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Now Zimbabwe can see end of the road for its 'brutal old man'
It is pitch dark across Harare. By 7.30pm the streets are deserted, with only occasional car headlights moving along the unlit wide avenues, and hazard warning lights blinking through junctions where the traffic lights no longer work.
Power cuts have got worse in the past two weeks. There is a shortage of coal and several of the generators at Hwange power station are broken, awaiting new parts to arrive from who knows where. The Electricity Regulatory Commission has announced that bills will rise by 350 per cent within the next six weeks.
In downtown Harare Gardens a humming generator keeps the spotlight running inside the tiny Theatre In The Park - built like a traditional thatched hut, wooden benches circling a dirt floor stage where an actor in army fatigues is battering a dummy so hard the stuffing is oozing out on the floor. The soldier's instructions come from a loud voice on his mobile phone; the louder the voice gets, the more the audience fidgets.
Political satire is illegal in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe and this is powerful stuff. The Good President tells the story of a 'gogo' - grandmother - who comes to the city for medical treatment and tries to raise the bus fare to return to her village to vote back the ruling President in the coming elections. This is the same President who murdered both her sons in the gukurahundi - the opposition purges by Mugabe in 1983 which left thousands dead. It's a deeply taboo subject.
'The actors are brave to say this dialogue, but anyone who comes here has courage,' says writer Cont Mhlanga. 'Last night, when we opened, the audience was swollen by secret police, about 10 or 12 that we could tell. I wrote this script in two days after the opposition were beaten on 11 March. It's about the cause of our problems not being political, economical or external, but cultural.'
Mhlanga was arrested last year for 'mobilising illegal protests against the government through theatre'. Now he waits for them to come back, to close his play down or worse.
All of Zimbabwe is waiting. 'Waiting for that ageing geriatric bastard to die,' a bus driver told The Observer
Not far from Harare Gardens, in an office looking out on the towering Reserve Bank - dubbed 'Bob's Take-Away' by Mugabe's less respectful subjects and now occupying an entire block - a new approach to the overthrow of the elderly dictator is being masterminded. Here a senior opposition figure said half of the key figures in Mugabe's ruling Zanu-PF party were now ready to work with the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). It is known that Zanu's faction leaders - notably Solomon Mujuru and Emmerson Mnangagwa - are feeling the squeeze on their own economic interests.
'They are scared: Mugabe is deeply paranoid and well known for keeping fat files on friends as well as enemies. Zanu have made their wealth, their land, their houses and their children's foreign university fees all from him. But they are not stupid; he is an old man. We are close to breaking point, but we are not there yet. There is potential for serious civil unrest, but people are frightened. But the more hunger they feel, the less afraid they will be,' the opposition source said. Showing documents to back up his claims, the adviser to MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai said he believed the end of 27 years of oppressive rule was in sight, before next March's elections. 'We cannot ask people to demonstrate any more, to get beaten. But we need children back in school. The investment in education that took place in the first 10 years after independence can mitigate the present. But I can't see us lasting another five years - something has to give now.'
For all MDC's confidence, it still has a factional split to heal while the fear of Mugabe, his intelligence officers and the police is palpable. Two newspapers last week ran a list of 600 names of people arrested for 'political offences'. The courts are run by political appointees although sudden moments of justice still shine through. Journalists are routinely arrested. People are afraid to talk openly or on the phone. Although there are no known cases yet of anyone being arrested over the contents of a text or email, no one takes any chances. Neighbour suspects neighbour. In the countryside one of the few remaining white farmers keeps his family photographs in a safe in Harare because they never know when the next attack on their home might happen. A woman in the suburbs has a ladder against her garden wall for a swift exit 'should they come'.
The government-run Herald runs daily articles attacking foreigners and whites for the state of the country. This month the government extended the two-year prison sentence for unaccredited foreign journalists entering the country to include anyone 'harbouring' them. Last Monday a black man was beaten up by two police officers after hugging a white Zimbabwean, an old school friend, in a Harare street.
