Zimbabwe in March 2004: Four Years Since the Beginning of the Plunge

by Mary Ndlovu

(March 13, 2004) Time is out of joint in Zimbabwe. We have gone through the looking glass and live in a state of schizophrenia. We read one thing in the state media, and experience something quite different on the ground. The new farmers are said to be creating a revolution, but there is no farm produce in the shops, no agricultural goods to export. Our “enemies” who want to sabotage our economy are feeding us, while our own rulers destroy productive capacity, pillage our natural resources, and even make money illegally exporting the food on which the people depend for survival.

Time moves too fast. In a day lives are turned upside down. A government decree quadruples tariffs on virtually every imported good, destroying businesses, crippling industries relying on imported components, wiping out the means of survival for hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans who have been eking out a living through cross-border trade. In a week the only non-government daily newspaper is off the street, on the street and off the street again. In a month prices double in the shops, and 20,000 Zimbabweans die of AIDS. In a year inflation soars from 220% to 620% and your used car depreciates by doubling its Zimdollar value. And in a year the public mood changes from hope and expectation of relief from the madness to deep,
debilitating despair.

On our side of the looking glass, the mounting catastrophe has political, economic, social and cultural components. Most objective observers would trace the economic problems back at least to the late 1980’s. Certainly the introduction of structural adjustment at the beginning of the 90’s can be seen as the process which eroded the living standards of Zimbabweans, and spawned the first broad-based opposition party. It also generated pressure from interest groups such as war veterans and ambitious black businessmen who felt they had waited too long to share in the country’s wealth. The government’s response to these developments sent the country into the downward spiral which today ensnares us. Instead of taking the criticism and the pressure and sitting back to plan a coherent strategy of how to deal with the inter-related issues, ZANU PF panicked, saw their ruling position threatened, and from 1997 on have responded piecemeal, reactively and irrationally, bringing us to the tragedy which unfolds before our eyes.

They gave in to pressures from those groups with which they had racial and historical affinities, that is the “indigenous businessmen” and the war veterans, while viciously attacking those in the political opposition and civil society who dared to demand policies that would serve the needs of the people at large. These were accused of wanting to sabotage the economy, acting as agents of foreign powers, fomenting discord and trying to reverse the gains of the liberation war. Because the government half believed their own fantasies, they became quite incapable of drawing appropriate strategies to handle the economic crisis, and became obsessed with simply retaining political power.

Every economic policy became twisted to suit the immediate needs of ZANU PF, while the needs of the consumer, the producer, the employer and employee were disregarded. Basic economic sense was thrown to the winds, commonplace economic imperatives defied. ZANU PF returned to the militarist leadership and rhetoric of the liberation war.

The economic slide was precipitated by the 1997 surrender to the demands of war veterans, but it became a plunge from the beginning of the seizure of land from white commercial farmers in February 2000. Angered by the negative results of the referendum on a new constitution in that month, ZANU PF devised a malicious but brilliant strategy designed to recover domestic support, provide new sources of patronage, fulfill the promises of the liberation struggle and attract international support from traditional allies of the 1970’s. In their panic they rushed headlong to seize agricultural land from white farmers by violent means, afraid to wait for a legal process to unfold. They justified this by the philosophy of armed struggle and the injustices perpetrated by colonizers in the hundred years before Independence. Law was no longer necessary; the end justified any means.

It is exactly four years since the officially sanctioned land invasions began. During that time the economy has shrunk to less than half its previous size, while inflation has risen to 620%. Added to the pre-existing economic crisis, the destruction of a substantial portion of commercial agriculture has brought a sharp decline in foreign exchange earnings, and severe food shortages. Government’s attempts to manipulate prices, interest rates and foreign exchange rates have produced chaos: artificial shortages of price-controlled goods and a booming black market, illegal export of basic goods to neighboring countries, closure of factories and other businesses, especially those related to agricultural production. The lack of foreign currency reduced ability to import essential consumer and capital goods and the general decline of the economy starved government of revenue. At the same time runaway inflation led to a need to print ever larger amounts of bank notes which government could not afford. The result was the crippling cash shortage in mid 2003. High inflation coupled with low interest rates impoverished pensioners and anyone else dependent on a fixed income, and initiated a flight of savings from banks into foreign currency. What could no longer be obtained in banks by any but the privileged few, was readily available on many street corners in the major cities at up to 8 times the official rate.

Those privileged few were having a heyday, amassing fortunes of gigantic proportions by accessing foreign currency from the banks at official rates and selling it on the black market. A new class of economic parasites was being created. We began to hear of 25 room mansions, stables of Mercedes Benz cars, cupboards full of designer suits. The owners did not hide; they boasted of their wealth in the face of the people whose situation was becoming daily more desperate.

