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New Report Blasts Government of Zimbabwe

Aired September 9, 2006 - 12:30:00   ET


FEMI OKE, HOST: Hello, I'm Femi Oke. Welcome to INSIDE AFRICA, our weekly look at news and life on the continent.
A year after 700,000 people were forced from their homes in Zimbabwe cities, two reports are blasting the government for those who remained homeless. Amnesty International and the Solidarity Peace Trust say the government which demolished the homes as part of Operation Drive Out Filth has broken its promise to build new houses for those who were evicted. But the government has condemned the reports and calling them lies. Channel 4's Jonathan Miller reports:


JONATHAN MILLER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Baby dumpings, what they call it. It happens when parents, too poor, too sick, too hungry to feed, cloth and send their children to school just abandon them. Sixty dumped children found salvation in a church-run orphanage on the outskirts of Harare. Many - AIDS orphans, some of them HIV-positive.

Baby dumpings surged since the government of Robert Mugabe launched Operation Murambatsvina, Operation Drive Out the Filth.

In just a few weeks and against the background of already spiraling poverty and social disintegration, three quarters of a million people lost their homes and their livelihoods. A year on from what the U.N. branded an unjustified catastrophe, the Solidarity Peace Trust paints a grim picture of just how bad things now are. The state of meltdown is dire, the report says.

Almost nothing done to house those who lost everything, just a handful of new houses. No jobs. People living, the report says, in the state of permanent existential crisis. No way out.

UNIDENTIFED FEMALE: This is a failure. Because they must know that everyone is a human being, he also wants to stay in a house.

MILLER: The government's house building program itself mired in scandal, the report says. Most of the few hundred units that have been built ending up in the hands of government cronies or the Zimbabwean army.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is supposed to be for us, because the government destroyed our houses. Now he is putting his own people. For what reason? Why?

MILLER: But the Solidarity Peace Trust calls on the United Nations and the international community to overlook for the moment the question of who lives in the houses, just get on with building some. As the urban poor, whom the government cleansed are still urban albeit homeless, but now even poor.

The cameraman enters a shack, stumbling by chance across the harrowing reality of Mugabe's Zimbabwe: A dead body, untended, unburied. Funeral costs often too much to bear.

With 75 percent unemployment, four out of every five Zimbabweans eke a living from the informal sector, which the government has declared illegal. With tens of thousands now living on the run and sliding ever further into poverty, an urgent need, the trust says, to decriminalize street vendors and build new markets.

In an eastern suburb of the capital, six orphaned children living with their grandparents. They're all AIDS orphans too. But this old couple have no money; their one source of income, rent from a small house bulldozed by the government last year.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): Now I'm left with my grandchildren. I have no money, no water. We're living like destitutes. I don't know what to do. I wish I could get someone to help us to send these children to school. Then I'd be happy. When the sun rises every day, we ask our neighbors for food, but they have nothing to give. If I'd had some money, I'd had paid the water bills.

MILLER: Today, Solidarity Peace Trust report says school enrollment and attendance has dropped right off. People are failing to access even basic health care, too. Hunger is rife.

In Harare, a government minister dismissed the report as absolutely not true. Another told Channel 4 News that the government had been building houses, and was doing so under what he called "illegal sanctions imposed by the U.K. and the U.S.," which were making conditions extremely difficult.

With Zimbabwe in meltdown and its economy in freefall, the veteran President Robert Mugabe attended the state opening of parliament. His a country spending its money buying jet fighters from China, and a president spending his time decrying his critics as agents of violence and purveyors of falsehood.


OKE: And that was Channel 4's Jonathan Miller reporting.

To learn more about the conditions in Zimbabwe, I spoke to journalist Andrew Meldrum. He lived in Zimbabwe for more than 20 years and was thrown out of the country in 2003, expelled over his reporting. Medrum is also the author of the book "Where We Have Hope: A Memoir of Zimbabwe." He joined us from our South Africa bureau in Johannesburg. We began by talking about the current conditions in Zimbabwe.


ANDREW MELDRUM, JOURNALIST: Well, the people who were evicted a year ago were on the streets in the middle of Zimbabwe's winter, and they were sleeping rough out in the open. It was entire families from mothers, fathers, children, grandparents. And a year later, a large majority of those people -- and it's 700,000 people -- are still homeless, sometimes living in makeshift shelters under squalid conditions. It's a recipe for a public health disaster.

OKE: There was a huge international outcry as these evictions were taking place, but Robert Mugabe's administration said that there was going to be a government housing plan. What's happened to that? How is that coming along?

MELDRUM: Studies - one has to do studies to try and find the government housing, and in fact, there were about - about 2,000 houses that were built. They were makeshift shelters, really, all in the city of Harare, not across the country. And many of those were allocated to government officials. So the 700,000 people who were made homeless are still homeless. The whole idea, the whole government ruse of saying that they were doing an urban clean-up and creating new housing was really just that, a false promise to try and put a nice gloss over what was a very ruthless operation.

OKE: Now, many of the international critics are looking at Robert Mugabe's administration and thinking perhaps that if Robert Mugabe wasn't there, things would be so much better for Zimbabwe. Is that true, or are there more people behind him?

