- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The only people who shouldn’t be surprised by Zimbabwe’s descent into the abyss are the people who put them on the road to hell.

The list is a long one, beginning with weak men in the British Foreign Office, always fearful and often duplicitous, eager to wash their hands of their legacy in Africa. They gave little thought to what would happen to the tribes who had trusted them. “A typical piece of British diplomacy,” Ian Smith, who presided over the birth of the Rhodesian republic, once said of a similar betrayal. “Dishonest, but effective.”

Zimbabwe was unique in Africa: a nation that actually worked, whose efficiently managed farms had become the breadbasket of a continent and whose government was a model for nations in transition from colonial outposts to real democracies. Buffeted by sanctions meant to bring the young republic to heel, Rhodesia, as it was called then, was nevertheless thriving. Still run by whites, it was nevertheless moving toward the day when sheer numbers would decree that it would become a black republic, to show others that Africans could, too, govern themselves freely and fairly, despite the lethal complications of ancient tribal loyalties.

But the West, and particularly the weary British, wanted the immediate gratification of being rid of the responsibilities of colonialism. The white settlers (many of whom had been Rhodesians for centuries) and the black masses were left to the tender mercies of Robert Mugabe, who could manage only the imposition of misery, privation and hopelessness. The pearl was ripped from its setting and cast to the swine.

Robert Mugabe set about over the weekend to set fire to what’s left of the land he ruined. He turned his mobs against the remaining white-owned farms, determined to drive them out of Zimbabwe once and for all, beginning with the women and children. He would tolerate no mercy for whites. Three senior police officers were suspended for giving white farmers, jailed for unspecified crimes, blankets and sufficient clothing against the chill of the African winter.

Black farm workers, trying to keep the farms running in the absence of the fleeing white owners, were beaten severely. When a farmer begged the police to restore order, a police superintendent told him: “These issues are political and the police cannot therefore become involved.”

Robert Mugabe was once a revolutionary with the grudging respect of his enemies, a man who seemed sincere if foolishly misguided by Marxist troublemakers from abroad. He quickly gave in to the temptation to follow the example of Idi Amin in Uganda, and was soon addicted to flashy uniforms decorated with medals signifying nothing, long black limousines and houses fit for kings. Goons and high fences keep out the squalor. Like his generals and his toadies, he waxed fat while his people starved in a land that once flowed with milk and honey.

There’s no longer honey but plenty of money, and none of it is worth anything. A loaf of bread, when someone finds it, costs a million Zimbabwean dollars. No one really knows how to measure the inflation rate, which has crashed through 150,000 percent annually. Soon not even Mugabe and his thugs will be able to dine on meat: Mobs raging across white-owned farms broke down fences and hundreds of diseased cattle quarantined for foot and mouth disease ran loose among uninfected stock. Beef exports to Europe and South Africa, one of the last remaining sources of income, were doomed.

Zimbabwe is a land ruled by clowns trained by Kafka. When a judge ordered several white farmers released in bail, the clerk refused to take the money because he didn’t have time to count the billions of dollars of Zimbabwean currency. The lawyers returned with a check, and it was not accepted because it was not issued by a recognized bank. A cashier’s check was then refused because “we must know the bank actually has the money.” The farmers are still in jail.

The sham elections on Friday rendered Robert Mugabe a pariah, even in (most of) Africa. Nelson Mandela finally managed a mild rebuke (“a tragic failure of leadership”) but in London, Washington and other Western capitals there was only a ritual wringing of hands. A columnist in London’s Guardian, the voice of the terminally wet, set the tone with his suggestion that “we through our elected governments can work for a second United Nations resolution, stronger than the last.” No satire intended.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Times.

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