x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Decline of Zimbabwe

The blighting of the lovely country I saw.

In 1988, I spent a month in Zimbabwe. Although it was recovering from a bitter civil war, there was a mood of optimism in the country, particularly compared with South Africa, which was still struggling under the apartheid yoke. 

Those whites who still wanted to call Zimbabwe "Rhodesia" had already left for Canada, South Africa, Australia or anywhere they could call home. Those who remained revelled in the landscape, the lifestyle and the people. You could feel it in the restaurants, the golf clubs and the game parks. People might have been doing nothing more rewarding than bringing plates to your table or carrying your golf bag, but they were happier than their counterparts in the south. They were proud to welcome you to their beautiful country.

I travelled from the Limpopo River to the Zambezi, from Victoria Falls to the Kariba Dam, and even to Troutbeck in the Eastern Highlands, a curious place where the landscape looks like Scotland and where some of the worst of the civil war fighting took place. I was so enchanted with the country that I considered cancelling my flight to Australia and staying for six months, perhaps even settling there.

Twenty two years later, and I am very relieved that I caught that plane to Perth. Under Robert Mugabe's rule, the country has turned into a tyranny - evicting farmers, torturing dissidents and harassing journalists. Just as I was enjoying the game drives and catching a steam train from Victoria Falls to Bulawayo, Mr Mugabe's men were killing people in Matabeleland. By the end of 1987, ZANU, Mr Mugabe's party, merged with ZAPU, led by Joshua Nkomo, creating ZANU-PF. Thus was opposition effectively stifled in the country, and Joshua Nkomo was exiled to the UK.

Attention then turned to the white farmers, even though their tobacco and food sales contributed a large proportion of the country's foreign exchange. The well-educated population was unable to find food or jobs. Life expectancy fell from 60 years in 1990 to 45 in 2000, according to the UN. There was famine and hyperinflation, marked by the central bank introducing a 100 billion Zimbabwe dollar note. It didn't stop there. In January last year, the country introduced a 100 trillion dollar note. Anyone who could, left the country, with more than 1 million Zimbabweans heading to South Africa.

A friend of mine who drove across the country last year said there were only two "crops" in the fields: grass for thatching or seed, and worms for fishing. The fairways of the golf clubs are now unmown, the greens unkempt. Even though Robert Mugabe made a power-sharing deal with Morgan Tsvangarai in 2008, his rule remains dominant and the population subdued. I know that Zimbabwe has a lot to offer travellers, but I for one will not be returning until Mr Mugabe has left office and freedom returns to this beautiful land.

rwright@thenational.ae