Zimbabwe appears to be continuing its slide toward the abyss. Its economy has virtually seized up. The government of President Robert Mugabe adopts increasingly harsh measures to block protests over economic mismanagement and to crush any political opposition. Reportedly Zimbabwe is now a threat to its neighbors and could destabilize the region. Therein lies the only real hope for the country: Only when South Africa, Zimbabwe’s neighbor and biggest supporter, becomes genuinely concerned about the situation there, will there be some hope for change.

The collapse of Zimbabwe’s economy began seven years ago, when Mr. Mugabe seized the land of white farmers to give it to landless blacks. He justified the move by arguing that whites had exploited the country and the black natives had a more deserving claim to the land. In fact, the expropriations were designed to win support from angry black army veterans who Mr. Mugabe’s government had largely ignored. And many of the best pieces of property were taken not by ordinary citizens, but by the president’s closest allies and supporters.

The expropriations turned Africa’s “bread basket” into a basket case. The new owners had little if any knowledge of farming. Land went fallow and agricultural production plummeted. Tobacco production, one of the three pillars of Zimbabwe’s economy, is now forecast to be just 20 percent of the 1999 level; food output has fallen by two-thirds. The government has admitted that maize production is only third of its annual needs and it will have to import more than 1 million tons to make up for the deficit. According to the United Nations World Food Program, 1.4 million Zimbabweans, some 15 percent of the population, will need food aid until the next harvest in April.

The centrality of agriculture to the country’s economy means the shortages are felt in many ways. Food makes up one-third of the goods in the consumer price index basket that is used to calculate inflation in Zimbabwe. Shortages increase prices and deprive the country of export earnings to pay for other goods. The result has been official inflation that topped 1,700 percent, making it the highest in the world; the International Monetary Fund estimates the rate could hit 4,000 by the end of the year. Lacking funds, Zimbabwe cannot import gasoline, medicine and other critical needs. There are daily blackouts and water shortages. Unemployment has reached 80 percent.

Rather than addressing the real problem — the land reform measures — the government has adopted increasingly repressive measures. Many opposition politicians and their supporters have been harassed and arrested. Demonstrations have been banned, but that has not proven effective as the hardship increases. Police recently arrested 75 prodemocracy protesters, but the leaders vowed to continue. On Sunday, police arrested and allegedly beat Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s most prominent opposition leader.

Mr. Mugabe’s primary concern is the constitutional convention that will be held next year. It is widely believed that he intends to either run for yet another term as president or to claim the presidency for life. That threatens to split his ruling Zanu-PF party, elements of which recognize the damage done by the president’s policies and who worry about responsibility for the mess that survive him. There are signs that some of them are prepared to work with the opposition to build a coalition government. That requires a functioning opposition, which has been too divided to mount a serious challenge to the ruling party. (Of course, the government’s hardline tactics have compounded the opposition’s ineffectiveness.)

Mr. Mugabe’s future may depend on the actions of his neighbors. Perhaps the most important of these is South Africa. The government of President Thabo Mbeki has provided economic and political support for Mr. Mugabe; if he has complaints about Zimbabwe’s policies, he voices them quietly, behind closed doors. He has been reluctant to take a harder line when dealing with Mr. Mugabe because he respects one of the continent’s great independence leaders. But he also fears that Mr. Mugabe might whip up sentiment among South Africa’s poor and disaffected blacks.

That hands-off attitude must change. Mr. Mugabe’s policies have undermined his legacy and pose a real risk to southern Africa. Implosion in Zimbabwe is unlikely to be contained. It is estimated that there are already 3 million Zimbabweans — out of a population of 11.6 million — in South Africa. Instability would force yet more across the borders and could destabilize its neighbors. The result, according to a new report, could resemble the chaos and violence in Zaire when dictator Mobutu Sese Seko was driven from power in 1997. That prospect should spur its neighbors to act, although the record thus far provides little hope for such far-sighted initiative.

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