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John F. KavanaughMay 21, 2007
Twenty years ago I worked in Zimbabwe. It was a joy. Filling in for a philosophy professor at the major seminary in Chishawasha, not far from the capital city, Harare, I encountered a group of uncommonly eager and bright students, thrilled to discuss the history of the early church, intent on seeing how the ethics of Thomas Aquinas applied to their own challenges as Africans and future priests. The school was as bursting with life as the fields around the seminary. Zimbabwe was called the breadbasket of Africa because of its prolific farming sector. Harare itself was a beautiful postcolonial city. Walking almost all of its streets, some with stunning flowering trees, I don’t think I ever saw a mean look, a desperate panhandler or a tinge of racial hatred.

The two major ethnic groups, in addition to a small population of European origin, were the Shona and the Ndebele. At the seminary, there seemed to be an unwritten commitment not to talk about tribal differences. That may have been because Robert Mugabe, the president, was Shona and there had been a history of terrible violence against the Ndebele after the nation won independence from Great Britain under the Ian Smith government in the late 1970’s. Mugabe emerged from these struggles not only as the victor, but as the reconciler. He wanted a unified country, with mutual respect among the Europeans, the Shona and the Ndebele.

At the time, Mugabe was a hero to me. When I visited South Africa under apartheid and had to enter Soweto secretly because I was white, I knew its media were lying about Mugabe and his country, for I had been there and seen his leadership. Zimbabwe, at peace for six years, had one of the highest rates of literacy, farm production and health professionals in Africa. He was not perfect, indeed, but I thought at the time: if Zimbabwe can make it, all of Africa will make itnot on the apartheid model, but on Mugabe’s.

Now there is only disillusionment. Although I think the death of his wife, Sally, had something to do with Mugabe’s unraveling, by many accounts Mugabe’s failure was due to his massive ego and desire for control.

The man who had been brutalized during his years in prison now brutalizes his opposition. International rights advocates have condemned the endless threats and arbitrary imprisonments. Last year’s Operation Murambatsvina (the word means drive out the filth in Shona) devastated the livelihoods and dwellings of almost two million people. State-sponsored thugs have beaten up political opponents.

The man who resisted British colonialism, and paid dearly for it, has become a sort of colonialist himself, with his own privileged class and relentless control of those who challenge him. The unraveling may have started in the year 2000, with Mugabe’s land distribution. This was needed because 1 percent of the population had held 90 percent of the arable land. But it was a reckless and violent expropriation, a distribution largely to Mugabe’s cronies, who did not know how to farm and who did not want to. There has been a steep decline ever since. The country is ravaged. Twenty years ago Zimbabwe was the breadbasket of Africa. Now its people are starving.

Twenty years ago Zimbabwe had effective educational and medical systems. Now, since so many middle-class people and professionals have been driven out of the country, its educational system is in shambles (50 percent of the children do not attend school), and health care is minimal.

Twenty years ago, life expectancy was about 65 years. Now it is in the middle 30’s. Fewer than a thousand women per year died in childbirth in those days. Last year 42,000 women died giving birth, according to a report by R. W. Johnson in The Times of London on Jan. 7. The number of orphans (1.4 million in a reduced population of approximately 10 million) is staggering, not only because of the maternal death statistics but also because of widespread, untreated AIDS.

Twenty years ago, Zimbabwe had a vigorous economy. Now it is a disastrous failurewith 80 percent unemployment. The inflation rate is now 2,000 percent. After the latest hike in prices, you pay 417 Zimbabwe dollars for a single two-ply sheet of toilet paper, Z$147,700 for a full roll (about 69 cents in U.S. currency). Most recently, the cost of maize, a staple like our rice, wheat or potatoes, has risen 600 percent. A month’s labor will cover it, but little else.

A few people, the insiders, are doing well; but so many are in misery. Most Zimbabweans survive only by the kindness of friends or strangers. The others die.

Mugabe blames it all on anyone but himself. The demons are Tony Blair and the C.I.A. Others blame it all on Mugabe.

I think the latter judgment is correct. Recently, the Catholic bishops of Zimbabwe issued a letter, God Hears the Cry of the Oppressed, a stirring appeal for justice, forgiveness and repentance. It is a courageous document, likely influenced by Archbishop Pius Ncube, who despite threats to his life has called his people to join him in nonviolent protests.

In response, the state-controlled newspaper Herald published a threatening article titled Whose Agenda Is the Roman Catholic Church Pushing? It accuses the bishops of high-sounding nothings, of receiving filthy lucre from the West, of vitriolic spewing of hypocrisy in an alleged plot to do a Rwanda in Zimbabwe.

Read both documents on the internet and ask yourself: who really is the cause of Zimbabwe’s heartbreak? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the father of his country is consuming his own.

O Zimbabwe, now is the time for tears.

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