Zimbabwe -- 30 years later -- A Conversation with Amnesty International USA's Sarah Hager

06/19/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On April 18th, the 30th Anniversary of Zimbabwe's independence, there is little to celebrate. Average life expectancy in Zimbabwean is not much more than 30 years , food is scarce, cholera has occurred in epidemic proportions, and unless you are part of Mugabe's inner circle, life is almost unbearable. Last week during a peaceful protest, WOZA (Women and Men of Zimbabwe Arise http://wozazimbabwe.org/) one of the groups on the ground fighting for a better quality of life, 65 members of the organization were arrested. The group of protestors met in front of the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority to protest high prices and the lack of service. According to WOZA, one resident of Glen View high density suburb showed the WOZA leader his monthly electricity bill of USD 1,681, 50.

We have heard so much and seen so many tragedies cascading from this once shining example of a Southern Africa success story. What happened? When I sat down with Sarah, Amnesty USA's Zimbabwe Country Specialist, this one question kept coming up for me. What did happen? How did it all begin?

30 years ago Robert Mugabe was considered a freedom fighter and was well supported by Zimbabweans. What happened?

Mugabe is still considered a freedom fighter and rightly so. He served time in prison because of his efforts to end colonial rule. He was tortured and mistreated by the British. No one can take his historical role and contribution away from him. It is one of the reasons he is still strongly supported today in both Zimbabwe and the continent. But it's not a full picture of what happened in 1960's and 70's to say that Mugabe liberated Zimbabwe. In the same way civil society is very robust today in Zimbabwe, the resistance effort was equally robust during that time. Mugabe was only one of many players. The difference is that Mugabe won the war of who would lead a liberated Zimbabwe and he has never relinquished that position.

How does Zimbabwe fit into the world picture?

Zimbabwe is blessed with plenty of fresh water sources and abundantly fertile farmland. At one time, it was the major exporter of agricultural products in southern Africa. This is where you get that over-used line of Zimbabwe going from being a breadbasket to a basket case. Zimbabwe also has many mineral sources. So in a world picture, Zimbabwe should be a major economic player able to assert a strong voice on world and regional issues. What we see instead is a failing state relying on food aid to feed its people, collapsed infrastructure, a decimated population through disease and migration and no global influence to speak out on issues affecting the population such as global warming. Zimbabwe has seen increasing cycles of drought and flooding in recent years, but when Mugabe speaks out as a Head of State about poor agricultural output, he is mocked because the focus turns to poor governmental policies rather than other salient factors.


What is Zimbabwe's economy driven on? Do they have minerals, farming? Do they have a way to get out of this mess?

Zimbabwe has an embarrassment of riches. It has one of the most educated adult populations in the world. Its mineral deposits include diamonds, gold, platinum, nickel and more. You can drop a seed on Monday and have a tree on Thursday. There is no reason why in 2008 Zimbabwe experienced some of the highest inflation rates the world has ever seen; other than poor governmental policies. But yes, there is a way out of this mess and recent efforts taken by the government have helped. The biggest factors that contributed to the collapse of the economy were corruption and cronyism; officials helping themselves to government coffers and helping their friends. Getting the farming sector back on its feet and producing, getting industry up and running, ending handouts and payouts to political buddies and establishing accountability in government ministries, and getting Zimbabweans who left confident enough in their country to return are what are needed to turn Zimbabwe around. All of which is easier said than done.
Is the United States involved in helping Zimbabwe?

The US is currently one of the largest aid donors to Zimbabwe. Assistance through US Aid includes food aid, medicines, farming subsidies, educational assistance and pro-democracy support. Amnesty International has been lobbying the US government to increase its assistance to Zimbabwe through targeted support called humanitarian plus. Many governments and donor organizations are leery of giving money directly to the Zimbabwe government and justifiably so. The Zimbabwe Central Bank has a long history of misappropriating funds-the Central Bank Governor Gideon Gono admitted it. So the humanitarian plus model gives money directly to aid organizations operating on the ground to implement projects. So for example, UNICEF, the UN Children's Fund, has been working to refurbish schools in Zimbabwe and many governments have donated directly to a fund established to assist in that effort.

How did the cholera epidemic start? How bad is it now?

The cholera epidemic Zimbabwe saw a year and a half ago was tragic both because of the number of lives lost and because it should never have occurred. Cholera is not unheard of in the region. There are usually a few hundred cases with some deaths every year in southern Africa during the rainy season. Cholera is an illness that occurs when drinking water or food becomes contaminated with fecal waste. Now this sounds really gross and people like to think this can't happen in the US, but the US also sees a few cholera cases every year. Here it tends to occur when fertilizer particles aren't properly washed from vegetables or someone doesn't wash their hands well after going to the bathroom. In southern Africa, people contract cholera for the same reasons, but it is most often related to infrastructure issues-improper or nonexistent sewage systems, lack of potable drinking water, wells dug where sewage waste can contaminate the water, etc. This is what happened in Zimbabwe. People had to dig wells where they could and then the raw sewage seeping from the ground would contaminate these wells, aided by large amounts of seasonal rain. Zimbabweans aren't dirty or uneducated-they are living in a situation where it became an extreme challenge to access clean water. Cholera is extremely contagious and easily passed along so once one person became ill in the community, often many more did as well. However, it is also easily treatable through a saline infusion and preventable by boiling drinking water, relocating wells and relocating outhouses, used because the destroyed sewer system means you can no longer flush toilets in your house.