The year 2003 was a dreadful one for most Zimbabweans. While the government tinkered at the edges of the economy and finally brought staple foodstuffs back to the shelves and solved the cash crisis by introducing bearer checks as temporary legal tender, they failed to bring inflation under control. By the end of the year it had reached 600%. And the economy continues to shrink. The October beginning of the 2003-4 planting season heralded new disasters in the future as agricultural inputs were simply not available to most of those wanting to farm.

But the failures on the economic front were compensated for in the political arena. In spite of the ability of the opposition still to win local government elections in most urban areas, ZANU PF could make use of its new draconian security and media legislation, the support of a loyal army and police and national service militia to block out the opposition from rural constituencies. And in the urban councils held by the MDC, ZANU PF has used its control of national resources to interfere and create havoc in local government, dividing and frustrating opposition controlled councils, particularly Harare, and making them lose public support. The mass action threatened by the opposition never got started in the face of government terror, and ZANU PF remains firmly in charge. The political tide running in favor of the opposition seems to have been halted. A combination of severe repression, patronage through allocation of land and positions that give access to public resources, and ever more strident racial and xenophobic rhetoric have kept the forces of opposition off balance and out of step.

Now, in March, 2004, four years on from the beginning of the plunge, where do we stand, and what is the outlook for the next twelve months?

Economically, we are still spiraling downwards. This year agriculture is expected to produce only 1/3 of the nation’s staple maize requirements. Exportable crops such as tobacco and paprika, are down to a small fraction of what was previously produced. Industrial capacity deteriorates and unemployment rises. While donor aid feeds those people in rural areas whose own crops fail through poor rains and lack of inputs, an ever greater percentage of the urban population fail to cope, enter the ranks of the destitute and are in need of food aid themselves even while food sits on the supermarket shelves.

Not only goods, but also services are either not available or unaffordable. Starved of government finance, social welfare has long ago collapsed as a point of last resort for the destitute. Hospitals have no equipment or medicines and few qualified staff. A patient with a fracture is told to bring plaster of paris before his bone can be set. Schools have poorly functioning infrastructure, broken desks and toilets, paint peeling from walls, no laboratory equipment or books. Yet they charge fees that have forced many, in both rural and urban areas to withdraw their children. The mission boarding schools, once the pride of Zimbabwean education and the training ground for the professional classes, are deteriorating rapidly, unable to sustain quality with the fees that the dwindling middle classes are able to afford. Both the major state universities have been crippled by repeated staff and student strikes, and at present neither is holding classes.

While high fee paying private schools manage to maintain reasonable standards, private health care is faltering on the brink of collapse. Doctors’ fees, hospitals and medicines are unaffordable except for the elite and many procedures are no longer provided in the country. Employees on medical aid are not better off as the doctors and medical aid societies quarrel over rates and payment procedures, leaving the patients to pay cash and claim later. When a simple consultation, laboratory test and prescription may cost half a month’s salary, or more, it will be rational for a worker to terminate medical aid subscriptions and it will not be surprising if all the medical aid societies collapse completely before this year is out, leaving health care accessible only to the very rich. Government’s response to the failures of service providers was predictable: punish headmasters who try to keep their schools running by allowing fee increases in line with inflation, criminalize doctors who charge cash. It is hardly surprising that many educational and medical professionals have left the country.

They are not alone. A recent survey showed that 3.4 million Zimbabweans, one quarter of the population, lives outside the country. Professionals have left with their families to find work where there is greater security and they can command a higher standard of living. Young people have left to escape the dejection and boredom of joblessness and to find tertiary education which does not require the completion of a “national service” which brutalizes and indoctrinates. Mothers have left their children behind while they live in squalor and do menial jobs to send home the precious “forex” which buys food, clothing and pays school fees. Pensioners go to do care work because they cannot survive on their pensions. Others have gone to earn the money to buy a house. They leave behind families broken, rudderless, a prey to the immorality which has gripped the country. Led by the orgy of violence and rape characterizing the land seizures, national service training, and election “campaigning”, we–especially our younger generation–have lost the ability to distinguish right from wrong. Might is right; if
you can exploit your fellow before he or she exploits you, fine. And then we have the example of our “businessmen” who amass wealth without any skills, any work, by manipulating a corrupt system. Dealing is the name of the game, and he who plays it well prospers. “Cry Beloved Zimbabwe”, was the lament of the WOZA women who were stopped by the police from distributing roses on Valentine’s Day. “Let love overcome hate” was their stifled message that few were allowed to hear.

