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The problem with Zimbabwe is those people who do not want to leave.

Wednesday, November 3.

Somehow, in the heat and stench and general unpleasantness of the Citiliner coach, I manage to doze off a few miles past the border. This is a testament to the will – the body’s desire to get what it wants, no matter how rank the obstacles. I sleep soundly for a few hours; when my head first jerks up from my drool-covered chest, it is just a few minutes before dawn, and the sky – gray, overcast – is already lit with the first traces of daylight. I have no idea where we are, but it is marvelous country – large granite rock formations towering on one side of us, the saw-toothed profile of some mountain range on the other. Beside me Richard is sleeping peacefully with his hat as a pillow, his bare feet stretched beneath the seat in front of us.

A few minutes later I’m out cold again, and I don’t wake until we reach Masvingo – a scruffy little town on the north-south road that was this country’s first colonial outpost, Fort Victoria. It looks every bit its 120 years. A gas station on the city’s outskirts is our first stop in Zimbabwe, and it is a groggy lot of travelers that is deposited into the parking lot, quickly swarmed by guys selling Econet airtime and changing money. (Though the rand is accepted in shops throughout Zimbabwe, it’s usually at an unfavorable rate. Thus the guys in track suits holding bricks of dirty American bills.) There is a small restaurant that, at this early hour, is already serving up the day’s first plates of fried chicken and beef stew and French fries and sadza. A sign on the door says, “Renovations in progress. Pliz bear with us.” Next door is a doleful supermarket, Exor, its sparse shelves stocked with bags of flour and sugar, and Willards brand potato chips, and something called Chompkins, and loaves of stiff white bread. The bottled water is kept in sub-arctic conditions – it is frozen solid. I buy a copy of the Zimbabwe Independent and two bottles of ice and stand in the parking lot, stretching my legs.

The brief stopover has energized us for the final leg of the journey. We are well behind schedule – it is already close to 8am – and there are still some 200 kilometers to go. The landscape now resembles typical African bush: miles of flat, open plains; overgrown elephant grass; little mud huts with wilting thatch roofs. Villagers are walking along the road’s shoulder, pushing bicycles or carrying bags of vegetables or holding a small child’s hand. It is not like two years ago, when fuel was so scarce that public transportation was crippled. You would have to wait days for the next bus to pass, and even then, it was only those with the sharpest elbows who made it onboard. Now the problem is far more prosaic: unemployment is well over 80 percent, there is little money to be made, and the buses that go barreling along the road from Masvingo to Harare, from Bulawayo to Gweru, from Harare to Mutare, are beyond the means of most Zimbabweans.

On the front page of the Independent, meanwhile, storm clouds are brewing. The dispute over President Mugabe’s recent unilateral appointments has grown more contentious: “Tsvangirai to sue Mugabe” reads the lead headline, with the accompanying story detailing the contents of a letter sent by the prime minister to South African President Jacob Zuma, in which he threatens legal action against the president. While constitutional scholars cited in the story see little hope of a lawsuit moving forward – even if Zimbabwe boasted a legitimately independent judiciary – the prospect of the country’s top two pols slugging it out in court hardly seems to bode well for the already strained coalition government. In a second front-page story chronicling the GNU’s unraveling, author Dumisani Muleya observes that “the recent good working relationship” between the prez and prime minister “has all but broken down in bitterness and recrimination,” with relations “almost certainly [bound to] get worse towards elections.” On the Op-ed page, editor Constantine Chimakure puts it bluntly: “The GPA is all but dead!”

Any hopes of a recovery from the country’s decade-long economic slump are perhaps dying with it. With Mugabe threatening to force the issue of a constitutional referendum as early as March – despite his cronies’ repeated attempts to disrupt public meetings on a new constitution – and with another sham election slated to follow on its heels, you get the sense that a terrible sort of end game is playing out in the halls of State House. How far will this president and his corrupt party go to win another election? Will the tepid response of the international community in 2008 shame it into more forceful action this time around? Can South African President Jacob Zuma – perhaps the most influential figure in the complicated electoral picture in Zimbabwe, despite the fact that he’s fighting for his own political life in the ANC – take more decisive steps to rein in the ZANU-PF ruling junta? Will any African leader ever stand up to the liberation hero Mugabe? And what exactly is waiting in the wings when the old dinosaur finally topples – with Zimbabwe’s hard-line “securocrats” already refusing to recognize a Tsvangirai presidency, and scrambling to shore up their power bases with wealth plundered from the diamond fields of Marange? Is it possible that things could get worse – much worse – before they get better?


