Foreign Policy Blogs


Photo Credit: Gary Bembridge

Photo Credit: Gary Bembridge

I think I have a new slogan for the Zimbabwe tourism board: Zim: It’s not as Horrible as You Think!

But, yeah, some aspects of it seem to be pretty wretched. I should provide the standard caveats, of course. Zimbabwe, despite its politicians, is beautiful, its people are warm, its potential vast. And while my friend who welcomed me at the airport whispered as we were walking out of the airport, “welcome to the police state,” I’d suggest that it is a police state mostly for those who voice strong political opinions or get on the radar of the state. This might be a distinction without a difference of course, and just a few days is not enough to make a sound impression on these matters.

My arrival was not uneventful, but it wasn’t a draconian nightmare either. I’d say that it falls more in the category of “Hey, an American: He has money and problematic opinions!” than it was “ENEMY OF THE STATE!!! Detain him!” My friend saw me as the customs officials were walking me to and fro but not letting me pass, but he chose, wisely I’m sure, not to intervene until it seemed desperate, which never happened. Apropos of nothing: The next day, as we were returning from a shopping trip police stopped our car, telling us we had run a red light [we had not] and the conversation, in Shona, was clearly indicative that $20 would make the charges go away. But my friend held firm. We were allowed to go. I’d assert that this indicates a problematic relationship between the state, the people, and those whose job is to enforce both law and where necessary political acquiescence rather than a police state per se. Then again, for those with strong political opinions, what’s the difference.

The biggest political issues I have seen are simply gross exaggerations of problems that exist throughout the region with regard to service delivery. My friend, who lives in a part of the capital that tends to be first in line for service delivery, has been without running water for nearly the entirety of the time that I have been here and when it does run it must be boiled, as this “dirty liquid,” as it has been called, is certainly not potable. There was a power outage on Saturday morning that knocked out internet even on the University of Zimbabwe campus for the remainder of the weekend. Roads are nightmarish, pocked with potholes and deep cracks, sometimes seeming barely passable. And this in the nation’s capital.

U.S. currency is the official currency here, so it was strange to have the ATM machine spit out U.S. $50 bills that will spend in the U.S. as here. Smaller denominations in particular tend to be grimy and barely recognizable as currency and the typical $1 bill would long have gone out of circulation in the United States. And while the implementation of the dollar as the official currency here staunched the historically, unimaginably high inflation of the last decade it has also had the effect of making prices here quite high. Perusing store shelves the other day I concluded that a typical grocery shopping trip here would cost roughly what a shopping trip back home would. How ordinary Zimbabweans cope is a question I doubt I’ll get to answer.

I should also note that for all of the narratives spun about what a nightmare Zimbabwe has been for white citizens, the former Rhodesians and the generations that followed them seem to be doing damned well here. We went to a very upscale shopping center over the weekend, and while the population of the country is something like three percent white, I’d guess that white shoppers made up 50 percent of the patrons of the shops and restaurants. This is not to say that the land invasions were not a complete nightmare (and that is a whole debate that is far more complicated than I’d suggest it has been depicted to most of the world) but rather than even in Mugabe’s thugocracy there has remained space for those white Zimbabweans who have prospered in business and other fields but have kept their heads down on political matters.

Political season is upon us, meanwhile. And while The Herald and The Sunday Mail are deeply in the pockets of Robert Mugabe, state newspapers in fact if not in name. They are comical to read, or would be were they not so serious and were the consequences of their impact so great. The Daily News and Newsday are actually quite vibrant opposition newspapers that have not, in the editions I’ve read, pulled any punches about the current state of Zimbabwe. Of course in the run-up to the elections there is always the danger that they will be shut down, as has happened in the past, one of them for something like a decade.

I should also point out that the debate that reaches the west tends to be fairly static. Because Morgan Tsvangirai has been the most visible and successful opponent to Mugabe’s ironfisted rule it is easy to spin a narrative of Mugabe = bad; Tsvangirai = good. But Tsangirai is no saint, his MDC party no pillar of virtue. Better than Mugabe and Zanu-PF? A thousand times yes. But Tsvangirai has failed to forge a coalition of all opposition parties at least in part because many opposition members of various parties or factions of MDC also don’t see Tsvangirai as the true way forward, and rather than forge a unity coalition for the upcoming elections — scheduled for July 31, but the opposition has been trying to get them pushed back to mid-August — at least two of them registered as presidential candidates to challenge both Mugabe and Tsvangirai. There have also been rumors that Tsvangirai has been running a shadow government as Prime Minister and also that the MDC has engaged in its own violence (as it is quite clear that Zanu-PF did) during the primary season just passed.

A further irony might be that were one to strip away the names of the candidates and their parties and read the various platforms and policy ideas of the two major parties, one might well prefer that of Zanu-PF. But of course lots of this is boilerplate, and in any case, Zanu-PF has hardly earned the benefit of the doubt over more than three decades, never mind Mugabe, who long ago abandoned any pretense of legitimate democratic leadership.

These are obviously sketches. I don’t claim to have tremendous depth of  knowledge of day-to-day life in contemporary Zimbabwe nor would I fight hard for most of these opinions. But they cohere with much of what I know from observing from a distance and through the interpretive lens of two of my best friends in the region, both of whom are Zimbabwean, one of whom lives in Cape Town, the other of whom returned to Zim in the last year after a good deal of time in South Africa and Botswana. Zimbabawe is a country with endless promise. But that promise has failed to bear fruit and has gotten to be, well, much less promising in the last thirty years. That’s an opinion I would fight for.



Derek Catsam

Derek Catsam is a Professor of history and Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan Professor in the Humanities at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin. He is also Senior Research Associate at Rhodes University. Derek writes about race and politics in the United States and Africa, sports, and terrorism. He is currently working on books on bus boycotts in the United States and South Africa in the 1940s and 1950s and on the 1981 South African Springbok rugby team's tour to the US. He is the author of three books, dozens of scholarly articles and reviews, and has published widely on current affairs in African, American, and European publications. He has lived, worked, and travelled extensively throughout southern Africa. He writes about politics, sports, travel, pop culture, and just about anything else that comes to mind.

Areas of Focus:
Africa; Zimbabwe; South Africa; Apartheid