Zimbabwe's Unending Agony

By Michael Gerson
Friday, June 15, 2007

When I talked this week with David Coltart, a Zimbabwean member of parliament and human rights lawyer, his office in Bulawayo had been without power for five hours. The central business district of Zimbabwe's second-largest city, he said, was "a ghost town," with "hardly anyone on the streets" and "signs everywhere of total economic collapse."

Four days previously the price for a liter of gasoline had been 55,000 Zimbabwean dollars; that morning, gas stations were advertising $85,000. Inflation, by conservative estimates, gallops at an annual rate of 3,700 percent. Perhaps 3 1/2 million people -- about one-fourth of the population -- have left the country in a massive drain of youth and ambition. "Land reform" has been a land grab for the ruling-party elite, which is proving that intimidation and brutality are powerless to make the corn grow. Orphans, many with signs of childhood malnutrition, have begun coming to Coltart's parliamentary office for help.

Zimbabweans have discovered with horror that their founding father, Robert Mugabe, is an abusive parent, as if George Washington had grown mad with power, expropriated Monticello and given Thomas Jefferson a good, instructive beating.

With elections for president and parliament set for next year, Mugabe can hardly run on his record. So he has kicked off the campaign season by attempting to destroy his opposition and rig the election in his favor. In March, his police crushed a protest rally and began arresting and torturing political opponents. In response to international criticism, Mugabe coolly replied, "We hope they have learned their lesson. If they have not, then they will get similar treatment." Constitutional changes are moving forward that will allow Mugabe to handpick his successor. Next week parliament will debate measures that permit the interception of e-mails and the suppression of democratic groups, with the excuse of fighting "foreign terrorism."

Mugabe, having spent a lifetime consuming his country, now seems determined to drink it to the dregs.

For years, nations in the region did nothing in response and called their silence "quiet diplomacy." More recently, those efforts have progressed from nonexistent to inadequate. After the recent round of beatings and arrests, a summit of the Southern African Development Community-- a 14-country regional organization -- appointed South African President Thabo Mbeki to mediate the political conflict in Zimbabwe. Yet the summit's participants refused to clearly criticize the regime's human rights violations. "We got full backing," boasted Mugabe. "Not even one criticized our actions."

South African diplomats tell American officials that there is no serious alternative to the regime -- that the opposition is weak and divided. But perhaps that opposition is dispirited because in March and April, 600 of its leaders were arrested or abducted, 300 hospitalized, and three killed. Any hope of "mediation" in this atmosphere is a sham. How do you sit down at the negotiating table when one side is using a truncheon on the other? The precondition for mediation is an end to beatings and torture on Mugabe's part -- and the South Africans should insist on it. They should also start considering more muscular options if Mugabe continues on his current path. South Africa has tremendous leverage if it chooses to use it. A cutoff of energy, fuel and trade could end Mugabe's regime in a matter of days.

The hesitance of many democracies to confidently promote democracy is one of the great frustrations of recent years. The South Korean government does its best to play down massive human rights abuses in the North. India and Japan do business with the brutal regime in Burma. It would be progress if South African diplomats even raised the issue of human rights in Zimbabwe and began showing the kind of moral clarity that once benefited their own cause.

In Zimbabwe, a collapsing economy, malnutrition, high rates of disease and a failing health-care system have produced some of the lowest life expectancies in the world -- 34 years for women and 37 years for men. So Mugabe, at age 83, has achieved a rare distinction in the history of tyranny -- living twice as long as his citizens are expected to live. According to Coltart, the most vivid image of Zimbabwe is found in the cemeteries, which "are filled to overflowing." "There are burials at any time of the day," he told me, "row after row of fresh dirt, with no headstones, because the poor can't afford them." "It is the way," he said, "that I imagine the Battle of the Somme."

That terrible battle during World War I lasted 142 days. Zimbabwe has suffered for years -- and the burials go on.


View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company