Finally, just after noon, we reach the gray industrial parks on the outskirts of Harare. We stop at a dusty drop-off point beside a field. Touts surround us with airtime vouchers stuck to the ends of pointy sticks, holding them up to the windows. A shop advertises Very cold cold Coke. Another says Jeans 4 U. Now begins the interminable slog through the city’s traffic. Already the passengers from the back of the bus have begun bumrushing the front, jostling their way down the aisle. It is going to take great courage, I see, to force myself into this maelstrom. Approaching the center of town – the sky hazy, the shops rundown, the streets flowing with pedestrian traffic – I borrow Richard’s phone to call Memory. She is the wife of my friend Samuel, a young Zimbabwean artist who sells paintings and beaded sculptures on 7th Street in Melville. He’s asked me to bring her R800 for this month’s rent. When I reach her she tells me she is already waiting at the Road Port bus station (in fact, she’ll tell me later, she’s been there since 8am – thank you, Citiliner!). When we pull into the parking lot, the crowd from the back of the bus now heaving forward, I can see her waving to me outside: a pretty girl in a white skirt and white blouse, a dark line of red lipstick across her lips.

The porters surround us as soon as we step off the bus. So, too, do the taxi drivers, jangling their keys. Memory steps into this tumult and pulls me to safety. I apologize for our lateness – it is half-past twelve, had I known, I would’ve called from Masvingo – but she says it’s not a problem, not a problem at all. She asks after her husband, who didn’t have the money to make the trip with me. Poor Samuel! Back in Joburg, on the corner of 7th and 2nd, he would be sitting now with his blanket spread open, his little beaded sculptures of turtles and lions and lizards, of hippos and zebras, of motorcycles and parrots, of football players and Jules Rimet trophies left over from the World Cup. Last week he showed me a special order, a TV camera, he was making for a foreign journalist. He sat in front of the mini-market on the corner, bending the wire, threading the beads with his long, nimble fingers. His thick dreads were piled under his rasta cap; when he stood in his loose t-shirt and baggy jeans, he looked like a sack of bones. Memory and his young daughter were still living in Chitungwiza, a working-class suburb 30 minutes from Harare. From Joburg Samuel sent money for food, for the rent; he sent medicine – still expensive and hard to come by in Zimbabwe – for his sick grandmother in the village. His younger brother, Silas, also an artist, had come to join him in Joburg, but the life was too expensive there, and there wasn’t enough work for the both of them. Two weeks ago Silas came back to Zimbabwe. He is on the phone now, Memory hands it to me, he wants to know how was the journey, and when will I make it to Chi-town to see him?

We find a quiet place and I hand Memory the money. She is not worried about carrying R800 through the streets of Harare, or onto a taxi back to Chitungwiza. This is not Joburg, after all; despite the problems this country has faced, the crime rate has never reached South African levels. Memory takes the money, stuffs it into her purse, thanks me, and disappears briskly into the crowds on the avenue. Then I head back to the bus, retrieve my bags, and get hold of a taxi driver to help me find a hotel.

The driver’s name is Right-On – it is actually Right-On; he shows me his passport for proof – and he is from Gutu, near Ruhera: Tsvangirai country. He is tall and stocky and wearing a khaki-colored uniform that makes him look like a safari guide. What better person to steer me through the wildness of Road Port station? Outside he points me to his car, a silver compact, that he bought in Durban last year. Even with the import duties – more than $3,000 – it was cheaper to buy in South Africa than here. But otherwise the life here has improved dramatically. “I can say that it is 100 percent, 120 percent better than before,” says Right-On. “The Zimbabwe economy has taken off like I-don’t-know-what.” He steers us through the streets, toward Selous Ave., where I’ve read about a string of budget hotels. The city center is compact, the jutting figures of its office towers occupy just a couple of square miles. Turning down Fifth Street, then Selous Ave., we are in a quiet neighborhood studded with the bright orange blossoms of flame trees. It is lovely, I’m already smitten here. I tell Right-On that it’s much prettier than I’d imagined. He laughs, as if to say, What did you expect? “The problem with Zimbabwe is those people who do not want to leave,” he says.

