Elections won’t solve Zimbabwe crisis

Sunday, March 16, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:42 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Stuart Loory, who holds the Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the MU School of Journalism, is the moderator of the weekly radio program “Global Journalist.” It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at

Loory: Robert Mugabe’s five-year term as the president of Zimbabwe, Africa, is expiring. Mugabe, who is 84 years old, is up for re-election on March 29. He’s the only person to rule Zimbabwe since it gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1980. His regime is repressive, and the inflation rate in Zimbabwe is 150,000 percent, the highest in the world. Two challengers are seeking Mugabe’s job. One is Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change. The other is Simba Makoni, a former finance minister in the Mugabe government. Makoni split with his former boss and is running as an independent. Neither is given much of a chance of winning, but the campaign is shedding light on another problem in troubled Africa. Army leaders loyal to Mugabe have said that they would not support anyone but the current president, even if he weren’t elected. Why is Zimbabwe in such dire straits?

Gerry Jackson, station manager, SWradioafrica, London: The crisis in Zimbabwe is caused by growth mismanagement and government repression of its own population. Most people expect this election to be rigged, as Mugabe has done all along. The slight difference is an utter collapse of the economy. The inflation rate is a nightmare. No one is sure how much longer people can continue as they are, so there’s a feeling that even if these elections are rigged, this may be the beginning of a movement towards the end of the crisis.

Loory: Are either of the opposition candidates likely to unseat the president?

Andrew Meldrum, Neiman Fellow, Harvard University: The opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change, split in two two years ago. The sides tried to form a coalition so they wouldn’t oppose each other in the elections and failed. That divided the opposition vote. When Makoni stepped forward, that was welcomed because it was something different and new. Makoni might attract opposition voters and voters from the Zanu-PF, Mugabe’s party. If he splits the party, that would be the first positive change in awhile.

Loory: Isn’t there a party rule that one can’t oppose the party’s leader and still be in the party?

Meldrum: If one goes against the party’s nomination for any elective position, he’s expelled. That’s happened to several people, but Makoni’s defection is the first major cabinet-level defection in a long time.

Jackson: People are thrilled to have someone else running. It’s brought a lift to these elections. The trouble with opposition is it gets infiltrated. It’s almost impossible to be an effective opposition because the government is going to do everything it can to make sure you’re not functioning. We’re hearing that Makoni is popular, but only among intellectuals in urban areas. He has little support in rural areas from people who don’t know him and what he stands for. We’ve also heard the rallies he’s held have been poorly attended. That’s stopped anyone else in Zanu-PF, who may have been clandestine backers, from coming forward.

Loory: It seems there’s a modicum of free expression in Zimbabwe since the candidates can campaign. What is the country’s political character?

Meldrum: The elections can’t be categorized as free and fair. The police must approve opposition rallies, and they often break up rallies they have already approved. The opposition is under constant threat of beatings, harassment and arrests. The extent to which Zimbabwe still looks like it has some modicum of free and fair elections is because civic organizations and brave Zimbabweans are questioning the government as much as they can.

Loory: What about the large number of Zimbabweans who have left Zimbabwe?

Jackson: It’s been described as the biggest migration of people in peacetime. It’s at least a quarter of the population, 70 percent of the productive adults. Three million Zimbabweans are living in South Africa. It’s causing a huge problem in the region and creating xenophobia. There’s an estimated 600,000 Zimbabweans in Britain. They’re sending money back home to keep their families alive. If they weren’t doing that, there would be a total economic collapse in Zimbabwe.

Loory: What work are foreign correspondents doing in the country now?

Meldrum: I was the last resident foreign correspondent in Zimbabwe, but several Zimbabwean journalists are writing for the foreign media. They’re operating under terrible constraints. They’re not accredited by the state, which means they aren’t invited to state press conferences. They’re threatened and sometimes beaten. The state controls the daily newspapers and all radio and TV broadcasts. There are, however, a handful of privately owned weekly newspapers.

Jackson: I challenged the government’s broadcasting monopoly in the Supreme Court in Zimbabwe and won the right to set up the first independent radio station. Mugabe used his presidential powers to have it shut down at gunpoint after six days. So we set up off shore, and we broadcast until the government started blocking our signals about three years later. Now we’re able to get through on one clean frequency, and we have a Web site. The few Zimbabweans who have Internet can listen online. Last year, we began sending our news headlines into Zimbabwe via text messages. The problem is how to keep it funded. You can fight oppression as long as you’ve got money.

Loory: How does Mugabe operate?

Meldrum: Mugabe is a fit and spry 84-year-old. He doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke. He eats carefully, exercises daily and loves what he’s doing. He’s always been after power, and he had to fight a violent struggle to get majority rule in Zimbabwe. But Mugabe isn’t so dedicated to democracy and majority rule as he is to his own power. He’s the worst example of a liberation movement not becoming fully democratic parties and governments.

Loory: The general impression is that South Africa as a whole is functioning pretty well. Is that not the case?

Meldrum: It started off well, but it’s facing the same problems Zimbabwe faced of not addressing the black majority’s aspirations. South Africa is just 12 years into its independence. The political system of apartheid has ended, but the economic situation of apartheid hasn’t. Members of the black majority in South Africa are still leading lives confined to the townships and to poverty and with violent crime. Anger is building, and I fear South Africa will have a kind of post-apartheid reckoning similar to Zimbabwe.

Loory: What can the Western world do to help Zimbabwe?

Jackson: Zimbabwe was a colonial power, controlled by Britain. So there’s a lot of suspicion about Western powers. Mugabe has racialized the issue quite intensely. It’s up to the African countries to deal with their neighbor. It’s a huge disappointment to Zimbabweans that they’ve been so remiss and haven’t stood up against blatant human rights abuse.

Loory: What is the situation with schooling and health in Zimbabwe?

Meldrum: Schools operate only in a few areas. Many teachers have left the country because they haven’t been able to feed their families. Zimbabweans cannot afford to send their kids to school. Children pass out in school because of hunger. The health system is breaking down. Hospitals can’t do surgery because they don’t have drugs to anesthetize people.

Loory: On that bleak note, we have to end the program.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Eunjung Kim, Hui Wang and Catherine Wolf.

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Nita Schobert March 16, 2008 | 10:57 p.m.

I couldn't agree more with your observations about the situations in Zimbabwe and South Africa. I know from first-hand experience the multi-layered problems that exist both in South Africa and Zimbabwe. We live in South Africa for 4 months each year (2 2-month stays per year), where my husband is a visiting professor. A very good friend of ours is a black Zimbabwean living in our house in South Africa while we are back in the U.S. We have met with the chief and other leaders from his tribe in our home in South Africa. It is very tragic the things that are occurring in Zimbabwe, especially when we hear first hand from them the atrocities that are occurring. They also told us of sending money home, and making frequent trips to their village to bring food and other things to their village just so that their families can survive. In South Africa, there are years of healing yet to take place before Apartheid is truly dead. There is a "surface tolerance and acceptance" with an underlying and unspoken class system that only time (at least a generation) will heal. The crime is off the charts--we have a 24-hour security system in our home in South Africa, with three locks on the front door and three locks on the back door. Having said all this negative, we anxiously await each trip we make to Africa. Africa's wildlife and landscape are breathtakingly beautiful. Within an hour of our house, we can go on a game drive and see all the wonderful wildlife of the African continent.

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