Letter from Zimbabwe
I've spent the past five days in Harare, on a rare, officially-approved reporting trip to Zimbabwe. So I thought you might be interested in my impressions, ahead of my radio report, which we hope to broadcast next week. (And by the way, there were no restrictions on where we could go or whom we could talk to, nor were we accompanied at any point by government officials.)
First, it was peaceful. I saw scarcely a single soldier on the streets of the capital, not even outside government buildings - and the only police I saw were on traffic duty, waving down motorists and imposing euphemistically-named "spot fines" for such esoteric offences as not carrying a fire extinguisher.
Second, it was relaxed. We were greeted warmly, people were happy to talk openly, and to voice long lists of criticisms of the government of President Robert Mugabe. (Mind you, Harare has long been a stronghold of the former opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, which has been in an unhappy coalition with the president's ZANU-PF party since 2009.)
So everything in Zimbabwe is fine now? Er, no, not exactly. The economy is in a shambles, the country is producing less electric power than it was at the time of independence 32 years ago, and the government of national unity is anything but united. There are deep-seated fears of renewed violence in the run-up to elections due within the next 12 months, and there are plenty of reports of intimidation and worse of opposition supporters in rural areas.
If you calculate Zimbabwe's national wealth in terms of economic output per head of population, and adjust it to take account of the cost of living, the country comes almost at the bottom of the list of the world's poorest countries, right down there with Liberia, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. More than half the population live below the official poverty line.
As for the national unity government, well, when I interviewed the prime minister and former opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the garden of his Harare home, he described his relationship with President Mugabe as "a working marriage, not a happy marriage". They meet once a week, and the PM insists that the 88-year-old president does pay attention to his views.
But that's not the impression given by pro-Mugabe hardliners like the justice minister Patrick Chinamasa. We met in his office, where he harangued me about the "puppets" of the West, which is how he described the MDC. As for the demands from the European Union and the Southern Africa regional grouping SADC that he introduce sweeping reforms of the police and judicial systems, he brushed them aside. No need, he said, everything is working fine.
Tell that to the former MDC MP Munyaradzi Gwisai, now a university law lecturer, who runs the Zimbabwean branch of the International Socialist Organisation. He and five others were arrested and charged with conspiring to commit violence at a meeting where they were watching a video showing the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
They say they were severely beaten while in custody - Gwisai told me he was taken to what he called a "torture chamber" in the central police station -- but they were spared the 10-year jail terms to which they could have been sentenced. Instead they were fined 500 US dollars each and ordered to do more than 400 hours of community service.
Why, you may wonder, were they fined in US dollars? Because the greenback is now Zimbabwe's official currency, after its own currency imploded three years ago beneath the weight of a hyper-inflation nightmare which reached an annual rate of 230 million per cent before they gave up and stopped counting.
As a result, there is now food in the shops again, and teachers and doctors are being paid. At Harare's central hospital, the clinical director, Gan Vera, told me they've made great strides since the worst days of 2008-9, but they're still not back to where they were a decade ago.
And that just about sums up the country as a whole. Zimbabwe is a better place than it was three years ago, when post-electoral violence claimed the lives of at least 200 people, and thousands more lived in terror of ZANU-PF thugs. But many people told me they are still waiting nervously for what a post-Mugabe era might bring. Politics is on hold pending "the transition" and it's making a lot of people jittery.
One woman I met spelt it out with brutal simplicity: "We just want the president to die," she said.
We hope to broadcast my reports from Zimbabwe and South Africa on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday next week, so do try to tune in.