Michael Darby

Observations on politics and poetry by Australian bush poet, Michael Darby.

Michael was born in Sydney in 1945 and is a former Australian Army Officer who has been writing and broadcasting on politics and economics since 1972.

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Wednesday, December 29, 2004
Zimbabwe in 2004

From Eddie Cross, Bulawayo 23rd December 2004

In 1999 we all thought we were in for a short sharp fight. Confidence in our ability to defeat Zanu PF at the polls was high and we thought our case to do so was sound. We were prepared for victory and when we won the referendum in March 2000 we thought the stage was set for a victory in the June elections. It was not to be and I do not want to dwell on that here. Rather to look back on the past year - four years after those heady days when we planned with great confidence for a new MDC led government.

2004 has been tough, very tough, on all of us. The statistics tell a great deal but are not the whole picture. Our total economic output slipped for the 6th consecutive year and is now only 60 per cent of what it was in 1998. Exports fell to half of earlier heights, employment to the lowest level since 1960. Life expectancy collapsed to just 35 years - down a year for every year that Mugabe has been State President. The only thing that increased was human flight and the death rate, both of which are now at record levels and reducing the population of the country by hundreds of thousands every year.

In every sector we saw a further decline in economic activity. In agriculture the wet season was about normal - certainly unusually long, starting in October 2003 and ending in April 2004. But it did not help - every sector showed further declines in output. Tobacco slipped to half what we need to stay in the market, maize production was barely 600 000 tonnes and Mugabe lied about the crop size. All other sectors showed decline - even those dominated by small-scale growers in the Communal areas. As a consequence we now have to import food on a scale we have not seen for many decades and food prices have risen dramatically. With falling incomes and rapidly declining monetary values the ordinary Zimbabwean has been plunged into a crisis that is worse than at any time in our history.

In industry we have seen activity fall by 40 per cent in four years and it shows no sign of any slow down in the downwards spiral. Factory closures are a daily occurrence and the roads in our industrial sites no longer swarm with thousands of workers at 5 PM each day. With each company closure we have seen a hemorrhage of skills and experience that will be very difficult to replace. Four years ago we employed 300 000 workers in industry, generated 25 per cent of GDP and were a threat to the industry of our neighbors. Today we are just a shadow of what we were.

In the mining sector, 2004 saw some recovery - the Zimbabwean group that took over the assets of BHP in the platinum industry turned the venture round and made a profit and then sold out to Implats in South Africa. Anglo American stopped disinvesting and started to put money on the table - platinum, chrome and diamonds all benefited. The gold industry started to recover with new pricing policies and foreign mining giants said they were seriously looking at the Zimbabwe treasure trove of base minerals and precious metals. Then the dead hand of Zanu PF entered the fray and suddenly the whole scene has gone cold. Investment plans have been frozen and exploration and negotiation activity stopped.

In tourism we all felt that 2003 was the bottom of the roller coaster - in that year only 20 per cent of our normal flow of tourists visited the country. In fact tour operators tell me the fall in 2004 has been dramatic with many operators not handling a single foreign tourist in 12 months. Hotels have closed down and operators scaled back their operations - some back to a care and maintenance level. Visiting our Parks is something else - vast swathes of empty wild life reserve. Park lodges empty and staff idle. It's great for us Zimbabweans to have the place to ourselves but we cannot maintain these areas without a steady flow of tourists.

In the service sector it has been a torrid year. 40 per cent of all commercial banks have collapsed with combined losses of over Z$2 trillion (US$350 million). The railways now operate at such a low level that their gross revenue does not cover their salary bill each month. Our Post and Telecommunications sector has been on strike for 4 months and the only response by the authorities has been to fire the offending workers - in violation of our own labor laws. Increases in service costs from water and electricity to postage and telephone rates have soared to the point where many are simply unable to pay. Water quality in all the cities has deteriorated, as have all municipal services - despite huge increases in charges.

In education we now have a minority of girl children in school for the first time in 20 years. Attendance at school has fallen to about 75 per cent of all school age children at primary schools and when they do go, the standard of education is so poor in State schools that most will leave school neither functionally literate or numerate. Hospitals are simply mortuaries where people die and are then treated as so much garbage to be disposed of. Stories of bodies piled high in cold rooms abound. Even in the private sector we have had to fight for the continued existence of private schools and the maintenance of standards in private hospitals and clinics. Some of these battles were won this year - but at great cost.

In the political arena we have also slipped backwards. We have never been so isolated diplomatically since the end of sanctions in 1980. We remain fully excluded from all the multilateral organisations and the Commonwealth. We are an embarrassment to the AU and the SADC. We have hindered the progress of negotiations with the EU for southern African states. We have intensified the control of the media and all normal democratic activity. We continued to abuse human rights and freedoms on a scale not even seen in the bad old days of Ian Smith. We are in the process of closing down all the NGO's that have played such an important part in our lives in the past decade - keeping the flame of democracy and human and political rights alight.

And in the face of all this failure we are subjected to a circus called the Zanu PF Congress at the year-end where the whole farce of "everything is normal" and "we are on the road to recovery" is played out. The scenes of frivolity and jubilation, of drinking and dining will remain with us for a long time. These were the kleptocrats at play, living it up and celebrating their survival as a ruling elite despite chronic failure and disgrace. And they are quite confident that they will win the March 2005 parliamentary elections! It is an astonishing display of confidence in the Stalinist dictum "it is not who votes that counts, but he who counts the vote."

Is 2005 going to be any better - no, I think not and we must gear ourselves up to handle this situation. At least we will go into the elections - if and when they are held, with no illusions. I do not want to go through that again - it took me 6 months to pick myself off the floor after 2002. But of one thing I am certain, in the end right will win. History tells us that eventually every despotic regime comes to the end - it may be violent like Rumania, or simply a collapse at midnight like East Germany. But the Zanu PF led government is simply no longer sustainable and has a shrinking circle of friends to help it out when needed.

In 2004 we made huge strides in building understanding of the Zimbabwe crisis and its human and political origins. In Africa we can now confidently claim a majority of countries who no longer see Mugabe as he likes to display himself but simply as a liberation hero who has lost his way and should go. They have thrown everything they have at us and we are still standing - and remember that he who is left standing at the end is the winner! When we win, putting Zimbabwe back on its feet will take time but it will also be exciting and rewarding. Like white water rafting - trust your life jacket, not your ability to swim. Just make sure it is tied tight and relax and enjoy the ride.