The Big Question: Is it time for business, tourists and expats to return to Zimbabwe?

Author: By Daniel Howden, Africa Correspondent

Why are we asking this now?

A gradual easing of restrictions on foreign journalists working in Zimbabwe
was marked last week by the lifting of the reporting ban on the BBC and CNN.
During the first six months of the unity government, harassment of the
international media has diminished if not disappeared.

At the height of tensions, security forces were routinely arresting Western
journalists and threatening them with up to two years in prison. In reality
none were held for more than a month, while reporters from neighbouring
Botswana and South Africa received much harsher treatment. The return of the
BBC and other broadcasters will bring a welcome end to the theatrical “undercover”
reports from Zimbabwe which often deflected attention from the daily misery
of the living conditions they were meant to highlight.

There will be close scrutiny of the BBC’s coverage to determine whether any
editorial compromises were made to regain access. The strange double-speak
employed by BBC officials to explain their deal with the administration was
worrying because it stressed the importance of forgetting the last 10 years;
this is something the Mugabe government would be delighted with but would
poorly serve viewers. Strong independent voices such as the weekly
Zimbabwean newspaper and the London-based SW Radio Africa remain excluded,
although there are signs that may soon change.

Is it OK to go on holiday to Zimbabwe?

The strange nature of Zimbabwe’s crisis meant it was never really unsafe to
visit the country. The gradual collapse of a once robust economy and
infrastructure never translated into any direct threat to foreign visitors.
The cholera epidemic killed slum-dwellers, not tourists. The real question
was whether tourists wanted to lend financial backing to a brutal regime.
That ethical dilemma remains but most Zimbabweans would be in favour of
tourists coming back. From the spectacular Victoria Falls to the vast and
beautiful Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe ought to rival Kenya and South
Africa for tourist income. The facilities on offer have suffered from a
decade of neglect but the potential is vast and the welcome almost always
friendly.

Is the economy finally recovering?

Despite the absurd posturing of the frankly ludicrous Deputy Prime Minister,
Arthur Mutambara, who last month claimed that Zimbabwe would be in the G20
by 2015, the economy remains in tatters. Mr Mutambara’s comments came at the
announcement of a new luxury golfing and residential project in Warren
Hills, Harare, which underlines the fact that, for now, the recovery has
been felt by the rich, not the poor.

Harare is a paradise for Russian money-launderers, unscrupulous Western
investors and Chinese mineral companies. The abandonment of the
hyperinflated Zimbabwean dollar and the switch to the US dollar has flooded
the country with imports, but these are only affordable to those with hard
currency reserves. There are green shoots in the agricultural sector where
tobacco production and seed sales have risen but real structural investment
will have to wait for political stability. Zimbabwe’s vast and well educated
diaspora, thought to number more than four million people, has shown little
inclination so far to return en masse. Along with the foreign donors, big
mining interests and major food importers, they are waiting for evidence
that the fragile recovery will not be sabotaged by the country’s febrile
politics.

Who are the winners and losers in the new Zimbabwe?

The biggest winners in the “new”, power-sharing Zimbabwe are the
ruling party cronies who enriched themselves over the past 10 years and are
now being allowed to rehabilitate themselves as the country emerges
awkwardly from international disgrace and isolation. The land-grabbers,
militia bosses and plunderers of the central bank, including the governor
Gideon Gono, are all still under the protection of the government and now
free to spend their profits at home instead of crossing to South Africa to
shop.

Zimbabwe’s writers, musicians and poets, who are legion, are also capitalising
on the new, freer atmosphere in the country; civil servants are earning a
pittance but that is still more than they were one year ago. The losers
remain the rural poor left adrift by the politically-motivated destruction
of the agricultural sector and the urban unemployed who make up the vast
majority of the people.

Has the political violence stopped?

No. Last Sunday, soldiers from the bodyguard of army chief Philip Sibanda
assaulted the gardener of former opposition leader and now Finance Minister,
Tendai Biti. The attack proved how bitter and personal the continuing
political intimidation is. Protesters are still routinely beaten and Mr
Biti’s recent budget, which called for a reduction in expenditure by senior
officials, prompted someone to send him a bullet in an envelope. The
nominated Deputy Agriculture Minister, Roy Bennett, has received death
threats which he says emanate from the President’s office. Harare is now the
court of two almost entirely separate and competing governments, each with
its own antagonistic factions. Amid this chaos, members of the security
services accustomed to complete impunity are pursuing their own agendas,
acting as freelance thugs and settling scores against their critics. Without
root-and-branch reform of the police and Central Intelligence Organisation,
or a South Africa-style truth and reconciliation process, this will not
change.

How is the unity government holding together?

Behind the facade of unity is a war of attrition that Robert Mugabe has been
trying to win by arresting former MPs from the opposition Movement for
Democratic Change. Some 14 MDC lawmakers face trumped-up charges ranging
from assault to playing the wrong kind of music or stealing colleagues’
mobile phones. Any convictions would trigger by-elections and potentially
overturn the MDC’s single-seat parliamentary advantage. MDC insiders speak
of a junta that is still controlling the security apparatus and employing it
to wreck any progress from the power-sharing administration. Mr Mugabe’s
role in this is unclear, they say, but the autocrat’s intention to hold on
to power at all costs is obvious.

What are the key battlegrounds?

The constitution ? which Mr Mugabe has twisted to suit his own interests ? is
key to Zimbabwe’s future. The MDC is determined to create a constitutional
basis for an independent judiciary, the return of the rule of law and free
and fair elections. The embattled Prime Minister, Morgan Tsvangirai,
staggers on ? humiliated after the driver of the truck that killed his wife
and nearly him earlier this year in suspicious circumstances, was fined $200
for the incident. The former union leader has no power over security forces,
the courts or the police but must use his leverage with the international
community to win the constitutional battle and outmanoeuvre his opponent.
That would be something that no other rival of the former school teacher Mr
Mugabe, 85, has managed.

So should outsiders re-engage with Zimbabwe?

Yes…

* Zimbabwe is opening up to the world again starting with the broadcasters CNN
and the BBC.

* Zimbabwe was always a wonderful tourist destination and now needs visitors
to kick-start its recovery.

* Dollarisation has halted the precipitous inflationary slide and simplified
potential investment.

No…

* Those who stand to profit from any economic recovery are the people who
ruined it in the first place.

* There can be no proper economic recovery without real political freedom and
consequent stability.

* Low-level, insidious political violence continues as the state undermines
any signs of progress.

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