We visit a handful of hotels, Right-On insisting on going inside to do the negotiating, “because they will see the color of your skin.” We settle on the Palm Rock Villa, a cheery little guest house with a pleasant garden and a self-catering kitchen and statues and curios lining the walls. It is $25 a night – a bit more than I was hoping to pay, but a reasonable price considering the five-minute stroll to the center of Harare. Right-On helps me to settle into my room – it is huge, it has a stiff double bed and a closet and a writing table and a full-length mirror – and then suggests I get out and see the town. “As a tourist you must walk around, sweat a lot, and then bathe,” he says, sounding like a poor-man’s Lonely Planet. He tells me to call him if I need a ride, or if I have any questions about Harare. “If you have any problem at all, I will take care of it for you,” he says.

Having arrived at last, having made the drop-off with Memory and found a comfortable base for the next week, I’m finally overcome by exhaustion. It is just after 2pm, and it has been a brutal 24 hours. I shower to wash off the Citiliner grime – the water is gloriously hot – and take a shit for the record books. I pull on a fresh pair of underwear, by far the most underrated luxury of life on the road. In a new change of clothes, I feel revived. Though I’d expected and hoped to have a full day in Harare after my theoretical 9am arrival, I’m not all put off by the short day ahead. Tonight, I suspect, will be the earliest of nights. I set the bar low for the afternoon. Coffee is my only priority for my first day in Zimbabwe. Anything else will be a happy bonus.

The weather has already begun to turn. The haze has given way to low, churning clouds; the air is heavy and damp, it is just a matter of time before the rain begins to fall. Already I’m reminded of the wet heat of rainy season in those parts of Africa not blessed by Joburg’s crisp, Highveld climate. Luckily, sanctuary is near at hand: Book Café, a coffee shop and performance space that’s been recommended by South African and Zimbabwean friends. It is a second home, I’m told, for many in Harare’s arts and music communities, and the walls when I step inside are plastered with advertisements for upcoming shows: Hope Masike, Tuesdays at 8pm; Alexio & Shades of Black on Thursdays; Dudu Manhenga & Colour Blu in an “Afro-jazz adventure” this Saturday; before that, a poetry slam; on Monday’s, open mic. The walls are brightly painted, the tables draped with African textiles. A Yamaha keyboard and a Pearl drum set are on a small stage at the front of the room, surrounded by speakers and amps and cords. A half-dozen young bohemians are tapping away on their laptops in one corner of the room, clustered around the few available outlets. There are guys with blown-out afros and knotty dreads, and women with bright print dresses and bangles rattling on their wrists. The soundtrack is a mixture of Afro-jazz and reggae. It is a place where I imagine a younger generation of Kwame Nkrumahs and Patrice Lumumbas, of Steve Bikos by way of Lucky Dube, would feel right at home.

Sitting by the window, the streets lit by the orange blossoms of flame trees, the rain falling in fat, cold drops, I fight my way through the last few pages of research I’d printed up in Joburg – 96 pages of news clippings from The New York Times, The Economist, The Telegraph, The Guardian, from the BBC and CNN and Reuters and AFP, printed out in 10-point Times type. I’ve been following the news out of Zimbabwe for nearly two years, duly scanning the headlines in my daily Google Alerts, prepping for a trip I’d expected to take a year and a half ago. So much has changed since then. I had spent three months traveling from the far north to the far south of Mozambique, until finally, exhausted and craving something akin to a normal life, I moved into an apartment in Maputo – a spacious three-bedroom, high above the clamor of Ave. 24 de Julho, with two balconies facing the city and two facing the sea. This was in March, and just a couple of weeks later I was already turning my sights to the west, to Zimbabwe. I had begun to stockpile dollars – the economy was still pegged to the Zim dollar, forex was in great demand – and was preparing to visit in time for the Harare International Festival of the Arts, HIFA, held at the end of April each year. But then came the news from home: my father had collapsed in front of the house, the doctors had found a tumor the size of a walnut next to his brain. In just a few days I’d packed up my life in Maputo, an African life that had spanned some 2 1/2 years since my last visit to New York. Then I boarded a flight for JFK. Zimbabwe would have to wait.

