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Published:July 12th, 2007 11:09 EST
Being Rich in Zimbabwe

Being Rich in Zimbabwe

By Krzys Wasilewski

There is nothing like Zimbabwe. Nice people, hot weather and crystal-blue lakes guarantee tourists that their money will be well spent. In fact, money is the reason why this South African country has become a leitmotif of this year's summer season. With rampant inflation running more than 4,500 percent a month, everyone can feel like a millionaire.

Even with wallets and bags filled with Zimbabwean dollars, life may be far from easy. According to the official rates, one American dollar equals 120,000 Zimbabwean dollars. The true value of the local money is even lower– for one US dollar one can get twice as much as the official exchange rate says. As it always happens in weak economies, the black market takes the role of finance ministry and sets its own rules. While stores and malls remain empty and bread, together with meat and rice, having become a luxury, connections with farmers and sellers prove irreplaceable. If you have enough dollars (the green ones) and know which doors to knock at, obtaining food should not be a problem– especially with foreign aid flowing freely into the country. This, however, hardly ever makes its way to average Zimbabweans. Usually, the sacks with “USAid” signs land in the warehouses of prominent politicians and their good friends. The majority of the country's almost 13-million-strong population suffers from hunger and poverty, unimaginable a decade ago.

Zimbabwe's political system seems to be in even bigger malaise than its economy. The last remaining opposition party– Movement for Democratic Change– has been under a constant attack from the governing Zanu-PF party. Democratic dissidents, such as Morgan Tsvangirai, are regularly arrested on trumped-up charges. Often does it happen that once in jail, they are beaten and tortured, which results in strangely high death rates among inmates. But violence is not only the domain of the Zimbabwean penitentiary. Recently, a several-thousand-strong demonstration in the country's capital, Harare, was brutally quelled by the police and thugs paid by the government.

When Zimbabwe won its independence from the British Empire in 1965, it was the second largest economy on the continent. Rhodesia– the country’s name at that time– was ruled by the white minority and exercised policy similar to apartheid in South Africa. The combination of unfettered free market and slave labor bore fruits, lifting Rhodesia into a very affluent country, even in the Western standards. The problem was that only the white population could draw profits from the rocketing economy. Unlike in racist South Africa, the self-appointed Rhodesian Prime Minister, Ian Smith, yielded to international pressure and demands of the black citizens and finally gave up power in 1980. His successor was Robert Mugabe, a young and charismatic leader of the democratic opposition, who promised a smooth transition of power and guaranteed carte blanche to the whites.

But it soon turned out that Mugabe was not going to follow Nelson Mandela and his rainbow nation idea. Within the first years of his rule, Mugabe employed North Korean Special Forces to get rid of his former colleagues from the opposition. Similarly, the democrat-turned-dictator showed no remorse for the Ndebele people who had the temerity to disagree with Mugabe. A rough approximation suggests that several thousand civilians were murdered in the 1980s, which prompted some human rights organizations to accuse Mugabe of committing genocide. But the dictator stood tall.

When the country's economy began to show the first signs of stagnation and more and more people began to express their disappointment with the government's course, Mugabe used the colonial card to win back support. In 2000 he expelled the few remaining white farmers to “redistribute land to black people.” Instead of fulfilling his promise, however, most of the farms were given to Mugabe's faithful generals and ministers. One year later, the country, which for decades had been Africa's leading granary, had to depend on foreign aid. Life expectancy has plummeted from 60 years in 1990 to 37 years in 2007 (the lowest in the world), with the infant mortality rate rising from 53 to 81 deaths per 1,000 live births. In the country of 13 million people, almost six millions are HIV positive with no chance to receive life-saving treatment.

Questions arise such as where the so-called international community has been for all this time. That the United Nations speaks up only to criticize the United States and remains silent when the Third World satraps commit atrocities hardly surprises anyone. But the biggest disappointment comes from Zimbabwe's closest neighbors– the African Union and South Africa. The former is almost as stagnant as Zimbabwe's economy, with some of the Union's leaders being no better democrats than Mugabe himself. South Africa, as the strongest and richest country of the region, should do much more to influence its northern neighbor, especially considering that every day hundreds of Zimbabweans flow into South Africa illegally. But President Thabo Mbeki– a racist who perceives any foreign step to establish democracy in Zimbabwe as a return to colonial politics– would rather tolerate Mugabe's terror than admit that expelling white farmers ruined the country. The two even made a deal to train South African military pilots in Zimbabwe since Mbeki “feels he is being resisted by the [South African] whites, who still have a stranglehold over the air force.”

The only hope for Zimbabwe is that 83-year-old Mugabe will soon get tired of fighting the opposition and choose a peaceful and comfortable retirement in South Africa or anywhere he wishes. But the longer he lingers, the worse the condition of his country becomes. The World Bank expects that by the end of 2007, inflation will have reached 1.5 million percent. This may look like a perfect place for all would-be millionaires, but for average Zimbabweans, it gives 1.5 million more reasons to dispose of their dictator.

Please send comments to: krzys_wasilewski@yahoo.com