Zimbabwe: Mugabe’s Paradise or “when things get better”

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, Aug. 31: 

The Zimbabweans are a very calm and friendly, polite people.  This may seem strange given the extreme hardships they are facing.

I am staying in what they call the ‘low-density’ area — a euphemism for the well-to-do residential districts as opposed to the ‘high-density’ poor townships, or what we call slums. Most of the ‘low-density’ houses seem to have been built before independence in 1980. Needless-to-say, probably lived in by white people or some of the wealthier Black collaborators. They are big, some very big, and comfortable. But don’t think there is no money out there today. 

All around new high-end homes are being built, some two stories high.  I am told Zimbabweans living outside the country are building these homes in view of better days ahead.  Dollars and pounds go a long, long way in Zimbabwe.  The economy here is in a free fall. 

Downtown Bulawayo could be a town in Midwest-USA.  The streets are four lanes wide because “16 oxen  and a wagon had to be able to make a U-turn”. Cars are parked diagonally to the wide sidewalks.  The buildings are one and two stories in brick, granite, and brownstone with balconies shading the sidewalks. They were built between 1900 and 1950.  Here and there, a higher office or bank or administrative building sticks out handsomely. There are trees along the streets and the town is full of parks and gardens. The sidewalks are lined with shops, many of them closed, the others empty and when there is a bakery, people wait in long lines hoping to buy some bread.  Zimbabwe has severe food shortages.

On July 25, the government ordered all shops to revert back to the prices of June 18 and the authorities determined what those prices were.  In a country with an official inflation rate of over seven thousand percent (NGOs and foreign missions put it at over 13 000%) this order meant shopkeepers were selling their produce at a loss. So, they watched, watery eyed, as people bought up everything in the shop and did not renew their stock. But most often, the greedy profiteers were the first in line. They bought everything at the low prices and resold it at more than a hefty profit.

One example is cigarettes; hoarded at 40 000 Zim dollars a pack, they are being resold at 200 000 a pack. You cannot find a cigarette anywhere in Bulawayo except from the street vendors who were the first in line.(On September 1 the government authorized a price hike and gave the list in the news papers. I cannot say whether the price hike is enough to restore confidence and allow shopkeepers to make a profit.)

To show how fast prices can rise you only have to have breakfast at the Holiday Inn which from Monday to Thursday cost me one million Zim dollars.  But on Friday, because they were allowed to adjust prices upwards, my breakfast cost one million eight hundred thousand Zim dollars.  That is an eighty percent increase over night.  Still, it comes out to about eight dollars at the black market rate.

Farmers are hiding their livestock rather than sell at a fraction of the real price.  As a result, there is no meat to be bought.  Luxury hotels with full menus can only offer two or three dishes.  The restaurants, which grow their own food like the ‘Roasted Berry’, serve a variety of foods and of course the Chinese always seem to have their connections (although I am not sure it was beef we ate).

The street price for the Zimbabwe dollar today is 230 000 to one US-dollar.  The government’s fixed price is 250 to one US dollar; so guess where everybody changes his or her money?  At the street exchange rate, or market rate, you can eat a quality four-course meal for under five dollars, even three but few have any dollars or euros or pounds to change.

“The poor eat air-pie,” says Stephan.

You don’t want to use a credit card because you will be charged the government exchange rate which means your breakfast could cost you anywhere from US$100 to US$300.

The government is waging a war against the ‘hoarders’ and has jailed merchants who refused to sell their goods at the official prices.  The authorities are sending people out to the farms to make the farmers show their livestock, count them and then have them marked with an individualized brand that each farmer will be issued. I suspect the next stage will be to seize the livestock at the fixed price to try to get some meat in the markets.

Fuel lacks. There are brand new BP, Total, Shell and other gas stations open all day and night in Bulawayo.  They have neither gas nor oil, nor parts, nor tires to sell.  As a matter of fact they have nothing. But the employees in their crisp uniforms man the stations.  The international chains refuse to import gas and diesel and sell it at a loss.  The official price is 60 000 Zim dollars a liter.  The attendant is merely being paid (Mugabe rate) to protect and maintain the station until better days come. (average salaries, I am told, range from 10 to 15 million Zim dollars a month, US$50 to US$75)

The only station that may eventually be supplied is the government controlled NOCZIM.  Cars are parked on the side of the road bumper-to-bumper for over two kilometers and have been parked there for who knows how long. Nobody is sitting in the vehicles.  They are just positioned for the day when the station is supplied.        

“They are waiting for gas that isn’t even there,” says N.  “And they don’t know when it will come.” N. says that they can’t afford the street price and have run out of gas.

