From Bob’s fire to the Croc’s frying pan: Zimbabweans danced when Mugabe fell, now life is worse than ever

Spread This News

Roads are like war zones, there are 20-hour power cuts, and three in four are jobless but any opposition is met with extreme violence.

By Christina Lamb for The Sunday Times (UK)

For Jasmine Toffa, the hardest moment of her life was not being beaten black and blue by regime thugs. It came when the Zimbabwean MP appeared in parliament after surgery, broken hands in plaster, and the justice minister laughed at her.

The single mother of three had gone to campaign for a fellow opposition member in council by-elections 70 miles from her constituency in the city of Bulawayo. She was in his house when people came running to warn them that hoodlums from the ruling party were assaulting anyone wearing opposition yellow.

“We locked ourselves in the bedroom but we heard them banging on doors and windows, shouting ‘Open up!’ and glass breaking,” she says. “They forced their way in, pulled me out and started beating me with sticks and branches. I held my hands up to protect my face.

Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) legislator, Toffa Tongoona

“They knew I was an MP — they kept saying ‘Honourable’ as they beat me. ‘Honourable, why are you here? Honourable, are you sure you support [the opposition leader] Nelson Chamisa?’”

Political violence and repression are nothing new in Zimbabwe, where Zanu-PF has been in power since independence in 1980 and has no intention of relinquishing it. But with fresh elections due in July, the “softening-up” of voters has begun earlier this time and is unfolding in more sinister ways, leading many to fear this poll will be the bloodiest yet. “It’s going to be a massacre if the international community does not intervene,” warned Peter Mutasa, head of Crisis in Zimbabwe, a coalition of churches and human rights groups.

When Robert Mugabe was ousted in November 2017, people danced in the streets and there was hope of a new dawn. His successor Emmerson Mnangagwa, 80, donned a colourful knitted scarf, flew to Davos and declared the country “open for business”. The British ambassador at the time praised the new president, Mugabe’s long-time right-hand man, as “a pragmatist”.

On the surface, Zimbabwe remains a beautiful country. This year tens of thousands of British tourists will visit the country to marvel at the Victoria Falls, see elephants and rhinos in its national parks and watch hippos wallow on the Zambezi.

But for most Zimbabweans, life is worse than ever. Mnangagwa, known as “the Crocodile”, has quashed dissent more brutally than ever and presided over a collapse in living standards for the middle classes and poor alike, while his cronies have prospered.

“We’ve jumped from the frying pan into the fire,” says Chamisa, the opposition leader, when we meet in a secret location. He has survived two assassination attempts. “Mnangagwa is doing what Mugabe did with a lot more malevolence and maliciousness.”

Zimbabwe was once a model for the continent, the breadbasket of Africa. Today, much of its population is on the verge of starvation. Inflation, at 244 per cent, and the interest rate, at 200 per cent, are among the highest in the world. Three quarters of people are unemployed and corruption has devastated state resources. Restrictions on the media meant this article had to be reported undercover.

Nothing works. Daily power cuts last for 20 hours, forcing people to use candles and cook on fires. The vast majority lack access to clean water. Once-pristine highways look like war zones, studded with potholes. Traffic lights and street lamps are dormant. Ask to buy a train ticket at Bulawayo station and Loveless, the woman in the ticket booth, falls about laughing. “We haven’t had passenger trains for more than three years,” she says.

Opposition CCC vice president Tendai Biti

“Mnangagwa has taken us back to the Dark Ages,” says Tendai Biti, the former finance minister. “This is soft genocide.”

Most of the population survives by selling to each other on the roadside, turning cities such as Harare into vast street markets. Prices are in US dollars — the real-time gross settlement dollar, known as the Zim dollar, was meant to be on a par when it was introduced in 2019 but currently sells at an unofficial rate of about 1,100 Zim dollars to the US dollar. The American notes in circulation are so worn there is an industry in gluing them together.

Those who can escape do. A third of the population — five million people — have fled overseas, a larger exodus than from war zones in Syria and Ukraine.

At Parirenyatwa Hospital, among the best in Africa 20 years ago, theatre staff wear plastic bags on their heads to carry out operations. They have run out of intravenous paracetamol and patients must provide their own dressings and sutures.

