A land of hope and dreams
By Julie Bishop – The Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade
Thursday, 27 September 2012
In the year 2000 I took part in a Commonwealth Observer Mission for the Zimbabwean parliamentary elections.
There was no escaping the deep sense of foreboding. It was feared that the country was about to descend into political, social and economic chaos, and the signs were certainly there.
The economy was stagnating with inflation running at around 55 per cent, land owned by white commercial farmers was seized for redistribution to the landless, and unemployment was on the rise.
President Mugabe, then concluding his second decade as leader of the nation, had been defeated in a referendum designed to change the constitution to entrench his rule.
He retaliated and in the lead up to the parliamentary election Mugabe coordinated a ruthless campaign of violence and intimidation against his opponents.
There were fears of a repeat of the Matabeleland massacres in the early 1980s when Mugabe unleashed his North Korean trained 5th Brigade to wipe out political dissidents.
Turmoil and turbulence were not new to Zimbabwe.
The recent history of the country had been one of ongoing tension between the African population and the European, mostly British, settlers from the late 1800s.
Backed by superior armed forces the British took control of vast swathes of the rich and potentially productive countryside, dispossessing many tribal people in the process.
Sporadic uprisings occurred against the white rulers who had taken control of the land, known as Rhodesia, led to reforms allowing limited ownership of land by black farmers.
The path to full independence was tumultuous with pro-independence rebel leader Robert Mugabe elected as Prime Minister in 1980.
Part of Mugabe's platform was to resettle black people on farmland, initially supported by the UK government which provided almost $100 million to facilitate the process.
After more than a decade of land purchases, Mugabe announced compulsory land acquisitions which quickly developed into violent takeovers by gangs of so-called "war veterans".
The campaign of violence against the white farmers, combined with Mugabe's increasingly corrupt and autocratic government, led to thousands of people leaving the country and the imposition of international sanctions against the regime.
It was against this background, and with some trepidation, that I returned to Zimbabwe in 2002, again as part of a Commonwealth Observer Mission but this time for the Presidential election.
The economy was in free-fall. Inflation was running at nearly 200 per cent. I recall handing over several one thousand Zimbabwean dollar notes to buy one small chocolate bar.
Mugabe's Zanu PF party was at the height of its control and opponents were ruthlessly oppressed.
Villagers were threatened and attacked in areas known to be sympathetic to the opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change, as part of state-sponsored efforts to deter them from voting.
Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai survived at least three assassination attempts over several years.
I met Tsvangirai during our mission even though he had been arrested and charged with treason only days before. He had been badly beaten during his detention but was on bail.
I remember sitting opposite him, as he spoke of his fears for Zimbabwe under Mugabe's brutal regime, and doubting that he would survive the ordeal ahead.
I will also never forget the courage shown by millions of Zimbabweans who came out in defiance of Mugabe's tyranny to stand in line at voting booths to cast their ballots.
Vote rigging was rife and not surprisingly Mugabe was declared victorious.
In the years following the economic decline was devastating with hyperinflation officially measured at 500 trillion percent.
The government was forced to print Z$100 trillion notes, each worth around US$30.
In the 2008 election the MDC achieved an unexpectedly high percentage of the vote, apparently overwhelming the Zanu PF efforts at manipulation.
There were genuine concerns that Mugabe would grab power in a military coup but a "unity" government was formed in early 2009 with Mugabe as president and Tsvangirai as Prime Minister.
Few expected such a fraught situation to last more than a few weeks or months, however the arrangement is still in place.
When Morgan Tsvangirai visited Australia this year my meeting with him could not have differed more from our previous one.
He wanted Australia to lift sanctions imposed on Zimbabwe including the travel sanctions against his former bitter rival President Mugabe.
He explained that for Zimbabwe's economy to grow and for living standards to rise, the country had to move on from past conflicts and cast aside old hatreds in the national interest.
It was somewhat surreal to be sitting opposite him again and to hear him speak of his now cordial relationship with Mr Mugabe and how they now discuss their families and their hopes for Zimbabwe's future.
Mature and stable leadership, committed to reconciliation, will be essential for Zimbabwe to emerge from the economic and social devastation of the past.
The scale of the challenge is daunting.
A recent discussion paper from the Brenthurst Foundation, titled Backwards to Beit Bridge? A Strategy to Revive Zimbabwe's Industry, shows that 85 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line.
According to the paper, Zimbabwe will have to achieve economic growth of 10 per cent per year for the next 30 years to lift current incomes from $300 per capita to $3000.
Zimbabwe's misfortunes over the past three decades have been tied to Robert Mugabe, now 88 years old .
The country is in desperate need of continuing economic and political reforms that will in turn attract foreign investment.
It is time to write a new chapter for the people of Zimbabwe.
That was Prime Minister Tsvangirai's message - it is still a land of hopes and dreams.
The Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Julie BishopMP