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Zimbabwe: The Deal that Never Was

child picking among trash

A young girl scavenges for food in the town of Chitungwiza, east of Harare. Photo: EPA.

On September 15, 2008, the cellphone networks were so jammed, I couldn't reach any of my friends in Zimbabwe or abroad to share the news that I was covering first hand. What a day in the history of our country! After months of anticipation, the political deal was signed.

Almost everyone I spoke to was joyous and expectant. President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party, in power since Zimbabwe's Independence in 1980, had at last agreed to share power with the opposition MDC and its leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

By international observer accounts, Mugabe lost elections in March. But rather than go quietly into the night, he claimed enough votes through rigging to trigger a runoff. The ensuing campaign was so marred by Zanu-PF violence against the opposition that Tsvangirai pulled out of that race, leaving Mugabe the sole candidate.

The power-sharing deal brokered by former South African President Thabo Mbeki was signed at the Harare International Conference Centre at the Rainbow Towers Hotel. There was jubilation. Southern African leaders from Tanzania, Swaziland, Botswana, and Zambia gathered for the ceremony. It had taken months of secret negotiations to get the politicians to agree. Young barefoot girls in vibrant blue and orange nhembe (traditional dress) danced, and poets sang praises to the parties, drowning out our voices.


For a moment, along with the other journalists present, I lost myself. We briefly left cameras and notebooks to hug and celebrate. After all, we had suffered with the rest of the population since the economic and political decline began a decade ago.

As I boarded a bus home, I took in the excited chatter. I heard whispers that the following day we would see the return of bread on empty supermarket shelves. There was a level of optimism I have not experienced in 10 years.

People on the street spoke freely for the first time of Tsvangirai, referring to him as Prime Minister -- a position promised to him as part of the deal to be enforced by a constitutional amendment.

That evening, as I boarded a bus home, I took in the excited chatter. I heard whispers among passengers that the following day we would see the return of bread on empty supermarket shelves. There was a level of optimism I have not experienced in 10 years.

Two young women, probably in their 30s, chatted about their husbands, now illegal immigrants in neighboring Botswana, coming home to them now that the political problems were solved. I too had thought of emigrating several times but was glad I had hung on. It all seemed worth the hard wait we had endured, and I had stayed on to tell our story.

I watched with quiet glee as people jeered and told off a policeman on the bus. An elderly man shouted to him: "Zvekuonererwa na Mugabe zvapera. Matova mapurisa aTsvangirai." ("All that cruelty you performed in Mugabe's name is over for you. You are now Tsvangirai's forces.")

Another young man shouted that the policeman must now pay the bus fare, a break from the unwritten law in Zimbabwe that police and army members travel for free. Other passengers broke into laughter.

Only that morning, the police were feared and resented, accused of perpetrating violence against MDC supporters in the second round of presidential elections in June. But now there was change in the air. All this freedom to speak so freely had not been possible only the previous day.

boy holds up million dollar note.

In early November, independent sources put inflation in Zimbabwe at 2.7 quintillion percent, 18 zeros. Photo: EPA.

As the bus rumbled on, I thought to myself how it would be for us in the media to operate without arrests and government harassment. "A new era dawns," I thought and smiled.

But as the weeks turned into months, it's hard to believe I had been so optimistic. Nothing has changed for the better. Almost three months after the deal was signed, there is still no government in Zimbabwe. Mugabe remains with a stranglehold on power, refusing to share ministries with Tsvangirai as agreed in the deal.


Southern Africa leaders have met several times. Each meeting has resolved nothing. Mugabe violated the September 15 agreement by allocating himself and his Zanu-PF party key ministries of local government -- defense, agriculture, home affairs, and media and information, while offering the opposition less powerful ministries such as youth and small enterprises.

But the opposition wants home affairs. Home affairs controls the police, the electoral system and immigration. Mugabe refuses to budge. Tsvangirai argues that he wants to be given charge of the police so that they are not partisan or used to terrorize citizens. However, Mugabe says it's a key ministry that cannot be given away as the MDC may abuse it to commit banditry and destabilize the country.

Meanwhile, there is no respite for Zimbabweans. Last week, my uncle died of cholera -- a water borne disease that has broken out in Harare because of a lack of water. His home, in the Glen View township has been without water for more than six months, as have many areas of Harare. The government is broke and cannot afford chemicals to purify water or attend to burst sewerage pipes.

Last week, my uncle died of cholera -- a water borne disease that has broken out in Harare because of a lack of water. His township has been without water for more than six months.

At my uncle's funeral, people refused kubata maoko (shaking hands), our traditional way of consoling each other at funerals. It made me angry that we could not hold a traditional wake. Usually a wake lasts four to seven days. But people are too afraid of the disease.

Raw sewage flows freely forming rivulets in the streets. The government claims only 20 people have died from the disease. But this strains credulity. I passed by Harare's Beatrice Infectious Diseases Hospital this week; the grounds are littered with relatives accompanying sick loved ones.

