The young white Zimbabwean schoolteacher spoke with the enthusiasm of a civic booster about his adopted hometown. Mutare, a slow-moving, almost idyllic-looking community, inspires that sort of thing. It rests peacefully at the foot of the Vumba Mountains, some of whose green slopes, visible from Main Street, lie across the border, in Mozambique.
“This town could really take off, don’t you think?” he said. “If that railroad could operate at full capacity, Mutare would boom. I just know it would. It would be very good for us here. Very good indeed.”
And good indeed for Zimbabwe, for the railroad the schoolteacher mentioned could become one of the lifelines for this country, and a boost for the morale of all the black-ruled nations of southern Africa, nations that would be economically crippled without the good will of their powerful and detested neighbor, South Africa.
The railroad that passes through Mutare and on through 230 miles of Mozambique bush to the port of Beira, has gotten a lot of worried attention lately. An oil pipeline that runs roughly parallel to it is now patrolled by several thousand Zimbabwean troops. Major aid donors and transport officials from half a dozen African nations have been trying to calculate the cost of upgrading the Mutare-Beira line and others similar to it. Their conclusions are daunting.
The concern has been heightened by the pressure building in some Western nations, including the United States, to apply severe economic and political sanctions to South Africa, sanctions that the South Africans could easily pass on to their neighbors, with devastating effects.
South African President Pieter W. Botha has promised to do just that if sanctions are imposed on his country. In response to a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an economic embargo against South Africa, Botha threatened to deny black states access to his country’s transport and communications systems, to cut off trade and expel 1.5 million immigrant black workers.
If severe sanctions--as opposed to merely symbolic ones--are imposed on South Africa, and if Botha makes good on his threat, as most observers in the southern African region assume he will, the effects will be immediate and powerful in six neighboring states: Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Most vulnerable are Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, which supply most of the immigrant labor force in South Africa. The 150,000 Lesotho workers in South Africa send home about $160 million a year, an amount equal to Lesotho’s gross national product, and their sudden expulsion from South Africa’s mines would mean the virtual collapse of Lesotho’s economy.
All three countries are landlocked (Lesotho is completely surrounded by South Africa, and Swaziland shares borders with South Africa on three sides) and depend on a customs union with South Africa for the processing of all their imports and exports. Ninety-nine per cent of Lesotho’s imports come from South Africa, 91% of Swaziland’s and 88% of Botswana’s.
But South Africa’s power extends far to the north as well. An estimated 10% to 15% of Zaire’s copper goes by rail, by way of Zambia and Zimbabwe, to South African ports. About 30% to 40% of Zambia’s copper follows the same route.
Zimbabwe is at the center of this constellation of states. Now, five years after independence, many of its business leaders see the country on the verge of extended prosperity and growth. But concern about the South African situation is widespread and growing.
Zimbabwe is also a landlocked country. Ninety-two percent of the goods shipped in and out of the country by rail pass through South Africa. The remaining 8% goes via the Mutare-Beira line. Two other rail lines between Zimbabwe and the Mozambique coast, one to Maputo and the other to Nacala, have been closed down by guerrillas of the Mozambique National Resistance Movement, generally referred to as the MNR.
South Africa is Zimbabwe’s largest trading partner, buying about 20% of Zimbabwe’s exports, worth about $112 million a year. Roughly 20% of Zimbabwe’s imports come from South Africa, at a cost of about $110 million a year.
Already some Zimbabwean exporters are feeling the effects of the economic downturn in South Africa, but businessmen here say these pressures are but a mild warning of the distress Zimbabwe would feel if South Africa should pass on stern sanctions to its neighbors.
“I really don’t think any of the countries of the world understand what the effects would be, how crippling it would be in this region,” said Anthony Read, a member of the Zimbabwe Parliament and the director of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries. “It could be a disaster for us.”
The governments of the independent black states surrounding South Africa are fully aware of the consequences of a full South African economic blockade, but have remained firm in their call for sanctions against South Africa. The nine nations of the Southern Africa Development Coordination Council reaffirmed in July their call for sanctions, and only last weekend the presidents of Zambia, Mozambique, Angola and Zimbabwe, meeting in Maputo, said they were willing to endure the hardships that sanctions could mean.
Factories Might Close
“If the South Africans go the full measure,” Read said, “the effects are frightening. Before very long, unemployment would be a major problem. Factories would shut down. Mines would come to a halt. Commercial farming would be affected. Major industrial organizations would stop. We are a trading country, and if you cut off our trade routes, the whole economy has to go through a shift.”
Obviously, it is South Africa’s chokehold on trade routes that is the greatest concern of the black states of southern Africa.
“We have no major alternative transport routes,” said Simon Gray, an economist with the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries, “and that is our biggest problem.”