A year and a half later, my father fully recovered, my African life having resumed its course, by way of Rwanda and Burundi and the DRC, I have finally made it to Harare. I have high hopes, extravagant hopes, for the next few weeks. My time here is shorter than I would’ve liked – on the 30th I have to be back in Joburg, boarding a flight for New York – but I expect to make the most of this month. My phone is full of numbers – friends of friends, writers and filmmakers and photographers to look up here in Harare – and I have learned, from past trips, that four weeks is just enough time, at the appropriate breakneck pace, to see something of a country. That is, ultimately, my great hope for this month in Zimbabwe: to see a bit of the country, to have something worth saying before I pack my bags for another American homecoming.

Paying my bill, briefly revived by the rich, strong coffee, I head to the supermarket to buy some provisions for the next few days. I don’t expect to do much cooking at the Palm Rock – at the restaurants nearby, I can eat for $2 or $3 a meal – but I want to have a tin of instant coffee on hand, a loaf of bread, some peanut butter – breakfast provisions, enough so I can put in a couple of hours on my laptop each morning before leaving the hotel. The OK supermarket is amply stocked – it is impossible to imagine the scenes from just two years ago, when the BBC smuggled out footage of bare shelves in all the shops, and people were forced to buy sugar and eggs from black-market hustlers on the side of the road. If I hadn’t been following the news these past few years, if I had never heard of a place called Zimbabwe, would there be any way to know how much this country has suffered under its tyrant-in-chief? Atop a display for Toplife long life milk, a Hisense 26” LCD TV is being advertised for $725. This is more than twice the average yearly income of most Zimbabweans. And yet here it is, on display in the OK supermarket. You can put it in your shopping cart along with the Willards potato chips and Castle lagers and Nescafes.

It is, as expected, a short night for me. I have a brisk meal at the Sweetpots Bar & Restaurant just down the road: a $2 plate of sadza and beef stew, accompanied by a soundtrack of English football and the boozy bonhomie of the neighborhood drunks. With all due respect to dear, dirty Jozi, it is nice to be in Africa again.

When you have blacks and whites together, then you will see nice things.

Tuesday, November 2.

Treasure has arrived, punctual, grinning, dressed as if he’s on his way to a wedding.

“You are going to say hi to Bob,” he says, giving me an awkward half-hug, then smoothing the front of his handsome shirt.

It’s been months since I’ve seen Treasure, my Zimbabwean taxi driver – not since he took me to Joburg’s Park Station to get on a bus to Botswana in July. Today, as I meet him on the sidewalk in front of my house, preparing for a 20-hour bus ride to the country of his birth, he is in raucous spirits. He arrives in a battered little hatchback; it is not Treasure but Pleasant, his sister’s son, who is at the wheel. Pleasant lives in Mpumalanga; he is visiting Uncle Treasure and picking up a bit of work on the side. I can tell he’s never driven in Joburg – I will be fortunate, I think, to make it to Park Station in one piece. Nervously he steers us into oncoming traffic. Treasure is rifling through his wallet, looking for pictures of his fraternal twins. They were born just days before we met six months ago. They are as old as our friendship.

“That one, she was even clever in her mother’s stomach,” he says, showing me his fat-cheeked daughter. “She was always kicking.”

Outside, Joburg passes in a flash. I have been manically busy this past week: catching up on work, preparing for Zimbabwe. It feels like South Africa is already speeding away from me. Last month, I learned that Variety will be flying me out to Burkina Faso in February to cover the biannual FESPACO film festival in Ouagadougou. My lease expires at the end of January; the timing seems serendipitous. I’ve decided to make the most of my plane ticket and spend the first few months of 2011 traveling in Ghana and Burkina Faso and Mali. I might not be back in Joburg till April; I might not be back till June. Just as some semblance of a normal life has begun to sink in, I’m off on another grand adventure.

Treasure comes from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city. He just went back to visit family last month, he says, sighing, but it was not the same. The Zimbabwean economy might be in recovery, but in Bulawayo – as with the rest of the country – a decade of economic decline has taken a heavy toll.

“It was good 30 years ago,” says Treasure, shaking his head. “Now there are too many blacks. If you have only blacks in one place, you will not see anything interesting there.”

He pauses, as if weighing these words himself. “When you have blacks and whites together, then you will see nice things,” he says.

