Peter Godwin on Zimbabwe Elections

March 13, 2008 at 3:37 am 21 comments

Peter Godwin

February 29, 2008

“The chances of a free election are minimal.”

One of the flood of Zimbabweans to have fled the chaos of his homeland, author Peter Godwin tries to find some hope in the wreckage. Original article here.

So, I’m on the train from Perth to Fremantle, trying to stay awake after a 30-hour flight from New York, where I now live, via Stockholm and Kuala Lumpur, when I hear the two young black guys in the seat behind me speaking in Shona, one of Zimbabwe’s home tongues. I greet them in my rusty Shona, and soon we are chatting about home and how bad things have become there. And then the train pulls in at a suburban station and a middle-aged black lady in a nurse’s uniform gets on and sits down next to me. As soon as she picks up that we are Zimbabweans, she joins in – she’s from Harare, it turns out.

“Did you know that Zimbabweans have the highest IQ in the world?” she says. Hmm, that seems a little over-patriotic. “Yes,” she continues, “I queue for sugar, I queue for salt, I queue for fuel, I queue for cooking oil.” And she bursts into peals of laughter at her joke.

A friend of hers, she continues, saw a queue and joined it, as one does in Zimbabwe, even without knowing what it’s for, as it’s bound to be for something in short supply. Usually queues are remarkably good-natured affairs, with people chatting and bonding in the shared absurdity of their misfortune, but this one seemed a little subdued. When he gets to the head of the line, he realises why. There on a table is a coffin with a corpse laid out in it. He had inadvertently been queuing for a body viewing, and these were mourners. She hoots again, and gets off at the next station.

Back in Perth, I am interviewed by the enormously capable artistic director of the Perth International Arts Festival, Shelagh Magadza, who is, you guessed it, yet another Zimbabwean.

Welcome to the Zimbabwean diaspora: energetic, educated, talented and absent.

This is what we’ve come to – a nation wandering the Earth, exchanging mordant jokes on Australian trains, ruing our fate at literary festivals. It’s estimated that nearly 75 per cent of Zimbabweans between the ages of 18 and 65 have now left the country. That’s getting up to Irish Potato Famine ratios. It’s a veritable exodus. Imagine any city – imagine Adelaide – suddenly losing that proportion of its population. That’s how bad things have become in my homeland.

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun, my family memoir set in the collapsing Zimbabwe, ends in about 2004, when my father died. At the time, I remember thinking “the country couldn’t get much worse”.

Boy, was I wrong.

One Hundred Billion Dollars

One Hundred Billion Dollars

Then, inflation was a few thousand per cent, now it’s up to about 120,000 per cent – way higher than in the Weimar Republic, when Germans loaded up wheelbarrows with money to go grocery shopping. How can one even imagine what 120,000 per cent inflation means? Here’s one flippant example of the effect of the economic calumny that has beggared Africa’s most promising nation: Players teeing off at the Harare golf course usually order a round of drinks before the game so that the barman can line up their frosties on the counter as they come down the final fairway. Members used to pay after they’d finished their beers. Now they pay when they order them. Because, by the time they play a round of golf, the price of the beers has gone up.

There is a harvest of superlatives provided by Zimbabwe’s spin down the vortex of failed statehood. It is the world’s fastest shrinking (peacetime) economy, halving in size since 2000. It has one of the lowest life expectancies – about 35; more orphans per capita than anywhere on the planet; and half its population is malnourished.

Meanwhile, Robert Mugabe, who just celebrated his 84th birthday, recently moved into a $26 million palace, with 25 bedroom suites. And the question, “Why do Zimbabweans stand for it?” has already been answered: they don’t, they leave.

With snap elections due on March 29 [2008], there is a new flurry of hope that those who remain will eject him after 28 years in power. Mugabophobes now have two alternative presidential candidates, Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and now the newly declared Simba Makoni, one-time finance minister and technocrat, recently expelled from the ruling ZANU PF party for daring to challenge the Sun King. He is supposed to have the backing of various other ZANU PF heavyweights (and the smaller of the two MDC factions).

