It is more than a year since I last visited. The strange coup that unseated Robert Mugabe, that swung from euphoria to death on the streets, is months gone. Emmerson “ED” Mnangagwa, a.k.a The Crocodile, has been saying some encouraging things, but the country has plunged ever further into economic hardship. A new wave of Zimbabwean job-seekers is hitting South Africa, fuelling resentment, maybe even murders of foreign truck-drivers on the N3.
I’m travelling up with a friend; the bakkie is loaded with basics – flour, cooking oil, sugar, candles – for our respective families and friends. The border is smooth enough, until the last step, when an anonymous official in plain clothes gives us a bit of a run-around, hinting he might like a bottle of nice whiskey. He is saying similar things to my companion, in Shona. But they let us go after a short while (I have no whiskey, or anything else I care to part with), and we drive off. My friend is anxious, afraid we will be followed, or stopped at the next road block. He was badly beaten up by ZANU-PF thugs at a previous election; he has every reason to be afraid. He is afraid for his family, and says they live in fear of spies and informers; few dare speak their minds. But no further trouble ensues. Compared to a few years ago, driving is a pleasure: the roads are newly refurbished by the Chinese, and there are almost no police road blocks. No one stops us. For the first time in many years, I drive through the small Midlands towns: Cement, Gweru, Kadoma .... Without exception they look worn, scruffy, messily busy – otherwise, no different from twenty years ago. No development here that I can see: none. In Norton, a once-flourishing furniture factory, now abandoned, wrecked and overgrown, seems symptomatic.
I drop my friend at his mother’s place. She rents a tiny two-room house, in amongst other little houses separated by scrubby dirt tracks, tiny vegetable patches, disabled cars, unkempt grasses. Her rooms are crammed with nice things – flat-screen TV, hi-fi, attractive furniture – but it’s a tight squeeze under cracked asbestos roof, with only an unprepossessing communal toilet outside. Thus do the majority live. She is so sweet, treats us to a generous lunch of tasty chicken and rice; women and children come and go, and there’s a sense of helpful community around her. It is good to see mother and son re-united. He is here to get his passport renewed; different stories appear in the media, but none of them are good: the passport office is several years behind in its queue of applications, or can’t get the paper, and so on. Now apparently you have to apply to make an application, even if you know someone who knows someone...
I was warned about fuel and currency shortages. I have brought enough petrol with me to get in and out again; currency is another story. The government has been trying to extricate the country from its reliance on foreign currencies, and has banned their public use – though a lawyer says no actual punishments have been legislated yet. At the same time, you are supposed to use local Zim dollars – but there aren't enough of those to go round; I manage to cadge a few, enough to get me through the toll gates. I cannot get onto the “ecocash” virtual system; I can’t get cash from the banks; my VISA card doesn’t work. How is a visitor supposed to pay for anything? But Zimbos are nothing if not ingenious; trading will happen no matter what. The “informal market” will operate despite government’s sometimes violent and inhumane efforts to suppress it. Still, it all means the further evisceration of the tourist industry; and for now, every transaction is a mission. The Zim dollar was meant to be 1:1 with the US dollar, but immediately slid to 4:1, then to 10:1, and now every trader sets their own exchange rates, depending. In addition, there are “RTGS” dollars, a virtual currency that trips off everyone’s tongue (standing for Real Time Gross Settlement – a crazed euphemism for an unreal medium of exchange, based on neither reserves nor material productivity). The exchange rates are (it is explained to my non-economic brain) responsible in part for both fuel and electricity shortages: apparently both are being sold in Zimbabwe at way below global prices: until and unless exchange rates are adjusted, it just doesn’t pay suppliers to import, so they don’t – and the queues of cars stretch around the blocks at the few stations rumoured to have fuel. But the government has been reluctant to raise prices because of the knock-on effects on an already defunct economy. As for electricity, the same applies; but the country can neither pay for imported electricity nor keep its own generation going. Kariba Dam is so low that only a single turbine still operates. Throughout Bulawayo, Harare and Mutare, during my visit, there is power only between about 11 PM and 5 AM, every day. Businesses work on generators if they have – and if they can get the fuel for them – or on their phones: the cell towers have their own generators, but apparently those are groaning through over-use. And ZESA, the supply authority, is projecting “Phase 4”, meaning 4 days off, 6 hours on. (That's right, four days.) For the common person, candles have increased in price by 700%. Though the causes and dynamics are rather different from previous periods of shortage, in 2008 and earlier, for the commoner it all feels depressingly familiar. I’ve turned up a letter to me from my mother, dated 15 March, 2000:
The fuel situation is terrible. people queue for 9 and 12 hours. How can I do that? Men can at least step out for a pee. They go with others and push the cars along length by length as the queue moves, and often find the fuel has run out before their turn comes. Some guys are selling petrol in cans, often only water with a few drops of petrol floating on top. ... The young husband of N-----‘s receptionist was in a queue for fuel – which stretched almost a mile down the road – stepped out of his car to walk up to the pumps to see what the situation was like and a speeding truck hit him and smashed him into another car in the queue and killed him instantly.
Plus ça change. Meanwhile – though it seems little talked about – the International Monetary Fund is pressing Zimbabwe into “austerity measures” – policies which have signally failed elsewhere – as a prelude to extending loans, so we can dig ourselves another hole of unrepayable debts. Thanks a lot.
