Zimbabwe

A Brief Look at Mugabe's Legacy

36 years of dictatorship in Zimbabwe.

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They say that it is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. Back in 2000, when Robert Mugabe started to expropriate commercial farms in Zimbabwe, thus consigning that country to economic ruin, I predicted that the good people of Zimbabwe would revolt rather than see their country go down the tubes. Sixteen years later, Mugabe is still in charge and Zimbabwe's economy has been, by and large, destroyed. Having learned a lesson—note to Bill Kristol—I have not made another prediction since.

On the upside, Mugabe will have to die someday. According to South Africa's Mail & Guardian, the 92-year-old has recently relinquished many of his responsibilities, works only 30 minutes a day and had his Singaporean doctors flown in to Harare for an unspecified medical procedure. Assuming that the dictator really is on his final, unlamented, leg, let us look at three highlights of his 36 years in office. (To put Mugabe's legacy in perspective, I will compare Zimbabwe with its regional neighbors: Botswana, Namibia and Zambia.)

When Mugabe took over, life expectancy in Zimbabwe was 60.5 years. It peaked in 1990 at 63 years. Then came the HIV/AIDS epidemic and life expectancy collapsed to a low of 40.7 years in 2002. While HIV/AIDS hit the entire Southern African region, the consequences of the epidemic were particularly devastating in Zimbabwe; they were exacerbated by the collapse of Zimbabwe's healthcare system that followed the economic meltdown, malnutrition and the spread of other communicable diseases, such as cholera and tuberculosis. Today, life expectancy remains lower than what it was 36 years ago.

Now let us look at inflation adjusted income per capita, which was $633 in 1980. Average income rose to an all time high in the mid-1990s, but then collapsed to $458. That's a decline of 28 percent. (I have not used my favorite income data set, which adjusts not only for inflation, but also purchasing power parity, because it has no data for Botswana.) Contrast that with Botswana, where incomes rose by 285 percent. Even Zambia, which toyed with socialism in the 1970s and 1980s, is today richer than Zimbabwe. Worldwide, incomes rose by 57 percent and average income in Africa rose by 68 percent between 1980 and 2015. And, let us not forget that Mugabe's economic mismanagement resulted in the second highest hyperinflation in recorded history. According to my Cato colleague Steve Hanke, it reached 90 sextillion percent in 2008, with prices doubling every 24.7 hours.

Last, but not least, consider political freedom. Back in 1980, Zimbabwe was hardly a liberal democracy, but Mugabe, a convinced Marxist, managed to make things much worse. He turned Zimbabwe into a one-party state and sent his North Korean-trained goons to wipe out 20,000 supporters of the opposition in the province of Matabeleland. Zimbabwe's "democracy score" nosedived between 1980 and 2008, when Mugabe's ZANU-PF party was forced into a power-sharing agreement with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.

Today, Zimbabwe, once Africa's second most sophisticated economy, is a wasteland. As the aging dictator's hold on power slips away, Mugabe's successor will face the unenviable task of undoing 36 years of failure.

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  1. Why is there a graph about GDP following the paragraph about income?

    1. Because GDP per capita is a generall accepted indicator of individual incomes.

  2. …Mugabe’s successor will face the unenviable task of undoing 36 years of failure.

    If that successor even tries. I’m guessing life in the presidential palace is pretty nice and well sheltered from the rest of the state. But I always wondered how a place pulls itself out of hole this deep. What would Zimbabwe’s or North Korea’s or Venezuela’s first step be? The task seems daunting but in reality it probably wouldn’t take much as a free market would I imagine spring up to fill needs.

    1. It’s like asking what someone needs to do allow a choking man to breathe. Simple. Quit choking him.

      1. Not so simple when the hands extract their own livelihood from the throat they’re wrapped about.

        1. I didn’t say it was easy. But it is simple.

        2. So have a disinterested third party extract their livelihood for them?

          1. There’s never any such thing.

        3. So have a disinterested third party extract their livelihood for them?

            1. I’m rounding up one now! Volunteer to join me early on, and you can be a squirrel Major-General!

      2. In principle, you’re right. The thing is, large portions of the population made their plans around the status quo. It’s necessary, but there is certainly some transitional pain.

    2. The problem is even here, in the richest country
      in the history of the world, a large percentage of the country doesn’t believe in the free market. I can’t imagine a country that is hostile to free market philosophy climbing out of poverty.

      1. People would rather be equally poor than unequally rich.

        The American experiment in liberty has failed.

        1. The Botswanan experiment seems to be doing OK.

      2. “a large percentage of the country doesn’t believe in the free market.”

