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Iden Wetherell

Iden Wetherell's Open Letter and Article

Zimbabwe's tragic decline

Iden Wetherell

It is a fundamental tenet of any democracy that voters have the right to choose their leaders. The Commonwealth's Harare Declaration, adopted in the Zimbabwean capital in 1991, refers to the inalienable right of citizens of member states to participate by means of free and democratic processes in framing the society in which they live.

That participation cannot be meaningful if voters are unable to make an informed choice. That in turn depends upon their ability to hear a diversity of views. In Zimbabwe the government in September closed down the country's only independent daily newspaper, the Daily News. While a number of small weeklies have kept alight the torch of press freedom, the government of President Robert Mugabe has embarked on a concerted campaign to close what remains of democratic space. The gains of the 1990s, backed by a then-robust Supreme Court, have been steadily eroded. Draconian security legislation has made it an offence to cause disaffection against Mugabe's regime while gatherings of more than two people deemed by the police to be political are forbidden without their consent.

Newspapers now have to be registered under a sweeping press law called the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act. This requires all media organisations to be registered with a state-appointed Media Commission and makes it an offence for a newspaper to employ a journalist who is not accredited with the commission.

The Daily News chose to challenge the press law in the courts but was rebuffed by the Supreme Court which is now seen as susceptible to government manipulation following the forced resignation or retirement of many independent-minded judges. However, judges in lower courts can still be fiercely independent as the recent ruling compelling the Media Commission to register the Daily News clearly shows. It remains to be seen how the state will respond.

Despite examples of courageous individuals and civic groups standing up to Mugabe's tyranny, with a muzzled media, a suborned police and an electoral system run by the army, Zimbabwe has moved from a relatively free society three years ago to a totalitarian state today whose main ally is Cuba which regularly locks up journalists.

Behind this drastic curtailment of civil liberties is a programme of land seizures which has transferred 11 million hectares of commercial farmland to the state. While the Supreme Court has given its endorsement to this often violent and arbitrary process, the law has in many cases been openly violated as have the rights of farmers who have seen their life's work destroyed. An estimated 500 000 farm workers have been made homeless, livestock has been slaughtered and wildlife decimated. It is the only resettlement exercise in history where more people have been dispossessed than resettled.

As a result, agricultural production has fallen by an estimated 60 percent. From breadbasket of the region, Zimbabwe has become a basket case. This means that a country which only three years ago was self-sufficient in food production is now dependent upon aid from the very countries it brands as "enemies".

The United States and the European Union are the largest donors. Mugabe's publicists claim that 300 000 families have been resettled on the acquired farms. But a report commissioned by the government in October revealed that only 134 000 households had in fact been given land. Many of the beneficiaries are senior politicians, judges, policemen and army officers. Journalists in the state-owned media have also benefited.

Mugabe is unapologetic about the land grab. White commercial farmers had supported the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in rejecting the government's constitutional proposals in February 2000, he told the South African Broadcasting Corporation earlier this year. Therefore they became the target of "spontaneous" demonstrations by war veterans. The latest land audit confirms that political vengeance was the motive in government pursuing what it calls "fast-track" land reform.

"One of the main factors identified for prompting government to undertake this course of action," the report of the land audit states, "is the rejection of the draft constitution in 2000 through the efforts of British-backed political opponents."

In other words Zimbabweans of all colours have been punished with land confiscation and starvation for supporting the party of their choice. Meanwhile, Mugabe's Zanu-PF militias stalk the land unrestrained visiting violence upon their political opponents. In the Midlands town of Kwekwe recently MDC candidates were prevented from registering in a municipal poll by a gang of ruling-party thugs. As a result the MDC is unrepresented on the council of a town where it has considerable support and where its then virtually unknown MP defeated a senior minister in the 2000 parliamentary election.

Nothing could more forcefully contradict the terms of the Commonwealth's Harare Declaration than this crude denial of democratic rights. Yet South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki has been leading a campaign to have Zimbabwe' s suspension from the "Club" lifted. The suspension followed the report of a Commonwealth team of observers which found Mugabe's reelection in March 2002 to be seriously flawed. Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo, after visiting Harare with Mbeki earlier this year, was persuaded to write to premier John Howard of Australia saying law and order had been restored in Zimbabwe. He gave as an example a police investigation into the torture of a prominent opposition MP by police.

Not only has that investigation been stalled but in mid-October a lawyer who had defended journalists in court cases was severely assaulted by police at a police station after she was the victim of a car hijacking. Police still haven't found the individuals who bombed the Daily News' printing press in 2001, nor have they made any arrests of the army personnel who abducted and tortured two journalists in 1999. The killers of commercial farmers continue to walk free as do the assassins of two MDC activists in the 2000 election campaign. A state security agent named in court in connection with the killing of the activists is responsible for directing a campaign of terror in Chimanimani, in the east of the country.

It is said that the media attention Zimbabwe has received abroad can in part be ascribed to ties of kith and kin in Britain, South Africa and Australia. While this may be partly true, a more likely explanation would be the horror felt in many parts of the world at the way a once successful and relatively prosperous country enjoying many of the freedoms found in democracies elsewhere was transformed into a violent dictatorship where corruption and lawlessness prevailed, forcing its brightest and most talented citizens into exile.

Zimbabwe today is infinitely poorer in terms of per capita GDP than it was at independence in 1980, or even in 1975 at the height of international sanctions and the bush war. Its decline - and with it the destruction of its rich wildlife and other natural resources - is one of the great tragedies of modern Africa.

Progressive nations are understandably horrified. The lesson is obvious: democracy can never be taken for granted. It has to be defended against populist demagogues claiming a national mandate and the mantle of history. Their pretensions need to be exposed and resisted before they impoverish the people they claim to champion. While leaders, such as those in southern Africa who have excused and even endorsed the misrule currently blighting Zimbabwe, are also partly to blame, history may be equally unforgiving of those who stand by and watch.

(Iden Wetherell is the editor of the Zimbabwe Independent. He was the winner of the 2002 World Press Review's International Editor of the Year Award.)