One surgeon, speaking anonymously, told of his distress. “We used to do everything — heart transplants, complex microsurgery. Now it’s just basic emergency procedures. The last time we did elective surgery was in June last year. We have no resources, patients have to buy everything. For a whole month we had no TB drugs. We have a CT scan but no radiologist, so no one to read them. We have lost so many staff we have just two theatre nurses instead of 13.

Most have gone to the UK, where they can earn ten times as much.

“One man came with cancer which was operable, but we couldn’t do anything, so had to watch him die.”

District hospitals are worse, with surgeons carrying out operations by the light of mobile phones.

Education is in a similar plight. A Unicef report last year found that almost half of children were out of school, unable to pay fees. Teenage pregnancies are rife. Drugs such as crystal meth are ubiquitous, with sale locations marked by pairs of shoes hanging from lampposts.

In Magamba settlement in Hatcliffe Extension, a shanty town of plastic and cardboard shelters in a muddy vale in northern Harare, I meet Prisca, 36, carrying a bucket of mangoes and tomatoes she has been trying to sell. She has four children aged four to 13, bringing them up alone after her husband died of “bad beer”.

“None are at school as there is no way I can pay,” she says, proffering a torn page from an exercise book scrawled with her debts to the school — $67 in total. She earns between $1 and $3 a day selling fruit and veg, which she buys once a week on a three-hour bus ride and sells for a small mark-up.

Yet only a few miles away is Borrowdale Brooke, a gated community where the streets are lined with mansions. Peacocks strut on the lawns between Greek-style statues and fountains; Rolls-Royces and Bentleys sit on the drives. Power cuts and water shortages do not trouble its residents: they have their own solar power and boreholes.

Nearby is the so-called Oligarch Road, dotted with high-walled properties with helipads and security cameras and inhabited by friends of Mnangagwa’s family, who have become rich on mining, fuel, foreign exchange and government infrastructure contracts.

Chief among them is Kudakwashe Tagwirei, a tycoon known as the Queen Bee, who is under US sanctions along with his wife, Sandra Mpunga. A US Treasury report accuses him of benefiting from his connections to Mnangagwa and giving expensive cars to government officials in return.

The EU and UK also have travel bans and asset freezes on multiple Zimbabwean individuals including all four security chiefs. Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth in 2002 for its violent seizure of white-owned farms and human rights abuses. Mnangagwa has been lobbying to be allowed back, yet Mugabe’s former security chief, responsible for some of the worst excesses of the old regime, has proved even more vicious in power — and wilier.

Opposition CCC leader Nelson Chamisa

“He has tried to capture every institution, but what is unique is he also tried to capture the opposition,” says Chamisa, the opposition leader.

In 2018, Chamisa narrowly lost the presidential election to Mnangagwa in a contest he claimed was rigged. Two years later, a member of a rival faction within his opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), went to court to claim to be its true leader. He won and troops stormed the MDC’s offices to prevent Chamisa returning. The ruling party later rewarded the MP with a farm and ministry.

“It was a hostile takeover,” says Chamisa, 44. “We lost everything — vehicles, offices, computers, database and funding. We literally had to start from scratch.”

David Coltart, the party treasurer, tries to explain the move in British terms. “Imagine if after the Conservatives won the last elections they packed the Supreme Court with judges to do their bidding, then opened the court specially during Covid to issue an order to say that Keir Starmer was no longer the leader of the Labour Party and that instead the leader was one of his former MPs now in a tiny new faction. Then they reopened parliament for the Speaker to expel all Labour MPs unless they joined that faction and arranged for the army to raid Labour Party headquarters and seize all their assets and records.”

Chamisa was forced to create an entirely new party, the Citizens Coalition for Change, known as Triple-C. He tries to cast the setback in a positive light. “It has given us a beautiful moment to start again and redefine our struggle and correct mistakes of the past. Besides, our most important offices are not brick and mortar but in the hearts of the people.”

He draws hope from rumours of splits in the ruling party and from recent elections in Zambia, Lesotho, Kenya and Malawi that saw incumbents ousted.

Last year Triple-C won 19 of 28 by-elections and 75 of 122 council elections. “That’s not Mickey Mouse,” says Chamisa. “That’s big, that’s why they are panicking. Change is in the air People know this election is a matter of life and death. But we need to win big so they can’t manipulate the results.”

In his new year’s address, Mnangagwa spoke of the elections. “I urge each of us to continue being peace-loving and politically mature citizens,” he said.

