Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Bankrolling an African Dictator

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, March 19, 2002 --  

My cash payments to the Dictator of Zimbabwe began the moment I arrived at the airport. $30 for a tourist visa. $23 for every $100 I traded at the inflated government bank exchange rate. An incredible $35 just to walk through the gates of Victoria Falls and Hwange National Parks -- admissions charged despite a total absence of infrastructure maintenance since the end of colonial rule. (Signs at Hwange's park headquarters still read "Wankie" as preferred by the British colonial rulers.)

In a country blessed with incredible natural wonders, one of the most memorable aspects of my trip to Zimbabwe was the skill with which government agents fleeced tourists of their money. All told, I figure I paid out at least $280 to government coffers -- a government controlled since independence by the liberation hero turned thug Robert Mugabe.

So it was with a fair amount of guilt that I heard the news that Mugabe had declared himself the winner of yet another term in office during the shameful presidential election last week. For months, I read with disdain as newspapers reported his usage of state funds supplied by me to harass the opposition, arrest foreign election observers, reallocate polling stations to areas of his party's strength, and stack the country's supreme court with his cronies.

Under the watchful eye of the dictator
Photo © 2001 David G. Young

While staring at a portrait of the dictator on the streets of Victoria Falls, I came up with a plan to undo my sins. I figured if I donated $300 to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, it would negate my support for Mugabe. Sadly, the dictator had thought of this, too. Mugabe's party outlawed political donations by meddling foreign "racists" like me. I asked for suggestions on a Zimbabwe-oriented Internet bulletin board, but nobody dared to answer my queries.

The damage from people like me has been significant. Mugabe's mismanagement of the economy has crippled the country. Once considered the best hope of Africa due to a diversified economy and educated population, per capita income dropped from $760 per person at independence to $570 per person in 2000.1 Once the breadbasket of Africa, Zimbabwe has become a food importer and now suffers from widespread hunger. The government coffers became so depleted from decades of imposed crisis that Mugabe was forced to fund his activities from visitors like me.

Sadly, chances for Mugabe's ouster through political pressure are almost nil. The only country with enough influence to make a difference, South Africa, is unwilling to do so. Thabo Mbeki, the nation's second post-apartheid president, has given the stolen election his blessing and pledged to support his neighboring ex-comrade from the black liberation struggle. This horribly shortsighted move threatens to undermine faith in the African National Congress' commitment to democracy. Nervous members of South Africa's almost exclusively white economic elite are already abandoning the country in depressing numbers. This drain of capital and know-how could one day bring the country the same ruin as neighboring Zimbabwe.

Before getting on my plane from Cape Town for Zimbabwe, I had a chance to speak with a white South African named Peter about Mugabe's harassment of white farmers. I asked him if he was afraid of the same thing happening to white South Africans. "That's right!" Came his immediate response.

I can't imagine the South African government's support for the black racist dictator to the north will do much to soothe the fears of the white South Africans so critical to the economy. But this is not a black-white issue. The reality is that none of the educated black Zimbabweans I met expressed any support for the dictator. It is these people -- the educated black Africans -- who hold the key to the future for both Zimbabwe and South Africa. If they are allowed to prosper, so will southern Africa. If they are kept down by thuggish leaders who maintain power by playing the race card, then southern Africa is doomed. This is the prospect strengthened by the events of last week. For the sake of my conscience, let's hope next week is a better one.

  1. The World Bank, Zimbabwe At a Glance, October 9, 2001 (1980 GDP 5.4 billion, 2000 GDP 7.2 billion)
    The United Nations, World Population Prospects Database, March 2002 (1980 population 5.1 million, 2000 population 12.6 million)