MELDRUM: Well, Robert Mugabe is the president of the country, but he runs the country for the ruling party, ZANU-PF. And so - and it was as - as you have pointed out, it was the police, it was ministers of housing, minister of security that took part in this. They carried out this major urban clean-up that made 700,000 people homeless.

What is needed in Zimbabwe is not only a change of leadership; what is needed is a restoration of democracy, a restoration of respect for the rule of law and of reasonable economic policies that would return Zimbabwe to what it used to be, which is one of the most prosperous countries in Africa.

OKE: And looking ahead, the future for those 700,000 people who are now trying to eke out some kind of living?

MELDRUM: Well, they're still, as you point out, trying to eke out a living. They're living in the informal sector. They're traders who are buying and selling vegetables and scarce commodities. They are also taking piece jobs, getting work by the day, maybe sometimes in a factory, maybe sometimes in someone's home. You know, they're - they're really living from hand to mouth day to day. And it's a major urban disaster not only in Harare, but in Bulawayo, in Mutare, in Kwekwe, in Gweru, in all the urban centers of Zimbabwe.


OKE: Andrew Meldrum says reporters who get a lot of their information by e-mail could soon have that curtailed. He says there is currently a bill before the Zimbabwean parliament that would allow authorities to monitor all e-mail traffic and listen to mobile phone calls.

We're going to take a break here, but there is much more to come on INSIDE AFRICA. We will talk to one of the U.N.'s top officials on AIDS about South Africa. I promise you, you won't want to miss what he has to say.


OKE: Hi there. Good to see you again.

South Africa's health minister has been under fire for some time over her views on the treatment of HIV/AIDS. This week, a group of international scientists called for the resignation of Dr. Tshabalala- Msimang. But the health minister's office released a statement Friday. In part, it reads: "The ministry's comprehensive plan emphasizes prevention as a central element of the response to HIV and AIDS." It also quotes the World Health Organization saying: "According to the WHO, 80 percent of people in Africa use traditional medicine for various conditions, including those associated with HIV and AIDS. The plan recognizes the role of traditional medicine and promotes research and development of these medicines."

Now, the cause for firing the health minister grew out of last month's international AIDS conference in Canada, where the U.N. special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, Stephen Lewis, attacked the South Africa government's policies.


STEPHEN LEWIS, U.N. AIDS ENVOY TO AFRICA: Well, the South African government has been terribly slow, compromising the rollout of treatment with hundreds of people dying every day. It's estimated as high as 800 or 900 people dying of AIDS every day. It's a country that has always sounded confused and ambiguous about its response to the AIDS pandemic within South Africa. It's a country whose health minister has promoted the use of beet root and sweet potato and lemon juice as a kind of alternative to antiretroviral treatment, which is scientifically irresponsible and I think in public terms terribly confusing to the public at large. And there is a feeling in the country, I believe, that although the government has increased its budget significantly for expenditure on AIDS and although it has done a good deal in prevention and in care, it has not rolled out treatment with sufficient vigor, energy and focus to save the lives that have to be saved.

OKE: You were very frank a couple of weeks ago in public and to a huge forum. You described the South Africa administration's approach to HIV/AIDS as having theories more worthy of the lunatic fringe. You didn't really mince your words. And now there has been quite a controversy about the health minister in South Africa. What's happened in the last few weeks?

LEWIS: Well, I gather that within the country, as is consistently the case, there's constantly controversy over the behavior of the government where treatment is concerned. There are now roughly 250,000 people in treatment. There should be probably up to 900,000 people in treatment. So the government is barely 25 percent along the way to keeping people alive. South Africa has a better infrastructure and a better capacity than most other South African countries that are struggling with the virus. And so inevitably, internally, there is a constant controversy, generated in part by the curious positions of the minister of health, generated necessarily by the Treatment Action Campaign, one of the most principled and effective group of activists anywhere on the continent, challenging the government, often through the courts, often getting the courts to order the government to implement treatment - something that should never have to happen. And as recently as a couple of days ago, a big international group of scientists, 60, 70, 80 scientists signed a letter asking for the resignation of the minister of health of South Africa. That's quite unprecedented.

OKE: How does this South African government view you? What's your kind of working relationship with them? Will they even take your calls?

LEWIS: I don't have a working relationship with the government of South Africa, understandably. The government of South Africa has said to me that I cannot pursue my envoy role in South Africa until I apologize to the government for the things that I have said publicly. I have refused to apologize, and indeed the United Nations is well aware of what I've said publicly. They have not asked me to apologize. I have nothing to apologize for.

It must be understood that we are talking about life and death here. This is not some nondescript political policy. This is a serious, serous business. This is a country which, were it to focus significantly on HIV and AIDS, would be able to turn the pandemic around in South Africa. It has almost the highest absolute number of infections in the world. Between 5 and 6 million people are living with the virus. That's higher than anywhere outside of India. And one would expect, therefore, that a progressive and systematically thoughtful government would move heaven and earth to rescue the nation from the carnage which AIDS is taking, and unhappily, that is not the case, although in every other country in southern Africa I have visited, they are moving heaven and earth to turn things around.

