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'A country does not run on World Cups'

By Faisal Shariff
February 18, 2003 21:38 IST
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"Harare is safer than Johannesburg," said Zimbabwean umpire Russel Tiffin when I informed him yesterday that i was leaving for Harare the same evening.

Safer than Johannesburg?

"The English made a mountain of a molehill. How bad can it be really? Just take a flight the morning of the game or the night before, and fly back the same night," he argued.

Tiffin is not in a club of one. The same evening, my fellow passenger, a white South African lady in her late thirties who has lived all her life in Johannesburg, she said, "I feel safer in Harare than in Johannesburg."

A fequent traveller to Harare for business purposes, the lady knew what she was saying. The crime rate is much lower in Harare than it is in Johannesburg. 

The conversation drifted to Zimbabwe and its president Robert Mugabe, and the first thing she said was that the president had promised education to every Zimbabwean years ago. Today, she told me, Zimbabwe schools are amongst the best in all of Africa.

Landing at Harare airport at night was eerie. With rains blinding my vision, Zimbabwe seemed emptier than it probably was.

Scarcity of petrol was the reason for the empty streets, the taxi-driver told me. Political unrest was the other reason why everything shuts by 6 in the evening; but then so does everything in Johannesburg.

The land reforms introduced by Mugabe have escalated costs in Zimbabwe. The white farmers have lost their lands, the black farmers have been given those lands. Just one small detail has been overlooked.

What does one grow on these lands, without funds from the government? How does one cope with the Commonwealth sanctions against the African nation?

A twenty-year old boy who works at the hotel reception told me that he was unhappy with the way the government has handled the reforms.

"You can't throw the whites out. Ethnic cleansing is not possible in today's times. We should try to live together," he says.

The tough conditions have politically matured the youngsters of Zimbabwe, a country facing a famine and drought. The newspapers, appeasing the government, blame it on the El-Nino effect and the global warming processes. But the average Zimbabwean knows better than that.

In Harare, 'How're things?' is considered a rude greeting. That explains the state the country is in. Serpentine queues outside petrol pumps provide a sorry picture of a nation trying to move on, literally.

One US dollar is worth about 1400 Zimbabwean dollars in the black market here  -- though the official rate is around 55 Zimbabwean dollars. It does not take a mastermind to figure that the black market thrives.

The streets don't provide the carnival atmosphere of the World Cup that the South African cities do. Few people even know that the World Cup is being hosted in their country.

A nation doused in food riots is not interested in a game of cricket, though the 10,000 tickets for the game have been sold out.

Locals talk about the clout that Robert Mugabe's second wife Grace -- a hot-headed and beautiful 35-year old woman -- enjoys in Zimbabwe. Most of the policies that trouble Zimbabwe are majorly tinted with her opinion and wishes.   

"His first wife (Sally) was a great lady. She was more into charity than politics," says a lady who refused to be named.

Locals say Mugabe, who will be 79 this February 21, is a hero gone all wrong.

A young lady at a restaurant says that Mugabe was her hero, but now she does not like him. She has had to discontinue her studies because of inflation and work to make ends meet.

"I don't care about this World Cup. A country does not run on passion for sport, it runs on oil, of which there is none," says an old man who sits by one of the numerous flower parks in Harare.

And though the urban setting of Harare does not provide the picture of how bad life is in the inner pockets of Zimbabwe, the effects of the havoc created by the land reforms reverberate in the city as well.

Just five days ago, the country suffered a food-riot. A fellow journalist witnessed a shoot-out in front of her eyes. Maybe the England team made the right decision, but chose the wrong reason.    

Zimbabwe is a nation quietly praying for survival.

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Faisal Shariff