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Andrew Palmer: Zimbabwe's problems will outlast Mugabe

Andrew_palmer_2 Andrew Palmer, who works at the Parliamentary Resources Unit providing briefings for Conservative MPs on work and pensions, recounts a recent visit to Zimbabwe.

It was with some apprehension that we approached the Zimbabwe border. The trip had been on my mind for some time. What would we find, who would we meet and, most importantly, how would two British nationals be received?

The country’s border is apparent many miles before you reach it. The queues of lorries stack up as far as the eye can see. Carrying much-needed resources, the drivers sit and wait as the laboriously slow checks are completed. Many of them face delays of months before they reach their final destination.

The sight of our British passports brings raised looks from the stern immigration officer. With suspicion, he carries out his examination, pausing frequently to question our intentions.

Past the border the roads are eerily quiet. Few here can afford the price of fuel. We stop at the first small town we come to. As we exit the car a man approaches carrying an array of handicrafts but instead of money he begs to trade his goods for my trainers – something he can sell, something of substance. Empty plastic water bottles, pens and spare clothing have become the currency of the new Zimbabwe. 

We enter the main square and approach some shops. If the elegant buildings are a reminder of a Zimbabwe past, the empty shelves serve as a reminder of Zimbabwe present. There is little here you can buy and what is for sale is subject to the country’s crippling hyperinflation. A £5 disposable camera retails for $250 US. 

Gladys, an employee on the local game reserve, gives a weary smile when asked about the future. The tourists have stopped coming, at this time of year the town use to be full. To compound matters the area is suffering from intense drought. The river has dried and the animals are disappearing, threatening her livelihood. The long term impact of Mugabe’s 28 year rule is becoming clear. 

Another man, John, who lives in the nearby township, tells us of his frequent trips across the border in order to feed his family. Its close proximity provides him and his family with access to the grain and goods of Zambia. Those deeper into the country have no such luxury. As desperation increases he explains how the country’s major cities are being plagued by violence. He no longer travels there.

You can not fail to sense a growing feeling of despair amongst this community. A withdrawn frustration is emitted by these people who have been failed by Mugabe, abandoned by the international community and let down by South African silence. But while dissatisfaction may be widespread, John did not believe it will lead to an uprising – the people were too used to Mugabe, too used to the fear.

Now the mood has clearly changed, momentum is building. It is therefore essential that inside pressure is matched by outside support. The UK Government urgently needs to take a lead and form a united and sustainable international consensus. Too often hard words have been met by soft action. If the rest of the world will not act then why should its African neighbours?

It's still not certain how the aftermath of these elections will pan out. What is certain is that Gladys, John and the rest of the Zimbabwean population will continue to face a troubled future. Zimbabwe’s problems will far outlast Mugabe.


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