In 1992was the success story of southern Africa. It was proof positive of the lies of apartheid and the bigotry of those whites who treated black Africans like children, unable to rule themselves. It was also a wonderful counterexample to the belief of many Americans that Africa is nothing more than urban slums, children with distended bellies, and people dying of starvation. On the contrary, in 1992 Zimbabwe was a country that provided its inhabitants with economic stability, good schooling, basic health care, and access to such essentials as food, housing, roads, and sanitation.
According to the World Bank, from 1980, when the country first achieved independence, until the early 1990s infant mortality decreased from 86 to 49 per 1000 live births, child mortality was reduced from 128 to 58 per 1000 live births, the immunization rate increased from 25% to 85%, and life expectancy for its citizens increased to 64 years. When we lived there Zimbabwe had a lower infant mortality rate, higher adult literacy and higher school enrollment rate than almost any other developing nation in the world. Simply put, the country was working, and working well. When walking along the tree-lined avenues of downtown Harare, overflowing with shops and cafes, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a mid-sized American or European community rather than the heart of southern Africa.
Sadly, though, this social and economic success came to an abrupt end by the mid-1990s when Robert Mugabe, president of the country since 1987, began devolving from a benevolent leader into a brutal dictator with a death grip on power and an intolerance for public dissent. Mugabe, who enjoyed the perks of power and had no desire to relinquish them, began a campaign of repression of anyone who opposed him politically or wanted to run for the highest office in the land. He also imposed a series of draconian economic and social reforms that bankrupted the country.
He unilaterally imposed a poorly conceived land redistribution program, against the recommendations of the United Nations, that took farmland from whites and gave it to black political supporters even if they had no experience in managing an agricultural enterprise. Soon after, the food surplus in Zimbabwe began to wither and disappear. His hatred of the British led him to destroy the once impressive health care infrastructure established during colonial times. In an article in the New York Times
columnist Bob Herbert wrote “If you want to see hell on Earth, go to Zimbabwe where the madman Robert Mugabe has brought the country to such a state of ruin that medical care for its inhabitants has all but ceased to exist.” By the start of the 21st century he was running the country like a fiefdom whose sole purpose was to generate power and wealth for he and his family.
The end result of his ruinous policies was that by the year 2000 life expectancy at birth for Zimbabwean men, once 64 years, had dropped to 37 (34 for women)–the lowest such figure for any country on earth. Economically, the nation did not fare any better. It has one of the worst financial systems of any country in the world, with inflation running at tens of thousands of percent per year, making the currency essentially worthless. The effect of this on citizens was tragic and led to poverty, starvation, disease, and a mass exodus of people fleeing the horrors of their once lovely country.
It is difficult for me to write this post because of my memories of a beautiful country whose citizens were able to care for their families and provide them with the essentials of life. It does not always take an army to bring down a nation, and Zimbabwe is a tragic example of how a single misguided (or demented) individual can destroy the dreams and aspirations of millions. Please remember that when you go to the polls to vote for anational leader. Don’t take this responsibility lightly or make your choice based on clever slogans, superficial promises, or a cute hairdo. The stakes are far too high.