They park at the station and carry my bags to the Greyhound terminal. A long line is already forming at the baggage check, men and women with heavy sacks and nylon bags, transporting whole households, it seems, back to Zimbabwe. Treasure and Pleasant pump my hand, wish me a safe journey. I inch forward with my duffel bag, nudge it along with my foot. It is a good bag – Adidas, the real thing, I bought it in New York last year. I would have gone through three cheap, Chinese-made knock-offs in the same time, I’m sure.

At the front of the line I place my bag on a scale; the man at the ticket desk approves. This is nothing compared to the furniture and kitchen appliances most of the other passengers will be taking with them. He hands me two ticket slips – bless the efficiency of South Africa. Behind his head are signs outlining the company’s latest prohibitions. “Greyhound and Citiliner will no longer take empty buckets at all.” “With immediate effect no paint will be conveyed on Greyhound/Citiliner.” “With immediate effect all blankets will be charged a standard rate of R20.” Nowhere do I see a sign, “Greyhound and Citiliner wish you a pleasant journey.”

It’s quarter to three and most of the passengers have arrived, tossing their bags into a trailer hitched to the back of the bus. It is another marvel of the South African transport system – here you won’t see two ragged youths on top of the bus, strapping down our cargo, the whole bus tottering under the weight of boxes and suitcases and potato sacks. The passengers have now queued for boarding. A young woman in front of me, a pretty lady in her twenties, stands beside a red shopping bag from Alex Ladies Fashion, a Road Master toy truck, a case of Top Lay grade 1 eggs. I point to the truck and ask if she has a son – a boy, yes, waiting for her and her husband in Harare. She is holding a large bakery box – they are bringing home a birthday cake, too. Her husband has vanished into the terminal to buy food; I help her with her things as we move toward the front of the line. I tell her this is my first time to visit Zimbabwe. “Why?” she says, as if accusing me of some wrong-doing. “It is very beautiful.” One of the eggs in the Top Lay case has cracked. I can feel the yolk running down my leg.

Onboard there is a wild commotion of bodies and bags shifting, settling into the physical equilibrium that will carry us to Harare. Despite the trailer hitched to the back of this Citiliner coach, there are still suitcases and duffel bags and pots and buckets in the aisle. It is a tight squeeze – this, it seems, is one of the lesser options of the South African luxury bus racket. I might have done well, I suspect, to shell out the extra R85 for Greyhound. I am wedged into a seat beside a middle-aged man who has dressed for this journey as if for church: in charcoal slacks and a pinstriped shirt and an old corduroy hat. His body is snug against the window; mine is half-way into the aisle, my back awkwardly pressed against the contours of the seat. It is going to be a long journey.

We pull from the station at nearly 20 past three – an ill omen, I suspect, for the company’s promise to get us to Harare by 9:30am. Outside the blur of downtown Joburg whizzes by. I am going to miss this city. We turn through traffic and onto the M1, the highway that will take us first to Pretoria, then Harare. It is a beautiful, blue afternoon. We drive north through the green suburbs on the outskirts of the city, the trees studded with the purple of jacaranda blossoms. In the distance, the office towers of Sandton – the economic heart of the city, and the country. In the lanes beside us, the winners of South Africa’s post-apartheid sweepstakes zip by in BMWs and Benzes. We pass a billboard for Jameson’s whiskey. The drinking experience, it promises us, is “Rich and luxurious.”

The Citiliner bus, meanwhile, is poor and crowded. We have waited nearly an hour since leaving Park Station, but the air conditioning has refused to kick in. The smell of sweat, the sharp tang of body odor, will accompany us the rest of the way. The windows are shut against the prospect of a fresh wind – an African superstition, as I’ve griped before, that I still can’t unravel. We stop at a police checkpoint. The heat is unbearable. The children on the bus begin to wail. “Eish,” says the man sitting next to me.