Most observers here believe it is unlikely that the South Africans would close their borders totally, but would rather, in the words of a Mutare tobacco farmer, “turn us on and off like a water tap.” A Western diplomat in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, agrees. He said the South Africans would “lose the power of their threat” if they cut off access completely and forced a concerted effort by the affected countries to develop alternative routes.
The costs of developing those alternative routes are staggering.
“We are talking about billions, not millions,” another Western diplomat said. “There has been discussion of a sort of Marshall Plan for southern Africa, but I don’t see the will for it, nor the money.”
Anthony Read noted that research indicates that it would require a minimum of $1.5 billion to upgrade the three rail lines running between Zimbabwe and the Mozambique coast and to increase the capacity of the Tazara rail line between Zambia and the Tanzanian port of Dar es Salaam.
“If all conditions were optimum, which they are not,” Read said, “these lines would still be able to handle only 40% of Zimbabwe’s existing needs.”
At the moment, South Africa has a variety of opportunities to make life difficult for its neighbors.
A Zimbabwean official familiar with the workings of the national railroad says there are dozens of ways the South Africans can impede service to Zimbabwe without calling on “official” measures or establishing formal sanctions of their own.
“All they have to do is lose a few railway cars,” he said. “They just say there has been a derailment, or some problem on the line somewhere, and there is nothing we can do about it. They’ve done this before, and there is no reason they won’t do it again. They just like to remind us, every now and then, how vulnerable we are.”
Fuel Was Interrupted
Last Christmas, for example, fuel supplies from South Africa to Zimbabwe were interrupted.
“You should have seen the howling around here,” one Harare resident recalled. “People had to wait in lines to buy gasoline. It was like panic had set in.”
The South Africans were simply giving them another reminder.
The uneasy situation in Mozambique is another example of South African pressure. South African officials admitted last week that in violation of a 1984 treaty with Mozambique, they have been aiding the Mozambican rebels fighting the leftist government of President Samora M. Machel.
The treaty between the two countries, known as the Nkomati Accord, is essentially a nonaggression pact; the Mozambique government agreed to stop supporting guerrillas of the African National Congress and the South Africans promised to stop aiding the MNR.
While the Mozambicans appear to have kept their end of the bargain, evidence accumulating for some time suggests that the South Africans are still providing material aid to the MNR.
Most of Zimbabwe’s gasoline moves through the pipeline from Beira, which has frequently come under attack by the Mozambican rebels, most recently in July. The rail line running between the border town of Chicualacuala and the Mozambican capital of Maputo has been closed since August, 1984, because of rebel activity. The line to Nacala, which connects northern Zimbabwe with lines running out of Malawi to the coast, has also been closed by the rebels.
It is believed that Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe has committed 20,000 to 25,000 troops to Mozambique to fight the rebels. In recent weeks, joint operations between Mozambican and Zimbabwean troops are reported to have knocked out a major guerrilla base camp. Machel said the operation “broke the spine of the serpent,” but many observers here doubt that the Mozambique National Resistance has been dealt a decisive blow.
Sanctions Were By-Passed
Before its independence in 1980, Zimbabwe--it was then the white-ruled British colony of Rhodesia--was itself the target of U.N. sanctions. The experience here leads most Zimbabwe businessmen to doubt the effectiveness of sanctions against South Africa.
They note that business concerns around the world, always eager for profits, had little hesitation about breaking the sanctions, and were creative in designing schemes to do so. In addition, they note, Rhodesia’s neighbors--Zambia in particular--suffered far more than Rhodesia.
A study of the possible effects of sanctions on the so-called Front Line states, reportedly put together by Britain’s embassy in Harare, has been circulated widely in Zimbabwe. Its projections are stark.
Study Issues a Warning
“Factories, mines and commercial farms (in the Front Line states) would progressively shut down,” the study says. “Most urban people would become unemployed. The tax base would shrink rapidly. Inflation would soar. Social services would decline. Large numbers of public servants would be dismissed. Most people who could leave would do so. The economies affected would move fairly quickly back towards subsistence level, as the formal sectors crumbled.”
The report concludes: “The application of sanctions against South Africa, before the landlocked Front Line states have reduced their dependence on South Africa to manageable proportions, and are thus able to survive the consequences, would entail massive costs to the Front Line states with at best minimal and at worst negative benefits in terms of political pressure on apartheid.”
African leaders and intellectuals, however, show no sign of abandoning their strong moral commitment to sanctions against South Africa, having urged them on the Western world for years. Mugabe, along with his colleagues across the continent, has advocated sanctions but has noted that “realities” prevent his country from imposing them. The difficulty for Zimbabwe and its neighbors is that those realities seem unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.