Physicians for Human Rights published a great report in early 2009 about how the collapse of the water and sewer infrastructure combined with the collapse of the public health system to cause the epidemic. When people got sick, they couldn't access even the simple treatment for the disease because of so few functioning hospitals, not enough medical professionals and not enough medicine. Poor roads systems also prevented people from reaching medical care in time. We were all concerned when the rainy season began in October 2009 that we would see a return of cholera at epidemic levels. Hospital care and access to medicines has increased some, but the infrastructure issues remain essentially the same. Fortunately, public health education programs run by national organizations in Zimbabwe and international organizations like Oxfam were instrumental in teaching people how to prevent outbreaks. So there were relatively few cases and deaths this year.

How many Zimbabweans have left the country? Also, can you talk about the difficulties these people face crossing the borders into other countries? Will those who fled ever be able to come back?

The number of people who have fled Zimbabwe is hard to estimate. There are numbers stated as high as 5-7 million, out of a population of about 12 million in 2000. Many believe these numbers are exaggerated, and its nearly impossible to gauge because so many people move fluidly across the borders of neighboring countries. Most who have left have gone to neighboring countries like South Africa and Botswana, but large numbers have gone to the UK, Australia, and the US. No matter how many Zimbabweans have actually left, it is indisputable that Zimbabwe has experienced a serious "brain drain." This is educated professionals leaving to find work elsewhere because their skills are transferable; doctors, nurses and teachers predominantly. This has been a contributing factor, but in a circular fashion, in the collapse of the medical and educational systems. The government failed to properly fund the medical and educational systems. People working in those areas didn't get paid or were very poorly paid. The buildings were falling down around them. So they left. As more and more people left, the government put less and less effort into keeping medical and educational facilities operating. Now the medical and educational systems are near a complete collapse and those qualified to work in those systems have no incentive to return.

Many other Zimbabweans continue to cross-neighboring borders in search of better economic opportunities. Unfortunately, this has led to many issues at border crossings, particularly the Messina border crossing into South Africa. Amnesty International and Medecins sans Frontieres have issued reports and statements regarding the high incident rate of sexual assault against women and girls occurring at the crossing and the subsequent lack of care provided by the South African government for these economic refugees. We have also seen a rise in the number of people being trafficked out of Zimbabwe-both as sex workers and forced labor. There is extortion and bribery occurring as people try to get across the border and people swim the crocodile infested Lumpopo River to get into South Africa. Even once they get to South Africa, there has been a strong backlash against economic migrants because of a belief that they are taking jobs. As a result, there have been many incidents of violence as South Africans hope to drive people from all over the continent out of their country. So it's not easy to live either in Zimbabwe or in the region right now.

Aids is prevalent there, in fact Zimbabwe has one of the highest aids rates in the world. Why is this so, and are Aids organizations going in to help alleviate the situation? Is the United States sending in AIDS drugs?

Zimbabwe has a high HIV/AIDS rate for the same reason many southern African countries have high prevalence rates: extractive industries where workers are away from home for long periods of time and either visit prostitutes or have second wives/girlfriends. Further, there is a lack of empowerment for women so many are unable to leave these relationships or demand safe sex practices. There are also cultural beliefs in play regarding the usage of condoms and transmissibility of the disease.

AIDS organizations are working to provide drugs for treatment and educational models regarding transmission. Trying to challenge traditional beliefs about transmission has been a large part of the effort. UN AIDS has also been doing a lot of work with keeping girls in school that has shown tremendous success. In Malawi for example, they have shown that a girl who completes her high school education is less likely to contract HIV. This is because she has greater economic potential and therefore is less reliant on a partner for financial support and so can assert her in a relationship.

Yes, the US is providing medications to Zimbabwe under the PEPFAR program. More information can be found here http://www.pepfar.gov/about/122669.htm.
Douglas Rogers book, The Last Resort" talks about the many white Zimbabweans who have been forced from their homes. Can you talk about this a little? Is it still happening?
Most of the white Zimbabweans that left did so voluntarily. It is a misperception that all white people who migrated were forced out. However, the land policies implemented after 2000 did lead to many white commercial farmers forcibly evicted from their land. I wrote a blog on Amnesty USA's web site about the land issue in Zimbabwe, so if people are interested in learning more about it, they can read it here (http://blog.amnestyusa.org/escr/resolving-zimbabwes-farm-crisis-is-not-black-white/). Further, an indigenization law was just Gazetted in Zimbabwe requiring native born indigenous Zimbabweans to own a majority stake in all businesses. This has raised much concern that it will stifle foreign investment and divest more people of their property. The implementation of this law has yet to be executed as there are divisions in the government regarding its passage; so it remains to be seen the net effect this new law will have on the economy, the emigration of white Zimbabweans and property ownership, or whether the law will remain or be revoked.


