Zimbabwe's Political Storm Could Batter Southern Africa

It was once one of Africa's brightest hopes. Known before its 1980 independence as Rhodesia, Zimbabwe has long boasted productive farms, mineral resources, and investment from foreign multinationals such as 3M Corp. and Unilever. The country of 12.5 million posted economic growth of 7.2% as recently as 1996. But now Zimbabwe is caught in a spiral of violence and economic collapse that threatens to destabilize the entire region, destroying hopes for a surge of foreign investment into southern Africa.

At the center of the tension is President Robert Mugabe. Once at the vanguard of the black liberation struggle, the 76-year-old President is struggling to hold onto power amid mounting calls for an end to his 20-year rule. In a desperate move to shore up his rural strongholds, Mugabe has backed thousands of landless blacks who have seized control of more than 900 white-owned farms since mid-February. The crisis intensified in mid-April, as squatters killed two farmers and beat several others. A firebomb also killed two people linked to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), led by labor leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

ENCOURAGING CHAOS. Mugabe is condoning the violence. In fact, some of the squatters--led by disgruntled veterans from the country's liberation war--admit that Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) is paying them to occupy the farms. Some analysts think Mugabe is fomenting chaos to justify imposing a state of emergency, which would give him dictatorial powers and allow suspension of elections he promised to hold in May. Mugabe is afraid that if the opposition were to gain even 25 of the parliament's 150 seats, his power would steadily erode. He also fears defectors from his own party. The opposition has called for an end to Mugabe's corrupt system of government, which has led to economic decline. Inflation is running at 70%, unemployment tops 50%, and the cash-strapped country is short of fuel and other imported goods.

Meanwhile, alarm over the instability is rising throughout southern Africa. White farmers in South Africa and Zambia have sought assurances from their governments that they can keep their land. The issue has stirred frustrations over South Africa's own slow-paced land-redistribution program. Of 63,455 land claims filed since May, 1995, only 3,916 have been settled and about 300 rejected. At a demonstration of landless blacks in Pretoria, protesters warned that the turmoil in Zimbabwe could spread to South Africa.

South Africa's greatest fear is a flood of refugees. That could exacerbate the thorniest problems facing South African President Thabo Mbeki: 37% unemployment and soaring crime. The South African rand is already weakening. "If [Zimbabwe] implodes, we could expect hundreds of thousands of people coming over the border," warns Tony Twine, an economist at Econometrix, a Johannesburg-based private consultancy. That's one reason Mbeki plans to visit Harare in early May. The South African Chamber of Business (SACOB) wants Mbeki to mediate in the crisis or request help from the Organization of African Unity. On Apr. 18, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Clinton Administration, and the U.N. Secretary General urged Mugabe to curb the violence.

With war ravaging Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe's turmoil is just one more blow to the long-suffering region. The worst may be yet to come. John Robertson, an independent consultant in Harare, says as many as 3 million people believe they have claim to free land in Zimbabwe. But there isn't enough land to meet that demand, he says. "The government has created an impossible situation and the certainty of continuing dissatisfaction," Robertson worries. It seems Mugabe has unleashed forces he won't be able to control.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.