-decorated two- and three-bed apartments, paved interior roads, manicured gardens with beds of roses, and tennis and basketball courts for the children.

The entire complex of 450 flats now resembles a slum. Balconies are lit by candles. Paint has peeled off. No water has been supplied to individual flats because of broken pipes that have gone unrepaired for two years. The tenants must queue every day at a borehole sunk in the grounds. Like emblems of what has happened to the country, rusting second-hand cars lie abandoned in the grounds.

I stop by my local branch of Barclays bank to inquire about the 11 trillion Zimbabwean dollars I ought by now to have accumulated from rent paid in by my tenants over the years since I fled. "It does not quite work like that," the cashier explains as she tells me there is nothing in the account. I remonstrate with her, pointing out that I surely deserve something from the currency conversion.

"After dollarisation, we nullified all Zimbabwe dollar accounts. The best I can do is open a new one for you if you've got at least US$50. Remember even with your trillions you could not have bought a wheelbarrow," she says.

Despite the relief brought by the South African-brokered power-sharing deal and the abolition of the Zimbabwe dollar, which has put a stop to joke levels of inflation (banknotes worth tens of billions of dollars were being issued at the worst point), Mugabe and his cronies remain firmly in charge. Draconian laws remain in place and broadcasting remains a state monopoly. State journalists at the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation bring to mind Soviet newscasters lost in time. I listen to one hour-long bulletin dominated by ministerial speeches followed by an extra 40-minute clip of Mugabe addressing mourners at the funeral of his brother-in-law.

Morgan Tsvangirai hangs on even though he is regularly humiliated, trashed as a "lackey of the West" in the state media which now routinely describes Mugabe as "Head of State and Government and commander in chief of the defence forces," as if to rub salt in the wounds of Tsvangirai's powerlessness. Many Zimbabweans fear that Mugabe and the military men who prop him up are simply playing along with power-sharing while they regroup for the next election. The Prime Minister, who was himself viciously beaten in detention at the height of the violence, acknowledges it wasn't easy to join the coalition. Some of his own senior party members advised against it. But he insists it was his best option to save Zimbabweans from an even worse fate.

While political stability remains at best fragile, and reports of violence in the rural areas persist, foreign investors are staying away. They are waiting for Mugabe to go before they will risk their money. Mr Mutsvangwa, the man who welcomed me so publicly at the conference, defends new "indiginisation" laws requiring all companies with a value of US$500,000 or more to give at least 51 per cent majority equity to blacks. A country whose citizens don't control its resources is not worth the name, he says. British companies like Rio Tinto, Standard Bank, Barclays, British Petroleum, Anglo American, Old Mutual and many others will be affected. BP is already disposing of its assets in Zimbabwe. But in an example of the ways in which the governing parties are contradicting each other, Mr Tsvangirai claims the 51 percent threshold is simply a target. The thresholds are being revised and will be set on a sector-by-sector basis, he insists. Officials from Mugabe's Zanu PF party repeatedly state the opposite.

From the centre of Harare it is a short drive to the north-eastern suburb of Glen Lorne, a place my sister tells me has changed a lot in my absence. Up on the high ground of this leafy outskirt, much extended by the acquisition of white farms, I find Folyjon Crescent – and it feels like another country. This placid spot, with its jacaranda trees and green lawns, is home to some of those who assisted Mugabe in his plunder of Zimbabwe. Here, behind electric gates, are obscenely palatial mansions of up to three or even four storeys, some boasting internal elevators, floodlit tennis courts, magnificent gardens and, of course, swimming pools. Johannesburg's richest enclaves may have mansions to compare but they are hidden inside gated communities. In Harare, they are on open display.

The homes of one or two army generals are particularly breathtaking. No wonder. According to Western diplomats, much of the country's vast diamond wealth (the Marange fields contain a quarter of the world's diamond reserves) has been diverted by the heads of the armed forces to help them dictate the terms of the succession battle that will play out when Mugabe finally dies.

While his people continue to struggle to eke out an existence from the debris of the shattered nation, Mugabe himself lives out his days in high style. From the splendour of a private US$25 million 30-bedroomed mansion in the suburb of Borrowdale, to which he and his wife Grace moved after an assassination attempt at the old and less glamorous State House, he continues to destroy his once-prosperous nation even as a struggle for power between his ruling party's rival factions rages.

As my departing SAA flight taxis onto the runway, I try to comprehend the patience of my fellow countrymen. Have they not been pushed to a point from where nothing is left to lose? But the stoicism of a people who have adapted to whatever mess their geriatric leader throws at them has always been remarkable. They have been beaten into submission, are exhausted from the daily struggle for survival, and now terrified by what will happen at the next election.

If the tyrant had any honour, he would have quit long ago to save his people from their suffering. But nightly, on the state TV news, as his successors jockey for position behind his back, spreading rumours that the old man is dying, he remains steadfast in his wilful delusion, no sign of shame on his botoxed face, aware, perhaps, of the catastrophe around him, but still heaping blame on everyone but himself.

Zimbabwe in numbers...

11,400,000 Country's population

62/1,000 Infant mortality, per live births

42 Life expectancy (down from 44 years in 1999)

$355 Average annual income per head of population (IMF)

790/100,000 Prevalence of TB, double the rate in 1999

15.3 per cent HIV/Aids rate

90 per centAdult literacy

90 per centUnemployment rate

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