The news focuses on the plight of the children there, particularly girls. What is happening over there to kids? Is there enough food? Shelter?

Zimbabweans love their children. Unfortunately, many parents have had to leave as economic migrants in order to feed their families. Many children have also been orphaned due to AIDS, crime, and political violence. These children often reside with an elderly caretaker or on their own. The result is a large number of vulnerable children who unfortunately experience hunger and violence. There has been an increase in the number of young girls entering relationships with older men as a source of support, in the number of girls becoming sex workers as their only means of livelihood, and in the number of girls trafficked from the country as either sex workers or forced laborers.

UNICEF, Save the Children and many Zimbabwean organizations like Women of Zimbabwe Arise and The Girl Child Network have been assisting where they can through funding, educational opportunities and other means of providing shelter and basic necessities to keep these children safe. But it's not easy to be a child in Zimbabwe today. Even children lucky enough to have their families intact experience hunger and uncertainty. And a country that once had a nearly 100% literacy rate now has a generation of children who struggle to gain an education. Many schools have closed, as many as 15 students can share a single textbook, students must supply chalk and chairs to sit on in class, and teachers demand students pay them fees to attend classes to supplement the teacher's salary. This is in addition to school and exam fees parents already struggle to pay the government.

What groups are on the ground to help the situation? Is there a way that individuals can help those groups? When you hear about Zimbabwe in the press, the situation seems hopeless... How can I help?

Yes, there is a lot you can do. First, stand in solidarity with Zimbabweans fighting for their country. You can do this by taking action at Amnesty International USA, writing to the Zimbabwe embassy located in DC, and contacting Congressman Payne's office as well as your Congressperson and Senator and let them know that you support increased humanitarian plus relief to assist organizations working on the ground in Zimbabwe. If you have money that you would like to share, you can donate to Amnesty International USA, UNICEF, Save the Children, Mercy Corps, Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), Medecins san Frontieres, Africa Action, Mercy Corps, Radio Dialogue, General Agricultural Plantation Workers Union of Zimbabwe (GAPWUZ), Zimbabwe Peace Project, Zimbabwe Crisis Coalition, or Council for the Reconstruction of Zimbabwe. All of these organizations are doing amazing work on the ground in Zimbabwe to assist Zimbabweans in rebuilding their lives.

Are there success stories in this country now?

Zimbabweans are amazing. What they want is to quit seeing food aid bags coming in and instead see agricultural and other exports on their way out. There are so many organizations doing such great work. Zimbabweans don't need the world to save them; they just need a helping hand to get things done and to know we stand in solidarity with their efforts. WOZA is working to keep the government accountable by demanding basic human rights, social justice and accountability. ZLHR fights every day to keep human rights defenders out of jail, demand legal and political reform and provide legal services to indigent Zimbabweans. GAPWUZ fights for the rights of farm workers. The list goes on and on.

If Mugabe left office, would it alleviate the situation? Would it stop the feuding that seems to stop any action from the government?

Mugabe leaving office is not relevant. He is not a puppet-the policies you see he either develops or agrees to the suggestions of others. But he is definitely in charge of both his political party and his presidency. However, there are other officials within ZANU-PF, Mugabe's political party, just waiting to step up when the time comes that Mugabe is no longer serving. And those people either agree with Mugabe's current policies or suggest them. So to think that Zimbabwe will suddenly be populated with rainbows and unicorns just because Mugabe is no longer in charge is to believe in a fairy tale. This is why Amnesty never advocates for regime change. Who is to say that one political leader is better than another, despite what they say before they are in office? It is also not anyone's place but Zimbabweans to decide who leads their country. So to tie policies and funding to a political leader or political party is to put eggs in a basket that very possibly has a false bottom. It is far better to support Zimbabweans through grants to improve agricultural and small business output, to rebuilding schools and restoring hospitals, and stand with those taking to the streets to demand reform than it is to prop up a political leader.

The new prime Minster will help change things or is he powerless in the current government structure?

Morgan Tsvangirai is Zimbabwe's Prime Minister under a unity government formed following contested elections in 2008. He is the political leader of the MDC-T party, which developed out of the trade union movement in Zimbabwe. He has been dangled out a tenth story window, beaten, imprisoned. His wife died in a car accident in 2009 many believe was yet another assassination attempt. The man definitely earned his stripes as an opposition leader. Since he came into office as Prime Minister, he has had a huge struggle to get Mugabe's party to even implement all the provisions on the unity government, let alone develop new policy. Many political commentators view him as conceding too much to Mugabe's party, both in the formation of the unity government and in not standing up to Mugabe on issues. The biggest thing in his favor is the World Cup occurring in June over the border in South Africa. Having the largest sporting event in the world on your doorstep assures that your neighbors want the region to remain stable. Tsvangirai appears to recently have been using this bargaining chip to bring Mugabe to the table and force compliance. Zimbabwe, however, has a new constitution to write and vote on within the next few months and new elections next year. So Zimbabwe has a rocky road ahead of it in the next year and a half or so that could be critical in how the next few years will play themselves out.

Images from Amnesty International