The New Year produced a surprise as a new monetary policy announced by the Reserve Bank Governor began to take effect. Suddenly we found members of the corrupt elite, even a designer-suit, 25 room mansion ZANU PF M.P., behind bars on allegations of fraud and foreign currency dealing. Government announced a war on corruption. Was this an attempt to win favor among the people, with an eye to the 2005 elections? or simply the public manifestation of a power struggle within ZANU PF as the succession issue hots up, or even a desperate need to raise foreign currency at any cost? The population is skeptical, and waits to see. A real war on corruption would have to bring down far more known crooks and thieves from their high places. At the same time, there has been an attempt to bring some sanity to the foreign currency market by introducing a state-controlled auction. This effectively devalued the currency by 75%, bringing the official exchange rate up and the black market rate down, at least temporarily. But it has negatively affected exporters, importers and consumers and will certainly fuel inflation further. We are set for another round of catastrophic price rises. Where the problems are essentially political piecemeal policies cannot rescue us. A modern economy cannot thrive in the absence of political stability, without smooth linkages to the international players. On the economic side then, 2004 is likely to bring us only misery.

What of the political? It is encouraging that through all the intimidation and violence the opposition MDC has managed to survive, maintain its structures and has held together in spite of a wide internal divergence of ideological positions. It contains some individuals who have worked at great personal risk to bring change. Furthermore, they deserve credit for firmly adhering to principles of non-violence, restraining their youthful hotheads who would prefer to answer violence with violence. It is clear, however, that elections marked by state violence and terror will not bring change unless the electoral ground rules are completely rewritten, and that is certainly not going to occur in the present circumstances. What about the mass action route? Besides the opposition party, MDC, several civil society organizations have raised their voices against government policies. These include the labor federation, ZCTU, the National Constitutional Assembly, some of the churches which have country wide membership organizations, and several other NGO’s. All of them, including the MDC, are divided between the activists who want to take to the streets and the lobbyists, who want to push for some kind of “talks” with government.

Those in favour of street action are in a weak position. 2003 demonstrated that while people were prepared to protest by staying away from work, they were not ready to take to the streets and face the riot police and possibly the army. Activists watched events unfold in the Georgian capital Tbilisi with envy, but have been forced to admit that Zimbabweans are simply not yet willing to take the risk. Small demonstrations organized by the ZCTU, the NCA and WOZA, a group which organizes grassroots women, invariably resulted in arrests or police brutality or both. The masses have shied away from such action, and without the masses, this tactic cannot shift ZANU PF in any way. But the bravery of the few, especially when they are women, keeps the opposition visible and raises sprits and hope.

Dialogue between ZANU PF and the MDC has been held out as the solution by neighboring African countries, particularly South Africa. The purpose of such inter-party talks would be to agree to end human rights abuses, re-establish the rule of law, and rewrite the electoral rules so that a new election could produce a government accepted as legitimate domestically and internationally. Then a start could be made to repair the economic damage. Such talks would have to be brokered by foreign mediators.

For the MDC, talks would be the best solution, but so far they have proved elusive. For obvious reasons ZANU PF is not interested and has deliberately held out the impression to the South Africans that they were committed while doing absolutely nothing. But it is now becoming clear that in the end this is the only way that a solution will befound.

ZANU PF appears to think that they have outwitted the opposition and can hang on to power until 2005, when they will conduct an even more violent and dishonest election which will see them clear for another five years. Even now they are making preparations. A new Presidential decree has introduced the power of detention without bail, on mere suspicion, where there is no evidence of wrong-doing. Youth militia training is being stepped up to provide a reserve of shock troops. The United Nations was asked to provide funding for the election, but the request was quickly withdrawn when they proposed to send a delegation to study the situation on the ground. The MDC, under severe constraint from forces of terror, unconstitutional laws, and a compliant judiciary, and the unwillingness of their members to engage in civil disobedience, is hobbled. It can not do much more than to hold its supporters together, plan policies to implement if they do gain power, and work hard, as they are now doing, to persuade African governments, particularly that of South Africa, to apply the pressure for internationally accepted elections.

Hence the deep despair of the population. Most Zimbabweans face the year with little hope for any early solution. But there are signs that the logic of economic failures may finally bring the whole edifice crashing down. Maybe enough Zimbabweans will decide that “enough is enough” and provide the critical mass in the streets to topple ZANU PF. The “war on corruption” has now exposed the rot at the core and could develop into an uncontrollable internecine struggle. The distortions in the Zimbabwean economy have impacted heavily on the region. President Mbeki, like Obasanjo in December, might finally decide that it is not worth the embarrassment of continuing to support Robert Mugabe, whose galloping paranoia occasionally turns on Mbeki himself. Or, a serious illness or even death of the 80-year-old Mugabe might open an opportunity for a South Africa assisted return to legitimacy, and an end to the madness. “An idea whose time has come cannot be stopped.”

The time for democratic change in Zimbabwe has not yet come. But time does move fast in Zimbabwe. The unexpected occurs on a daily basis. While today we may see little hope, tomorrow or next week will surely be different, for ultimately time is on our side.

This article first appeared in Pambazuka News, an electronic newsletter for social justice in Africa, www.pambazuka.org

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