Only this weekend's election can save Zimbabwe -- once the star of black Africa -- from total ruin. And even that is uncertain. A country so mismanaged requires more than a new leader and governing party. It requires ten years of political calm and incorruptible government to get back on its feet.
And Zimbabwe, for all the intimidating tactics of President Robert Mugabe, remains a democracy. Thus Mugabe, even if he loses the poll, will live to fight another day, able to mobilize the bitterness and resentment of the poor and unemployed to undermine a new government, as he has worked to undermine the opposition the past few years.
The trouble with Robert Mugabe is that his single-minded, Marxist militancy that was a useful tool in driving to defeat the white, racist, government of Rhodesia (as it then was) and its British supporters in the Conservative party is the same blinkered earnestness that has destroyed the economy and undermined its one-time potential for becoming an oasis of racial reconciliation and economic and social progress. Instead of becoming an inspiration for its neighbor South Africa, it is now a fearful warning for what could become of South Africa itself if the spirit of Nelson Mandela, its first black president, is crushed by the growing number of serious policy mistakes of his successor, Thabo Mbeki.
Already in Mbeki, with his peculiar inability to listen to his own medical advisors on the dangers of the AIDS epidemic and his spending of a scarce US$4 billion on new submarines for the navy to be used against a non-enemy, we see the early signs of the amalgam of economic incompetence and political paranoia mixed with defensive grandstanding that one could see starting to develop in Zimbabwe two decades ago, a few years after it won its independence.
Mugabe argues that the political imperative today is to give the dispossessed land, taking from the white farmers who were first settled by the great British imperialist, Cecil Rhodes, 110 years ago. In this he is as correct as the Palestinians today as they rail against the imposed Israeli settlements on Arab soil. The difference is that having made such a fuss about the land issue during the war for majority rule Mugabe promptly forgot about it once he came to office, only resurrecting it three years ago when he realized how unpopular his incompetent and corrupt government had become.
Believing he could play to the gallery of the landless and the poverty stricken, he has allowed the storm troopers of his political party to demoralize, intimidate and, on occasion, to kill white farmers while, in fact, during his 22 year term of office, doing little about providing viable agricultural holdings (with good agricultural advisors on call) to enable the poor to economically progress.
Indeed, over the years it has been the better-off, politically well connected blacks that have done best from the government's land policies. While it is true that immediately after winning independence Zimbabwe would not have been able to raise the money to buy out white farmers from either Britain or the US (who did not deliver on what they had promised), it could have raised the money from the World Bank, the Scandinavians, the Dutch and other such countries that had more liberal constituencies
It was a well-researched fact at the time that 20 percent of the white farmers were producing 80 percent of the output and the other 80 percent of the farms could be made more productive under African small-scale management. But once it had achieved power, the Mugabe government simply lost interest in the issue, as its black bourgeoisie comfortably inserted themselves into the slots left empty by departing whites. South Africa, it is to be profoundly hoped, will not go the same way. Yet the pressures on it are formidable. Like Zimbabwe before, it is finding its best efforts cannot deliver a growth rate sufficient to give jobs to everyone and to start to lift the masses out of poverty.