The arrivals lounge at Harare International Airport in Zimbabwe once provided a sinister foretaste of life under the Robert Mugabe dictatorship. In every corner lurked agents of Mugabe’s Central Intelligence Organization, his domestic spying agency, on the lookout for Western journalists, human rights workers, democracy activists, and other perceived enemies of the regime. It was here that Tendai Biti, the outspoken secretary-general of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the country’s main opposition party, was arrested by security agents in June 2008 upon his return from a trip to South Africa and charged with treason, which carries a death sentence. (After international protests, he was released on bail two weeks later.)
Correspondents trying to slip into the country on tourist visas could expect to find themselves interrogated here by CIO operatives; then they would either be detained or put back on planes for Johannesburg. Most elected to enter the country through the backwater airport of Bulawayo, an opposition stronghold, or overland from Victoria Falls. “If you come through Harare,” one Zimbabwean colleague told me last year, “chances are good you’ll be sent back—or go to jail.”
Thus I was pleasantly surprised when I arrived in Harare on a South African Airways flight from Johannesburg in late August, six months after Mugabe had been forced to cede partial power to Morgan Tsvangirai, the MDC leader. The CIO seemed to have disappeared: the atmosphere was as laid back as that of a small-town airport in the United States. A friendly immigration official issued me a tourist visa on the spot for the usual $30, no questions asked, then winked as I gathered my documents and headed toward baggage claim. “Welcome to the new Zimbabwe,” he told me.
Last year at this time Zimbabwe looked very different. In March 2008, Morgan Tsvangirai defeated the deeply unpopular Mugabe by a majority vote in the presidential election, promising —it seemed—an end to a brutal, twenty-eight-year dictatorship that had brought the country economic ruin and international isolation. Mugabe refused to recognize the result and forced Tsvangirai into a runoff, then unleashed his security forces and pro-government militias on a campaign of torture and murder. At least seventy MDC activists were killed, several hundred disappeared, and 25,000 people fled their homes. Then South African president Thabo Mbeki and other regional leaders stood by, refusing to intervene or even to condemn Mugabe’s tactics. Tsvangirai withdrew from the runoff on June 22, 2008, calling it a “violent sham.” Five days later, Mugabe, running unopposed, declared himself the winner.
Mugabe’s victory, however, was not absolute. The continued implosion of Zimbabwe’s currency, combined with a spreading cholera epidemic, global revulsion at the ruling party’s violence, and growing impatience from the Southern African Development Community (SADC)—the regional group of nations led at the time by Mbeki—forced the dictator to enter talks with the opposition leaders last fall. After tortuous negotiations and several walkouts by…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.