It is hard to see where the government could get the money to subsidize its own mad pricing policy on fuel when they have to pay hard currency to import it.  This is probably why the NOCZIM station has not been supplied.

President Mugabe has tried to plead ‘African brotherly solidarity’ with people like the President of Equatorial Guinea, one of the least nice guys on the continent and who is in Harare this week, and Libya’s Gadhaffi but apparently everybody wants the money up front.

President Mugabe says the “country is under siege” and suffering from “illegal sanctions” because the “imperialists” refuse to accept the results of “democratic elections” in the country.  “Zimbabwe will never be colonized again!” I hear him say everyday on TV news.

But, how do the cars still get around?  People go to Botswana or South Africa with giant drums in their trailers and pickups and bring back the gas which they sell on the street for 200 000 Zim dollars a liter, a little less than a dollar. This is illegal but the police are in just as tough a situation as everybody else and a few dollars will get you through. The same goes for spare parts and groceries.

You merely park your car and call over one of the ‘Gadhaffis’ and tell him how much you want to buy.  He disappears a few minutes then comes back with bottles of gas which you smell, touch and even taste to make sure it has not been cut with water. 

If anything comes into the Zimbabwe market at the fixed price, the first in line buys everything and takes it to Botswana and South Africa where they sell it at an enormous profit. The price fixing system therefore has the bankrupt Zimbabweans subsidizing neighboring countries. The government has declared a ‘blitz’ against the “professional queuers”, those who line up to “hoard and create artificial shortages”.

C. told me he was lining up at 5 a.m. to buy sugar, then at 7 to buy milk.  He went to work and spent his lunch time in line to buy bread but they ran out before he got to the register so he went back after work. “It is now 6 p.m. and I still have no bread for tonight.”

Many of Bulawayo’s factories have fallen silent as has the local power station even though Zimbabwe has coal. In the low-density neighborhoods there is electricity most of the time but in the high-density neighborhoods (slums), they are lucky if they get a couple of hours between two and five in the morning. The houses in the high-density areas all have their power boxes and electric poles and lines but there is no juice.  When the sun goes down at 6:30, if they can’t afford a candle, it is the end of the day, every day.

Those who have jobs cannot afford the private transport that still is running so they walk, in long dark lines from the industrial zone to their homes miles away. But their heads are not bent in fatalistic gloom and doom of a broken people. They are calm.

When they are alone and nobody can hear them talk, they laugh very loudly about their plight. G. says “Mugabe tells us only crazy people are against him. Well 75% of us are crazy.” This sends he and R. into another round of riotous laughter.  They need to laugh until things get better.

To make matters worse, there is a water shortage.  Homes in the high-density no longer have running water. Women can wait hours at the boreholes equipped with hand pumps to fill the plastic buckets and carry the heavy load hundreds of meters back to their homes. Even the boreholes go dry for hours at a time.  The local paper has spoken of massive cases of diarrhea as people are forced to use dirty water to wash and cook.  They are unable to flush their toilets and forced to relieve themselves in the bushes next to their houses or next to someone else’s house.

The most common cause of death for those under 50 is “heart failure”. This is how they refuse to recognize Aids, an illness which will stigmatize a family in the public’s view.“The Aids problem has improved,” says X. “Before it was 25% but now it is only 23%.”  More laughter.  If Zimbabweans continue to die, the rate will go down some more.  The country has neither the drugs nor the money to buy them.

Ninety-five percent of the Zimbabweans have been to school and know how to read and write. 

X. jokes about the bread lines saying “it is our way of socializing and getting to talk in groups.” Mugabe had a law passed which bans groups of more than three people without police permission. Opposition leaders and militants have been beaten and jailed, the press is stifled and journalists threatened, beaten and jailed while the official press rants about the “traitors sold out to Western Imperialists” and actually moves people to aggress opposition leaders. The only TV and radio allowed is the government owned and controlled ZBC.  The TV news spends the first fifteen minutes telling you all about Comrade Mugabe’s day and what he had to say. Private papers are seized and banned if they print something the government finds insulting whether it is true or not. Licenses are revoked.

Of course, those in the circles of government are not suffering so badly.  They drive brand new Mercedes cars and eat well and never stand in line.  President Mugabe is a man with a sense of humor.  He says, “if you don’t believe there is petrol in the country, just go out and lie in the road.”  He says there are no shortages except the artificial shortages created by the agents of Western imperialism.  Mugabe promises better days for Zimbabwe which has been sinking in a whirlpool of disaster for seven years.  Most people I talked to, think things will improve when Mugabe goes.

In the words of a man who says his name is Snowman (don’t ask me; he’s one of the blackest men I’ve seen here), “things will soon get better.” He is always laughing.