Retiring Mugabe

At least for purposes of public consumption, southern Africa’s political leaders continue to stand by Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, despite his country’s ever-deepening economic crisis, which is directly attributable to his tyrannical rule. Indeed, years of economic mismanagement have produced an unemployment rate of 80%, with annual inflation nearing 5,000%.

Though Zimbabwe was once known as “the breadbasket of Africa,” many of its citizens now go hungry and depend on international food donations for survival. About 3,000 people flee the country every day, often risking their lives when crossing the crocodile-infested Limpopo River – celebrated in Kipling’s tale of “How the Elephant Got Its Trunk” – and scaling a border fence to enter South Africa.

By now, emigration is more than three million, about a quarter of the population. Yet when Mugabe was introduced at the most recent meeting of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, his fellow heads of state heartily applauded him.

There are reports that, behind the scenes, things are different. South African President Thabo Mbeki is said to be trying to negotiate a way for Mugabe to leave the scene. Yet there have been similar rumors before, and it is difficult to know whether Mbeki and the other southern African leaders are finally willing to tell Mugabe that he must go. Up to now, paying their respects to him as a revolutionary leader, and catering to his megalomania, has been more important to them than alleviating the suffering of Zimbabwe’s people.