The Bare Necessities

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These days Zimbabwe is filled with fear, loathing and laughter. In the capital a joke currently making the rounds goes: you can tell the tourists and the drunks in the city because they are the only ones who drive straight; everyone else weaves and swerves to avoid the potholes, which are fueling a brisk informal trade in secondhand hubcaps. Those who retrieve and sell them by the roadside call them "Bob's bonuses," a paltry dividend from President Robert Gabriel Mugabe's reign of neglect.

Potholes in Harare are but one sign that the bare necessities in Zimbabwe are wearing dangerously thin. Telephones don't work and power failures are frequent. Last month the country ran out of gasoline because it couldn't pay the import bills. When precious fuel supplies do arrive, queues stretch for blocks. In the industrial areas, groups of unemployed gaze enviously through factory fences at those lucky enough to be working. Food trucks are regularly hijacked at gunpoint in overcrowded slum townships. Sometimes the frustration becomes too much. Two taxi drivers recently pulled out guns and began shooting at each other in a dispute over who was first in the fuel queue. "The wheels are really coming off," says Eddie Cross, a former vice president of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries and now an economic adviser to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

A visit to a modern shopping precinct on the edge of Harare would seem to contradict this view. When the going gets tough, it seems, the tough go shopping at Westgate Mall. Here the parking lot is packed with vehicles, many of them late-model 4x4s, and the stores, restaurants and cafes are filled with smartly dressed shoppers, both black and white, and their families. The shops stock plenty of consumer goods, mostly from South Africa, fashionable clothes and fresh farm produce.

But Westgate is an example of the socioeconomic gulf that 20 years of independence under the socialist rule of Robert Mugabe has not changed. Zimbabwe is still a country of a few haves and a large majority of have-nots. "Westgate is only for whites who have the money and black government people who steal the money," says a weary John Chidzema, a parking attendant at the mall. Chidzema is fortunate. His wife is a live-in domestic servant in a white household. In exchange for sharing her two-room accommodation he does odd jobs around the house and works an occasional shift as a night askari patrolling the electrified fence around the grounds of the suburban estate.

Most of Zimbabwe's 70,000 whites, like most blacks who have become wealthy through government or business, live with similar security arrangements. Many of the 4,000 or so whites who form the bulk of the country's Commercial Farmers' Union are linked by the same security alert system they used during the eight years of guerrilla war that preceded Zimbabwe's independence in 1980. Now those alarms are ringing again, this time at an invasion by hundreds of Mugabe's independence war veterans who feel they have waited long enough for government promises of land. A provision to seize white-owned farmland for peasant resettlement was part of the government's new draft constitution that was rejected last month in a surprising referendum defeat for Mugabe. Now, Mugabe's defiant proposal of a constitutional amendment, which will allow him the contentious land take-over anyway, is seen by the opposition as evidence he will use the emotive land issue to maintain the support of the rural population that has helped keep him in power so long.

But in the capital it's evident that Mugabe's credibility is at its nadir. Ten years ago people could be arrested for drawing Hitler mustaches on posters of the President. Now supporters of opposition groups wear T shirts with his picture captioned "Rob Mugabe" on the front and "before he robs you" on the back. Playing on the fact that the International Monetary Fund has withheld loans to Zimbabwe because of the government's disastrous economic management, business students at the University of Zimbabwe joke that imf stands for "It's Mugabe's Fault."

In his house in the Harare suburb of Belgravia, Ian Douglas Smith--the man who Mugabe once called Public Enemy Number One--says with grim satisfaction that what he forecast back in 1980 has come true. "Mugabe and his gangsters are scraping the bottom of the barrel," says Smith, now almost 81. He has declared his intention to join an opposition front against Mugabe in the next general election, possibly next month. He seethes at what he describes as "the rape of my country." Smith, who led what was then white-ruled Rhodesia in a rebel declaration of independence from Britain for almost 15 years before agreeing to a Westminster deal that put Mugabe into power, still has a farm in Selukwe in the Zimbabwe midlands. "What upsets my own workers most," he says, "is that the first black government in Zimbabwe has brought disgrace to the black people. That's what Mugabe has to answer for."

A graffito on the wall of Mugabe's towering party headquarters in Harare reads, in large letters, "NO"--exactly what most voters said to him in the recent referendum. And another slogan could well have been written by Mugabe himself. It says simply, "God help me."