PARIS - Robert Mugabe, who died in ignominy this month at 95, swept into his first African summit in 1981 as a conquering hero, a teacher-turned-guerrilla leader in a snazzy suit and silk tie. He preached Marxism, but as prime minister he ran a laissez-faire economy that was anything but.
“I'd lay good money that Zimbabwe is going to hold together and prosper to boot,” Gregory Jaynes wrote back then in the New York Times. “Mugabe fought colonialists of British stock for majority rule and a finely tuned capitalist system he appears to want to keep.”
We reporters at that Nairobi summit mostly agreed, and that remained a safe bet for more than a decade. Despite a vicious seven-year civil war that took 20,000 lives, Zimbabwe thrived with a multiracial parliament and an uncommonly well-run government.
White-owned commercial farms exported enough maize to feed 10 percent of Africa and paid laborers fair wages. Industry bustled. Tourists flocked to the spectacular Victoria Falls, hobnobbed with rhinos along the Zambezi and explored ancient Great Zimbabwe ruins.
Harare was sensational when jacaranda blossoms fell like purple rain on the main city square outside the elegant paneled bar at Meikle's Hotel. Wealthy Zimbabweans, black and white, filled restaurants, clubbed until late, walked home without looking over their shoulders. Reporters blew in without visas, and officials spoke freely with rare frankness.
In those early days, Mugabe told Reuters it would be senseless to take part in trade sanctions against South Africa. Zimbabwe's economic independence depended on its giant white-ruled neighbor.
Some whites moved south, forming what was jokingly known as the When-we tribe - as in, “When we were in Rhodesia…” But many stayed. On each visit, I drove north to see a friend with a large commercial farm. He left his doors unlocked when he went into town to carouse with pals. I hung out with his workers, who sent their kids to school and to skilled doctors.
It was no miracle of coexistence. But, however fraught with tense mistrust among many blacks and whites, it worked.
As time went on, Mugabe made himself president, rather than a prime minister answering to parliament and his people. He set out to demonstrate just how much absolute power can corrupt absolutely. Death squads squelched his opponents.
Mugabe was especially ruthless toward his old Matabeleland rivals, who dominated southwestern Zimbabwe. But in those early years, outsiders cruised around the country unhindered by roadblocks and thuggish cops, which plagued so much of Africa.
In 2000, Mugabe seized 4,500 white-owned farms to parcel out land to black farmers. Most of it went to his cronies. In violent clashes, at least 11 white owners and scores of black workers were murdered. A half million families lost their homes and livelihoods. Soon, the country was desperately short of food, and unemployment topped 90 percent.
By 2008, a Cato Institute study calculated, inflation was 79.6 billion percent month-on-month. In November, it said, inflation reached 89.7 sextillion percent compared to the previous year. (I didn't check the math, but hyperinflation is a pretty safe term.) A new 100-trillion-dollar Zimbabwean banknote issued in January was worth two U.S. dollars. With worthless currency, people survived on a ruthless barter economy.
Beyond the figures, human stories matter most. In 2009, I asked Jon Lee Anderson to write a piece for Dispatches after he returned from Zimbabwe. He concluded it with Genevieve Pirih, 38, who had fled to South Africa. “She was educated and excruciatingly polite,” he wrote. “She was very thin and wore an old gray pantsuit and frayed black shoes, and the erect way she held herself told me that she had fallen on hard times but wished to conceal it.”
She worked for the government-owned Herald until she and others objected to the editor that the paper said nothing about food riots. They were arrested, beaten and jailed for six months. One was raped and later died.
Jon Lee wrote:
“I asked Genevieve how she was surviving. 'By the Grace of God,' she said quietly. She explained that she was living together with 23 other Zimbabwean refugees in three rooms of a rented house in one of the townships on Johannesburg's outskirts. 'I have had to humble myself. I am doing washing, of clothes.' Glancing at me, she added: 'I want a clean life.'
“I realized that what Genevieve was trying to say was that she had not become a prostitute. She reached into her purse and extracted an identity card that identified her as a Zimbabwean refugee. She handed it to me and pointed to her photograph; it had been taken a year earlier.
“'Do you see?' she asked with a smile. 'I was much fuller-faced then.' Her eyes told me that she was embarrassed about her thinness, and that she wanted me to see that she had once been beautiful.”
Mugabe was forced out in 2017, aging and ailing, and he died on Sept. 6 in Singapore. His old enforcer, Emmerson Mnangagwa, replaced him. Despite promises that evoked jubilation and high hopes, Mnangagwa instead lives up to his nickname, the Crocodile.
An NPR report this week said the downhill slide continues. Doctors abandon practices to sell stuff in open-air black markets. One young professional said he was desperate to leave, but the government couldn’t afford to make passports.
Stepping back, Mugabe's Zimbabwe says much about why too many potentially rich countries with hardworking capable people now qualify for Donald Trump's contemptuous catchall: shitholes.
Blame is widely shared, from corrupt leaders courted by foreign governments seeking political allies and raw materials to global companies that pay bribes for competitive advantage.
As populations soar and climate chaos condemns arable land, the world is running out of food.
In the 1980s, Zimbabwe and Sudan alone could have supplied grain for all of Africa, with an excess for world markets. In West Africa, rivers could have irrigated rice and millet. Elsewhere, tsetse fly control to protect cattle and managed game could have added protein.
It is too late for could-haves. Africans are now nearly as numerous as Chinese. By 2050, they are projected to total 2.5 billion on a continent where millions are already on the move, fleeing hunger or violence. And If humans survive until 2100, one of three will be African.
Robert Mugabe showed how a power-corrupted despot can turn a breadbasket into a basket case. After farming collapsed, hungry people decimated wildlife, from noble big game to bite-sized rodents. When there was nothing to shoot, the options were stealing or starving.
That's what happens when fathers are desperate to feed their families in Zimbabwe or Venezuela or anywhere else. At the extreme, food no longer goes to those rich enough to pay soaring prices but rather to those who are prepared to take it.