Zimbabwe: Back From the Brink?

I spent three weeks in Zimbabwe in December 2009; it was my first return to that country in a little over two years. The last time I was there, in late 2007, inflation was heading into outer space, with more OOOOs on the banknotes than a Venetian orgasm; Comrade Bob was digging his heels in and damning the world to do anything about it, and the general prognosis was that final meltdown was only moments away. 2008 saw inflation continue to expand into the cosmos and the political future hung in the balance. However, two events put the brakes on the cataclysm: These were the power-sharing agreement between the hardliners of ZANU PF under Mugabe, and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change of Morgan Tsvangirai. I noted that in Zimbabwe that these days the ordinary Zimbabwean always talks about ‘Mugabe’, but the Prime Minister is always ‘Morgan’.

The second event was the ‘dollarization’ of the economy, whereby the Zimbabwe dollar has been replaced by the US Dollar and the South African Rand. As a result inflation has been halted in its tracks and is now close to zero, and the Zimbabwe dollar is, if not dead, then mortally wounded. On this latest trip I brought home a 50 Billion dollar banknote, which I was reliably informed would just about pay for a bus ride across Harare and roughly approximated a value equal to 50 US Cents – that’s an exchange rate of one Billion Zimbabwe dollars to the US Dollar. However for most rural Zimbabweans access to USD or SA Rands is hard to come by, and in many rural areas people have reverted to a barter economy exchanging goods and labour rather than cash.

A combination of political compromise and the end of hyperinflation has for the moment pulled the country back from the brink. However it is clear that this is still only a holding action as the political marriage is very shaky and the MDC and ZANU PF are very uncomfortable bedmates. It smacks of an arranged marriage more than a love affair with an element of rape within the marriage characterising the relationship between ZANU and MDC.

My task was to conduct an emergency assessment in the south east of the country in Chiredzi District, bordering Mozambique and South Africa. This was based on uncomfortably high levels of infant and child malnutrition, a serious cholera outbreak in this region in the last year and successive years of crop failures in an area characterised by unreliable rainfall. This region was also once one of the areas in which the former white farmers held large tracts of land as farms and ranches, and as a result, where much of the controversial land redistribution had taken place. It is the area known as the ‘lowveld’; hot, dry and best suited to cattle and wildlife; indeed the second largest national park in Zimbabwe, Gonarezhou, is located in this region just to the east of Chiredzi.

A week’s work in this region actually produced the conclusion that for the moment, the expected emergency is on hold. Decent rains in 2008 (and a promising outlook for the 2009/10 season as well) have produced a better than average harvest and although we did see enough hungry kids to be disturbing, levels of malnutrition were not at emergency levels. It was notable that in this region those who are suffering the worst deprivations are the peasant farmers resettled onto the former white owned farms. These farms are now with almost no services, including no clean water, no tools or seeds, and limited access to health care and education.  The dispossessed remain dispossessed, whatever the political promises of the ruling classes.

My journey took me to within a few kilometres of the South African border, where most of the male population has disappeared across in search of work, and where the women struggle to bring up their children on the few remittances that make it back home, and on whatever little they can produce in their gardens from their own labour. In the dusty frontier town of Chikombedzi I watched the idle youth gather around a storefront to watch the latest Nigerian drama unfold on the Digital Satellite TV network being beamed into the store as the only entertainment in town.  There are few vehicles on the rural roads, as few can get hold of the Dollars or Rands needed to buy petrol, and the roads themselves are falling into disrepair, as there is no money in the government coffers to pay salaries or but the materials needed to supply basic services.

The real emergency in this part of Zimbabwe, and indeed in much of the country, is the HIV/AIDS epidemic , with adult infections rates of 23%, or nearly one in four of the adult population. The health service is unable to cope, with many healthcare professionals having abandoned Zimbabwe for greener pastures, where they are able to earn a decent living. A large proportion of the population has essentially been abandoned to their fate, which is a miserable lingering death. The doctors and nurses I met were working hard against impossible odds.

Back in Harare life seemed to be more ‘normal’ than in recent years. However my memories of Harare from the 1990s are of a clean, modern, functioning city; now it is far more like any other archetypal African city, with piles of rubbish in the streets, potholed roads, power and water shortages, and hungry demoralised people let down by the failures of the government. For all the traumas it has experienced it is not yet a basket case, and indeed, compared to many African destinations, with which I have become familiar in recent years; Freetown, Darfur, even parts of Nairobi, it is still liveable and could still be a very pleasant place to live given access to foreign currency and a decent house and transport.

Zimbabwe, therefore, remains on the brink of a precipice but has maybe eased back a few steps. The future remains very much in the hands of Mugabe and his ZANU PF cohorts and until the MDC are actively, rather than grudgingly, engaged in the Governance of the country, then the future is still in an uncertain balance.

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