Leading article: We can give Zimbabwe hope

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The Independent Online

The last that most people in this country knew of Zimbabwe was that a power-sharing deal had been done between Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader. Some of us might have been aware that the implementation of the deal had become a bit sticky, and we might have wondered what had become of Mr Tsvangirai in recent weeks.

The truth is that Mr Tsvangirai has been spending a lot of time in South Africa, engaged in tortuous negotiations over the allocation of ministerial posts. Progress was made last week, for example, in agreeing amendments to the constitution to put the deal into effect. But the allocation of cabinet posts has not yet been settled, with Mr Mugabe trying to hold on to all those responsible for security. The campaign of obstruction waged by the old despot ensures that the agreement will take a long time to yield practical benefits. And there is hope in the long view, because Jacob Zuma, the leader-presumptive of South Africa, promises a more active engagement by the regional power – and not least because of the inauguration of an American President of part-Kenyan descent in seven weeks' time.

While all this is going on, the suffering of the people of Zimbabwe continues to worsen. Millions of Zimbabweans have fled the country, most of them to South Africa, a few to Britain, where, to our shame, the Home Office is trying to send them back. The economy of Zimbabwe, including the rural economy, is so tattered that, of the population that remains, half will need food aid in the coming month. One of the best-known numbers in the world must be the average life expectancy in the country, reduced from 60 just two decades ago to 34 now.

As our special correspondent in Zimbabwe reports today from Zimbabwe, the cash economy has ceased to function, with the speed of inflation testing the limits of theoretical mathematics at a rate of 2.8 quintillion per cent a year. "Doctors and teachers whose monthly wage does not buy one square meal are leaving their jobs to forage for food like everyone else," he reports. "The first sight that greets visitors who fly into Harare is that of people tilling public land beside the airport."

Now cholera has taken hold and is spreading.

That is why The Independent on Sunday has chosen Save the Children in Zimbabwe for its Christmas appeal this year. The situation in that country is one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes in the world today. More than that, it has two features that make it particularly deserving of our attention.

One is that something can be done. Even the most hard-faced sceptic about the efficacy of development charities would have to accept the case for help here. Zimbabwe is capable of feeding its people, but the collapse of the state and society makes it temporarily impossible. Nor does it take much to keep children alive. Nor does it require a huge additional logistical effort. Save the Children has worked in the country for 25 years. It is one of the functioning institutions still in good shape after the ravages of Mugabe over that time. It can deliver food directly to children who need it at very little cost.

The other feature of the Zimbabwe crisis is that we in Britain retain a vestigial responsibility to the people there. It is 28 years since the Thatcher government signed the Lancaster House Agreement, granting independence to Rhodesia under its African name. Of course, Mr Mugabe, then admired as a democrat and national liberator, bears the prime responsibility for the wrecking of one of the most prosperous and fortunate of African nations. And he has exploited our colonial history ruthlessly to portray Britain as the external enemy, in such a way as to make it impossible for Britain to play much part in putting international pressure on his regime. But, people-to-people rather than government-to-government, there is still much that we can, and should, do.

That is why we are asking our readers to respond generously to help make a difference. Please, use the coupon with this article and use the Gift Aid tax concession to reclaim and donate any tax that you have already paid.

We urge you to read our report from Matabeleland North in our news pages. Although the long-term prospect for Zimbabwe is hopeful, the political deal made in September and ratcheted another notch forward in South Africa last week will bring its desperate people no succour in the short term. As our correspondent concludes in his personal despatch: "If they are to be given any hope this Christmas, it will have to come from us."