They just camp on the hospital grounds with their sick waiting to die. They are not being treated because they cannot afford what the hospital now requires patients to bring for themselves -- gloves, syringes, drips, linen, and even their own water to bathe during hospitalization. An official on site from a local NGO talked of at least 250 deaths every week from cholera.

Everything seems to be in disarray and chaos. The government-controled power supplier, Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority, no longer has the means to generate electricity. Operating on skeleton staff, most of its engineers have fled to neighboring countries, as government cannot afford salaries. I spend at least four days each week in the dark without power, but I consider myself lucky. Most areas are going for three continuous weeks without electricity.


Sixy-five percent of the population lives in the countryside, many in impoverished conditions.

Inflation figures mean nothing to me now other than a ridiculous line of zeros. In early November, independent sources put inflation at 2.7 quintillion percent. That's with 18 zeros! It's meaningless and stressful. I picked up a packet of salt last week in the supermarket. By the time I walked to the cashier, the price was three times more. I survive by making trips to neighboring Botswana to buy food supplies. I feel as if I'm in a war zone -- just without the bullets.


I heard rumors of even more horror stories in the countryside, where the majority of the population resides (65 percent according to the last census). I managed to scrounge some rationed gasoline to see what I could observe.

Driving along the Harare-Beitbridge highway, my eyes welled with tears. Too many families -- children who should be in school -- on their hands and knees, crawling to pick up wheat grain by grain that blows off large trucks as they speed from South Africa to Zambia and Tanzania, carrying what these countries have bought to supplement their harvests. Very few of these trucks will stop in Zimbabwe. The government denies there is anyone in need of food aid.

In Chivi, an area usually known for little rain and poor harvests, people spoke in hushed tones about whole families dying of starvation. So severe is the fear of government. No one wants to be heard saying anything against it.

In many rural areas, people are surviving on wild fruits (matamba, mawuyu, hacha, chakata) and roots -- usually eaten by donkeys. Depleted national food stocks caused by the chaotic resettling of people on former commercial farms and a mismanaged economy means there is no maize.

Sekuru Mukuti in the village of Mandamabwe, who has a family of seven, told me they last ate a proper meal four days ago; and it was becoming the norm. To say my heart broke is an understatement.

A cleaner at Chivi Government School said not a single teacher remained. Children are too hungry to attend class, and parents don't think it's useful anymore to pay school fees.

Mugabe's government not only denies there is anyone dying of starvation, but also hinders donor agencies willing to distribute food, accusing them of politicking as they distribute supplies. The United Nations estimates that about six million Zimbabweans will need food aid by January 2009; that's half the population.

Stopping in Bubi, to the south of Masvingo town, abandoned schools are a common sight, even though it's the middle of the academic term. A cleaner at Chivi Government School said the school has not a single teacher left. Children are too hungry to attend class, and parents don't think it's useful anymore to pay school fees.


Hope was again felt on Harare's crumbling streets on November 5th when news broke that a man with African roots was to become president of the United States. The dancing in the streets was so intense, my countrymen acted as if Barack Obama had been elected president of Zimbabwe.

But it wasn't hours before the grim reality set back in. We're now witnessing skirmishes of violence, and demonstrations are constantly breaking out around Harare. The police have returned to their "usual" bearing of crushing any dissenting voices. This month, supporters of Zanu-PF in Epworth stoned supporters of Tsvangirai shouting at them to go tell their leader to just agree to what Mugabe wants.

The state-run Herald reported that Botswana, a country critical of Mugabe's government, has called for fresh presidential elections. Mugabe's spokesman said this is nothing but an "act of extreme provocation."

For Zimbabweans, there seems no respite on the horizon. The longer the politicians bicker, the more lives are being sacrificed.

September 15 was just a mirage of peace and freedom. It's becoming harder to keep holding on when everything has fallen apart.

Editor's Note: Our correspondent is a Zimbabwean reporter based in Harare, the capital. Because of the government's continuing crackdown on the press, we are protecting the reporter's identity.

Related Stories

Zimbabwe: Shadows and Lies

Watch our broadcast story from 2007, where FRONTLINE/World goes undercover in Zimbabwe to find a population struggling with hunger and poverty, and living in fear.

Zimbabwe: On the Brink
As Zimbabwe teeters on the edge, our correspondent in Harare describes violent and chaotic scenes as opposition supporters and journalists try to escape Mugabe's wrath.


Dexter Henley - Oak Park, ILLINOIS
Wow I am 15 years old and I find this very disturbing and and it just reminds me how grateful I am to have a roof over my head and clothes on my back..

Another very brave and heartbreaking story from your correspondent in Zimbabwe. What a tragic story about the uncle. Cholera in Harare, the capital? Mugabe has destroyed his country. He must go.