Since independence in 1980, Zimbabwe has gone from success story to basket case. These two books combine to provide an excellent introduction to the unfolding disaster, which left Zimbabwe with the world's worst-performing economy in 2004. The International Crisis Group provides an in-depth and nuanced analysis of the crisis, focusing on land politics, one of the key points of conflict. (It also includes a shorter analysis of the similarly worrying land situation in South Africa.) The extreme inequality in land ownership in Zimbabwe -- where 6,000 white farmers owned 40 percent of the territory and a much higher proportion of the arable land at independence -- was a political and emotional powder keg that the government and the international community would have had to address sooner or later. Although the United Kingdom, the ex-colonial power, could have been more proactive on the issue, President Robert Mugabe, the ICG makes clear, has exploited it with ruthless demagoguery. As Zimbabwe's economy and his own popularity have declined, Mugabe has increasingly encouraged violence against the white farmers (as well as against any form of opposition to his rule). The past five years have shown him willing to destroy his country's economy in order to remain in power.
Meldrum's account of his experience as a journalist in Zimbabwe from 1980 until 2004, when he was expelled by the government, provides a deeply felt, personal view of these events. Although American, Meldrum went to Zimbabwe because he believed the country could become a model of multiracial democracy in Africa, and he chronicles his slow disillusionment in the face of the government's increasingly venal and tyrannical rule. His book focuses on the rise of a political opposition in the late 1990s, and it offers a telling account of press censorship, often targeting Meldrum's courageous reporting for The Guardian. But Meldrum's most compelling writing concerns the impact of the creeping deterioration and growing violence on the daily lives of his friends and neighbors; in these passages, he conveys a deep affection for the country and a keen moral outrage that most readers are likely to share.