The farm invasions: Zimbabwe’s parallel world

Mask that hides true menace of Mugabe

The Telegraph UK by Graham Boynton

6 September 2001

For the casual visitor there is little evidence of the political turmoil that is threatening to tear the country apart, reports Graham Boynton in Harare

PAMUSHANA is a luxury safari lodge in Zimbabwe's south east. Situated high above the Gonarezhou Game Reserve, it is widely recognised as one of the best lodges in Africa.

Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones took a nine-day holiday there two weeks ago and were said to have fallen in love with the place, and with Zimbabwe. It was not that they were unaware of the events going on around them.

Every night Douglas watched the developments in the Chinhoyi farming district, the centre of the latest government-sanctioned violence, and was apparently well-briefed on the turmoil in other parts of the country.

He needed only to look out from the honeymoon suite to see first-hand evidence of the country at war with itself - a number of huge bush fires, the work of the self-styled war veterans, in the conservation area south of Pamushana.

It is a strange thing about Zimbabwe that even in these days of civil strife, an unravelling economy, of much-debated threats of anarchy and martial law, the country appears to amble along at its own pace, apparently without a care in the world.

In any of Zimbabwe's gateway cities - Harare, Bulawayo, the Victoria Falls - you would have no idea that the country was engaged in a bloody battle for its soul.

These parallel worlds are evident everywhere. Last Saturday in Bulawayo I came across a group of rugby enthusiasts partying around a braivleis (barbecue) and watching a tri-nations rugby match on satellite television.

A few miles away an international group of human rights activists was exhuming the body of a woman who had been murdered by President Mugabe's Fifth Brigade soldiers in the mid-Eighties [during the Gukurahundi massacres]. Further north a gang of "war veterans', having chased off a farmer and his wife with axes, were wrecking the couple's ostrich farm.

In Harare I joined a regular Friday lunch club of executives whose businesses are on the line. Last year 400 businesses closed, this year the same number have closed in the first eight months. Their firms are limping from week to week, and still they dine in delightful suburban restaurants, laughing and telling jokes.

In the Mashonaland on the same afternoon farmers were meeting to discuss security initiatives as more farm invasions were threatened. Meanwhile, the local repertory company was running the first auditions for its summer production of Guys And Dolls.

In the Victoria Falls Hotel, a monument to Victorian elegance overlooking the falls, I met a group of American tourists who said they were charmed by the friendliness of the locals.

Of course, they knew there was a political furore going on somewhere in the country, "but it's a dispute between white settlers and the black government. It doesn't affect us." Significantly, there are hardly any British tourists and overall tourism has fallen by 70 per cent.

The newspapers add to the surreal atmosphere. On the day after the family were run off their farm, the Chronicle reported the story under the headline "White farmer abandons ostrich project". In Harare, the Herald announced the beginning of the week-long agricultural show with the headline "Farmers in High Spirits".

While the opposition press screams out headlines of death and destruction, such as "Villagers flee in new wave of violence", the State-owned Bulawayo Chronicle and The Herald in Harare lead with stories in the style of OK! Magazine.

It does not take the visitor long to realise that not far from the surface is a prevailing sense of despair. I have never encountered such pervasive gloom in a community that has survived international economic sanctions, an unpleasant bush war and the chaotic unpredictability of post-colonial government.

The whites are talking about relocating to Zambia. Their sons and daughters have already left for Australia, New Zealand and Britain. The black Zimbabweans who had come to expect so much after their independence told me they were bracing themselves for more violence in the run-up to the presidential election and for serious food shortages.

It is spring and usually the air is clear, the skies blue, the days sunny and warm, the nights cool and clear. Now, there is a haze - the haze of burning bushveld. Although conversations are turning to the English cricket tour, thoughts are more inclined to centre on the next moves of an African dictator who seems prepared to destroy everything to keep to power.