Into the heart of Zimbabwe's darkness

As the country prepares for a critical general election, Jeremy Gordin and Daniel Howden report from the opposition heartlands, where standing up to Robert Mugabe comes at a perilous price
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When Livingstone paddled up the Zambezi river 120 years ago it was known to the people here as Musi Oa Tunya, "The Smoke That Thunders". Victoria Falls is among the largest and arguably the most spectacular waterfalls in the world. Millions of gallons of fresh water plunge into the Zambezi basin, forming a roaring white dividing line between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

When Livingstone paddled up the Zambezi river 120 years ago it was known to the people here as Musi Oa Tunya, "The Smoke That Thunders". Victoria Falls is among the largest and arguably the most spectacular waterfalls in the world. Millions of gallons of fresh water plunge into the Zambezi basin, forming a roaring white dividing line between Zambia and Zimbabwe.

On the one side stands the Zambian town of Livingstone, a permanent tribute to the great explorer, that is now a thriving tourist centre with thousands of visitors packing out luxury lodges and hotels.

Across the white water is Victoria Falls. Once the thriving heart of Zimbabwe's tourism industry, it is now a ghost town. The smoke still thunders, but fewer people come here to witness this hypnotising spectacle in a country that is two weeks away from general elections and teetering on the brink of its own precipice, facing a fall into isolation, poverty and violence.

Under President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe has slumped to last place in the Economist Global quality-of-life index. The farm seizure policy launched four years ago, giving Mugabe supporters formerly white-owned farms, has decimated agricultural output, caused famine and sent the country into economic meltdown. He rules over the fastest-shrinking economy in the world, 300 per cent inflation and 80 per cent unemployment.

Under free and fair elections, a government that has presided over this descent into chaos could expect to be resoundingly beaten at the ballot box. But there is little that is free and fair in today's Zimbabwe.

That was the verdict of Amnesty International, who said in a report yesterday that human rights violations meant that free elections were now "impossible". Critics of the regime are expelled, imprisoned or terrorised.

But the saddest indictment of the tourism crisis comes from Sheila, originally from the capital Harare, who now works when she can doing facials and massages in the health spas at near empty hotels.

"The tourists are not coming. We don't know what to do," she says weeping. "I sit here for hours doing nothing and my husband is not working. My children are not starving yet but they are hungry. All we can buy is some bread and a little sadza [maize meal]."

Chris, a guide at the falls, hopes that the election will bring change. "I just wish this election would be over. "All we can really afford is bread. The price is controlled at Z$3,500 [30p] but where I live on the outskirts, the shopkeepers always play games with the price. Maybe when the election is over, the tourists will return, and we can make some money," he says.

The highway heading south from Victoria Falls to Bulawayo is empty of traffic and the 36C sun beats relentlessly down from a cloudless sky. It seems strangely deserted for a country in the throes of a critical election campaign.

Matabeleland is on its knees, the traditional stronghold of the opposition party has been starved of petrol supplies by Mr Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF party.

Every few miles or so you are jolted by the spectre of skeletal arms reaching into the road from the verge of the baking Tarmac. Some of the gaunt hands proffer a single driedcorn cob, some a piece of honeycomb. The arms reach out from the scant shade of the trees. The starved bodies generally belong to women or children.

The anger can be felt by listening to the many hitchhikers, who unable to afford buses, try to move more cheaply from place to place.

"It's bad, bad, bad," says a young man called Lovemore. "There is no rain, we are hungry, and next year this time we are going to be really starving and dying, not just hungry."

No matter what the government propaganda says, Zimbabwe is ravaged by drought, the agricultural sector has unravelled, and the rural people, especially, are hungry. There have been no proper rains since December - a subject that is on the parched lips of most of the people.

Like the petrol which never gets delivered to opposition areas, the food aid that has poured into Zimbabwe from the World Food Programme in the last two years never seems to reach Mr Mugabe's opponents.

With the car's engine seemingly running on fumes, the vision of a filling station appears on the horizon.

Manning the pumps are Roy and Andrew, brothers, who at first sight seem like white South African caricatures. Sporting shovel-blade beards and khakis - looking to all the world like paid-up members of the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, the AWB, of fascist fame. In fact, they were both born in Zimbabwe. Their father, an Englishman, settled there, buying a small farm and cattle ranch, in about 1948. They kept the ranch with about 50 head of cattle after their father died, until about two years ago, when it was taken to be settled by veterans of the struggle against white rule.

Neither are bitter over the loss. "Why should anyone pay for something that belonged to their people in the first place?" says Roy.

"I don't have any argument with that stuff, I genuinely don't," he continued. "What breaks my heart is that nothing, absolutely nothing, is being done with the land. I'm telling you the grazing [grass] is standing lovely and high in this part of the country - but it's all going to waste." And so the brothers spend their days tending to their small shop and butchery, selling what they can to the rickety buses of black travellers going to and from Bulawayo and Harare, and places further afield.

Further along the road in the drab entrance to the village of Lupane, it seems hard to credit that this was once the capital of Northern Matabeleland.