Within days, a group of elderly people, some as old as 79, were beaten in Murehwa, 50 miles east of Harare, for attending an opposition meeting. A chilling video was released as a warning.

The cabinet recently agreed a so-called Patriotic Act to punish people who criticise the country while abroad or who call for sanctions. Several opposition MPs are in prison. One, Job Sikhala, has been in a maximum-security jail for more than seven months with no trial after speaking at the funeral of activist Moreblessing Ali, a 46-year-old mother of two whose mutilated remains were found dumped in a well in June.

“The next day, hordes of police came, heavily armed, around 7pm just as we were about to have dinner,” says Sikhala’s wife, Mai, 47. “This is political persecution, pure and simple. He was just doing his job as the family’s lawyer.”

She is used to her husband being arrested — this is his 67th time in jail. But at 229 days it is the longest stint and the first time he has been refused all bail.

The detention has left her struggling to feed their 11 children, aged three to 22, as she also has to take her husband food. Conditions in Chikurubi prison are atrocious. “Job is unwell and I am terrified they will kill him,” she says.

One judge, Erica Ndewere, dared to agree bail for Sikhala but was then herself charged with gross incompetence and removed from her post.

Those opposition MPs or officials who are not in jail are almost all on bail for nebulous charges, forced to waste time appearing in court or police stations and unable to travel as their passports are impounded.

Opposition CCC national spokesperson Fadzai Mahere

“They have completely weaponised the law,” says Fadzayi Mahere, a lawyer and Triple-C spokeswoman, who is one of those on bail.

Two weeks ago, two Triple-C MPs were arrested along with 24 supporters for holding a private meeting. When their lawyer Kudzai Kadzere went to the police station he was ambushed by riot police and beaten so badly his right hand was broken. When he went back after surgery to file a report, he was charged with “causing criminal nuisance”.

“People have been messaging me, warning, ‘They will kill you, stop’,” he said. “But that’s what they want. They are trying to tie up the whole civil society in cases.”

Hopewell Chin’ono, a journalist, has been arrested three times in the past two years and spent 84 days in detention. He has received numerous threats.

Last September, one of Zimbabwe’s best-known writers, Tsitsi Dangarembga, whose work has been shortlisted for the Booker prize, was arrested for simply holding a placard stating: “We want better. Reform our institutions.” She was convicted of “inciting” public violence and given a suspended prison sentence.

Many people believe there is no point in voting because the election will be rigged and the risk of supporting the opposition is too high.

General Constantine Chiwenga, the army chief turned vice-president, told a rally last year that they would “crush the opposition like lice”, adding: ”You put it on a flat stone and then flatten it to the extent that even flies will not make a meal out of it.”

Tears pour down the face of Toffa as she recalls the attack in October that left her with broken hands. “They whacked my calves and ankles,” the MP says. “It was like a documentary I’d seen on genocide in Rwanda. I am 58 but I was so terrified I cried out, ‘Mummy!’”

Finally the assailants left and the battered survivors stumbled into the bush, where they hid for hours in a dry riverbed. Their cars had been sabotaged — the tyres of her official vehicle had been slashed and the engine filled with sand. Their phones had been stolen but Toffa had managed to hide her spare one in her bra. She called fellow party members for help but no one came — the area had been cordoned off by the regime.

More than six hours later, at 7.30pm, police arrived. When Toffa finally got to a clinic in Bulawayo, she was bruised and swollen. Both hands were fractured, the left one so shattered she needed surgery to insert a metal plate. Her sons, who live overseas, begged her to give up politics.

Instead, she went to parliament. “The home affairs minister had said it was ‘all a façade, the opposition was famous for making up stories’, so I went there and held up my hands in plaster, but he and the justice minister were laughing at me,” she says. “If I’m being treated like this as a sitting MP, beaten in broad daylight then ridiculed on national TV, what hope have the voiceless?”

Yet the international community has also remained silent, fatigued, it seems, by the decades of repression and misrule.

“We need the world’s eye on us,” pleads Chamisa. “It may seem people are free but they are not, they are scared. When history is written, Zimbabwe will be in The Guinness Book of Records for being the biggest jail on earth.”

What hope is there for the opposition under such conditions? Toffa falls silent then sighs. “We can dream of miracles,” she says.