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A Sinister Turn in Zimbabwe

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Joao Silva/The New York Times/Redux
Morgan Tsvangirai speaking to immigrants from Zimbabwe who had been attacked by South Africans, Reiger Park, South Africa, May 2008

In late August, at the height of Zimbabwe’s cool, dry season, I drove north from Harare to the mining town of Bindura, in the province of Mashonaland Central. Once a stronghold of the ruling party of Robert Mugabe, the town had voted decisively for the opposition in Zimbabwe’s violent 2008 election. Now, a campaign of intimidation was underway ahead of the next election, and a local Anglican priest, Samuel Sifelani, had invited me to observe what was happening. A towering, friendly man in his early thirties, Father Sifelani met me at a gas station in the dilapidated town center, and I followed him to his parish, St. Andrew’s Anglican Church.

It was a Sunday morning, but the building stood padlocked and deserted. “We haven’t been able to use it since July 2010,” Sifelani told me. We continued to the nearby campus of a German-run high school. Here, three hundred worshipers were crammed inside a concrete shed with a corrugated tin roof—a metalwork shop that had been converted for the day into a church. Work tables with mounted lathes had been pushed into corners; the priest stood at a makeshift altar, which was draped in white linen held down by two heavy candleholders with blazing candles. A choir sang hymns in the Shona language. The congregation had actually grown, Sifelani told me, since relocating to this modest structure. “People realize that the building doesn’t make the church,” he said, before launching into his Sunday sermon.

Sifelani and his congregation had been forced into this shed, he told me, because of the intervention of a staunch Mugabe ally named Nolbert Kunonga. Back in 2007, Kunonga, then the Anglican bishop of Harare, put out a position paper in which he accused many Anglican priests in Zimbabwe of supporting the gay rights movement—Mugabe has repeatedly expressed his contempt for homosexuality—and announced that he was withdrawing the bishopric from the Anglican Church. “His views became radical,” Sifelani told me. “He aligned himself with Mugabe, and he claimed to be a [liberation] war vet, though we know he is not.”

The Anglican Church excommunicated him, but Kunonga ignored the order. Instead, backed by the police, the courts, and a private militia made up of young ruling-party members, the rogue bishop launched a campaign of intimidation and harassment against anyone suspected of supporting the opposition. Priests who refuse to surrender their parishes to Kunonga’s appointees have been arrested and beaten. More than two hundred Anglican churches, along with schools, orphanages, and shrines, have been taken over by Kunonga’s proxies or been shut down. Police officers acting at his behest have broken up prayer groups and pilgrimages, and tear-gassed parishioners.

Samuel Sifelani’s turn came a year ago. In July 2010, a pro-Kunonga priest appeared at the door of St. Andrew’s and announced that he was taking charge. “Then he locked up the church,” Sifelani told me. Sifelani began holding services in the church garden, but was soon arrested and charged with “malicious injury to property”—a frivolous charge, he says. In January, two truckloads of police armed with tear gas and AK-47s surrounded St. Andrew’s garden, ordered the congregation to leave, and warned them not to return. Sifelani moved his congregation to the metal shop. And in July, Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court upheld Kunonga’s right to seize all Anglican Church property. Owing to Mugabe’s hatred of them, hundreds of priests, including Sifelani, are now being evicted from their homes. “We keep asking ourselves, ‘What’s next’?” he told me.

Three and a half years ago, Morgan Tsvangirai, a charismatic former mining-union leader and the head of the Movement for Democratic Change, defeated Robert Mugabe for the presidency. Mugabe, who has held power since 1980 and who has impoverished his country through ruinous economic policies, refused to accept the result, and mobilized thugs who tortured and murdered thousands of political opponents. (The bodies of election-violence victims are still being exhumed from mass graves.) Tsvangirai withdrew from the second round of voting that June, and Mugabe was reelected president. But an international campaign, led by South Africa’s then president, Thabo Mbeki, forced Mugabe to accept a power-sharing deal. In February 2009, Mugabe was sworn in again as president, and Tsvangirai became prime minister. The two parties divided the cabinet positions. The military, the justice ministry, and the police remained in the hands of Mugabe’s party, the Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), while the opposition took control of the “soft” ministries, including finance, health, and education.

The new unity government achieved some successes. Finance Minister Tendai Biti took the Zimbabwean dollar out of circulation—wanton money printing had fueled a hyperinflationary spiral that drove the exchange rate to three trillion Zimbabean dollars to the US dollar—and replaced it with the US dollar. This move stopped inflation, restored banking confidence, and allowed Zimbabwe to import fuel, medicine, and other necessities. It also brought teachers, hospital workers, and other government employees back to their jobs. For the first time in a decade, Harare, the capital, has well-stocked supermarkets, newly painted buildings, and working traffic lights. Tourists are trickling back.

