- The Washington Times - Friday, March 22, 2002

Harare, the capital city of Zimbabwe, means "place where one does not sleep."That's what a black Harare journalist told me last summer as he drove me around his town. When Shona tribesmen first settled the area, he said, the lions in the nearby forest interrupted the night so forcefully with their roars that settlers had a hard time getting much shut-eye.

More recently, as I watched from afar while President Robert Mugabe appears to have stolen his re-election fair and square, the entire country of Zimbabwe has become a tough place to sleep.

Terry Ford, for example, is sleeping permanently. He was a 55-year-old white Zimbabwean farmer. He was killed Monday, a day after Mr. Mugabe, 78, was sworn in for a hotly contested fifth term.

Mr. Ford was the 10th white farmer to be killed since 2000 in Mr. Mugabe's so-called "fast track" land reform. Ownership by Zimbabwe's tiny white minority of 90 percent of the best farmland is a real issue, dating back to the country's independence in 1980.

Great Britain and the United States pulled out of the original land reform plan a few years after independence, charging corruption in Mr. Mugabe's government. Mr. Mugabe did not make an issue out of the land dispute until a few years ago, when white farmers provided a convenient scapegoat for a mounting political backlash against Mr. Mugabe by his fellow blacks.

Mr. Mugabe's supporters in the United States (yes, he still has a few; I think I have heard from all three of them) cynically blame Mr. Mugabe's horrible international image on the Eurocentric view of the world's major media.

Indeed, there have been many more blacks than whites killed, injured, jailed or made homeless during Mr. Mugabe's land seizures and other political power grabs, but their cases usually don't sizzle through the world's media as much as Mr. Mugabe's black-on-white crimes.

Nevertheless, Mr. Mugabe can't blame his country's troubles on the media. Besides, those of us who supported Mr. Mugabe from this side of the ocean in his battle against Rhodesia's white-minority rule are more obliged than anyone else to hold him accountable, racially and otherwise, now that he and his political party ZANU-PF are in charge.

The larger story in Zimbabwe goes beyond race or tribe. It is the story of a postcolonial Third World nation struggling mightily to join the new, emerging globalism.

Mr. Mugabe's opposition is quite real and growing, born out of his country's labor movements and fed by a new, young black professional class struggling and striving to join neighboring economic giant South Africa in the new global economy.

No other sub-Saharan African country besides South Africa has more potential than Zimbabwe for development based on its natural and human resources. It has one of the continent's highest literacy rates. Its agricultural strength made it the breadbasket of southern Africa until drought and political turmoil in the last two years caused famine and fuel shortages.

Harare today bristles with young entrepreneurial professionals, easily detected by their cell phones, laptops and, in many cases, American and European educations. If countries that have Zimbabwe's potential fall to the old big-man form of tribal despotism, it is bad news for a world trying to bridge widening gaps between rich and poor.

After two decades in office, Mr. Mugabe has become a hindrance to his country's future progress. Even the pragmatists within Mr. Mugabe's party have urged him to step aside while he still can be remembered with some semblance of honor as the father of his country. Instead, he clings to the old despotic form of African leadership, tribally based and eager to play the race card when his back is up against the wall, no matter who else gets hurt.

"You know what we say around here, we thrive on our optimism," Geoff Nyarota, editor of the Daily News, Zimbabwe's only independent daily told me by cell phone after the votes were counted.

Mr. Nyarota knows optimism. His printing press and offices were bombed last year, apparently by Mugabe supporters. Still his staff comes to work every day and puts out a paper that has helped fill the gap left by Mr. Mugabe's closing of independent radio and TV broadcasters.

Zimbabwe maintains some semblance of democracy because its courts, its press and other institutions are weak by American standards but strong by African standards. The country's best hope is the relentless optimism of its people.

Mr. Mugabe has angered them by putting his corruption right in their faces and thwarting the popular will. The opposition began calling for national strikes as soon as the votes appeared to be miscounted in the recent election. The voice of a new Zimbabwe is rising. It has many miles to go before it sleeps.


Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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