But don’t get your hopes up. The chances of a free election are minimal. Quite apart from the fact that the last three have been blatantly rigged, and that the opposition finds it hard to campaign, gets little access to the state-controlled media, and has its canvassers harassed and arrested, the electoral commission that handles the nuts and bolts of the poll says it cannot possibly conduct elections so soon. They don’t have enough ballot boxes, election officers, transport, fuel, money, they say. The basic logistics are impossible.

“What should we do?” I hear you ask. The more we hector and berate Mugabe, the more it enables him to pose as an anti-colonial hero. South African president Thabo Mbeki hasn’t been much help. On the very day that the South African-brokered negotiations broke down, he declared them a success!

In so far as African politics, in particular, is about patronage, I think we need to dial reality past Mugabe, to signal that he is fast becoming an irrelevance, and that the world will turn and he will soon be gone, one way or another. (As someone said on hearing that Mugabe had been ill, “nothing minor I hope”.) The most effective way to do this, I think, would be to pull together a multi-lateral donor conference, in which not just countries, but institutions like the World Bank, IMF and major private philanthropists, pledge amounts that they will start spending, the day after democratic normalisation.

This is a way to unlock our imagination on how reconstruction could start. The amounts pledged would help harness greed to good effect, signalling to the local Zimbabwean elite (who are wondering when to dismount the current horse) how well everyone can do under a new dispensation.

Such a conference, with its resultant document, can also begin the debate on how to fund specific reconstruction areas: agriculture (and different models of resuscitating commercial agriculture), education, health, currency stabilisation, energy, infrastructure, and so on. It also gets us away from a hectoring, negative binary on Zimbabwe to one where we lay out upon a heaving table the glittering goodies that will be available as soon as the venal autocrat is gone.

I think that this would help establish a profound paradigm shift, and change our attitude from one that is purely reactive to Mugabe’s latest felonies, to one that sees beyond him, by writing the tyrant out of the script for Zimbabwe’s future.

Peter Godwin’s latest book is “When the Crocodile Meets the Sun” (Picador, $24.95).


Entry filed under: Human Rights, Peace and Justice, Rhodesian, Zimbabwean.

Pre-election voices from Zimbabwe Helen van Pletsen – the Nightingale of Natal

21 Comments Add your own

  • 1. todd kidd  |  March 14, 2008 at 12:38 am

    Mr. Peter:

    You appear to be a very nice man, someone who is non biased. However, I take issue with your statement that the elections in Zimbabwe cannot be peaceful. I think what you are realy saying is that the people of Zimbabwe are not capable of electing anyone other than Mugabe as president. The people of Zimbabwe are very political astute and do not need westerners to tell them who to vote for. Mugabe will win the elction because he stands for the people. If whites like yourself could understand this then zimbabwe would not have sanctions imposed on it.
    Mr. Peter, Mugabe not only has the support of the majority of Zimbabweans but he also enjoys support from blacks like me world wide. I’m African American and blacks look at Mugabe as the independent freedom fighter. We appreciate him for taking back the land and now fighting to ge the economy of Zimbabwe under native control. We do not want domination by whites.
    I thank you for your time and i hope your future articles will be more balanced.

  • 2. Tim  |  May 1, 2008 at 11:03 pm

    RE: Todd Kidd

    The people of Zimbabwe are beaten and tortured when they vote for anyone but Mugabe. I am a teacher and my class has been following the Zimbabwe election. My student population is 99% African-American. One of them asked how Mugabe could get away with what he was doing. Another responded “because Zimbabwe isn’t America”. The only African-Americans supporting Mugabe are seriously uninformed of the situation or members of Reverend Wright’s congregation. I also seriously doubt the Zim dispora support the man who forced them to leave.

  • 3. Peter Lang  |  December 13, 2008 at 2:21 am

    I am an ex-South African living in Canada. The reason we left South Africa was mainly because we were concerned with what Mugabe would do to Southern Africa.
    The book was hard to read but am excellent and accurate story.
    I have a question. How is Dr. Helen Godwin?