It is close to five when we reach Pretoria, the city bursting with the color of jacarandas and flame trees. At the bus station, pandemonium. If I had thought the bus looked full before, I was mistaken. A dozen passengers are waiting to board, toting pots and pans and ironing boards, refrigerators and kitchen appliances. Touts circle the bus, selling cookies, chocolate bars, pudding, lollipops, hard candies (“Sweets! Sweets!”), and, fittingly, toothbrushes. It is twenty minutes before we’re again on our way. A woman across the aisle opens her book, True Life in God: Vernacular Conversations with Jesus. The conductor pops in a bootleg DVD; brittle, pixellated images of African wildlife flicker across the screen. We watch this shoddy entertainment for ten minutes before the screen goes black. People begin fussing with the curtains. “Now the sun is jealous,” says the man beside me, gripping his hat. His name is Richard, he installs CCTV cameras for banks and private businesses in Joburg. This is, I suspect, a very good business. He is on his way to see relatives in Harare, and then his family in Bulawayo. “Now, when you visit some relatives, you see the situation is getting better,” he says. “It is not like it was these last years.” The supermarkets are again full; for those with the money to buy things, life has returned to a sort of normalcy. But with elections looming – perhaps as early as next year – Richard knows this situation won’t last. “When we Africans have elections, we change everything,” he says.

It has been two years since the opposing sides in Zimbabwe’s fractious government signed a power-sharing agreement, effectively allowing Robert Mugabe and his cronies to nullify the electoral victory of Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party in the 2008 election. This was a bitter sort of political compromise for Tsvangirai and his party, who had won the March polls by a decisive margin. Even after the trickery of the electoral commission – which had waited a full five weeks to release the results – Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party conceded that the MDC had taken a plurality of the votes. But lo! they had just fallen short of the majority vote that would have granted them an outright victory; instead, the electoral commission announced a run-off to decide the presidency.

In the weeks that followed, brilliantly chronicled by the Zimbabwean writer Peter Godwin in The Fear: The Last Days of Robert Mugabe, Mugabe’s henchmen unleashed a brutal wave of repression and intimidation around the country. Dubbed Operation Mavhoterapapi? – “Who Did You Vote For?” – by Mugabe’s homicidal generals, the campaign sought to beat, bully, torture, maim and kill opposition supporters into submission. (It was followed by the even more violent Operation Ngatipedezenavo – “Let Us Finish Them Off.”) The tactic worked: just days before the June 27 run-off, Tsvangirai announced that he could not take part in the “violent, illegitimate sham” of a second-round election. With more than 200 of his supporters killed and thousands more lying bloodied in hospitals across the country, the man who would be president said that he could not ask his supporters to vote for him “when that vote would cost them their lives.” Tsvangirai withdrew his candidacy. When voters went to the polls on June 27, goaded by Mugabe’s thugs, just a single name appeared on the ballot. Less than an hour after the results of the run-off election were announced, Robert Gabriel Mugabe was sworn in at a hasty ceremony boycotted by the entire diplomatic corps.

Even from the perch of his megalomania, Mugabe knew the farce couldn’t last. He was vilified abroad and wildly unpopular at home; with the international community refusing to accept the legitimacy of the election results and the country around him in ruins, he finally bowed to pressure to allow the MDC into the ruling fold. Under the terms of the Global Political Agreement, the government would be divided between the two parties (as well as a third, MDC-M, a splinter faction of the opposition group formed by Arthur Mutambara), with Mugabe appointed as President and chairman of the cabinet, and Tsvangirai accepting a neutered role as Prime Minister. Crucially, though, the most important ministries would remain under Mugabe’s control. So, too, would the armed forces, the police, and the intelligence services. Though the GPA staved off the immediate crisis, it refused to address the broader constitutional issues that vested too much power in the presidency, and offered little clarity on the rules of succession should the doddering old tyrant – now a few months shy of his 87th birthday – die while still in office.

There have been signs of hope surrounding the wobbly structure of the coalition government. Since the adoption of the US dollar – dubbed USAs, “oo-sahs,” on the streets of Harare – late last year, the economy has stabilized. Gone are the runaway inflation rates of 2008, the lunatic denominations in the billions and trillions that devalued so quickly that a loaf of bread would double in price as you waited on the check-out line. The stores are again stocked with goods imported from South Africa; teachers and civil servants, no longer paid in the worthless currency of the Zimbabwean dollar, have returned to work. Hospitals and clinics now have the basic medicines that most lacked just two years ago. The schools are again open – many stocked with nearly $13 million worth of text books recently donated by Western donors. Even the tightly controlled media space has been cautiously nudged open, with the granting of licenses to five new independent newspapers earlier this year.

