Beyond the brink
We’ve been saying it for so long that it has lost its meaning: “Zimbabwe is on the verge of collapse.” We must now acknowledge that the country is no longer on the brink—it has tipped into the abyss, even as we watch in a kind of stunned quiescence.
Zimbabwe has been dysfunctional for a long time now, its democracy starved of oxygen, its economy driven into ruin and its people preyed upon by a corrupt elite of politicians and their cronies. Since 2001 citizens have had to cope with a gradual ratcheting up of oppression and of material privation, learning to cope as their salaries shrank along with their freedom, or fleeing to South Africa, the United Kingdom or Botswana.
All the while Robert Mugabe’s inner circle, the military and the racketeers who are their enablers, grew rich off the shadow economy.
Opposition, led by Morgan Tsvangirai and the Movement for Democratic Change, has been incoherent and grossly incapable of managing the urgency of the situation.
It has been convenient for those not wishing to intervene, or to openly denounce the Mugabe government, to refer to the country’s “imminent” collapse—convenient because it has allowed endless prattle about finding local solutions to local problems.
None of that is good enough anymore. The evidence is clear: a line was crossed some time ago and Zimbabwe no longer has the rudiments of a functioning state.
The three most obvious signals are the cholera outbreak, rioting by angry soldiers and the total dysfunction of the monetary system. All of these matters are the final outcomes of slow but tolerable decline, which has now tipped over into disaster.
The 12 545 cases of cholera that the United Nations says have been recorded since August are a direct consequence of decaying municipal infrastructure and a health system that can no longer offer basic services. This week NGO officials warned of the worst outbreak of anthrax in three decades, the result of desperate people eating the meat of infected animals.
Water reticulation and sewerage have long been in trouble, with many Zimbabweans, even in affluent areas, making do with bucket bathing and rudimentary drinking-water arrangements. The capital has now been almost entirely without water since Sunday.
Meanwhile, major hospitals such as Harare General are closed for lack of doctors and drugs. On Wednesday health workers protesting against the government’s handling of the crisis were baton-charged by police.
The epidemic is not a random misfortune—it is a product of state failure.
Similarly, the cash shortage that prevents Zimbabweans from drawing enough from their bank accounts to live on—even if they have it—and meaninglessly high inflation is the logical endpoint of chronic economic mismanagement. Only foreign exchange will buy you anything of value now, and not even the state airline or the customs service will accept payment in Zimbabwean dollars.
Last week, for the first time, cracks in military discipline, the bulwark of the Mugabe regime, began to show as discontent by soldiers about the cash shortage turned into a wave of looting. It is now rumoured that some of them have been executed.
It might have been a limited show of dissent, but it was surely a sign of what must come. Soldiers are now suffering the same hardships as civilians, and confining them to the barracks, where reports say there are serious food shortages, will hardly soothe their tempers.
The rest of the state system is not doing much better. Blackouts now last for days rather than hours. The education system—one of Zimbabwe’s proudest achievements and the source of its extraordinary human capital—operates at a fraction of its capacity. School holidays have begun, but many schools have long been closed already.
Teachers’ salaries are not enough to pay for their transport to work and parents cannot pay for lunches or bus fare.
The political solution that could have forestalled all this in the immediate wake of the March election now seems impossibly far off. Former president Thabo Mbeki’s power-sharing deal is dead.
President Kgalema Motlanthe and some of his SADC colleagues are a little more critical than Mbeki was prepared to be, but they carry nothing resembling a stick. Tsvangirai seems at a loss for ways to lead his people, squabbling over travel documents and protocol instead of organising effective resistance.
South Africans watch in horror, as if their neighbours were in extremis on the remote shore of some unbridgeable gulf, but do little. The African Union stands by and does nothing, while the rest of the international community protests loudly to mask its powerlessness.
Let us start by admitting that the emergency has come, and with it the time for emergency measures. That does not mean invasion, but it does mean large-scale humanitarian intervention, led by UN agencies, against the will of the government if necessary, and certainly not under its control. And for the MDC it should mean a new and much more vigorous phase of opposition.