        The infuriating thing is that a large proportion of that percentage want, or claim to want, some kind of broad touchy-feelie ‘let’s consult everybody’ system for setting prices and wages. That, of course, is exactly what the free market is, but since it produces results that they are SURE cannot be the free choice of ‘the people’ they refuse to believe it.

        The free market isn’t perfect. It frequently insists on slapping absurdly high prices on trip like Beanie Babies. But, rather like Representative Democracy, it is better than any other system extant.

      3. I do not believe that. I believe that coercive nanny government has so thoroughly soaked the civic consciousness that people cannot imagine life without government sticking its nose into every last nook and cranny of life, to the point that people automatically look over their shoulders first — competitor doing too well? see if the county supervisor friend can send some code or health inspectors over for a look-see. Neighbor getting under your skin? Call in an anonymous building code violation, or that their lawn isn’t up to code spec, or their kitchen curtains.

        No one can stick to their principles 100% of the time when there’s a coercive government around, and when it literally becomes counter-productive to mind your own business, when you can do better by being friends with local local inspectors than by literally minding your own business — well, people follow incentives and aren’t stupid.

        I believe that if the Constitution were strictly followed and government shrunk to 1% of its current size, including local and state governments, people would stop looking to government to solve all their problems.

  3. I bet the Great Powers, and the UN, are so proud that they rejected the Internal Settlement of 1978, under which Bishop Muzorewa became President. But international sanctions continued because Mugabe wasn’t part of the deal. So they cut another deal under which Mugabe took over and the International Community dropped its sanctions.

    Heck of a job, international community!

    1. The 1970s – “a low, dishonest decade.”

    2. Simple test of any ‘solution’; does the UN approve? Drop it like a live grenade!

    3. Ian Smith still effectively controlled the country under the “internal settlement”, as most of the country was under martial law and the settlement provided that he basically had absolute control there. Muzorewa was just a useful idiot with little real power. I think most people expected a more moderate regime to take power once actual democracy was implemented, people were shocked when Mugabe won the election. But don’t act as if eternal continuation of rule by white supremacists was an acceptable solution.

  4. “Today, Zimbabwe, once Africa’s second most sophisticated economy, is a wasteland. As the aging dictator’s hold on power slips away, Mugabe’s successor will face the unenviable task of undoing 36 years of failure.”

    Well the first to consider is that in a post marxist economy the only people with any working capital are black market actors, and consumers with connections to the black market. These are the type of people who have to suspend their belief in the rule of law in order to survive, and prosper. They do have a chance, but it may take a few generations for their society to re discover the benefits of the rule of law.

  5. I saw this opinion letter written last April where it was mentionned they miss Rhodesia and Ian Smith. http://www.newzimbabwe.com/opi…..inion.aspx

    The way Zimbabwe is currently, I guess some folks might want to rename back Rhodesia.

  6. I don’t mean to sound melodramatic, and this is by no means a short-term forecast, but I can’t help but wonder to what extent, rather than them emulating us, our government (and a lot of citizens) have decided to emulate them. I mean, not that long ago, I remember when the U.S. used to lecture third world countries about the dangers of cronyism and the need to let zombie industries restructure or die. Now it’s significant and growing portion of our own economy.

    And, honestly, given the trends, I can easily see one side or the other deciding to respond to their domestic opposition with violence. Like I said, not in the near-term, but played out over a couple of cycles, it’s not unthinkable.

  7. Once Mugabe kicks off, it will become a military dictatorship, ably supported by South Africa, itself in the throes of a nascent autocracy. Ostensibly the military will cite keeping of the peace as the excuse for taking over the reins of power. They’ probably even promise fresh elections soon. But we all know what a crock that will be. Zim’s army was trained by the Norks and a large number of the upper ranks have interests in various mining ventures (mostly illegal but that’s never stopped a true tinpot) as well as the black market. If its citizens think it’s bad now, a Mugabeless Zimbabwe will be 10 times worse.

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  10. That headlines got my hopes up too soon.

  11. Mugabe was propped up by South Africa President Thabo Mbeki during Zimbabwe’s period of maximum economic ruin and political unrest. Mbeki was “teaching a lesson” to two distinct South African constituencies: (1) to Black South Africans tempted by the communist far-left: this is what South Africa will look like if you destroy the business sector; (2) to the White business sector: this is what we’ll do to you if you ally with a powerful opposition party. (Before Mugabe wiped them out, Zimbabwe’s White business and agricultural interests had been expressing political discontent with Mugabe’s increasing corruption.)

  12. As the aging dictator’s hold on power slips away, Mugabe’s successor will face the unenviable task of undoing 36 years of failure.

    If the reigns of Kim Jong Il and Hugo Chavez have taught us anything, Zimbabwe’s next ruler is going to double down.

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