The Observer spoke to a mother at Harare hospital waiting for her 19-year-old son to come out of surgery - she said his leg had been broken by soldiers just for walking past the Zimbabwe television company (ZBC) building - a key destination for anyone plotting a coup and where last week the guard suddenly increased.
At the same time the government cancelled licences of all aid groups working in Zimbabwe, accusing them of working against the President. Hundreds of thousands of people here are dependent on food handouts, especially in rural areas where land reforms have wrecked agriculture. Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu said it was to stop those working with 'agents of imperialism'. 'Pro-opposition and Western organisations masquerading as relief agencies continue to mushroom and the government has annulled the registration of all NGOs in order to screen out agents of imperialism from organisations working to uplift the wellbeing of the poor,' Ndlovu said.
It is difficult to see for how much longer this disintegrating country can limp on. All last week the records kept on breaking. Inflation crept above 2,200 per cent. The economy runs on two levels - the official where US$1 is worth $250 Zimbabwean - and the illegal where the rate is $1 to between Z$18,000 and Z$24,000. 'It makes us all criminals, we are a nation of crooks. The only way to survive is to work out how to best break the law,' a former farmer turned pilot said as he described the convoluted and illegal way he gets aviation fuel.
Last Wednesday, Zimbabwe's Independence Day, the goldmines stopped. The country's biggest mine owners confirmed they had stopped production because of a shortage of foreign currency needed to import cyanide, a key chemical in the production process. The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe has not paid them for gold delivered since October last year and new taxes being imposed - and backdated - were 'simply crippling if not ridiculous', one mine economist said.
The price of a loaf of bread in the shops stood at between Z$6,000 and Z$10,000, depending on how much air you like mixed with your flour and yeast. Last week's biggest queues were for sugar, but stocks of the staple food, corn meal, are low too. The big grumble at the moment is over rip-to-the-touch-thin blue toilet paper - everyone has a joke on that subject.
'We are in the record books for all the wrong reasons,' said an insurance salesman. His customers' premiums rise bi-monthly. 'I don't know how anyone can celebrate Independence Day - there is nothing to celebrate.'
And so Zimbabweans, squeezed from every possible angle, wait.
Thirty minutes drive out of Harare is the region Porta Gardens, all golden grass and graphite trees smudged against blue skies. These plains are home to the people ordered out of the city by men who bulldozed their homes and street stalls. The Murambatsvina - 'Clean up Rubbish' drive - in Harare and Bulawayo began in 2004 but is continuing. Mugabe doesn't like street vendors.
Off the main road and hidden down a red-dust track is one settlement of about 200 people. They shelter in rubble and rags of plastic and rely on aid handouts, fish pulled out of the nearby lake and what they can coax out of the dry earth. Dust-caked children emerge to stare and giggle. A young woman comes out and takes us to meet her grandfather; somehow he has kept possession of an ancient pedal sewing machine. 'He is the one man here who has work,' she says with pride. 'But now you have to go, as the police and the war vets will punish us and arrest you if they see you here.'
On cue, two men with machetes turn up and it's time to retreat. People still in the city are not always doing much better. Sarah, 27, waits for a job. Wearing her smartest blouse and skirt, the former secretary, one of Zimbabwe's 80 per cent unemployed, walks the 18km from her township home to central Harare at least twice a week. 'You can't just sit at home,' she said. 'I come just in case there is something here for me.'
She cannot afford the buses - ticket prices have risen 350 per cent in a month - that are pushed along by tornadoes of black exhaust fumes, some showing Chinese paintwork, products of Mugabe's 'Look East' drive. There was the closest Harare comes to a traffic jam last weekend when some 300 police took their new Chinese-made blue mountain bikes and matching helmets out for a ride on Enterprise Road. 'We call the Chinese imports "zhing zhong",' said John, 32, indicating his feet, bursting out of ripped plastic. 'Rubbish like these shoes: they are my 5km sandals, because that is how long they last. No one buys this stuff.'