When I visited the renovated Victoria Falls Hotel, built by the British colonial government in 1904 at the site of a railway bridge over the Zambezi River, half a dozen tour groups from the United States and Europe filled the place. The occupancy rate was about 75 percent, triple that of three years ago. “You could feel that 2009 was a new day,” I was told by hotel manager Karl Snater.

But the changes in Zimbabwe don’t go much further. The power-sharing deal obliged Mugabe to introduce, at least on paper, a series of reforms: a new constitution, a justice-and- reconciliation commission to investigate the 2008 violence, the removal of corrupt officials in the police and justice departments, and an audit of those who received land in the violent reform program, begun in 2000, that turned over thousands of white-owned farms to Mugabe’s political cronies and military men.

None of those reforms, I was told, has been carried out. ZANU-PF thugs disrupted the initial meeting of a constitutional committee in late 2009 at Harare’s Rainbow Towers Hotel, formerly the Sheraton. “They danced, sang, broke things, chased people away,” a witness told me. That set the tone for what would follow. Police have arrested about two dozen opposition members of Parliament on trumped-up charges, and held them in grim conditions for days or weeks. Hundreds of activists from the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) face charges of insulting the President and other political offenses. “Permanent secretaries” from Mugabe’s party have sabotaged the work of MDC ministers. “If you’re an [aid agency] trying to work with the ministry, your papers will get lost, you can’t implement a program, there’s a general air of ‘we don’t want this to work,’” one human rights activist told me. The result of Mugabe’s intransigence, she said, “is a lopsided arrangement, with one side in control, and the other desperately trying to maintain its space.”

Mugabe’s repression has become more heavy-handed since the outbreak of the Arab Spring. Mugabe maintained close relationships with several Arab dictators, especially Muammar Qaddafi, who provided him with tens of millions of dollars in aid and at one point supplied 70 percent of the country’s fuel, according to the US State Department. The Libyan leader and his family got property, villas, and other gifts in return. (Last September, Qaddafi’s son Saadi spent a week with five friends at the secluded Pamushana Lodge in a southeastern Zimbabwe game reserve. “He pulled out a [Zimbabwe] map and showed me where his family’s properties were,” Jason Turner, the hotel’s general manager, told me.) In May, Mugabe denounced “revolts” against the “legitimate governments” of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya and said such uprisings “must be opposed.”

Frightened by the prospect of a similar upheaval, the regime has been cracking down on even the mildest gestures of support for the Arab revolutionaries. Just after Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February, police burst into a lecture on the Egyptian revolution sponsored by a socialist group in Harare and arrested all forty-two people in attendance. They were charged with treason and subverting the government. (The charges were later reduced to inciting public violence.) “It had a chilling effect,” says Irene Petras, executive director of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. “People are scared even to go to public meetings and speak about the events of North Africa.”

One August afternoon I drove across Harare, passing shabby vendors selling copies of the half-dozen independent newspapers that have sprung up in the last year, thanks to a relaxation of controls. (The papers have a limited audience, however, and radio and television remain strictly under Mugabe’s thumb.) I headed to a leafy northern suburb and entered the gated estate of Ibbo Mandaza, a liberation war veteran who served for ten years in Mugabe’s cabinet until his ouster in 1990. Mandaza runs a think tank in Harare, and has been trying to bring together moderates inside the ZANU-PF with their counterparts at the MDC.

A burly man in his early sixties, Mandaza led me past a huge flat-screen TV playing a South African track-and-field event, to a sunroom beside his swimming pool. He told me that hard-liners inside the ZANU-PF, led by armed forces commander Constantine Chiwenga, have been pushing hard for elections to take place before the end of 2011, with the ailing, eighty-seven-year old Mugabe again as the candidate. (Mugabe is rumored to be suffering from prostate cancer, and has visited Singapore several times in the past year for treatment.) Early this year Chiwenga mobilized his troops and youth militias. Ruling-party loyalists held compulsory meetings in “swing” districts and warned potential voters that they were being watched closely and that “last time it was a beating. This time it will be a bullet.”

Mandaza told me, “The game had begun.” He met with Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president, at a regional summit in Livingstone, Zambia, last March, and warned Zuma that the conditions were ripe for another tragedy. “We appealed to [South Africa’s] national interest,” he told me. “We said, ‘if you have elections in 2011, you will have another million [refugees] on your doorstep. There is no other option for ZANU-PF but violence.’” Zuma got the message. To Mugabe’s fury, he called for an end to harassment, violence, and politically motivated arrests, and demanded that elections in Zimbabwe be put off until they can be made free and fair.

Over the last few years, growing numbers of ZANU-PF members have become disillusioned with Mugabe, Mandaza told me, and the prospect of more election violence has deepened their discontent. “ZANU-PF is very weak, and very divided,” he said. A coterie of hard-liners, led by Chiwenga and Defense Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa (known as “The Crocodile”), continues to block all attempts at reform, convinced that a loss of power will ensure their indictments at the International Criminal Court. But he insisted that “the vast majority” within the party have turned against Mugabe, and are waiting only for his death to make their break from him and his destructive legacy.

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