Another Kind of Racism

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

April 2, 2005

LUBIMBI, Zimbabwe

The hardest place in the world to be an optimist is Africa.

Much of Africa is a mess, and no country more so than Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe. The continent has been held back by everything from malaria to its nonsensical colonial boundaries, but the two biggest problems have been lousy leaders and lousy economic policies - and Zimbabwe epitomizes both.

What makes Robert Mugabe a worse oppressor of ordinary Zimbabweans than the white racist rulers who preceded him is not just the way he turned a breadbasket of Africa into a basket case in which half the population is undernourished. It's also the fact that he's refusing to let aid organizations provide food to most of his people. He prefers to let them starve.

In one western Zimbabwean village, I found a woman, Thandiwe Sibanda, who is trying desperately to keep her family alive. "I'm the only one left to care for the children," she said. "My husband died, along with his other wife."

So now she is trying to provide for her own four rail-thin children as well as the two children of the other wife (who presumably died of AIDS along with the husband - so Mrs. Sibanda will very likely die of it as well). "All we can eat is corn porridge," she said, "and there isn't nearly enough even of that."

Mrs. Sibanda is adopting the same survival strategies as nearly every other peasant family I spoke to - they are down to one or two meals a day. She pulled her children out of school last fall to save the $2.25 in annual school fees, as are many other families. Her daughter just had a baby a few days ago but has no milk to feed it. The infant may be the first to die.

Jealous Sansole, a member of Parliament who opposes Mr. Mugabe, told me that in his district, people are already beginning to die of hunger. I didn't see that, but malnutrition is probably speeding up deaths from malaria, diarrhea and certainly AIDS.

The only reason more haven't died is food aid. Mrs. Sibanda's village, for example, until recently received regular food distributions from the World Food Program and the Save the Children Federation.

But last year, President Mugabe declared that Zimbabwe did not need food assistance. This was a lie, but Mr. Mugabe ordered the World Food Program and the aid groups it works with to stop handing out food to the general population.

Some groups continued to distribute food that was in the pipeline, and I visited some villages that received food until January. But now the food aid has all ended. At an elementary school I visited, the principal said that three-quarters of the pupils could not afford breakfast and came to school hungry. Along the border with Mozambique, poor families are marrying off their daughters at very young ages so they will no longer have to feed them.

If the old white regime here was deliberately starving its people, the world would be in an uproar. And while President Bush should be more forceful in opposing Mr. Mugabe's tyranny, it's the neighboring countries that are most shameful in looking the other way.

There's a liberal tendency in America to blame ourselves for Africa's problems, and surely there's far more that we should do to help. We should encourage trade, forgive debts, do research on tropical diseases and distribute mosquito nets that protect against malaria. But some problems, such as Mr. Mugabe, are homegrown and need local solutions, like an effort by South Africa to nudge him into retirement.

One of Africa's biggest problems is the perception that the entire continent is a hopeless cesspool of corruption and decline. Africa's leaders need to lead the way in pushing aside the clowns and thugs so their continent can be defined by its many successes - in Ghana, Mali, Cape Verde, Mauritius, Uganda and Botswana - rather than by the likes of Idi Amin, Emperor Bokassa and Robert Mugabe.

There's a twinkle of hope, for Nigeria and other West African countries have shown the gumption to denounce seizures of power in Togo and São Tomé. But South Africa is still allowing Mr. Mugabe to cast a pall over the entire continent out of deference for his past fight against white oppression.

Frankly, Zimbabweans have already suffered so much from racism over the last century that the last thing they need is excuses for Mr. Mugabe's misrule because of the color of his skin.

E-mail: nicholas@nytimes.com