He is waiting for his brother, an illegal in South Africa, to send him a few dollars. 'Then I will buy Zimbabwean leather,' he says. Families whose husbands, sons and daughters have joined the exodus abroad of three million Zimbabweans wait for the day when they can come home. People wait for the day when their kids can go to school - more than half of children are no longer in school and teachers are not being paid a living wage.
'There is a significant brain drain abroad. Families are being broken up. The middle class has been particularly decimated, which all has implications on this country's human resources,' said Jameson Timba, of Zimbawe's Private Schools Association.
Theresa Makone is waiting for news of her husband, Ian. Taken from his bed at 2am on 28 March by police, he is being held in Harare's remand prison. Friends managed to see Makone last Monday. 'He was tortured by being hung in a foetal position with a bar between his elbows and knees,' said a source. His crime, said a police report, is to have had MDC whistles and merchandise in his home. He is badly hurt and his friends are desperate to have him treated in hospital.
Others have been luckier. Sekai Holland is in the spotlessly clean Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg. After two attempts she was finally allowed to leave Zimbabwe last week after the intervention of the Australian government - her husband Jim is Australian. Holland, 64, was with Tsvangirai and other opposition figures now famously arrested and battered at a rally on 11 March.
Her arms are black with bruises, her ribs and wrist are broken and she is about to have further surgery on her leg. 'We are all proud of how we reacted on 11 March. It was a lesson for us, that what we had been failing to get across to people was that we needed change by peaceful means - but now the youth especially are starting to understand that. We are bringing a new culture of non-violence, methods of passive resistance.
'As they beat us not one person wet themselves or fouled themselves, not one asked for water. So, you see, in the battle of ideas we won. That I know because, even as I lay in hospital with two guards with their guns sitting on my bed, we were praying together as Zimbaweans. A list of names of those police responsible for the beating was put under my pillow by our friends in the militia who were ashamed of what the brutes did. Now we can be inspired by Gandhi and Martin Luther King.'
There is a long road to freedom. The Zanu (PF) government will soon embark on a new exercise of dishing out more land to peasants as part of an election campaign, and people like Cont Mhlanga believe that many in these rural areas, the areas where Mugabe can still find votes, are culturally unable to accept that leadership is something that should be passed on.
But in his Harare office the MDC source leans forward in his leather chair and smiles with confidence: 'You know The Last King of Scotland? Last night I watched it for the third time. It is so familiar, it is the same as here - only Mugabe is cleverer than Amin, but the brutality is the same. This old man's terrible destruction of this country will end too - and soon. We will need help from you, from the West, but you must back us, not try to overrun us. We have the people and the ability to sort this out. Then Zimbabwe can celebrate independence.'
Joice Mujuru, 50, one of Mugabe's two Vice-Presidents. Married to retired army general Solomon Mujuru, one of the country's richest men, who is seen as the power behind her throne and lives on an illegally requisitioned farm.
Thabo Mbeki, 64, President of South Africa. Criticised for not intervening as Zimbabwe's crisis worsened. Southern African leaders have lasked him to broker talks between Mugabe and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Morgan Tsvangirai, 55, leader of the MDC, a party started in 1999 to oppose Mugabe's dream of a one-party state. Has survived three assassination attempts.
Arthur Mutambara, 40, head of the breakaway faction of the MDC - a split caused in 2005 by disagreement over an election boycott. He has agreed tacitly to back Tsvangirai as a 2008 presidential candidiate against Mugabe to avoid splitting the opposition vote.
Dr Gideon Gono, governor of Zimbawe's Reserve Bank. He has tried to bring order to the economic chaos and has repeatedly criticised farm takeovers. He admitted last year that many of his business friends 'want me dead'.
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