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Harare’s Meikles Hotel has everything a five-star hotel should. A porter in top hat and tails opens gold-plated doors to a world of luxury. In the lobby, the chandeliers sparkle and a pianist plays softly, while in the hotel’s exclusive restaurant, waiters serve champagne and foie gras to guests paying up to €300 a night for a room. No expense has been spared.

Zimbabwe is a country on the brink of economic collapse. Inflation has hit 15,000 per cent, with one US dollar now worth up to $2m Zimbabwean on the black market. Z$1,000 notes lie untouched in the gutter. The country is running out of food and fuel. There are queues half a mile long for staples such as bread and milk. Electricity is scarce and entire districts can go weeks without water. And yet, at the Meikles, the champagne flows and the tuxedo-sporting pianist continues to play. Zimbabwe may be sinking, but the ­orchestra plays on.

President Robert Mugabe has been in power since 1980 and shows no sign of relinquishing it now. Elections have been rigged, opponents arrested and beaten up; dissent has been brutally quashed. Fresh elections have been planned for March, although there are no guarantees they will be free and fair. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), once a beacon of hope, has split in two following a series of bitter rows.

On the eve of the elections, Monocle spent a week travelling across the country. Posing as tourists in a country where international journalists are banned, we drove more than 1,000km, meeting opposition activists and government officials, corrupt police officers and white farmers, as well as dozens of ordinary Zimbabweans struggling to survive.

Harare, like its flagship hotel, appears at first glance to be thriving. There are BMW dealerships, fancy restaurants and smooth roads. Zimbabwe’s economy may be in freefall, but some people know how to make money in difficult times. Beside the road we meet Will, a 30-year-old dressed in shorts, Brazil football shirt and Ray-Bans. He sells cars to foreign businessmen and party bosses, pocketing 7 per cent commission on sales. “I’m not doing too badly,” he grins. “You could say business is good.” Two days ago he sold five cars to a senior Zanu-PF official, making almost €5,000 on a single transaction.

Money changers are also benefiting. The official rate of exchange at the bank is Z$30,000 for one US dollar. But no one changes money at banks. Instead, they go to money changers such as Clever, who give anywhere between z$1.3m and z$2m to the US dollar.

Clever used to be a maths teacher. Not any more. “If you can make good money, why not?” he asks, as he drives through Harare in an Audi, sucking a lollipop. Besides the car, he owns three houses and is building three more. He takes Monocle’s US$100 notes and hands over a plastic bag full of Zimbabwean dollars. The Reserve Bank hasn’t been able to keep up with inflation. The largest denomination is Z$200,000 – 10 US cents.

Spending money is not easy. Supermarkets shelves lie empty. There are no staples. Meat Paradise, a butcher in central Harare, has no meat. When food is delivered, or is rumoured to be delivered, queues develop quickly. The biggest lines are for ATMs – there is such a shortfall of actual notes in the system that customers are limited to Z$5m a day at some banks and z$10m at others.

Across the city, Professor Elphas Mukonoweshuro ushers us into his corner office in the University of Zimbabwe before closing the door firmly behind him. “We don’t want anyone listening,” he says. As well as being a lecturer in political science he is a leading figure in the faction of the MDC led by Morgan Tsvangirai. Mid-sentence he pauses. “Hear that man?” There are two voices in the corridor: one male, one female. “He’s just been promoted from an informer to an intelligence officer.”

Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence ­Organisation (CIO) is rumoured to have a budget 10 times the size that for health care. Elaborate sting operations have targeted senior opposition figures, most recently appearing to film the Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube, one of Mugabe’s most outspoken critics, in bed with a married woman. CIO operatives, sometimes called “Charlie 10s”, are on every street corner, in every organisation, and in every class that Professor Mukonoweshuro teaches. “Some of them see it as a badge of pride, not shame,” he says.

Before leaving Harare to drive the 450km southwest to Bulawayo we need to find petrol. The government does not have enough foreign currency to import the fuel the country needs. Most people rely on the black market, where fuel has reached Z$3m a litre – compared to the official government price of Z$15,000.

