The recent bombing of _The Daily News_, Zimbabwe’s only independent daily newspaper, was the climax of a two-year campaign of intimidation of the press by President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF Government. It was a stark reminder to the outside world of the sorry state of Zimbabwe. Any hope of its becoming the ‘Switzerland of Africa’, as was predicted by some when Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, has long faded. Instead an increasingly coercive regime is leading the country to the brink of collapse.

Mugabe, once internationally praised for his reconciliatory policies, is today perceived as erratic and oppressive. Some critics have gone so far as to call him a dictator, and conditions in the country worsen day by day. Galloping inflation and fuel shortages have imposed spiralling hardships upon a population that struggles to purchase even basics such as maize, sugar and transport.

Mugabe has tried to rally popular support by backing the seizure of white-owned farms (ruled as illegal by the High Court). Redistribution of Zimbabwe’s farmland is a pressing issue as much of the country’s richest land remains in the hands of a small minority of white farmers. The situation is rooted in history: colonial Rhodesia introduced the Land Apportionment Act in 1930, excluding Africans from the best farming land and forcing them into the labour market. Even here any advancement was prevented by the Industrial Conciliation Act of 1934, banning Africans from entering skilled employment. Thus 95 per cent of the population was kept at a subsidiary level working for white-owned farms, mines and factories.

Nevertheless, Zimbabwe’s economy relies heavily on the produce of white-owned land, making redistribution a far more sensitive issue than the Government seems willing to acknowledge. Over 1,100 farms have been invaded by ‘war veterans’, most of whom are too young to have been involved in the war for independence. The result has been a destabilized agricultural industry: the export of tobacco for example, the country’s largest single export earner, has plummeted by 30 per cent.

Bruce Paton / Panos Pictures

Another destabilizing factor has been the ongoing fuel crisis, due largely to extreme corruption within the National Oil Company, causing widespread riots which have been repeatedly suppressed by government forces. Shortages continue to worsen – paraffin, used for heating and lighting by the majority of low-income Zimbabweans, is practically unobtainable.

The country’s involvement in the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been a further severe financial drain. Up to 13,000 troops have been in the Congo at any one time, despite the fact that 70 per cent of Zimbabwe’s population oppose its involvement. To worsen matters, the IMF and the World Bank have severed their relationships with Zimbabwe following the non-repayment of loans. Similarly, the land-reform problems have alienated international donors – most Western countries have frozen all aid.

The human-rights situation is worsening, including the intimidation of opposition supporters: over 31 were killed in the run-up to last year’s elections. Furthermore, the violence towards what is left of the free media has escalated dramatically, including the arrest and torture of journalists.

Although ZANU-PF won the elections by a small majority (the climate of intimidation made voting for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change very difficult and only a small proportion of the electorate voted at all), it remains to be seen if Mugabe will survive the presidential elections next year. By all accounts he has no desire to step down yet his continued monopoly of power would be a catastrophic blow for an already collapsing nation.

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