What's Behind Zimbabwe's Financial Crisis?

Farai Chideya talks with Machivenyika Mapuranga, Zimbabwe's ambassador to the United States, about the economic turmoil in his country and what's being done to fix the problem.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

Now we move from West Africa to the south. Zimbabwe is in dire straits. Inflation is at more than 6,000 percent. There are shortages of gas, cooking, oil, bread, sugar and salt.

Machivenyika Mapuranga is Zimbabwe's ambassador to the United States. We talked about one of the most well-known incidents in Zimbabwe's recent history when President Robert Mugabe began seizing the land of white farmers of British descent.

Many international observers say this was the tipping point in Zimbabwe's decline. But Ambassador Mapuranga says the story goes back further to a point where the United Kingdom promised to compensate white farmers for leaving Zimbabwe and then broke that promise.

Dr. MACHIVENYIKA MAPURANGA (Zimbabwe's Ambassador to the United States): When the British reneged on that promise to fund the land reform program, the government went to parliament to pass legislation and even to amend the constitution to enable government to acquire land forcibly because before then, land could not be acquired forcibly. You know, it was not to say the white farmers must leave, even as we speak today.

People don't know that Zimbabwe today, as we speak, has the third largest number of white farmers after South Africa and Namibia. We used to be number two after South Africa with something like - 4,500.

CHIDEYA: Ambassador, I'm not going to argue that point with you. But what - a couple points. One is that, undeniably, the amount of agricultural output has gone down. And whether or not you think that that's a function of land redistribution, there is an economic crisis. Why do you think then that that happened? And what are you going to do about it?

Dr. MAPURANGA: Yes. So in terms of agricultural production - yes, definitely. You cannot gainsay the fact that the acquisition of these vast tracts of land by people who had been denied the opportunity to become commercial farmers has contributed to the food shortages.

You know, I've always been asked this question, you shouldn't have done that, why did you do that? Because you were not - you, Africans, are not good farmers. And I've always said that how can you become a good farmer if you don't have the land?

CHIDEYA: Ambassador, how much time do you think you have? There's very little cooking oil, there's very little sugar, there's not even mealy(ph) meal in some places. And I'll just put the currency issue in a frame.

When I went to Zimbabwe in 1997, there were 10 Zim dollars to one U.S. dollar. By the time I came back in 2001, on the parallel market or the illegal currency market, it was 300 Zim dollars to one U.S. dollar.

Now, you can get well over 250,000 Zim dollars to one U.S. dollar. That is crushing to everyday people. While you were waiting to figure out how to turn around the nation, do you expect people to stay in the country or do you expect this mass exodus to continue?

Dr. MAPURANGA: Well, let me - I wouldn't call it a mass exodus. You know, if you look at the phenomenon of the brain drain or people leaving the country, going to South Africa and wherever the pastures are greener, this is an eternal - this is a universal phenomenon.

Even here, when you have the richest economy, the United States here and you have poor Mexico, you know, to the South, Americans are having to - maybe to construct a wall or a virtual wall, and the question of immigration is top of the agenda of Congress here. Whenever you have a dire economic situation, people leave for greener pastures. So this is not something that is peculiar to Zimbabwe.

Independence is not about having a flag in the national anthem. You have to control your natural resources and own your economy. And this is what we are heading towards, and we are going to suffer for that. But we are experimenting and actually exploring a new paradigm of development in Africa. And I think that the rest of Africa will follow us in the near future.

CHIDEYA: Ambassador, before we let you go, I want to move to the topic of elections. In July, we spoke with Arthur Mutambara. He is part of one of the factions of the Zimbabwean Movement for Democratic Change, one of the opposition parties.

Here's a little bit of what he said.

(Soundbite of past interview)

Mr. ARTHUR MUTAMBARA (President, Movement for Democratic Change, Zimbabwe): The three elements to Zimbabwean national crisis - on the first one, on political illegitimacy, what we're saying is those who are running the country called Zimbabwe are doing so without the consent of the governed. They empower through a fraudulent election. So the starting point in Zimbabwe is to make sure there are free and fair elections, the two wings of the MDC. We are working together in this mediation.

CHIDEYA: Ambassador, first of all, were the past elections fair and free? And secondly, what are you going to do in the future?

Dr. MAPURANGA: Well, the question of free and fair elections never became a question or an issue until the land reform program was launched in 2000 - in the year 2000.

The first democratic elections in Zimbabwe were organized and conducted by the last British governor, Lord Soames, and he said, Robert Mugabe, your party has won. You form a government. And every five years, we have had elections observed and validated by Africa's continental organization, the OAU, and - and our - the regional organization that we belong to, SADEC.

You know, I even asked the United States assistant secretary of state, Jendayi Frazer, when we visited the State Department. I said, how is it that elections take place in this one? And the European Union observes them and validates them as free and fair. And you never get the African Union or any African country -Nigeria or Zimbabwe or whatever - saying no, we have followed elections in Portugal. Even though the European Union says that they were free and fair, we don't believe they were free and fair, and we are going to impose sanctions who are in Portugal. But this is exactly what happens in our situation.

CHIDEYA: Well, Ambassador Mapuranga, we're just out of time. Thank you so much for joining us.

Dr. MAPURANGA: Thank you very much, again. You're welcome.

CHIDEYA: Machivenyika Mapuranga is Zimbabwe's ambassador to the United States. He spoke with us from our NPR studios in Washington.

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