‘Nice shoes,’ said a young Zimbabwean looking wistfully at my $40 Nike tennis shoes that I wore when I encountered him sitting on the floor of a completely barren Bata shoe store in the town of Victoria Falls. It was last November and I was in Zimbabwe having crossed the border from Botswana earlier that day.
The once charming town that used to teem with travellers from around the globe was more derelict and much emptier than I remembered it from my visit in the early 1990s. About half of the shops were either empty or closed altogether. The main shopping centre looked more like a warehouse and offered a few strategically placed products in an attempt to mask the widespread shortages of consumer goods. A small number of backpackers, mostly bemused young students from the former British dominions, wandered around the town centre in futile search of edible food. They were clearly delighted to see another white face — cracking jokes and drawing comfort from our shared ‘hardships’.
Few of the locals would talk to me and those who did would look over their shoulders — worried that someone might be listening. Zimbabwe suffers from 150,000 per cent inflation, unemployment of more than 80 per cent, collapse of basic public services and the lowest average life expectancy on earth. What was once a breadbasket of Africa is now an economic disaster zone. What was once a reasonably free society is now a police state where armed gangs of government supporters harass, beat and kill opposition members with utter impunity.
As I reflected on what I saw, it struck me how much Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe resembled what I read about the Congo in the final years of rule by another corrupt and megalomaniac dictator — Mobutu Sese Seko. Like Mobutu, Mugabe came to power promising a new dawn for a nation that had just emerged from under a white minority rule.