OKE: Let's take the heat away from the South African government for the moment, because it wasn't just the South African government that came under fire in your speech at the Toronto AIDS international conference. You also talked about the G-8 summit not coughing up the money to help the fight for the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Were you so scathing because you're basically out of a job at the end of the year? Could you afford to actually do, you know, what we'd all love to do on our last day, which is just spill the beans?

LEWIS: Well, if it is seen as a swan song, and therefore vested with vitriol and rhetoric which I wouldn't otherwise use, then I think it would be legitimate for you to ask that question. But I think I can honestly and honorably say that I have used strong language from the beginning to the end of my tenure as envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa, since June of 2001, because I've always felt that the role of the envoy is inconsequential. It means nothing unless the force of the advocacy makes some impact. And if you can focus on a number of issues and sometimes on certain countries whose behavior is negligent or delinquent - as in the case of South Africa - and try to state the case in defense of the millions of people living with HIV and AIDS, Femi, that seems to me to be the job of envoy, and I've tried not to compromise language or substance or argument from beginning to end.

So what I said at the international AIDS conference was, frankly, simply an organic extension of what I've been saying all along.


OKE: And that was Stephen Lewis, U.N. special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. Lewis is also the author of the book, "Race Against Time: Searching for Hope in AIDS-Ravaged Africa."

There is more of INSIDE AFRICA after the break.


OKE: Hello again. You're watching INSIDE AFRICA.

Russian President Vladimir Putin made history this week. He became the first Russian head of state to visit South Africa. Mr. Putin was on a mission to forward economic ties with South Africa that could be worth billions of dollars.


OKE (voice-over): During apartheid, the old Soviet Union was one of the chief backers of the African National Congress. Now, decades later, Russia is renewing its ties with South Africa. This time, it's all about business. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his first visit to South Africa, met up with President Thabo Mbeki. Putin announced a plan for a multibillion dollar investment in South Africa.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): In Russia, we have great respect and interest in economic achievements of the Republic of South Africa. We're convinced that we have all the reasons for the activation of the bilateral trade and economic relations.

OKE: With business executives from both countries in tow, the two leaders outlined several proposals for cooperation. One, a billion-dollar deal that calls for Russia to invest in the South African manganese plant, and two of the world's biggest diamond producers, De Beers of South Africa and Russia's Alrosa, agreed to work together on new business prospects.

THABO MBEKI, SOUTH AFRICAN PRESIDENT: We can and must look at these business opportunities, look at what it is that we can do together, that would benefit both countries, both peoples. And to see what are these business opportunities. And most certainly, both government would be very, very key to give all the necessary support so that we -- we achieve progress in that regard.

OKE: Even with these deals and others in the works, Russia, whose annual exports to South Africa total less than $20 million, is still playing catch-up.

AZAR JAMMINE, ECONOMIS CONSULTANT: One has found increased interest in the African continent, not only by Western countries, but also by the likes of China and India, and there's been a lot of new investment coming in from those countries in recent years, and Russia has missed out on this completely.


OKE: Mr. Putin also made a stop in Morocco.

Finally, we're going to leave you with a song and a dance. A South African musical "Umoja" is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year. While on tour in Atlanta, I caught up with some of the cast and the co- creator, Thembi Nyandeni.


THEMBI NYANDENI, CREATOR, UMOJA: Umoja is about South African history of music. Our music was our life.

OKE (voice-over): I feel like I've already seen one show, and there is an interval, and then you see the show all over again. I don't know why you not, Nankoka (ph) and Nunge (ph), I don't know why you not collapse on the floor. I do -- physically, I want to know how do you do that?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Whenever you see the crowds, you know, if it's a small (inaudible) got to do it. And then


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And it invites all the good energy and the vibe.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Even if you don't want to, you're being moved by the sound.


OKE: How do you pick people to be in the cast?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Most of them, they come from disadvantaged groups. They come from abused family, and they have an abused background, you know. Their stories are very terrible stories. And with so many people who couldn't dance or couldn't sing, but I tried them, and it took me nine years to work with them. So it's been (inaudible). So those are the things that makes Umoja to be different from other shows.

OKE: Is this African lite, do you think? Are you easing the way for people from other cultures into Africa? I'll give you an example. The history of apartheid is very brutal, very raw, and you're very gentle with that.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Every bad thing is in Africa. But the beauty of Africa, nobody has ever shown. So to me shows like -- I'm tired of making people cry all the time they watch us. Oh, poor (inaudible), you know.

OKE: You see, you're one of the beauties of the show. How do you market the show internationally?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It really speaks to life, and to joy. So it makes it very easy to sell it to an audience, no matter who they are, because really what you need to tell people is that Umoja reinvigorates your life. Really, that's what it is.

OKE: I need you to teach me how to do that one where the lady walks across and the people are lying on the floor and she (inaudible). I need to learn that move.


OKE: Thank you. This is lovely.


OKE: Do you see me blushing now? Oh, my goodness! The things I do for you on INSIDE AFRICA.

We will see you again this time next week. Until then, take care.



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