It is home to Njabiliso "JJ" Mguni, who will contest the election for the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change. It is not wise to be too direct about where you are going in Lupane and a few carefully chosen words with a hitchhiker outside the town is the best way to find out whether JJ is at home.

No one needs to tell the people of Lupane how dangerous it can be to stand up to Mr Mugabe. In the two years between 1982 and 1984 as many as 50,000 people died in a vicious pogrom, dubbed euphemistically by Mr Mugabe himself as the Gukuruhundi: "The rain that washes away the chaff before the spring rains." The rain fell in the form of the notorious Korean-trained 5th Brigade. People were forced to dig their own graves and shot, or bodies were tossed into disused mines. Later the victims were herded into camps to be tortured and killed.

Their commander is now Perence Shiri, the chief of the Zimbabwean air force. He took his orders from Emmerson Mnangagwa, then head of state security, now speaker of parliament. Official figures put the death toll for dissidents - those that opposed Mr Mugabe's Zanu-PF party at 20,000. Locals say the real figure is more than twice that. One of the worst atrocities, the massacre of 62 men, women and children, was in 1983 at the (now dry) Cewala river in Lupane.

In an attempt to stop the outside world hearing about Zimbabwe's dark descent into chaos, foreign journalists are rarely given official permission to tour the vast hinterlands. Those caught posing as tourists face up to two years in prison. Coming off the main road into town the first building that comes into view is the Zanu-PF headquarters. Outside are four large men leaning against a black four-wheel drive.

By the time the MDC office is reached on the other side of town the black vehicle has become a fixture in the rear view mirror, carving its own lines in the soft grey sand of Lupane's narrow thoroughfares. Mr Mguni is not home, he has gone toBulawayo further south, but he arranges to meet on the outskirts of town later that evening.

Entering Bulawayo at night is an eerie experience. With no money to replace the bulbs in the street lamps, the roads take on a sinister edge in the half light. After settling in a nearby restaurant, Mr Mguni, with his optimism at a positive outcome in the elections and his despair at the state of the nation is an odd blend of cheer and darkness.

"Look what a mess this place is, it has gone down the tubes. I don't know how it can be restored."

Despite this blast of realism he is convinced that by 9pm on 31 March the MDC will be celebrating a victory. But he readily concedes that there are many ways in which the Zanu-PF can rig the election. Their past methods have included fiddling the voters' roll and using food and the local headmen (in rural areas, such as Lupane) as tools to ensure voter compliance.

Like everyone else, he is clinging to Zanu-PF's pledge to eschew violence in the forthcoming elections. After standing at a May by-election, Mr Mguni was forced to quit his job as a teacher working with disabled children. Without work he is broke and forced to depend on the support groups set up by the MDC to aid its candidates. Many of these groups include white Zimbabwean members, a fact that has been used by Mr Mugabe supporters to level the charge that they are serving "colonial masters".

Mr Mguni is unapologetic about this, saying his party does not have a racism problem. "We are not racists. We are not trying to chase white people out of this country."

The black and white row pales in comparison with the potential abuse of electoral law that stipulates that if a candidate for a particular constituency should, for whatever reason, be unable to stand, then the opposing candidate must run unopposed.

"So I suppose," says Mr Mguni rather off-handedly, "that it could be in the interests of Zanu-PF to kidnap and kill members of the opposition. That might still happen."

The spectre of violence is never far away during the election campaign as Robert Madzinga discovered last week. He was shopping with his wife, wearing an MDC T-shirt when he was set on by a mob of Zanu-PF supporters. Opposition supporters have now been forbidden from campaigning in Domboshawa, and Mr Madzinga's family has fled the town for fear of their lives.

In this climate, Mr Mguni usually travels with a minder, who was due after dinner to take him home to Lupane. But the man was caught handing out MDC pamphlets, which are also banned under the electoral law, and only narrowly escaped arrest. He has now fled the city. The aspiring MP, two weeks from what could be the biggest day of his life, is left penniless in the dark city, wondering how he is going to get home.

Back in the brilliant daylight, hundreds of miles east, on the approach to the country's most impressive archaeological site, the looming granite tower of Great Zimbabwe is astounding. This consists of a giant hill complex - where the kings of the then Nemanwa people lived. These are the kings that Mugabe claims as his forebears.

The dark tower has assumed an iconic importance as the birthplace of the nation. It has also been pilfered as the new symbol for the Zanu-PF party, replacing the Zimbabwe bird that used to adorn their coat of arms.

Terry, a beautiful young guide who makes her living on the tough climb to the top, is typical of the generation born after the struggle for independence that ended white-dominated rule and brought Mr Mugabe to power. Despite education, youth and beauty, she is going nowhere.

"All I want to do is see the world. But I earn Z$1,500000 [£129] a month. There is no way that I am going to be able to get out of here."

More than two decades after taking power, Mr Mugabe still rules from his palace 200 miles to the north, but not even the children of his revolution look to Harare with any hope for the future. "I don't care much about the election," says Terry. "I just wish there were a way that I could make my dreams come true."