The Destroyer

081027_r17847_p465 Jon Lee Anderson in The New Yorker:

“Empowerment” has been one of the rhetorical pillars of Mugabe’s government, but many of the schemes to benefit black “indigenous Zimbabweans” have been used by those in positions of authority or influence to enrich themselves. For all the talk of redistribution, Mugabe and his circle have not so much broken with the past as assumed for themselves an updated version of the country-club life style once enjoyed exclusively by the nation’s whites. There are many newly built luxury villas in Harare, and a sizable number of Mercedes-Benzes and Volvos, the vehicles of choice among Zimbabwe’s black nomenklatura. (Affluent whites seem to prefer S.U.V.s.) In 2005, Mugabe and his wife moved into a new twenty-five-bedroom mansion in Borrowdale Brooke, a Harare suburb, which cost a reported ten million U.S. dollars to build. Nobody knows exactly how he paid for it, but in Harare it is received wisdom that the mansion was financed by the Chinese, to whom the President had granted lucrative mining and trade concessions. Mugabe said openly that he had the help of “foreign governments.” (He added that Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, a personal friend, had donated tropical timber for the roof; China was reported to have supplied the shiny blue roof tiles.) Grace Mugabe has become infamous for her shopping expeditions abroad and, like Imelda Marcos, her expensive taste in shoes; she has been quoted as saying that because of her narrow feet she can “only wear Ferragamo.” Shortly after her marriage to Mugabe, Grace oversaw the construction of another mansion, called Graceland, which was allegedly built with public funds. She later sold Graceland to the Libyan government.

Another legacy of the colonial era is the cross-hatching of interests between the government and the private sector. A mining-company official I met with, a white man and a prominent figure in Zimbabwe, spoke of fending off direct requests for bribes from a senior cabinet minister, whom he described as “especially rapacious.” He confided that the executives of several mining companies had, under pressure, given large sums of money to government officials that were used to help fund the ZANU-P.F. election campaign. He added that Mugabe and his cronies would probably continue to use the threat of expropriation of the mines as a “political bludgeon” to extract bribes from mining companies. Meanwhile, he expected to see “more Chinese take over more dubious concessions.”

This kleptocratic style of government has had a trickle-down effect: corruption and graft are depressingly unremarkable in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.