    • 4. louise trollip  |  January 31, 2010 at 8:21 pm

      I emigrated with my parents from Holland to SOUTH africa in 1953 and I AM NOW 64. i thoroughly enjoyed reading your book MUKIWA AND wHEN A CROCODILE EATS THE SUN.I would like to know how DR helen GODWIN IS KEEPING. sHE IS THE DEAREST AND MOST BRAVEST OF WOMEN i HAVE EVER READ ABOUT.What she went through is unimaginable. The book tells it as it is. I just hope there is hope for us here in South Africa as the writing seems to be on the wall here as well.

      • 5. Michele de Ravel  |  October 8, 2010 at 5:59 am

        Dear Peter

        Just finished reading your book, “When the Crocodile Eats the Sun”. I truly never thought I would finish it as I found it very difficult to read and could relate to much of the farmers plight. I am from South Africa married to a Poultry Farmer and we left South Africa to live in Australia as being a farming family was too risky for us and our three beautiful girls. Farmers were always being murdered and as much as we love Africa we just couldn’t live in fear of our lives being taken!!! We are happy and safe in Australia but obviously just as you do, we too miss Africa!!!

  • 6. Jeannie  |  December 14, 2008 at 6:25 am

    Peter-I read your Crocodile book recently and since then have been trying to find news of Z. I am worried about your mother and was wondering if she is still there or if you were able to convince her to leave?

  • 7. Robby  |  December 28, 2008 at 2:58 am

    I have just reread your book, When a Crocodile Eats the Sun.” I live in Fairbanks, Alaska. I found the reread even more compelling than the first read, given that things continue to get worse and worse. I am hoping that your mother is well and no longer in Zimbabwe. Thank you for sharing your family’s story with us. I wish you the very best. Sincerely, Robby Mohatt

  • 8. Suzan Hoeksema  |  January 14, 2009 at 10:04 pm

    I just read your book for Book Club, and am speechless. We are so blinded in this country (US) to the atrocities that go on in this day and age. We occasionally hear bits and pieces, but this book of yours was an eye-opener. Many of us wonder what we could do to help. Thank you. We are all left wondering how your mother and sister, Georgina are? – Sincerely, Suzan

  • 9. kevan hyett  |  February 13, 2009 at 11:56 pm

    Regretfully I am constantly amazed at the number of Americans who cannot form an opinion of the rights and wrongs perpetrated in Africa, without obtaining the consent of or overriding views from, African Americans.

    My perception is that ovewhelmingly African Americans allow emotion to overrule sheer logic and common sense when dealing with Africa.

    The contribution above from Kidd Todd is unfortunately typically wrong, immature and emotionally lacking in any truth.

    Without Law and Order there cannot be any civilisation as we understand it to be in the West, and largely in Africa even in 2009, Law and Order is obvious by it’s absence.

    Best regards. Kevan Hyett, Bahrain. Middle East. (Ex Africa)

  • 10. Elaine Fawdry  |  February 15, 2009 at 8:51 pm

    I have just finished reading ” When the Crocodile eats the Sun” and like your first book “Mukiwa” it profoundly moved me. I lived and taught in Zimbabwe for 16 years and many of the places and events mentioned were very familiar. I was back there in May for a wedding and it still feels like home.Having read the poem your mother quoted I can understand why so many of my friends don’t want to leave. I arrived at this site because I ‘googled ‘ your mother’s name to see if I could find how she is doing.Let us hope that Zimbabwe has reached the bottom and that with Morgan as Prime Minister things might start to improve. Zimbawe is a wonderfull country that will forever have me on ring back.

  • 11. Wisconsin_reader  |  February 17, 2009 at 3:35 am

    Roy Bennett was arrested this weekend. Any thoughts? I hope your mother is doing ok. I loved your book and wish you the best.

  • 12. Frances  |  February 28, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    I hsve just read ‘When the Crocdile eats the sun’. It is a great read and fantastic insight into the situation in Zimbabwe. I am a New Zealander who travelled there and other parts of Africa in 1995. Zimbabwe was a great place to be and seemed to be a nation moving ahead . I feel for you and all those who have had to leave such a beautiful ,and as you say in the book, ‘tender’ place.

