One thing I'm becoming more and more interested in as I stay here in Africa, is African politics, especially in Southern Africa (for obvious reasons). I've been trying to get a handle on the history of post-colonial Africa, more-or-less exclusively by reading this book "The State of Africa," by Martin Meredith. It's a great book, though it covers such an enormous subject that it's bound to be a little shallow. But considering I had zero knowledge before I started reading this, it's exactly what I needed. It covers the major events/coups/governments of pretty much every country in Africa since the 1950s, when Europe began to give up their games of colonialism and allow independence. Overall, I'd have to say it's pretty damned depressing. It pretty much reads as one psychotic, greedy, evil dictator after another. Some are less psychotic/greedy/evil than others, but suffice it to say that it is a relief to read about the countries which merely fail due to benevolent socialist intentions, rather than intentional massacres and looting.
Anyway, the upshot is that whatever the politics of the continent of Africa may be, they are certainly not boring. There's pretty much always some kind of crisis or tragedy going on somewhere, and it continues to be true in my tenure here. Aside from the constant war-torn tragedies of Darfur, DR Congo, Somalia, Ethiopia, etc., in the 9 months I've been here there have already been several specific difficulties. In December - now, there was a massive crisis in Kenya (one of the most stable and strongest economies on the continent), which has subsequently settled down (at least for the present - everyone is hoping that the new shared government will be able to stave off more violence). South Africa has unveiled a large scale electricity crisis, a dire prophecy regarding the 2010 FIFA world cup here. And the current exciting piece of political turmoil is the election in Zimbabwe.
Ever since I've been here, I've been learning more and more about how shit has hit the fan in Zim over the past few years. The President/dictator for the past 28 years (since independence) is Robert Mugabe, who was a great revolutionary hero (and is still considered to be so in much of Africa). Apparently, he began his rule with much world optimism, and I think he was a not unreasonable leader for the first ten years or so. From what I can tell, problems began around the early 90s, when he became more and more disillusioned with the state of land reform in his country - much of the farm land, etc., continued to stay in the hands of the white, British farmers, or at least was not transferring quickly enough for Bob's taste. So he nationalized everything, took the land from the white farmers and gave it mainly to his political cronies, family, revolutionary buddies, etc. Subsequently, the food production, economy, public welfare, etc. plummeted. And rather than question the validity of his policies, he blamed (and continues to blame) the economic woes of Zimbabwe on a global, Western conspiracy. Of course, in addition to all of this, corruption became endemic, political freedoms are smashed (for the good of the country, of course), there was a continued attack on free business and industry, and life continued to get shittier and shittier.
When I arrived here in South Africa, it was immediately clear from talking to people and watching the news that there was a massive problem. There is enormous illegal immigration from Zim to SA, people trying to achieve refugee status with extremely low rate of acceptance by the government here. People were fleeing Zim like crazy to try to find work and send money back to their families. I remember soon after arriving here, I saw a sign down at the touristy waterfront for a boat trip, listed as costing US$30, ZAR 200 (south african rand), and one BILLION Zimbabwean dollars. That's how bad the inflation was/is - I think it is the highest level of inflation in the world now (this after being one of the best economies in Africa, earlier in Mugabe's rule).
Anyway, about 3 weeks ago, there was an election in Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe (now 84 years old) was of course running, along with really only one opposition candidate - Morgan Tsvangirai. Elections are of course not even close to free and fair there - independent media is completely disallowed, constant threats are levied against the opposition, a history of political violence and intimidation stares any of Mugabe's political opponents directly in the face. Despite all of this, people are obviously EXTREMELY unhappy there, and as something like 1/3 of Zimbabwe's population lives outside of the country, often in some communication with those back home, people are able to get some reasonable outside information. So when the election resulted in
a) the first time an opposition party took majority in parliament (official) and
b) a clear majority vote in favor of Tsvangirai (unofficial, due to exit polls and posted results at individual polling stations)
there has been much hope aroused. However, true to form, Mugabe has refused to release official results for the Presidential race in over three weeks, and subsequently decided that there were "irregularities" at polling stations, calling for a "recount" of the parliamentary polls. Of course, his government has taken possession of the votes long ago, and it's pretty clear he plans to stuff the ballot boxes in his favor. Together with government-sponsored violence in opposition-held areas, over 400 arrests and a number of murders of MDC members (Movement for Democratic Change - Tsvangirai's party), and the fact that Tsvangirai himself has been forced to flee the country, this has resulted in the current highly interesting political situation here in Southern Africa.
The other crazy thing is the South African governmental response. There is huge public outcry against Mugabe's shennanigans from the SA public. However, President Mbeki is old revolutionary friends with Bob, going way back. Throughout Mugabe's reign of terror over the past years, Mbeki has been conducting what he calls "quiet diplomacy." What exactly this entails, I'm unclear on, but what it clearly does NOT entail is any public denunciation of Mugabe whatsoever, or any real results involving political freedoms. Into this election situation, amidst international outrage at Mugabe, Mbeki has continued his "quiet diplomacy," leading to his recent famous statement that "there is no crisis in Zimbabwe." This has created a media furor here, increasing both the hilarity of the situation, and its sadness.