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Uproar in Zimbabwe : Just for Once, Corruption's a Real Scandal

April 20, 1989|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | Times Staff Writer

BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe — As with so many good scandals, the one called "Willowgate" began unraveling with a misdirected letter.

The letter and an enclosed check landed on the desk of a businessman here named Obert Mpofu. Mpofu was mystified as to why he would be entitled to a $1,900 rebate from the Zimbabwean government's Willowvale auto assembly plant for a car he had not ordered and would not be entitled to buy for many years.

Then he noticed that both items were actually meant for one A. Mpofu. This man turned out to be an employee of a leading Bulawayo businessman, who turned out to be up to his ears in shady deals with a number of Zimbabwean politicians.

In time, these documents came to the notice of the Bulawayo Chronicle newspaper, which one day last October, under a huge headline screaming, "CARS RACKET," proceeded to make African history.

No Parallel in Region

What followed was a public inquiry into official corruption that has no parallel in sub-Saharan Africa, and little enough anywhere else in the world. In countries from Kenya to Zaire, such corruption is institutionalized, explained away or kept safely out of the media.

Thus, in a region where few investigate official malfeasance lest they be tossed into jail as dissidents, Zimbabwe mounted an inquiry that placed roughly half of its Cabinet under threat of perjury prosecution.

The investigation, conducted by a three-member commission led by Wilson Sandura, the chief judge of Zimbabwe's second-highest court, climaxed with the resignations this month of three Cabinet ministers. President Robert Mugabe has pledged to take action against at least three others accused of misdeeds by the Sandura panel.

At the center of the racket uncovered by the Chronicle is the government-owned auto plant, Willowvale Motors (hence the "Willowgate" label). Willowvale and a sister plant, which assemble Toyotas, Mazdas and Peugeots from imported "kits," are the only legal importers of cars into Zimbabwe.

There is a long waiting list for these vehicles, but the law allows ministers and members of Parliament to jump to the head of the line, on grounds that they need cars for official business.

Instead of keeping these cars, however, many officials were reselling them at markups of as much as $30,000, in violation of a law controlling the prices of secondhand vehicles.

As it happens, the money made in Willowgate would barely merit a cocked eyebrow in, say, Japan, where the Recruit Co. scandal involves millions of dollars. It even pales in comparison to the millions of dollars socked away by some African leaders. One of the busier participants, Minister of State Frederick Shava, who bought and sold so many vehicles that the Sandura commission criticized him for "behaving like a car dealer," made about $70,000 in a year.

Yet the spectacle of ministers and legislators trading in their privileged automobiles for cash has struck a chord in the Zimbabwean psyche the way a complicated scheme to siphon money out of, say, a government utility company would not. "The average guy really understands this one," one Harare diplomat remarked.

In part, this is because automobiles are at the center of the scheme.

Starved for Vehicles

Zimbabwe is starved for vehicles. It is one of the few countries in the world where the number of registered automobiles has dropped in the last few years.

The reason is that Zimbabwe simply does not have the foreign currency to import vehicles. Oddly for one of black Africa's more prosperous countries, Zimbabwe is one of the most strapped for foreign exchange.

Partly this is because it has chosen to pay off its foreign debt on schedule, rather than stretching out interest and principal payments over a longer period, as have most other African countries. Thus, last year more than 33% of its $1.8 billion in foreign income went to pay off debt; most of the rest was spent on oil imports and a highly trained military.

So Willowvale, which has the capacity to turn out more than 4,500 cars a year, in 1987 built only 1,400. Meanwhile, the government estimates that the country needs more than 20,000 new vehicles a year to replace old cars and trucks and fill business demand.

The car famine has turned Zimbabwe into a nation of hitchhikers. With buses scarce at rush hours, people crowd Harare's bus stops with their arms outstretched into the street, palms facing down and fingers waving, trying to cadge a ride from passing motorists.

Even for those with money to spend, the tiny output of Willowvale makes buying a car virtually a lifetime enterprise.

"Most motor dealers have stopped taking names for the waiting list because there's no point in it," says James Brown, head of the national Motor Trade Assn. "It would be 10 or 12 years."

Until last year, Zimbabweans were permitted to pool their family vacation allowances of foreign exchange--about $200 per member--to buy a used car abroad.

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