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Gary Younge
Surviving Mugabe

"For a revolution to take place," wrote Vladimir Ilyich. "It is not enough for the exploited and oppressed masses to realise the impossibility of living in the old way, and demand changes; for a revolution to take place it is essential that the exploiters should not be able to live and rule in the old way."

At this stage it is difficult to see what will shift Mugabe, short of a revolution. He is not willing to accept the democratic will and not able to gauge the public mood. Moreover, all means of neutralising the more nefarious tendencies have either been neutralised or removed. In the past year he has cemented control of what was previously a reasonably independent judiciary. The very judges who once ruled the land occupations illegal have been intimidated from the bench, leaving him free to appoint his cronies.

The army generals who have risen within Zimbabwe's nomenklatura thanks to the ill-fated and costly military incursion into the Congo, are now fully incorporated into Mugabe's project for lifelong leadership. What their lower ranking and younger colleagues might do if forced to choose between turning their guns on civilians or their superiors remains an open question. But the top brass have made it clear that they will not respect a victory at the polls by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change in March's presidential elections.

And any hope of internal reform in Mugabe's party, Zanu, has also been extinguished. "There may be individuals within the party who are uncomfortable with the direction the country is going in," says Dr Jon Makumbe, professor of economics at the University of Zimbabwe. "But none that are confident enough to speak up and make a difference."

So Mugabe has coopted the entire might of the state to ensure that he can "rule in the old way". Meanwhile, even though his opponents in the Movement for Democratic Change are tirelessly demanding changes, it is not obvious that they have "realised the impossibility of living in the old way".

For while Mugabe's methods of suppression may not be subtle they have certainly been effective. Beneath the veneer of banality that still dominates daily life in Harare, an abnormal reality is growing. Gone are the casual conversations with strangers about politics. Activists work on the assumption that their phones are tapped. The secret police are more active than ever, prowling hotel lobbies and watering holes looking for journalists, activists, farmers and foreigners.

Under these circumstances almost everyone not directly involved with the state either is a dissident or has the potential to become one. Every step that Mugabe takes to gain more power is a sign that he is losing more influence. Gradually the MDC has grown not only to represent a political opposition but to encompass most of civil society. Strongest in the cities, Matabeleland and among the "Born Frees" - the young who have no memory of white minority rule in Rhodesia or Zanu's role in getting rid of it - the MDC's continued existence alone is a sign of defiance.

But while it grows in size it appears to have stalled in momentum. Mugabe's cooption of the state has not changed its strategy - to participate in elections everybody knows are neither free nor fair and to call on the foreign governments to assist it on the international stage while its members are routinely intimidated, injured, disappeared and occasionally murdered.

Given the magnitude of forces pitted against it, it is difficult to suggest what else it might do. "People keep asking why we don't do seem to be doing anything," says a local, who would not give her name. "But what they don't realise is that to be active here is to risk your life. People aren't out on the streets every day because they don't want to die."

In the end it will probably be economics that derails Mugabe before politics does. With its principal exports, such as tobacco and livestock, blighted by the farm occupations, tourism down to record lows and foreign investment all but dried up, Zimbabwe's economy is on its knees. Unemployment stands at 60%, inflation is 70% and the country is trying to stave off a food crisis after a collapse in the maize crop, which it used to produce in abundance.

The line between politics and economics is of, course, a blurry one. These shortfalls have been prompted by government policies, particularly over the past three or so years. But when push comes to shove, people may well riot for mealie meal before they take to the streets for the MDC and its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai.

It is a fact that the MDC would do well to remember, as it sets itself up as the government in waiting. At the core of its economic strategy, remains a dependence on the benevolence and deep pockets of international donors. But the experience of its larger neighbour, South Africa, suggests that foreign investors do not deal in good intentions but high returns.

"There is a sense of frustration that the government has done everything that international capital has asked of it," says Sakumzi Mocozoma, a former African National Congress MP and now the deputy chairman of the Standard Bank's investment division in Johannesburg. "But the political cost of that has not been rewarded and in some ways has even been punished by speculation against the rand. In retrospect I think we were a bit naive."

The experience of the rest of the continent suggests that the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are just as capable of taking mealie meal off the tables of the poor as Mugabe and not much more democratic either.

All the energy focused on the forthcoming elections in March does not fill one with optimism. If, against all the violence and vote rigging, the MDC still wins, then the army will intervene against it. If Zanu wins, then there will be more of the same and the repression will continue. Either way, the struggle is set to intensify and things are going to get worse before they can begin to get better. And if the national context is bleak, the international landscape for an African nation eager to redistribute land and restore democracy is not rosy either.

So is the situation entirely gloomy? To see the speed and scale with which a once relatively vibrant political culture has degraded into what is rapidly becoming martial law, leaves one in despair. To see the determination and bravery of those who continue to fight it, risking detention, torture and even death, and the culture of resistance that has spawned, gives one hope.

"There is light at the end of the tunnel," says Dr Makumbe. "The problem is they keep renting more tunnel."

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