Zimbabwe marks its 30th anniversary of independence on Sunday. And the same man who became the leader of the new nation is still in charge today. Back in 1980 Robert Mugabe was cheered as a hero, now he is reviled by many of his own people who have watched their nation descend into violence and poverty under his rule. The World's Laura Lynch takes a look at the country's fractured politics through the lens of soccer.
MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. This Sunday Zimbabwe marks 30 years of independence from Britain. The man who became leader of that nation is still in power today. Back then Robert Mugabe was cheered as a hero. Now he is reviled by many of his own people as they've watched the country descend into violence and poverty. These days Mugabe has few friends among Western governments, so he's been turning to other nations for support, even if it causes problems at home. The World's Laura Lynch reports.
LAURA LYNCH: In the fading light of day in the southern reaches of Harare, barefoot books kick a shrunken ball on the dusty patch of land. It's their version of soccer and they love it.
LYNCH: Do you guys play every day?
BOYS: Yes. Every day.
LYNCH: They can't wait for the World Cup, even if there is no chance they'll get to see a game. Harriet Rushowe of the Zimbabwe International Football Association says having it next door in South Africa has been reason enough to get excited.
HARRIET RUSHOWE: Everybody was really looking forward to June 2010 and over the years we have been really trying, as much as we possibly could to ensure that we get to enjoy the World Cup.
LYNCH: Rushowe says that hasn't been easy. Zimbabweans either can't get or can't afford the tickets. So Zimbabwe invited World Cup teams to base themselves here for training and practice during the tournament.
RUSHOWE: Having some teams coming to camp in Zimbabwe was the initial idea and as such, we only have received just a few responses.
LYNCH: A few responses and only one positive reply. Out of all the teams, only the North Koreans are coming to town and not everyone is happy about it, not even in this soccer mad nation. A few blocks away from the boys pick up game, the pros are at it in Zimbabwe's Premier League. World Cup fever is in the air here too. But one man in the crowd, who refuses to give his name, is offended by Zimbabwe's decision to play host to North Korea because of what happened in the past. Soon after Robert Mugabe came to power, North Korean soldiers arrived to train Zimbabwe's military. Those freshly trained Zimbabwean troops went on to unleash a campaign of murder and brutality against people living mainly in central and western provinces of the country.
ANONYMOUS MALE: My family was a victim of that. The memories come back and it becomes fresh. And we don't need this, during this time when we are talking about reconciliation, when we are talking about national healing. We don't want this.
LYNCH: Some, like political scientist John Makumbe of the University of Zimbabwe believe Mugabe is relishing the controversy and the headlines it's generating both at home and abroad.
JOHN MAKUMBE: Nothing thrills Robert Mugabe more than annoying the west. It's all to do with we have more friends that you think we have, you know? This being directed at western democracies and we are not isolated at all.
LYNCH: Yet another friend of Mugabe's, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad is coming to Zimbabwe next week. He's been invited to officially open an international trade fair, the first non-African leader to be given such an honor. That isn't sitting well with some in Zimbabwe's own government. It's a unity government in place for just over a year. Bitter political enemies are trying to work together, often with fractious results. Tendai Biti, former opposition candidate turned finance minister, was at an uncharacteristic loss for words when I asked him about Ahmedinajad's visit.
TENDAI BITI: I don't know anything about that. I don't know who has invited him. I'm not the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
LYNCH: But here's where the new Zimbabwe gets even more complicated. Biti says he wouldn't have invited Ahmedinajad and he won't comment on the North Koreans, but just last week Biti made an official visit to China. China may not be considered a rogue state, but his visit signals a shift of priorities for Biti and his party who have had traditionally strong ties to the United States and other western nations. Biti says he's fed up with the west's reluctance to help Zimbabwe.
biti: The bottom line is that this economy needs capital. This economy needs reconstruction. This economy needs rebuilding. After the Second World War, Europe benefited from the Marshall Plan. We are in a position where we definitely needed a Marshall plan, but the west did not come with a Marshall Plan. So me, as Finance Minister of Zimbabwe, I'm going to talk to anyone and everyone as long as it is in the best interests of Zimbabwe, I will do that.
LYNCH: A reminder of China's largesse sits on Harare's outskirts. It recently spent 10 million dollars to refurbish the main soccer stadium to bring it up to World Cup standards. North Korean will likely play exhibition matches there. This week Zimbabwe state television's prime time offerings include Robert Mugabe narrating the tale of the birth of the nation. But Mugabe reliving past glories isn't must see TV for everyone in this stricken nation. On the highway between Harare and the Mozambique border a bus full of passengers has pulled over. A crowd of roadside vendors springs into action pushing apples, Cokes and candy up toward the open windows. These people may earn a few dollars a day doing this and they say they won't be celebrating Independence Day this weekend.
MALE VOICE 1: We can't celebrate. We are not free. We don't have money, that money; it is very difficult to get money in Zimbabwe.
LYNCH: And you, are you going to celebrate on Independence Day?
FEMALE VOICE 1: I'll be here.
LYNCH: You'll be here? Selling apples?
FEMALE VOICE 1: Yes.
LYNCH: That's not much of a celebration is it? She shrugs her shoulders and walks away cradling her basket of fruit against her waist. She and the others will wait for the next bus and wait for the promise of a better Zimbabwe to come true. For The World, I'm Laura Lynch on the road to Harare.