HARARE, Zimbabwe — As Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, sinks into an abyss of infrastructural decay and collapsing services, the countries that maintain a diplomatic presence here regard it as a plum posting. Not quite as choice as Canberra or Pretoria perhaps, but certainly not Abuja or Kinshasa.
On any night of the week American, British, German, Dutch, and Scandinavian diplomats continue to entertain generously while grappling with the seemingly intractable problems generated by an errant regime.
Harare today is a pale shadow of its former self. Once served by well-paved roads and well-lit avenues, those same streets are today pot-holed and dangerously dark. But in the leafy northern suburbs of the capital can be heard the hum of generators lighting the homes of Zimbabwe’s still sizable diplomatic community.
The well-heeled owners of Land Rovers, Mercedes, Volvos, and Jaguars can be identified by their diplomatic number plates negotiating the highways and byways of this city of 2.5 million.
Far from being a hardship posting, diplomats line up to serve in Zimbabwe as it braves the iron grip of its 86-year-old dictator, President Robert Mugabe. The politics may be problematic, but Harare's location — in the tropics yet 5,000 feet above sea level — gives Zimbabwe's capital an almost perfect sunny, sub-tropical climate. Add to that good food and friendly people.
“We love it here,” one ambassador confided this week. But then the inevitable rider: “Without Mugabe blocking the road to reform it would be a perfect posting.”
The embassies are oases of comfort and ease, whose inner workings only a handful of local journalists and non-governmental-organization workers see. Well-watered lawns, commanding views, tennis courts and swimming pools lie within the fenced estates.
Britain’s ambassador occupies arguably the most impressive residence in Harare, set in spacious landscaped grounds, a position that befits the former colonial power.
Before independence in 1980 the British High Commissioner, the United Kingdom’s senior diplomat, occupied a different residence, “Marimba,” a graceful home set in several acres of rose gardens. It was put into mothballs in 1965 when Britain withdrew its representation following the rebel Rhodesian colony’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence.
But the building, now with an expansive, elegant portico, was spruced up and sold to the Canadians in 1980 and is today the second most impressive diplomatic residence in the capital. The rose garden is still there.
The French and South African envoys also have imposing homes.
By contrast, the U.S. ambassador has to make do with a relatively small residence. Perched high on a hill, it boasts a panoramic view. But it does not have the grounds to accommodate large numbers of guests. A recent incumbent found entertaining there on the Fourth of July so difficult that he converted his car park at the bottom of the hill into an impressive reception area.
The Americans put on an impressive display of marching marines on their national day while a robust speech on the virtues of democratic governance can always be expected from the ambassador.
Britain’s Queen’s Birthday is the social event of the year in June during which medieval-style tents set out on sloping lawns house vast amounts of smoked salmon, stilton cheese and Scotch whisky flown in for the occasion. Strawberries and cream and tea and cake are served.
The Norwegians, Swedes and Dutch provide equally impressive spreads on their national days although not everyone is captivated by the prospect of reindeer.
The French are known for their elegant array of cheeses and chilled champagne. Last year, the cheeses were nowhere to be found, much to the consternation of pampered guests who have become used to special treats on certain occasions.
The cosmopolitan audience on Bastille Day (July 14) always like the bit in France’s national anthem, the Marseillaise, that goes "Contre nous de la tyrannie, L'étendard sanglant est levé", which translates as: "Against us, tyranny's, Bloody banner is raised." Its meaning is not lost on those present including the Zimbabwe government representative who can’t quite understand why voices are raised at that point.
Mugabe’s ministers, who once boycotted E.U and U.S. events, are gradually returning now that there is a government of national unity that includes Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change.
But Mugabe's hardliners are still casting a long shadow. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said it wants to vet “political” speeches by ambassadors so ministers can respond. Most embassies ignore this requirement arguing they can say what they like on their own sovereign turf.
Others neatly get around the injunction. The outgoing Spanish ambassador a few years ago spoke at length about a country he knew well, isolated in the region of which it was a part. Presided over by an arthritic despot, it was locked in an unproductive time-warp as the rest of the region’s economies surged ahead.
“I speak of course of Spain,” the ambassador said to applause from a knowing audience that drew the implicit parallels with Zimbabwe. "Now under a democratic order, Spain is part of Europe’s success story," he concluded.
Cryptic messages of this sort were once common, but with the one-year-old unity government, ambassadors feel free to speak their minds. Many of the countries represented here are working hard to reverse the slide that has reduced Zimbabwe, under its “arthritic despot,” to penury but whose politics ensure a lively interest by well-wishers across the world.
The most recent arrival has been U.S. ambassador Charles Ray. He has this month been entertaining a delegation of congressional representatives who are exploring ways they can remove some of the sanctions introduced after flawed elections eight years ago.
If there is progress on political and economic reform, the way will be open to improved relations with the U.S. That might mean further expansion of the car park/reception area for the July 4th festivities. And more diplomats, of course.
Editor's note: this dispatch was updated to give a full translation of the phrase from the French national anthem, La Marseillaise.