From the October 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 10)

From the Editor

Let Them Eat Nothing

Alice Chasan

Imagine a country racked by hunger whose leaders deliberately destroy its bountiful agricultural system. The premise is improbable, the stuff of dystopian fiction. Yet Zimbabwe is suffering that fate at the hands of President Robert Mugabe, a liberation hero turned dictatorial fiend.

During the past two years, Mugabe has transfigured Southern Africa’s breadbasket into another African basket case. At this writing, 6 million Zimbabweans are in danger of starvation. Although drought set the stage for food shortages, Mugabe’s lunatic land-redistribution scheme—forcing white commercial farmers who own most of the arable land to cease production and surrender their farms to his cronies and sycophants—has turned a natural disaster into a national catastrophe.

International observers and most Zimbabweans agree that white expropriation of property during the colonial era, leaving blacks living in the least productive areas, should be redressed through a carefully crafted land redistribution plan. Rather than approach the process with national reconciliation as the goal, however, Mugabe cynically exploited old wounds in an attempt to bolster his dwindling political support.

In 2000, faced with an emerging opposition, Mugabe encouraged gangs he called “war veterans” to invade white-owned farms, often with murderous results. When the courts condemned the raids, he ousted the judges. As the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, gained support—in March 2001 Tsvangirai unsuccessfully challenged Mugabe in a presidential election widely deemed rife with voter intimidation—Mugabe tightened controls on the independent press, which has chronicled his abuses. And in May, he struck at white farmers, whose union backed Tsvangirai’s candidacy, ordering 2,900 to vacate their land by Aug. 8 or face arrest.

The sudden halt to agricultural production has sent shock waves through every sector of the economy: According to reports in the Zimbabwean and British press, hundreds of thousands of black farmworkers and their families are without income and the homes, schooling, and medical care they received under the farmers’ auspices. Banks stand to lose US$12 billion from farmers’ bankruptcies alone.

The Orwellian dimensions of Mugabe’s policies get blurred in U.S. media, which still tend to report the land grab as legitimate if punitive restitution to landless blacks. But local journalists as well as the press in other Commonwealth countries paint a shocking picture of a society in the throes of something horrific and wholly preventable. The Zimbabwe Independent—whose eloquent and courageous editor, Iden Wetherell, is WPR’s 2002 International Editor of the YearThe Financial Gazette, The Standard, and the Daily News report shortages of basic commodities, while crops wither and livestock die because no one is allowed to tend them. Mugabe blames Western colonialists and bad weather for the crisis, yet his ZANU-PF party minions are barring Western aid groups from giving food to MDC supporters.

No international coalition has emerged to save Zimbabwe, either in Western capitals or in its own back yard. In July, most of Africa’s leaders—Mugabe among them—met to launch the African Union, putatively dedicated to democratic reform for the continent. If the new union’s architects, who have promised self-monitoring to ensure transparency and the rule of law, maintain their silence about the crimes of Mugabe and other despots in their midst, they will perpetuate Western indifference to the region’s problems and permanently consign Africa to the bottom of the world’s to-do list.

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