But a political crisis still looms, with growing fears that the coalition government – the Government of National Unity, known with more than a hint of mockery by its unflattering acronym, Gnu – is on its last legs. Since the coalition formed, the president has balked at taking any significant strides toward improving the country’s appalling human rights record. No one has been held accountable for the horrible violence of 2008, though the perpetrators and ring leaders are well known. Civil society groups are already warning that the military and the dreaded Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) are setting up bases and torture camps in rural areas ahead of the next round of elections. Rights groups continue to face harassment by government thugs, and the contentious Marange diamond fields have become a virtual no-go zone for activists looking to shed light on the controversial mining being done there. The invasions of white-owned farms by so-called “war veterans,” meanwhile, continue unabated, while ZANU-PF hardliners – and Mugabe himself – have stepped up their efforts to introduce “indigenization” laws that would force all foreign-owned business to sell at least 51 percent of their shares to black Zimbabweans.

Crowning the laundry list of dysfunctions are Mugabe’s calls for early elections in June of next year – an effort by the octogenarian ruler to entrench himself for one last go-around, amid growing signs of his deteriorating health. The president has openly railed against the coalition government and its “stupidity,” acknowledging that polls in 2011 – after the expiration of the GNU’s two-year mandate – would allow the country to return to single-party rule. Last month Tsvangirai – criticized even by his supporters for taking too conciliatory a tone in the coalition government – finally lashed out at the president’s unilateral appointments of nearly a dozen provincial governors and cabinet members. The two have not met in weeks.

In spite of it all, on the Citiliner bus, the people continue to shuttle back and forth between Joburg and Harare, between Harare and the villages, bringing the household goods and hard cash that keep many of their families afloat. Even in Zimbabwe, life goes on. It is approaching midnight when we finally reach the border, the South African post well policed and fortified with concrete barriers and electric fences and miles of concertina wire. By some estimates, as many as three million Zimbabweans have fled the country – a quarter of the population – with most finding their way, legally or otherwise, into South Africa. The life for them south of the Limpopo River is hard; many live in crowded slums on the outskirts of the poorest townships, working odd jobs at slave wages, facing harassment and attacks from their South African neighbors. Still, there is the prospect of a better life for them there. They can earn enough money to survive, to send remittances back to their families. It is for this reason that some will brave the crocodile-infested Limpopo, the packs of bandits who prey on border-jumpers on both sides. Hoping to keep themselves afloat until the old tyrant dies and the country he destroyed can rebuild from the ruins.

We are processed by the South Africans with humorlessness, with blunt efficiency. In the toilet I read the political screeds written on the bathroom stall: “Mugabe must go now,” “No rights in Zim,” “Mugabe has killed Zimbabwe’s future!!” It is a sad commentary that many Zimbabweans are reduced to voicing their anger on the door of a South African shitter. Outside the bus is marshaled through another passport control, two policewomen boarding, inspecting the passports that their colleagues had inspected and stamped just minutes before. Incredibly, they haul half a dozen passengers off for various infractions. A young man behind me is protesting that he is going to renew his expired passport in Harare this week. Off the bus he goes. Outside they are lined up, weakly inquisitioned. “This driver is not very clever,” says Robert, knitting his hands beside me. He says the driver should have paid the police a small fee to let us pass unmolested. Instead, the fee is outsourced to the violators standing outside. One by one they reach into their pockets and hand over what one South African friend dubbed a “pay-as-you-go” fine. A blind woman gets onboard, holding a small plastic mug and singing gospel songs. She wears a khaki t-shirt that says “Champion By Choice” and makes a single pass of the bus, coins plunking into her cup. She gropes to the front and descends. The passport violators have again boarded, looking cheerful and chagrined. “Fifty rand later, and it’s fine,” says the guy getting into his seat behind me. Then we are driving across the bridge spanning the Limpopo, the dark waters rushing beneath us, and crossing into Zimbabwe.

