With inflation somewhere between 100,000 and 400,000 per cent, it can be tempting to derive a bleak humour from life in Zimbabwe. One of the more prominent businessmen in the capital Harare regales visitors with his tale of recently buying four bricks to prop up his barbecue. His punchline is that they cost a million times as many Zimbabwean dollars as his sprawling suburban house did a decade ago.
Then of course there are the Weimar Republic echoes of people rushing out to spend their wages as soon as they receive them or queuing up to buy their groceries with bags of banknotes. A billion-dollar brick of Z$10m banknotes is worth US$25. Or at least it was when this article was written on Friday morning. It will be rather less by the time it appears in print.
But arresting as these anecdotes may be, there is nothing comic about Zimbabwe at the end of the 28th year of President Robert Mugabe’s rule. His increasingly delusional leadership has shattered what little more than a decade ago was one of sub-Saharan Africa’s more buoyant economies. Less well recorded but more insidious, his rule is also day by day corroding the very heart of society.
A senior teacher at a Harare school explained to me with tears in his eyes this week that to support his family on a salary of barely US$20 a month he became a black-marketeer. He, like most of his fellow teachers across the country, has in effect stopped teaching. Instead he slips across the border into neighbouring South Africa and buys goods to sell back home.
“I’m a tradesman in the classroom,” he said. “We call it black-market teaching. I only spend two days a month at school and even then I am not teaching but selling to and changing money with the children for their parents.” And this is a country which until recently could claim to have the best education system in sub-Saharan Africa.
Under such circumstances it should be impossible for Mr Mugabe to win Saturday’s presidential election. You only have to leave the handful of streets in the centre of Harare that maintain an air of bustling normality to appreciate the pace of his country’s economic implosion. Such is the despair, that even in his traditional rural strongholds his old aura of invincibility is crumbling.
And yet he will “win”, if he gets away with rigging the results as he did in the past three elections, and that is why arguably the critical test of Saturday’s vote is not for the long-suffering Zimbabweans but for the South Africans who dominate the regional observer mission. Supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change say they are determined this time not to be cheated of a fair result. But Mr Mugabe will not be worried by their complaints. He has seen them off before. His principal concern will be to gain the endorsement of the regional observers. It matters not just for his pride but for his legitimacy. The backing in particular of South Africa, the regional powerhouse, will enable him once again to shrug off cries of foul play as partisan and to avoid the international scrutiny that accompanied Kenya’s flawed election last December. For South Africa’s ruling African National Congress it is a moment of truth.
Jacob Zuma, the party’s new leader, rightly pointed out to the FT last month that the “foghorn” diplomacy of Tony Blair had played into Mr Mugabe’s hands. It has also rendered Britain powerless to mediate in the event of a contested result. But, the ANC’s “quiet diplomacy” too has failed and been an important fillip to Harare. South African observers at the last presidential election in 2002 brushed aside evidence of state intimidation and malpractice even though many of them did not venture outside the capital to the rural areas where most of the abuses occurred.
Now once again there is widespread evidence of fraud. So skewed is the electoral landscape, with state television pumping out encomia to Mr Mugabe, the voters’ roll stacked with “ghost” voters and the ruling Zanu-PF distributing state food only to supporters, to name just a few irregularities, that even if voting is smooth it is hard to see the election as anything but deeply flawed.
Most in the ANC appreciate Mr Mugabe’s departure from office is overdue, but Pretoria still has a residual sympathy for his claims that in cocking a snook at the west, he is striking a blow for Africa against the last vestiges of imperialism.
There is some truth to the argument that western censure of Zimbabwe is selective. There are other equally repressive regimes that have not attracted half as much attention as Zimbabwe. If Mr Mugabe had evicted black smallholders rather than white farmers in his land expropriations eight years ago, the British media would have dedicated far less energy to covering his abuses.
But that does not justify defending his excesses. Zanu-PF is no longer an anti-colonial liberation movement. It has metamorphosed into little more than a clique of kleptocrats who are making fortunes by plundering the remains of the economy, even as their countrymen fall deeper into poverty.
Many in the ANC have fretted that to criticise Mr Mugabe would be to betray Africa. To turn a blind eye to the electoral abuses would be the real betrayal. It would condemn the black market teacher and Zimbabweans to more suffering. It would also be viewed in the outside world as a sign that the ANC has abandoned the moral high ground it occupied just 14 years ago at the end of apartheid.
The writer is the FT’s Johannesburg bureau chief