Harare Diary

Are you sure?  The official at Harare airport is questioning my immigration form.  Yes, I say apprehensively, I am a British MP.  In that case he asks, what was the nature of the criminal offence I committed?  I have ticked the wrong box.  I apologise and he stamps the form contemptuously.  Outside, the driver I am expecting to meet is not there.  Instead, two officials in dark suits load my luggage into a black government SUV.  We drive off into the night and I become increasingly nervous.  I ask where we're going, but there's no reply.  I ask who they drive for, and they say the Government.  I can hear my own heart beating as I imagine increasingly elaborate forms of torture.  Then we arrive at my lodge.  They are drivers for a Movement for Democratic Change Minister.  I burst through the door and down a large gin and tonic.

Epworth is one of the poorest areas in Harare.  A third of its 500,000 population are HIV positive but just 4,000 are on life-saving anti-retroviral treatment.  I'm here to look at the related problem of TB in Zimbabwe.  1.5 million people die every year across the globe from this easily and cheaply curable disease.  Hundreds of sick people are queuing patiently for treatment at a clinic run by Médecins Sans Frontières.  Some have walked for three hours to get here.  The Government's side of the clinic has nine nurses, but doctors cannot be afforded, since they would earn 150 US dollars a month, less than the nightly cost of my accommodation.

We stop for lunch at the incongruously westernised Chicken Grill.  The menu is in US dollars - the Zimbabwean currency has been abolished after inflation reached 231 million cent, when prices were doubling every 24 hours.  Now they have stabilised and food is back on the supermarket shelves, but my chicken burger costs $2, and 80 per cent of the population are out of work and live on less than that a day.

Parirenyatwa General was once one of Africa's best hospitals.  Today it is dismal and run down.  Most of the consultants have fled, along with 1 million other Zimbabwean professionals, but at least the nurses are back, having walked out a few months ago when the Government could not pay their salaries.  Today British aid is helping to fund them.  The patients are charged here, and are refused release until they pay.

Only one of the six lifts in the Ministry of Health is working.  An unfeasible number of us pour in and the lights go out.  I leap out at the next available floor.  No-one knows where the Minister's office is located.  When I find him, he tells me of a plan to reform healthcare by creating locally-funded clinics.  He wants to empower communities.  This sounds familiar, except that patients will be able to pay with chickens and goats.

The wonderfully named Hon Lovemore Moyo is Speaker of the Zimbabwean House of Assembly.  In common with all of the MDC representatives who I meet, he is optimistic that Mugabe's brutal and corrupt reign is coming to an end.  But Zanu-PF has other ideas.  Their strategy is to eliminate their opponents' narrow majority by arresting MDC MPs, a tactic made possible because although Morgan Tsvangirai is Prime Minister and runs the economy, Mugabe still controls state security.  One MDC MP tells me that the magistrate who finally released him last year was arrested for passing a judgement that is not popular with the state.  Hundreds of his constituents are registered as over 100 years old.  This is unlikely in a country where the average age has collapsed from 60 to 37 - the lowest in the world.

Roy Bennett should be the Deputy Minister of Agriculture, but Mugabe refuses to confirm the appointment, preferring to jail him for 15 months after a Heseltine-style outburst in the Assembly.  Bennett's house and farm were seized by so-called ‘war veterans' while he was on holiday.  Of Zimbabwe's 4,500 commercial farmers, only a few hundred remain.  Agricultural production has halved and a country which was once the ‘breadbasket of Africa' now needs food aid.  The forgotten victims, Bennett reminds me, are the 1.5 million black farm workers who have been left without work.  The free newspapers continue to report land seizures this week.  By contrast, the government-controlled Herald does not notice these events, but rails against the West for waging economic warfare on Zimbabwe.

The new British Ambassador - no longer a High Commissioner since Zimbabwe walked out of the Commonwealth - has insisted that his car flies the union flag.  Officials were nervous that stones might be thrown at the representative of former colonial power.  In fact, he is greeted with thumbs-ups and friendly waves.  Hatred is reserved for Mugabe.

As I leave the country, the World Bank says that Zimbabwe is still one of the worst places to do business.  In a one and a half hour speech to Zanu-PF youth workers, Mugabe accuses people who vote for other parties as "counter revolutionaries", threatens to unleash the police on white farmers who refuse to vacate their land, and says he will reject constitutional reform that he doesn't like.  The political situation is in the balance, and there are rumours of a new wave of Zanu-PF violence.  But the people want change, and they will speak again.  This country, with its rich natural resources and citizens with a 90 per cent literacy rate, could still claim a better future.  In the words of its national anthem, "Blessed be the land of Zimbabwe."

Nick Herbert