The very first thing you see upon entering Harare International Airport is a portrait of His Excellency, the President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe. I recall my very first steps off the South African Airways flight from Johannesburg last year, seeing that grim visage and understanding immediately that I was entering a totalitarian state (the photo below is from the entrance to the departure lounge).
As a prominent South African told me before I left for Zimbabwe, a surefire sign that you’re in an undemocratic country is the proliferation of presidential pictures. Writing in the Sowetan, a South African newspaper serving the country’s black townships, about a recent trip to Harare Airport, Andrew Molefe observers:
To step out of an aircraft at Harare International Airport is to step into a chamber of horrors.
If an international airport is supposed to be the face of a country, Zimbabwe is slipping dangerously towards the edge of a precipice.
The airport ablution facilities aren’t working. Human waste greets visitors who need to use the toilets. The taps have run dry.
The latest bad news to emerge about Zimbabwe is that British Airlines has decided to cut all flights to and from the country due to the fluctuating state of the economy. This is a major development, considering Britain’s historic ties to Zimbabwe and the relatively large number of people holding British citizenship who live in Zimbabwe. BA has also been an important transport method by which Zimbabwean asylum seekers have made their way into the United Kingdom. To understand the gravity of this news, keep in mind that the only other time in history that British Airways cut off service to Zimbabwe was in 1965 after the then-rebel colony of Rhodesia declared a Unilateral Declaration of Independence from the United Kingdom, which the British government declared to be an act of treason warranting severe international sanctions. Things have changed considerably for this service cutoff, however: Zimbabwe is no longer a fledgling nation, but a failing or failed state run by a brutal autocrat.
For now, the only way Zimbabweans will be able to travel to England is via Air Zimbabwe, which, in the words one Zimbabwean, “has developed what you might call a reputation for being unreliable.” Not only is jet fuel hard to come by in Zimbabwe—causing flights to be delayed for days—but the carrier has only one international aircraft, which Mugabe frequently commandeers for his jaunts abroad, oftentimes without advance notice.