The scene at the border control is dispiriting: a half-dozen coaches have beaten us here, the passengers are pulling their great hefty sacks of goods from the bellies of their buses to be inspected by customs officials. Richard gives a harsh guffaw. “We will not leave here before seven o’clock, let me tell you,” he says. It is just a few minutes shy of one. We disembark and begin the long, slow trudge from the end of the bus queue to the immigration hall. Huddling outside are dozens of homeless – some wrapped in blankets, others wearing only their shorts and skirts and blue jeans. Do they sleep here every night, hoping for some miracle dispensation that will carry them across the Limpopo to the Promised Land of South Africa? Inside the cheerless bureaucrats wait at their counters in soiled white shirts with missing buttons, two pinprick holes above the left breast where, in better days, a name tag was probably sewed. Across the room, on the departures side, three officials sit with their backs to me, games of solitaire on their computer screens. Their attention is evenly divided between their card games and their supplicants. A drunk lurches in and begins making loud accusations. I am processed, stamped, and given a receipt with minimal fuss. At the other end of the arrivals hall, men in worn suits and women in frumpy sweaters sit with their faces scrunched over declarations forms. I have seen the cargo being unloaded from other buses: the bicycles and sofas and armchairs, the refrigerators and microwave ovens, the plastic chairs and plastic buckets and plastic tubs, the pots and pans, the blenders and TVs. They will be declaring all night. A prim woman stands behind a counter beneath a sign that reads “Tip Processing, Carbons Tax, Road Access Fee.” They seem like the sorts of mythical duties invented by ZANU-PF officials to pad their salaries. The woman stands there, watching the comings and goings of the customs declarers, waiting for a tip to process.

Outside our bus has ambitiously pulled to the front of the queue. Richard, ever the realist, suspects the driver has finally found the right palm to grease. We haul our things from the trailer and stand beside them on the curb, awaiting inspection. Behind me is a hill crowned by a small police station and an abandoned shop with a sign that says “Third Party Insurance Here.” Homeless bodies are sprawled on the pavement outside. Nearby are two empty telephone booths, the phones themselves having no doubt gone the way of the missing manhole covers and pilfered street lights that have had even the wiring inside ripped out and resold. When a nation is ruled by kleptocrats, it is no wonder that the povos will resort to any means for survival. A young woman in a fisherman’s hat leads an old blind man through the crowd. He is holding a staff with a brass star on top, tapping it on the ground with each step. They are singing together, softly, poorly, in a way that makes your heart ache. Overhead two billboards cryptically read: “Green Zone: You are in the green zone,” and “Red Zone: You have now entered the red zone.” No one is around to explain either the zones or the prohibitions they entail. It is a dysfunctional border, a sense of barely controlled entropy. I can imagine the chaos at midday, the enormous bribes one has to pay to make it into Zimbabwe by nightfall.

Our driver, meanwhile, appears to be on the frugal side. An hour after moving to the front of the line, there’s not a customs official in sight. Clearly not enough palms have been greased. It is well after 2am, and I’d barely managed to grab 20 minutes’ worth of sleep on the bus. My whole body feels heavy. One of the other passengers – the young guy who’d had to pay R50 before – stands beside me, surveying the flea market that is our bus’ load. “That is the African mentality,” he says, looking at the shopping bags full of cooking oil and milk and eggs. “I don’t understand why you would go to South Africa to buy your groceries.” Behind us is a slick coach from maMundi Tours, the V.I. to Citiliner’s disreputable P. The seats are cushiony and plush and seat only four to the row (we are crammed in five across). There is no doubt the cabin has been cooled to sub-arctic chill. When we ask some of the passengers how much they’ve paid for such luxury treatment, we are appalled: R300, a full R15 less than we’ve shelled out for our own day of torment. The fact that they left Joburg more than three hours after us is only further salt in the wound.

At just a few minutes to three we are finally met by a customs official. Here the sheer lunacy of this border becomes evident. After peering into a few duffel bags and poking at a few sacks of potential contraband, he waves us onward. The whole inspection has taken just under 15 minutes; it takes us twice that time to repack everything into the densely crammed trailer in the rear. It seems almost ludicrous, given the near collapse of almost every segment of the public sector, to rail against inefficiency at the Beitbridge border crossing. (Earlier this year, the state-owned Herald reported that crime victims in Zimbabwe were forced to drive the accused to court, because the Zimbabwe Prison Service had run out of fuel.) As one final indignity, we’re not allowed to board the bus until it’s driven a further 100 meters up the road. We walk in a solemn, single file to catch up to it, the sky littered with stars, the blind man and his daughter singing off-key songs of praise to whoever is watching over them.