February 25, 2001

As Hopes Wither, Africans Turn on Leaders


Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

VICTORIA FALLS, Zimbabwe, Feb. 24 ó The rain burst from the heavens and drenched the faces of the jubilant supporters who serenaded the old man at his birthday bash here today. All across town, young women celebrated the leadership of their longtime president, singing, "South Africa will follow you, Mugabe, Namibia will follow you."

But after two decades in power, President Robert Mugabe turned 77 this week with his popularity dwindling and his country in political and economic turmoil. The high hopes vested in Mr. Mugabe when white rule ended in 1980 have turned sour; at home and abroad, some who once lauded him as a liberal and a liberator now charge that he is turning to autocracy and repression to cling to power and to realize far-reaching goals, like giving land to blacks, before leaving office.

And as they watch Zimbabwe and its leader, the men and the movements who helped end colonialism in this region are shuddering, worrying that they, too, may fall from their people's grace.

It has been seven years since the last all-white government ó the apartheid regime in South Africa ó was finally voted out of existence. As euphoria at the triumph fades, many countries in this relatively stable corner of Africa are feeling similar strains. Voter apathy, particularly among the young, is rising; there is a struggle to deliver promised jobs and land to the poor; and opposition parties that have large white memberships but are wooing black converts are emerging.

In recent days, Mr. Mugabe has acknowledged his party's failure to inspire young blacks, who tired of his talk of revolution and flocked last year to an opposition party that promised to ease unemployment, even though it was partly financed by whites who once supported the old white minority rule.

This morning, Mr. Mugabe announced that southern African leaders would soon meet to plot strategy and to rekindle the passion for their parties and ideals. "We feel threatened at the moment, and not just here," he said earlier this week. "In South Africa and Mozambique."

No one is seriously predicting that South Africa or the other law-abiding countries here will go the way of Zimbabwe, where Mr. Mugabe and his followers have been assailed by the United Nations, the State Department and human rights groups for arresting critics, harassing journalists and threatening judges.

And some in the region and abroad view the budding pluralism across southern Africa as a sign of progress in a place where one-party politics is still the order of the day.

But there is no doubt that the parties in power, which supported each other when all were battling to end colonial or white minority rule, are searching for new solutions now that filling City Hall with black faces no longer satisfies poor blacks seeking advancement.

"People cannot eat slogans, rhetoric or history; liberty must bring tangible benefits to the oppressed," warned Zwelinzima Vavi, head of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, at a seminar in Johannesburg last week, assessing the lessons that Zimbabwe's troubles offered its neighbors. "This is also relevant in South Africa."

Mr. Vavi, whose union is closely allied with South Africa's governing African National Congress and with the Communist Party, described Mr. Mugabe's government as a "promising transformation project turned horrible." In the sharpest condemnation of recent developments in Zimbabwe by a South African leader, Mr. Vavi blamed its troubles on the repression of critics and "near-dictatorial governance."

But even South Africa's leaders, who won 60 percent of the popular vote in recent elections, are nervous. A white-led opposition party won its first slivers of the black vote in that poll. And in recent meetings, members of what were once the movements to empower blacks in Mozambique, Namibia, Angola, Zimbabwe and South Africa have acknowledged that the seeds of trouble have also been sown in their countries.

Officials in South Africa have vowed to root out corruption and to narrow the gap between officialdom and the masses. In Namibia, party members are talking about rallying alienated young people. In Mozambique, officials are warning about the threats posed by opposition parties with links to their old enemies.

In October, top officials of what were once the parties of liberation gathered to discuss those issues at a meeting in Johannesburg. Today, Mr. Mugabe addressed young party members from across southern Africa and urged them to stick with their governing parties to guarantee broad access for blacks to quality health care, education, jobs and land.

"We're asking ourselves, 'What lessons can we learn from each other?' " Jeremy Cronin, the deputy general secretary of the South African Communist Party, said in an interview this week. "It's very important for all of us to start to do that."

Mr. Cronin pointed to the low turnout among blacks, especially the young, in last year's local elections in South Africa. "We can't simply expect people to vote because the A.N.C. fought a heroic struggle as if we were some kind of museum piece. Young people say, `What is that freedom? I'm unemployed and I can't get a job.' And that's a fair question."

These are still burning issues in southern Africa, where the aging guerrillas who were beaten, imprisoned or exiled for demanding the right to vote are still running most governments. Unlike other parts of Africa, which saw colonialism largely swept away in the 1960's, most countries here did not start casting off white rule until 1975 when Mozambique and Angola won their independence from Portugal.

Zimbabwe, then known as Rhodesia, followed in 1980 when the first democratic elections propelled Mr. Mugabe to power. Namibia was next in 1990, then South Africa in 1994.

The governments of South Africa, Namibia and Mozambique are still popular with voters and respected abroad. But Zimbabwe, which was heralded in the 1980's for building schools and clinics, has become increasingly associated with a contracting economy, corruption and repression.

Last year, urban voters here stunned the political establishment by voting for a new, interracial opposition party and ending Mr. Mugabe's overwhelming control of Parliament. And with presidential elections scheduled for next year, the authorities have stepped up efforts to silence their critics in the media, the courts and the opposition.

Last month, the printing press of Zimbabwe's only daily newspaper was bombed after government officials had condemned its coverage.

This month, officials expelled two foreign journalists who had been critical of the government and arrested several members of the opposition. The authorities also forced the chief justice of the Supreme Court to resign, saying they could not guarantee his safety from government- backed militants.

The militants have threatened to remove the judges forcibly for ordering black squatters to end their invasions of white-owned farms.

In South Africa and Namibia, where whites still own most of the fertile land, officials have said they will never tolerate such farm invasions. Mozambique has even volunteered to resettle white farmers who choose to flee Zimbabwe. But the region has still been criticized, especially in the West, for not speaking out more strongly against the intimidation here.

The countries say they prefer private diplomacy, not public rebukes.

But it is also clear that some officials look askance at the opposition in Zimbabwe and elsewhere because these parties still have links to supporters of the all-white governments of old.

Zimbabwe's opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, is bankrolled by white businessmen and farmers ó a tiny minority of the population, but owners of more than half of the country's fertile land. South Africa's main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, includes members of the former apartheid government. Both parties emphatically deny any attempt to roll back the clock.

But for years the apartheid government financed black opposition movements in Mozambique and Angola in an effort to destabilize the liberation struggle. And many of the men now in power apparently find it hard to believe the avowed good intentions of their new opponents.

"These are the avenues used by the former occupiers to frustrate the independence struggle," Alpheus Narused, the secretary for information for Swapo, said of the opposition parties in a telephone interview from Windhoek, Namibia. "In our view all those things are aimed at destroying the gains of independence."

Not everyone takes such an ominous view. In South Africa, there is heated debate in the African National Congress and its allies. Mr. Cronin, for instance, sees Zimbabwe's opposition front as a progressive, popular party, not just black stooges fronted by whites. Mr. Vavi and others argue that officials here simply want to mask a raw, ugly struggle for power.

"I understand the frustration of people who see whites still sitting pretty," said Nicholas McNally, one of the justices who recently resisted pressure from Mr. Mugabe's allies to resign and who opposed the all-white government of Ian Smith. "But I'm very sad that this model jewel state that we had is being destroyed."