At a back-street garage, we buy 25 litres that is poured into our tank through a funnel made from an old vegetable-oil bottle. A handful of mechanics still work at the garage, which is full of old cars, many of which have been stripped for their parts. Business is slow.

“We are starving,” says Mawoko Tayiti, simply. A 58-year-old mechanic – Mawoko is Shona for “hands” – Tayiti can no longer afford to visit his grown-up children in Bulawayo. “The bus fare used to be Z$2. Now it’s Z$8m one way.” He makes around Z$20m a week.

“How can I afford Z$16m just to go to Bulawayo?” he asks. Tayiti does not hold high hopes for the election, nor does he think the opposition would be much better. There is one thing, though, he is sure of. With a look more of sadness than fury, he says: “A hungry man is an angry man. There are a lot of hungry men now.”

On the road to Bulawayo we pass mile after mile of untouched bush and scrubland. Much of it used to be farmland before the land invasions began. At every junction and every town dozens of people gather searching for a ride. Some are heading home to their villages; others are heading to Beit Bridge, the border town with South Africa where thousands try to cross, looking for work and a better life. The hitchhikers include police officers – even they don’t have enough fuel.

Sivas and Elijah accept the offer of a ride. They are “new settlers” – men given a small parcel of land taken from white farmers. “Life was hard in Harare,” says Sivas. “Some days we did not eat.” Now each manages to grow around two tonnes of maize a year, selling each 20kg bag for Z$500,000. But high food prices mean they still struggle. “Money cannot buy anything,” says Sivas. They should be Mugabe supporters; his land reforms gave them their new life. But they won’t be voting for him – not that they think it will make any difference. “Even if he loses he will win,” laughs Sivas.

In Bulawayo we meet Thys Devries, a white farmer who can trace his ancestry back to the Dutch settlers who came to southern Africa in the 1600s. His 20,000-hectare property in Hwange National Park was taken by force by the local governor and the trade minister’s brother-in-law. He was given six hours to leave. “I’m not against the land programme,” he says. “It has to happen. But not like this.” Once it was farmers, now it is business people being targeted. A law has just been passed requiring all businesses be majority-owned by “indigenous Zimbabweans”. People are wary of speaking out. In a house in Bulawayo, a civil engineer agrees to speak but is too scared to be named.

“It is blatant looting,” he says. “ They change the laws so theft becomes legalised. They have created an environment that is conducive to crime.” Like many, he does not see Mugabe as the sole problem. “Mugabe gets used as a personification. But it is a mafia, it is a gang which runs the country.” The economic crisis has devastated public services. Schoolteachers and doctors are paid a pittance, supplies are non-existent. HIV/Aids has ravaged the country. Life expectancy has fallen from 58 in 1980 to 34 for women and 37 for men. Zimbabwe has the world’s highest percentage of children orphaned by Aids.

We drive to Bulawayo’s Mpilo hospital. Inside, it is clean and quiet. Doctors and nurses sit behind a desk chatting. They have little to do. The paediatric ward is full, but there are no medicines, no treatments to administer. Parents have to buy drugs privately for their children.

Babies and small children lie in cots, some crying, most just staring into space. A two-year-old girl, stick thin with bulging eyes, is sitting wrapped in a blanket. Both her parents are dead. She is HIV positive. Doctors cannot give her antiretroviral drugs because they don’t have any. Her name is Perseverance.

A two-minute drive away lies West Park Cemetery. In an area no larger than a football pitch there are three funerals taking place. Gravestones used to be as ornate as anywhere in Europe. Now the details of deaths are scribbled in white paint on a small scrap of black metal stuck into the ground. We pass row upon row of children’s graves. Many are unmarked paupers’ graves.

Mugabe’s attempts to get a grip on the economy and bring down spiralling inflation have only made things worse. Three zeros were taken off the currency last year. Rumours are circling that four, five, maybe even six zeros will be taken off before the election.

Mugabe lays the blame for Zimbabwe’s economic crisis solely on the shoulders of the West, and in particular Britain. He cites the “economic sanctions” that prevent the World Bank and International Monetary Fund from giving money to Zimbabwe. But a lack of development loans does not lead to five-digit inflation. Mismanagement and corruption slowly eroded the productivity of one of Africa’s strongest economies in the 1990s.

