Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his wife, Grace. Picture: REUTERS
power couple - Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and his wife, Grace. Picture: REUTERS

The furore around Grace Mugabe, her sons, their behaviour and the Mugabe family properties in South Africa illustrates the axiom: Their enrichment has come at the expense of Zimbabweans.

There are an estimated 2-3 million Zimbabwean refugees in South Africa, of some four million worldwide, a quarter of the population. They have fled state dysfunction, repression and economic failure.

Following the ruling ZANU-PF’s failure to pass a new constitution in a February 2000 referendum, the Mugabe regime began its policy of land seizure without compensation from the 4,800 white commercial farmers, and its redistribution. As a result, the economy shrunk by more than half in the next eight years. According to Steve Hanke, the Johns Hopkins University economist and the world's authority on measuring hyperinflation, inflation reached 89.7 sextillion percent in November 2008 – meaning that prices doubled nearly every day.

After a period of stabilisation including the abandonment of the local currency under the unity government between 2009 and 2013, the economy has again contracted by one quarter following ZANU’s victory in the 2013 election.

This is only part of the story. The economic turmoil has seen government revenue contract and unemployment mushroom to as much as 90 percent of the population. This has been a double whammy. At independence in 1980, Zimbabwe had a civil service of 68,000 consuming perhaps one-third of government revenue; today government employs 300,000 and it has another 200,000 drawing state pensions and benefits. These now absorb 100% of revenue, hence the need for large and ongoing borrowings to create and sustain jobs in the only place the government can – itself. 

This explains the need for large and ongoing borrowings to create and sustain jobs in the only place the government can – itself. 

It’s a fundamentally broken system.

It’s a story, however, not of statistics but people. Some 1400 Zimbabweans are reportedly deported from South Africa each week. Not only are they lured by the job opportunities, but they are fleeing a system where government services such as health-care have collapsed, to the point that Zimbabwe’s President seeks regular medical assistance elsewhere.

When Mugabe took over in March 1980, the life expectancy of Zimbabweans was nearly 60 years, increasing to 63 years ten years later. Then, the compounding effects of a failing health care system, poor nutrition, weak governance, careless government, and the spread of disease more generally and the HIV/AIDS epidemic specifically saw it collapse to 40.7 years in 2002, among the lowest in the world. Despite recent improvement, today life expectancy is still lower than what it was at independence.

Mr Mugabe, at 93, bucks this actuarial trend, and for good (external medical) reason.

Ironically, Zimbabwe is now kept afloat by the remittances provided by its diaspora – officially $3 million daily, though this figure can likely be trebled if informal channels are included.

Zimbabweans are now listed at 154 of 188 countries on the United Nations’ Human Development Index. Income per capita was $1342 in 1998, dipping to a low of $590 ten years later. It now hovers around $900, ranking in the bottom 30 worldwide. One third of Zimbabweans today require food aid.

But for some the state has functioned exceptionally well. This explains why there are so many false dawns to the imminence of political change in Harare.

The breakdown of the rule of law has permitted the ransacking of the economy in the interests of a small, politically connected elite.  

It’s a life of champagne not sadza. And now, the boasts by the Mugabe scion of a extravagant lifestyle amidst the accusation of an assault on their friend by the first lady with an electrical extension lead, the consequences of which appear to have been avoided by Pretoria’s offering of diplomatic immunity -- the need for which is in itself an admission of guilt.

Failure has been deliberately engineered to permit enrichment. The problem is now the export of this system of failure to South Africa

It’s Grace unplugged, off the lead and off the hook.

Such actions breed contempt for not only the rule of law, but acceptable norms and values, in Zimbabwe as well as South Africa.

The juxtaposition of the Mugabe family’s wealth and the failure of Zimbabwe is clear: they would not be rich if it had not been for the failed state. Failure has been deliberately engineered to permit enrichment.

The problem is now the export of this system of failure to South Africa.

Impunity breeds contempt – and emulation. Others in the region are unwilling to speak out against it, not just for reasons of political solidarity and liberation movement lore, but because the system of preferential state dysfunction is precisely what they would like to see in their own jurisdiction. The international community outside of Africa is increasingly disinterested in trying to get African governments to do the right thing by their people despite the routine claims of imperialism and foreign interference. The lack of concern about Zimbabwe’s continued slide reflects this changing mood. Moreover the impulse to donate is greater than the appetite to impose unpopular political conditions on this money.    

And the systems of citizen recourse are frail. Despite its Constitutive Act which holds all member-states of the African Union to observe fundamental values and standards, including respect for human rights, democratic governance, and the censure of unconstitutional changes of governments, the continental organisation’s default is to protect incumbency over human rights. Ditto the Southern African Development Community, an old boy’s club if ever there was.

When has either body ever called an election anything other than free and fair?

Both, to take another example, were completely silent over the arrest of the Zambian opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema.

What is left for democrats is to sink into melancholic surrender, attempt to resort to civil society activism or, as so many energetic Zimbabweans have done, to vote with their feet. What is needed, however, is for the electorate to hold their leaders accountable. And that has to start with election standards and monitoring to ensure citizens get the governments they vote for.

Biti is the former finance minister of Zimbabwe; Mills a co-author of ‘Making Africa Work’.

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