No Place Like Home

7 minute read
SIMON ROBINSON | Bulawayo and MEGAN LINDOW | Johannesburg

For Zimbabwean Mike Maseko, the journey home is a bitter reminder of his country’s decline. It’s a trip Maseko makes almost every week, driving the 800 km from Johannesburg to Bulawayo in his blue Toyota minibus. Before setting out, he packs the van with groceries and televisions, furniture and children’s toys, carefully concealing envelopes filled with South African rand so the corrupt border guards who inspect his vehicle won’t confiscate the money. The cash and consumer goods are gifts from Zimbabwean expatriates in South Africa to their desperate families at home. Maseko, 32, makes roughly $700 from each trip; but for the families in Zimbabwe, where food is scarce and jobs are even scarcer, his cargo can mean the difference between life and death.

More than 3 million Zimbabweans — about a quarter of the entire population — have left their country, many in the past five years, as President Robert Mugabe has tightened his grip on power. In the first decade of independence from white rule, Zimbabwe boasted a vibrant developing economy and one of the best education systems in Africa. Those achievements have turned to dust. The economy is the fastest-shrinking in the world. Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans have fled — across the borders to Botswana, Mozambique and Zambia, or to Australia, Britain, Canada and the U.S. But the vast majority — perhaps as many as 2 million — now make South Africa their home.

Maseko’s story is typical. He moved to Johannesburg in 1993 in search of work. After taking odd jobs, he started his transport business four years ago. But he won’t be voting in this week’s parliamentary elections. Last year, Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party barred all expats, except for diplomats, from casting a ballot; a Supreme Court ruling two weeks ago confirmed the ban. That decision rankles with the millions of Zimbabweans, up to half the voting-age population, living in exile. If ZANU-PF wins — or fixes — a two-thirds majority, it will be able to change the constitution, making it easier for Mugabe to stay on or handpick his successor. “Of course, [Mugabe] doesn’t want us to vote,” Maseko says. “Most of us have left because of him, so he knows we will vote against him. But in a democratic country, all of us should have the right to choose our leaders.”

That right has proved unpalatable to Mugabe. In 2000, the Zimbabwean President was shocked when changes to the constitution he wanted were rejected in a national referendum. During parliamentary elections a few months later and the presidential campaign in 2002, ZANU-PF used police and trained thugs to attack the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), bullying, beating up and even murdering opposition supporters to ensure victory. The MDC, led by former union boss Morgan Tsvangirai, struggles on. While violence in the run-up to this week’s vote has been only sporadic, independent observers, human-rights groups and MDC officials say that’s because Mugabe is now using more subtle means to ensure victory. ZANU-PF controls the electoral commission, and has closed most of the independent media outlets in Zimbabwe. The party also oversees the electoral count and voter rolls — which opponents allege are swollen with “ghost” voters. Ironically, even reforms urged by the MDC are being turned by ZANU-PF to its own advantage. Translucent ballot boxes, for instance, meant to symbolize an open voting system, will instead enable observers to see how people vote, warn ZANU-PF officials. After the last few years of state-sponsored thuggery, the threat is clear. “You don’t have to murder now,” says MDC M.P. David Coltart. “The mere presence [of those behind past violence] is enough to intimidate.”

The massive exodus from Zimbabwe is both symptom and cause of the country’s decline. Beset by drought and food shortages, runaway inflation and 80% unemployment, Zimbabwe’s economy is just two-thirds the size it was in 1999. The country’s best and brightest — medics, accountants, teachers, engineers and other skilled workers — are leaving in droves. The U.S. State Department says that 1,200 doctors trained in Zimbabwe in the 1990s, but by 2001, only 360 remained; some 18,000 nurses departed, too. The situation is now even worse. “It’s no longer just a brain drain; it’s much broader,” says human-rights lawyer Daniel Molokele, who left Bulawayo for Johannesburg two years ago. “This is not just a question of leaving for greener pastures. This is a direct result of the lack of confidence in the future of Zimbabwe.”

For Dr. Samukeliso Dube, the futility of writing out prescriptions for patients who could not afford to have them filled became too much. She left in 2003 after watching the health-care system deteriorate and her own living standards plummet. “The health system has been ravaged by hiv/aids,” says Dube, who is now studying for a masters degree in public health in Johannesburg. “Almost everyone I knew working there had a strategy to leave.”

Zimbabwe can ill afford to lose so many skilled workers, but those who do leave become crucial supports for families and friends back home. Expats send an estimated $100 million a year to relatives, money that many poor Zimbabweans depend on to survive. John Nzira left Zimbabwe in 2002 after the purchasing power of his salary, worth roughly $100 at the time, was devoured by double-digit monthly inflation. When three of his brothers died of aids, he found himself responsible for their eight children and other needy relatives. Nzira now lives in Johannesburg, where he works for an environmental group. But every three months he fills his truck with groceries for a trip to his mother’s village, where a total of 11 family members rely on him for support. “We are not here because we want to be here, but because we have to be here,” he says. “I love Zimbabwe, but the way things are now, we wouldn’t survive.”Ironically, the expat community is helping to sustain Mugabe’s regime. “What keeps Zimbabwe from total economic collapse is the Zimbabwean diaspora,” says Elinor Sisulu, who is a co-ordinator of the Zimbabwe Crisis Coalition, an advocacy group for the expat community in Johannesburg. “Mugabe’s investment in education is paying off now. The diaspora is providing something of a buffer against the real anger of the people, because they are being kept from total poverty.”

The diaspora also funds opposition groups and organizes protests against Mugabe’s misrule in Johannesburg, London and other expat centers. In London, a gaggle of protesters gathers every Saturday outside the Zimbabwean embassy. Britain is also the base for Short Wave Radio Africa, which beams news into Zimbabwe, and the recently launched weekly newspaper The Zimbabwean. Activists plan to stage mock polls on election day in Johannesburg, London and Sydney to highlight the ban on expat voting.

Still, most Zimbabweans abroad would rather be at home, but few seem likely to make that journey anytime soon. On his return trips from Zimbabwe, minibus driver Maseko carries a different freight: Zimbabweans headed for Johannesburg and the possibility of jobs, money and something to eat. “There is nothing to bring from Zimbabwe except those who want to leave,” he says. “My country exports only people now. It breaks my heart.”

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