Zimbabwe's Health Crisis Explodes: Is Democracy a Dream Deferred?

Authors: Imani Countess

Imani Countess is the Senior Director of Public Affairs at Transafrica Forum, www.transafricaforum.org.

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What happens to a dream deferred?

Poet Langston Hughes asked that question speaking in 1951 of Harlem and African Americans, who were struggling against the entrenched racism of the United States. Today, the question can be asked of the people of Zimbabwe, where millions are engaged in a struggle for civil rights - and for their lives.

Does it dry up like a raisin

Once an economic breadbasket, a political center of struggles against colonialism, and a symbol of hope for the anti-apartheid struggle worldwide, today Zimbabwe's formerly revolutionary government has become a dessicated husk.

Due to a lack of agricultural inputs, governmental corruption and mismanagement, and flooding, the 2008 harvest failed. The economy has collapsed and shortages of basic commodities - from gasoline to cooking oil - are the norm. The currency, which suffers from the highest inflation rate in the world, is worthless.

Recent visitors to Zimbabwe as well as news sources report that food shops as well as many landlords now require payment in US dollars or South African rands. Yet, even the dollarization of the economy has been unable to stem the hyperinflation.

A bottle of cooking oil, worth about $1.50 in the US, is going for $18. Even members of the diplomatic corps travel to Mozambique to do their shopping.

The World Food Program estimates that it provides food to five million people, more than one third of the total population. Only through remittances from those outside the country, the creativity of extended family networks, and the country's vast number of informal traders, do people survive. In many urban areas residents have only had enough food for one meal a day for upwards of a year. Today there are Zimbabweans who go days without food. 

Or fester like a sore

Zimbabweans are not new to suffering. They've faced more than a century of settler colonialism and a hard fought independence war; the Mugabe government's post-war massacre of thousands of civilians from Ndebele areas; economic restructuring and the corruption of national leaders by a global economic culture that promotes personal gain; and Mugabe's devastating "urban renewal" project of 2005 which bulldozed neighborhoods where many opposition voters lived, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless.

Today's tragedy, however, has little parallel. With military precision, the government unleashed a systematic campaign whose aim has been to maintain control. The targets: the political opposition and its structures and supporters, journalists, NGOs, and human rights workers.

Despite its violent attacks on the opposition, Mugabe's party lost the 2008 elections to the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), but has refused to relinquish control.

Maybe it just sags like a heavy load

The country's situation is "gloomy" according to the international Group of Elders, who were refused entry into the country late last year. A national cholera epidemic has left more than 3,800 people dead and is spreading exponentially, with almost 80,000 people infected as of February 20, 2009, according to the WHO. The health system has collapsed. Harare's three public hospitals have been closed.

Physicians for Human Rights asked in January 2009, "When government policies lead directly to the shuttering of hospitals and clinics, the closing of its medical school, and the beatings of health workers, are we to consider the attendant deaths and injuries as any different from those resulting from a massacre of similar proportions?" This latest crisis has prompted many to urge the politicians to put aside political wrangling for the sake of the nation.

Despite the violence and repression, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangari has opted to form a Government of National Unity with his rival, President Robert Mugabe. Some MDC supporters have been harshly critical of the decision. Mugabe and his party still retain control over much of the machinery of the government.

The new power-sharing government is not the democratic outcome of which Zimbabweans dreamt, but perhaps it can try to address the health crisis and attempt to create a framework from which a more representative government can emerge.

Or does it explode?

John F. Kennedy once said "those who make nonviolent revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable." The people of Zimbabwe are still, despite overwhelming suffering, trying to wage nonviolent revolution against the Mugabe regime.

Update (from the editors)

On February 11, as Morgan Tsvangari was being inaugurated Prime Minister, 600 demonstrators from Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) protested in Harare for the release of political prisoners. Two lawyers for WOZA and the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights attempted to visit political prisoners, but instead were themselves arrested.

On the same day, Mugabe's security forces arrested MDC Treasurer Roy Bennett as he returned to the country to become the Deputy Minister of Agriculture.

On February 20, Mugabe violated the constitution by swearing in additional assistant cabinet ministers, including former Security Minister Didymus Mutasa, now a minister of state in the President's office.

Tsvangari, for his part, urged the West to support the new national unity Government. Addressing 7,000 supporters on February 22, he said: "It is now time to say let's forgive those who have trespassed against us. If there is no national healing, there is no progress."


For multiple perspectives about the origins of the crisis, and about sources of political support for Mugabe's party, please see Mahmood Mamdani's piece in the London Review of Books, and the dialogue the article has provoked, at www.lrb.co.uk/v30/n23/mamd01_.html. See also the articles published by Concerned Africa Scholars, at http://concernedafricascholars.org.

Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights
6th Floor Beverley Court, Corner Nelson Mandela Avenue and Fourth Street, Box CY 1393, Causeway Harare, Zimbabwe, www.zlhr.org.zw

Donate to Kubatana.net, a network of over 240 NGOs in Zimbabwe. They host a blog about activism in Zimbabwe and help NGOs use information technology to further their work.

Physicians for Human Rights, The full January 2009 report, Health in Ruins: A Man-Made Disaster in Zimbabwe, is available online, 2 Arrow Street, Suite 301, Cambridge, MA 02138, 617/301-4200, http://physiciansforhumanrights.org.

Brief Timeline of Zimbabwe's Colonial History

Whereas most of Peacework's articles tell the stories of of nonviolent action, this sidebar is meant to sketch a history of pre-independence colonialism in the land now called Zimbabwe in order to provide additional historical context. (Sources: primarily Wikipedia entries on the Mutapa empire, Zimbabwe, Portugal, Rhodes, Southern Rhodesia, and Rhodesia).

900 - 1100 C.E. - Bantu civilization trades with Phoenicians (in modern-day Lebanon). Early development of Great Zimbabwe and its monumental dry stone architecture.

circa 1250-1629 - Mutapa empire emerges after Southern Shona invade and conquer northern areas, trade with Arabs.

1500-1700 - Portuguese invasions, wars, massacres, coerced treaties, and rival regional powers dismantle Mutapa empire.

1834-1838 - The Ndebele people, fleeing Shaka Zulu's armies in South Africa, invade the Shona areas and occupy what is now called the Matabeleland region of Zimbabwe.

1888-1897 - Cecil Rhodes and the British South Africa Company invade and consolidate power over Zimbabwe and Zambia, despite unsuccessful revolts by Ndebele, Shona, and other ethnicities. European settlers steal and occupy the most fertile farmland. The British colonists call the region Rhodesia.

1923 - Southern Rhodesia becomes a British Colony.

1965 - The white minority government of Southern Rhodesia makes a unilateral declaration of independence from the UK in an attempt to forestall black majority rule.

1965-1980 - The civil war, waged against Rhodesia's apartheid regime by ZANU led by Robert Mugabe and ZAPU led by Joshua Nkomo, along with civilian resistance and international sanctions, leads to Zimbabwean independence and black majority rule in 1980.

Regions: Zimbabwe