  • 13. mavambo  |  March 4, 2009 at 6:49 pm

    Mukiwa…I am a black zimbabwean now living in Perth, and I agree with your post! In retrospect, we have seen that those elections where not peaceful and could not be peaceful…

    how is your mum and suzanne?

  • 14. Dawn  |  March 8, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    I am Scottish and live in Warsaw, I have just read When a Crocodile eats the sun, the book was heartbreaking and I could so identify with your father’s early life in Poland. It is hard to believe that having escaped the holocaust your father ended his life in a country, which is 2004, it must have been difficult to imagine the situation could have got so much worse. As I read the final chapters of the book, I was saddended to hear about the car crash of Morgan Tsvangirai and hope that this twist in Zimbabwian politics does not destroy the seed of hope that has at long last possibly be sown.Thank you for sharing your story

  • 15. Weronika  |  March 25, 2009 at 1:54 am

    I am Polish living in Warsaw, but have spent almost 5 years in Zim. I went to a private girls school in Harare – Arundel High School.
    I was friends with black and white Zimbabweans, children of farmers, business people. Reading your book all memories of my school times return. I try to figure out what happened to all of those people whom I knew…..
    I don’t think that Zimbabwe will be ever as good as it was. Maybe its economy will improve but I can’t imagine how it would be able to become one of the best developed African countries again without all that well educated middle class and farmers which migrated. There are just simply no people who could rebuild this country after Mugabe will be gone.

  • 16. Philip Matzigkeit  |  May 17, 2009 at 5:06 am

    Am in the midst of “Crocodile…” churning with emotion and sympathy. Your description of the Zimbabwe diaspora reminds me of the comments of the Dalai Lama referring to the exodus of Tibetans worldwide. Now the best of Tibetan Buddhism is being spread around the world.

    Music from Zimbabwe, especially mbira music has attracted many non-Shona people. Perhaps spirit of the people has spread also. Both Dumi and Ephat Mujuru are now ancestors. They have spread the energy and wisdom of Shona music and spirituality worldwide. Who knows what may come of it.

  • 17. Jenni  |  July 13, 2009 at 4:20 am

    we lived in zim for 6 years during the time your book was written – it was lovely reading about so many familiar people and place names, although sadenned at how that wasn;t the end and it has gone downhill further since then. We still have many friends there and would love to go back if the opportunity arose. Thanks for sharing your life there with us and it would have touched so many ex-zimbies I am sure

  • 18. Sue Morris  |  August 14, 2009 at 1:53 am

    HI Peter,Our family have all enjoyed reading When the Crocodile Eats the Sun and I’m just posting my copy to Nicola in Perth. I have been trying to contact your Mum as we are now living in England and would love to see her and Georgina again. I tried to get your adress from Nat Geo. and they said they would send my letter on to you but that was over a year ago. We live in Yorkley in The Forest Of Dean in Gloucestershire. Tel 01594 563192 So sad to hear that your Dad died. and hope your Mum is settled in England. Wecame back here to be nearer the grandchildren and Samantha.
    Hope to hear from you soon. best Wishes Sue

  • 19. Rose MacAlpine  |  September 5, 2009 at 10:00 pm

    Hi Peter,
    I read both Mukiwa and Crocodile and found them very sobering, I was brought up in Zim from 1952 to 1977. I’m sure your writings have made the Zim situation real to many in the world that would otherwise not have known. I found this site when trying to find out how your mother is. I do hope that she is safe and out of Zim. I’m so fortunate to be living in Australia now.

  • 20. Arthur  |  January 3, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    Have read both Mukiwa and Crocodile eats the sun – both truly sobering accounts – sincerely hope we in SA are never faced with the same conditions

  • 21. Joan  |  January 21, 2010 at 8:12 pm

    I have been profoundly moved and educated by this book. The dissolution of a society does no one any good. Destroying an economy and its structure in order to punish the property owners only punishes everyone involved except a corrupt few. People in America need to be involved and vigilant to make sure that our imperfect but basically good system survives and flourishes.


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