Mugabe: 'Let them eat potatoes'

Michelle Faul | United Nations

18 September 2005 08:17

The African leader some call a hero and others a destructive despot suggests
people in his country aren't hungry, they just can't eat their favourite food.

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe said in an exclusive interview with The
Associated Press on Friday that his people are "very, very happy", though aid
agencies report four million of 11,6-million face famine.

"You describe it as if we have a whole cemetery," Mugabe said of a reporter's
description of the Southern African nation's dire straits, blaming "continuous
years of drought".

The problem is reliance on corn, he said, "but it doesn't mean we haven't other
things to eat. We have heaps of potatoes but people are not potato eaters ...
they have rice but they're not as attracted [to that]."

But the cost of potatoes is beyond the pocket of ordinary Zimbabweans.

Internationally, Mugabe has become a pariah and looked set for further isolation
at the weekend, when the United States government said it was preparing travel
sanctions against him, his government and family members, prohibiting them from
travelling to the US.

That would be punishment for alleged gross human rights abuses, including
torture of opponents and theft of elections, most recently in March.

Zimbabwe became one of Africa's most vibrant economies under Mugabe, who was
elected in landslide 1979 elections after a seven-year guerrilla war forced an
end to white minority rule in Rhodesia, once a British colony.

He assured nervous white farmers, then fleeing the country, that "there is a
place for you in the sun".

Zimbabwe became the regional bread basket, with about 5 000 white commercial
farmers growing enough to feed the nation and export.

Buyers from all over the world came to Zimbabwe's annual tobacco auction and
tourists flocked to the Victoria Falls and wildlife reserves, while its
Sandawana emeralds and renowned Shona stone sculpture were widely popular.

That changed in the 1990s. Mugabe's rule became increasingly repressive against
a growingly vociferous opposition and corruption grew rampant. Mugabe then
seized on an issue that long has preoccupied Africans -- land ownership.

Pointing to a distribution that had a few thousand whites owning tens of
thousands of hectares of rich lands, the government began appropriating white
farms in a violent campaign in which some white farmers were killed.

Tens of thousands of farmworkers lost their jobs and most land was distributed
to the family and friends of politically connected Zimbabweans, though some
ordinary people got small plots.

Last week, the Commercial Farmers' Union said fewer than 1 000 white commercial
farmers remain, working a fraction of land they once sowed. A parliamentary
committee said there would be no farming season this year, even if the drought
breaks, because there are no seeds, no agricultural chemicals because there is
no foreign currency, and no fuel to transport products or work tractors.

Every day in Zimbabwe, queues more than a kilometre long form for basics such as
bread and gasoline.

Zimbabweans also are reeling from what Mugabe calls a "clean-up" campaign, in
which hundreds of thousands of poor and working-class urban people lost their
homes to bulldozers.

Mugabe insisted, though: "We pride ourselves as being top, really, on the
African ladder ... We feel that we have actually been advancing rather than
going backwards."

Yet on September 8, setting out Zimbabwe's aims for the United Nations
Millennium Development Goals before heading to the World Summit, he said the
number of Zimbabweans who cannot afford one daily balanced meal has risen from
20% in 1995 to 48% in 2003, and that 63% now cannot afford more comprehensive
basic needs, including things like school fees.

In Africa, his seizure of lands that whites took from natives when they
colonised in the 1800s is applauded, and he is seen as a towering hero.

Now, he said, his government will take a stake in private mining enterprises to
ensure Zimbabweans benefit from their natural resources. He said he expects
companies mining there, including the multinational Anglo American, to
understand that desire.

"What we intend to do is for the state to have a stake in the production of some
of our minerals -- gold, platinum, diamonds," he said. "We just want to be
partners. We are not doing anything unusual, and this is the practice in many

Zimbabwe also mines coal, chromium ore, asbestos, nickel, copper, iron ore,
vanadium, lithium and tin.

Mugabe (81) said he has fulfilled all his ambitions except retirement. He plans
to stop being president in 2008, and write and farm, but said he'll remain in
politics until he dies.

"I can't retire from that unless the Almighty says, 'Enough is enough.'" --