Potential Hot Spots: Tragedy in Zimbabwe


: Items About Areas That Could Break Out Into War

November 30, 2007: The government's own inflation data put the inflation rate at 7,600 percent a year. Economic analysts outside of Zimbabwe think it may be even higher, 8,500 percent to perhaps as high as 15,000 percent. An IMF "forecast" says the real rate could reach 100,000 percent. Boggling? It's beyond boggling. All of these figures are so large that in terms of policy –and poverty-- the statistical differences are meaningless. Recently a Zimbabwean government official admitted that the real inflation rate is "incalculable" because there are so few goods available in the country. Staples like meat, bread and cooking oil are not available in retail grocery stores. Gasoline (except for government officials and friends of the ruling ZANU-PF party) disappeared many months ago.

A statistic that really does matter is unemployment. No one really knows what the unemployment rate is in Zimbabwe. Visit the Web and you will find estimates from fifty to eighty percent. As always, you have to ask not only who did the survey but what constitutes employment. Zimbabwe's once flourishing tourist industry has all but disappeared. In 1999, 1.4 million tourists visited Zimbabwe. Now there are no tourists. An estimated 200,000 Zimbabweans once worked in a tourism-related job (hotels, restaurants, etc.). Almost everyone agrees, however, that commercial agriculture jobs are (or were) a key component in Zimbabwe's economy. Since 2000, Zimbabwe has lost between 250,000 and 400,000 jobs in its once productive agricultural sector. In 2003 the UN reported approximately 100,000 farm workers were still employed on commercial farms. That was a decrease of 250,000 from an estimated 350,000 workers employed by commercial farms in 2000 prior to president Mugabe's first "land redistribution" program, his "agrarian revolution" called the "Third Chimurenga," or "liberation struggle." The vast majority of those farms were owned by whites. The Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union reported that there were approximately 4,500 white-owned commercial farms in Zimbabwe in 2000. The higher agricultural worker job loss figure is based a recent estimate, which means it is a very iffy statistic, like Zimbabwe's actual inflation rate. In 2000 the UN estimated that the 350,000 farm workers supported roughly two million people. Using the same ratio (5.7 per worker) that means 2.28 million people who once had well-paying jobs (by Zimbabwean standards) now have little or no income. That is out of a 2005 population of around 13 million people. Many of these once well-employed remain "living on the land" as squatters or "tenant farmers without rights." They do grow some crops but their situation is "hand to mouth," meaning they are now subsistence farmers. These Zimbabweans have effectively lost a century's worth of economic development. Indeed, Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe has taken what should be one of Africa's wealthiest countries and turned it into an economic and political wasteland.

Many Zimbabweans are leaving the country, but just how many is another number that is very difficult to pin down. . The UNHCR estimates that three million Zimbabweans have left Zimbabwe since 2000, with the vast majority going to Botswana and South Africa. Two years ago, it was estimated that one million Zimbabweans were living in South Africa. South Africans believe that a few hundred Zimbabweans (called "asylum seekers") attempt to cross the border illegally every day. Attempt is an important word, because the South African government is now telling asylum seekers to "stay home." The "few hundred" may be a conservative estimate. In July 2007, it was believed that the figure could be as high as 3000 a day. If two hundred Zimbabweans illegally enter South Africa every day that is 700,000 a year, so maybe the anecdotal "a few hundred" a day is a reasonable average. The Reception and Support Center of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that from January to the end of July 2007 it repatriated 117,737 Zimbabweans from South Africa to Zimbabwe. "Repatriated" means the refugees have been sent back to Zimbabwe. That's a lot of repatriations.

The refugee problem has saddled Zimbabwe's neighbors with some touchy problems, and "repatriation" is one of them. The term from the Zimbabwean exodus cropping up in official statements is the Zimbabwean "migration." Well, technically it is a migration, one spawned by massive corruption, state-sponsored violence, inter-tribal violence (some of it stoked by the government), poverty, and political failure, meaning Zimbabwe is a war zone where the government is at war with its own people. But South Africa, Zambia, and Botswana (the neighboring states to which Zimbabweans are fleeing) want to avoid a confrontation with the Mugabe government over its policies. The Southern African Development Community (SADC), a regional collective to which Botswana, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe belong, does not want to take any official position on the migrant (refugee) problem. This has disappointed many critics of the Mugabe government. This situation, however, is all too common in Africa and elsewhere in the world. Regional collectives hesitate to condemn a thug government because they fear that will mean they have to act to get rid of him and that could involve a lot of money and bloodshed. That's a legitimate reason to hem and haw, but most of the time there is another, less legit concern. Many of the regional group's members are dictatorships or kleptocracies themselves and they do not want to "set a precedent" for removing a dictatorship or a corrupt government. Mugabe's government has made a security alliance with fellow SADC member Angola, which fields some very well-trained paramilitary forces. With Angola providing security training to Mugabe, SADC is not going to act overtly against Mugabe's regime. The only country in SADC really capable of making a difference within Zimbabwe is South Africa. South Africa has stated that it will help facilitate a political dialog and hopefully create conditions that foster political reconciliation within Zimbabwe, but it doesn't want to get involved directly in Zimbabwe's internal troubles.

At the moment Zimbabwe's immediate neighbors classify the Zimbabwean refugees as "economic migrants." This means they do not have the same international status as a "political refugee." If a refugee is classified as a political refugee subject to prosecution (or persecution) if he returns to the country from which he fled, then that individual can usually appeal for asylum (in the country to which he fled or in an another country willing to accept him). Not so if the refugee is declared an "economic migrant." It is often tough to determine who is an economic migrant and who is a political refugee. No doubt many, if not most, of the Zimbabweans who have fled are really economic migrants, but given the Mugabe government's willingness to use violence against its opponents (via groups like the Zimbabwe National Liberation War Veterans Association, aka ZINLWA) a substantial minority do risk prosecution or worse (physical attack, murder) if they are returned to Zimbabwe. This is a huge political problem, but so far Zimbabwe's neighbors have avoided directly addressing it. Is this a potential spark for a regional war? No, not likely. But Zimbabwe's neighbors are increasingly worried about spillover violence and economic damage from Robert Mugabe's self-made war zone. -- Austin Bay


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