ZIMBABWEAN PRESIDENT ROBERT MUGABE IS a man of contradictions. He held an election to show the world that Zimbabwe was a modern democracy but sent his army to run the polling stations and make sure everybody voted the right way. He fancies himself a hero in the continuing struggle against Western imperialists, but his favorite saying is reportedly: "Absolute power is when a man is starving and you are the only one who can give him food."

Mugabe should know. His own desperate clinging to power has brought the once buoyant Zimbabwean economy near collapse, so that now even he cannot feed the starving. He has turned to his old comrade from the anticolonial wars and the leader of his strongest neighbor, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, to request a billion-dollar loan in order to buy emergency food and fuel supplies for the people he has led to ruin.

Even in this there is an element of blackmail. For if South Africa can't help--or, more likely, Mugabe refuses to comply with the condition attached to a South African loan, that he stop attacks against opposition supporters--he has another card to play. At this writing, Mugabe is off again to Beijing to ask his new friends the Chinese for the money. They will probably pay the billion dollars, in return for what remains of Zimbabwe's once highly profitable tobacco industry.

But this outrageous bluff may come too late to save him. His slum-clearance program, Operation Murambatsvina--variously translated from Shona as "Clean up the rubbish" and "Remove the filth"--is Mugabe's latest attempt to break the solid support enjoyed by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, particularly in the major cities of Harare and Bulawayo. The main features of the campaign are the bulldozing of townships, the burning and looting of property, and the corralling of people in the clothes they stand up in to be trucked to unsanitary holding camps outside the cities.

Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo, fresh from an audience with the pope in Rome, was in Britain recently to lobby G8 leaders. The archbishop continued his forthright public criticism of Mugabe and of those doing too little to stop his depredations. Ncube provided a full report and eyewitness account of the results of Operation Murambatsvina. Thousands are now dying weekly of AIDS, malaria, and malnutrition. Food supplies are almost out, and there is no fuel left in most parts of the country.

President Mbeki, who also met with G8 leaders, may finally have been persuaded that he can no longer watch and wait for the octogenarian Mugabe to die. Last week, days ahead of a U.N. report expected to be highly critical of Zimbabwe and possibly to call for Security Council action on Zimbabwe's abuse of human rights, Mbeki sent his deputy to strongly advise Mugabe to stop persecuting his people and to start talking to his political opponents, sources in both countries say. As one diplomat put it to me: "We're approaching the end game on Zimbabwe, and Mbeki wants to make sure he's not on the wrong side." Pressure has also come from Nigeria's president, Olusegun Obasanjo, to bring Mugabe to the negotiating table.

Moving millions of people into the countryside ensures that they are utterly reliant on government-controlled food aid for survival. But there may also be a more subtle motive. Many squatters now being forced out of towns and shunted into the country are former farm workers made redundant and homeless by seizures of white-owned farms. Mugabe is perhaps hoping they will soon return to work on farms now occupied by yet another set of tenants--his new Chinese friends, who are increasingly replacing whites as business owners and producers.

Mugabe is claiming that his actions are intended to clean up the black market in goods and services and the illegal trade in foreign currency, which he blames for causing the downfall of the economy. Indeed, there is a black economy, but this is a result of economic collapse, not its cause. Official unemployment is around 75-80 percent, so many Zimbabweans work informally. Many also receive foreign currency sent by friends and relatives working abroad. Most of this money is untaxed and does not pass through banks, but officials estimate it amounts to 60 percent of the economy. Since the demise of Zimbabwe's export-earning tobacco production, to say nothing of its tourist industry, the country is desperate for hard currency. It seems inevitable that Zimbabwe will default on an international loan, which will probably cause the IMF and World Bank to expel the country from its list of recipients any day.

The G8 leaders did not discuss Zimbabwe. Nevertheless, this economically and politically insignificant country may hold the key to Africa's future development; for if African leaders don't respond to the crisis in Zimbabwe, how can they claim to respect human rights, democracy, or freedom, or be considered worthy of support from the world's successful countries? Such criticism probably stung President Mbeki during his trip to Gleaneagles. Now he apparently wants to be seen to be taking action on Zimbabwe, all the more since he won't want to publicly oppose any U.N. action.

Mugabe readily points to Western protestations as evidence that Zimbabwe is under threat of recolonization. Hence his vilification of "Tony gay Blair of the United gay Kingdom," as he elegantly puts it. Pressure must come from his peers and neighbors, but they too suffered from imposed minority white rule, and they are currently beholden to Westerners, including their former oppressors, for handouts. And so they are loath to criticize Mugabe, the former anticolonial hero--an invidious situation all round. But the parallels between Mugabe's actions now and those of apartheid-era South Africa and Zimbabwe under Ian Smith are strong, and it was thought that the outside world should intervene then.

The Zimbabwean opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change, led by Morgan Tsvangirai, has asked for a transitional government made up of his MDC with Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party, and backed by Western aid and investment. Sources in South Africa say that President Mbeki is now backing this plan, and has persuaded Mugabe to come to the table, but Mbeki cannot be trusted to maintain his support, and Mugabe could easily renege on any deal. Even during initial negotiations, the South African Broadcasting Corporation announced that Mugabe was stepping up his attacks against the richer parts of the country where the opposition is dominant. Negotiators tell me they suspect Mugabe is only buying time, waiting to be given enough food to stop rural revolt, enabling him to walk away from the table and into the arms of the Chinese.

In theory, the U.N. Security Council could act to end the violence, but with a Chinese veto threatened, that is unlikely. It falls then to the United States and the United Kingdom to push military intervention, for the sake of the people of this formerly successful African state. The explorer David Livingstone once said the sight of the mist rising out of Zimbabwe's Victoria Falls gorge was so beautiful it stopped the angels in their flight. Lately, the dark, acrid smoke rising from burning homes will have caused any passing angels to hasten on their way in horror.

Roger Bate is a resident fellow of the American Enterprise Institute. His report on Zimbabwe, State in Fear, coauthored with Pius Ncube and Richard Tren, is published by Africa Fighting Malaria.

Next Page