The countryside between the towns is looking dry and tawny, as one would expect this time of year. Though locals complain of the cold, to me, coming out of Grahamstown’s considerably more biting winter, it feels delightfully balmy. Already some of the miombo woodland trees are coming out in hints of spring colour – from lime green to deep maroon – at least a month early. A product of the drought, and/or global heating? In Harare, I sit in the garden of a friend’s house, and the Grey louries and Arrow-marked babblers creak and flicker through the trees; the dog chases sticks; I discuss the nature of the planets with the six-year-old daughter. It might almost be normal. Or, you might say, nature and the topography retain their own sanity. Back in home country, the eastern hills and the forests are as stunningly beautiful as ever. Though war vets have approached Mnangagwa with a view to acquiring yet more land, smallholders hang in and hope, and continue to try to farm, or sell cakes, or make tables... In town, young Tinashe continues to man his suburban corner mobile kiosk, as he has for a few years now. But it’s getting tougher, he says. “We must just trust to God,” he concludes.
I am invited to supper by acquaintances at a long-established club, which offers good food, an upstairs coffee bar, and accommodation. It is pristine, the waiters attentive, the Inyanga trout very tasty. The walls are covered with photographs of early settler Umtali and its subsequent stages of development. (In Harare, too, tiny enclaves of well-watered luxury, with boutique shops and cafes, continue paradoxically to flourish.) Also at the supper-table is an amiable and deeply Christian man who had a lot to do with Zimbabwean cricket at national and provincial levels. He paints a depressing picture of corruption, interference and plunder, wrecking Zimbabwe’s chances of qualifying for the recent World Cup. I tell him I’d just read an article about ZANU-PF’s hounding of wicket-keeper Tatenda Taibu; he enthusiastically praises Taibu, who would not compromise his principles, and had to get out to England. Meanwhile, misspending of a stable financial base spelled the demise of the province's cricket franchise. Our table-mate shakes his head and trots out the usual generalisation: “It’s tough doing business in Africa. We gave the ICC a huge file of evidenced complaints, but they did nothing, they’re toothless.” (A few days later, though, the ICC will suspend Zimbabwe from international competition, citing excessive political interference.)
Then the apple crumble and ice cream.
Though journalism has gone almost entirely online, newspapers are still being produced and are on sale on town pavements. I peruse a couple of examples. As ever, The Standard rants against the government; The Sunday Mail supports them, blaming problems on aberrations or inevitable errors: delightfully, “a few bad apples are on the prowl”. The Standard’s headlines: “Bigwigs’ grand looting exposed”; “Audit lifts lid on parastatals rot”; “Mnangagwa insult case stalls”; “Rampant child labour sours Lowveld’s sugarcane industry”; “US$ ban piles pressure on employers” – and “pastor steals tyre”.
There seem to be any number of extra-governmental outfits shouting the odds through full-page adverts. The Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum publishes an “Anti-immunity update”, listing dozens of cases of government assault in the earlier 2000s. Another consortium fields a full-page “declaration on recognition of, respect for and participation of the informal economy”, obviously in the wake of government assaults on informal traders. They urge, somewhat contradictorily, all parties to establish representatives and bodies to address the informal sector (organised informality?), and to help its transition and integration into the formal sector (respect it, but end it?). (At the same time, a headline says: “Informal mining activities give farmers headaches”). A “National Transitional Justice Working Group”, in a presentation to the Permanent Secretary in government, calls for more transparency, a reparations fund for victims of army shootings during the August 2018 elections (the Sunday Mail says police investigations showed that these were committed by “rogues and bogus soldiers” in stolen uniforms), and the adoption of Africa-wide justice policies. Another outfit is calling on the president to apologise for the Gukurahundi massacres of the 1980s, against the backdrop of a Peace and Reconciliation Commission, which is supposed to start hearing testimony soon.
The Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition headlines yet another full-page statement with “Zim currency reforms rushed” (unconstitutionally, another lawyer is challenging), and outlines 6 areas of necessary reform:
1) macro-economic stability that is pro-poor, inclusive and human-centred with increased fiscal space …;
2) Revival of the productive sector…;
3) Highly developed, functional and modern infrastructure …;
4) Creation of professional, transparent, accountable and globally competitive economic institutions …;
5) A modern, equal, peaceful, open and pluralist society…;
6) A devolved constitutional state where the Bill of Rights should be the cornerstone of economic development with a political system built on a free and fair electoral system …
There is some detail under each of these, but it is saying: build a democracy from the ground up. Lovely as it sounds, it is impossibly utopian, but symptomatic of what Zimbabweans feel they lack and are up against. Conspicuously missing is the environment - global heating, riverine water quality, soil creation, and so on - not to mention any kind of indigenous or traditional view or preservation: it espouses a Western industrial development model, in effect. Some of this as sad in its way as a poem by one Elias Muonde, “Radio Maputo”, expressing nostalgia for the old days tempered with cynicism: “tell me the old propaganda again/ the voice of Samora/ Guerrilla tales/ Marxist fables/ aluta continua//… Oh good ol’ Radio Maputo/ Rhodesia fading/ Zimbabwe rising/ Apartheid dying/ Africa Borwa rising/ You were lying/ but it was sweet.”
I swore blind years ago that I would never go through Beit Bridge’s chaotic border post again, but the fuel shortage obliges me to take the shortest route out. I go by the better road via Birchenough Bridge, Chiredzi and Triangle, where Hulett’s sugar factory continues to belch black pollutive smoke into the Lowveld air. For once, I have timed it right: though the South African side is as poorly signposted and illogical as ever, it takes precisely 47 minutes to negotiate both sides. No official is remotely interested in what I might be carrying or doing.
Friends have been nervous about me going to chaotic, militarised Zimbabwe – but it is only on the South African side one encounters signs that shout: “HIGH CRIME AREA. DO NOT STOP!”