The land invasions from 2000 saw commercial farming – once the backbone of Zimbabwe’s economy – collapse, as farms were handed over to government officials with no interest in working the land. Everything worth anything was stripped away and sold by Mugabe’s cronies; tens of thousands of workers lost their jobs. Zimbabwe, once an exporter of food, now relies on food aid.

New economic policies have become little more than fresh ways for the elite to make money. Senior party officials can make a fortune from buying US dollars at the official rate. Foreign investment has been scared away by out-of-control ­inflation and rampant corruption. ­Zimbabwe is sliding backwards at a frightening rate.

Bulawayo’s government-controlled newspaper, The Chronicle, reports that “animal-drawn ploughs” are being given to new farmers as part of the country’s “agricultural mechanisation programme”. “What did Zimbabwe have before candles?” asks one businessman we meet in Bulawayo. “Electricity.”

The Victoria Falls are marketed as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. They lie on the border between ­Zimbabwe and Zambia. For decades Zimbabwe was the place to go to see the Falls; there are better views from the Zimbabwean side of the border and more luxury hotels. But few tourists holiday here any more. By lunchtime only 100 people have gone through the turnstiles.

At the international airport two flights are about to leave and 40 passengers mill around, spending the last of their wads of Zimbabwean dollars. As we pass through immigration the officer stamping our passports says: “You’ll come again, yes?”

A brush with Mugabe’s police

Taking a photograph of an empty shelf doesn’t constitute a crime in most countries. But then Zimbabwe isn’t most countries. International journalists are banned: Monocle had to spend the week posing as tourists. In a Harare supermarket a young man in jeans and a T-shirt approached Monocle’s photographer Frédéric Courbet, and identified himself as a member of the Central Intelligence Organisation. He frogmarched Frédéric to the Central Police Station, but left me free to return to the hotel where I hid the journalistic evidence.

Then Monocle’s fixer and I went to the police station, where it took more than two hours to find Frederic, who was being held in the Criminal Investigations Department. Despite a massive budget and unlimited manpower the authorities lack certain resources. A simple Google search would have swiftly proved that Frédéric is a photographer and I am a journalist.

Three officers came back to the hotel to search our room. They weren’t thorough, and my bags went untouched. They had no evidence, but still wanted to hold Frédéric. The senior investigating officer broke away from his colleagues and intimated he wanted to talk. For a price, he said, Frédéric could be freed tonight. We settled on US$150. As I went to hand over the money, the officer started talking. “You have to understand,” he said. “Zimbabwe is a very difficult country at the moment. These people will arrest you if they see you again.”

There is a divide within the police force, between the regular police and those employed by Mugabe as spies. Those secret police, said the officer, would do anything to keep him in power. “They don’t like it when you come here and show the country how it is.” The next morning, he said, we should leave Harare immediately and make sure no one was following us. “I know what you’re doing here,” he said. “Just don’t put my name in your paper.”

An African hero

Robert Mugabe beamed as his fellow African leaders gave him a standing ovation at an African trade conference in Nairobi in May 2007, just two months after Mugabe’s police had beaten up opposition leaders. They backed him again when Angela Merkel criticised his regime at the EU-Africa Lisbon Summit in December 2007. While Britain, the EU and the US have been united in their criticism of Mugabe’s regime, Zimbabwe’s neighbours have been united in their defence of one of Africa’s liberation leaders. With every comment from Blair, Brown or Bush, Mugabe has been able to portray himself as a valiant African leader, fighting off those in the West who, he claims, wish to recolonise Zimbabwe. “Britain, Europe and America, you have your territory,” he said in Nairobi. “Hands off Africa.” Other African leaders have been wary of criticising Mugabe, a man who freed his country from minority white rule. “It is a typical African political disease,” says the MDC’s Elphas Mukonoweshuro. “They have a tendency to unite with leaders not with the people.” South Africa is a particular disappointment. Its president, Thabo Mbeki, prefers “quiet diplomacy”, leading negotiations between Zanu-PF and the MDC.







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