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Zimbabwean travails

About the author
Conor O'Loughlin has worked in broadcasting with the BBC, RTE and the Australian Radio Network and freelanced for various print titles in Ireland. He now lives and works in Africa.

Zimbabwe's long-term economic decline is becoming precipitous. A currency reform has been introduced to address an inflation rate of over 1,100%; 70%-80% of working-age people are unemployed; everywhere you go, groups of men and women of all ages loiter in car parks, public spaces and on streets with nothing to do.

In this beautiful country, the endemic economic crisis is the talk of the middle-class minority and the poverty-stricken majority alike, albeit for different reasons. The middle classes - the few whites who remained after President Mugabe began his offensive against white land ownership in 2000, and a growing number of upwardly mobile blacks - chat interminably about the "kilodollar" bricks they were obliged to carry before the currency makeover, and the latest black-market exchange-rates.

The not-so-lucky poor are rural black labourers and subsistence farmers with no access to unofficial sources of cash, as well as the urban unemployed and families decimated by one of southern Africa's worst HIV/Aids epidemics.

Zimbabwe's economic near-collapse pervades every aspect of this society. It can be measured in many ways, but the two most evident to even the most casual observer are money and land.

The paper chase

It wasn't the most sophisticated financial reform in history, but desperate times call for desperate measures. A pint of milk was costing 200,000 Zimbabwean dollars (around sixty-five US cents at the official rate), and supermarket cash-registers were having trouble calculating the millions required for a simple weekly shop. The government's computer were said to be crumbling under the trillions of dollars' worth of calculations being made. So, on 21 August 2006, the governor of Zimbabwe's reserve bank, Gideon Gono, slashed three zeros from the country's currency.

The liberal press lambasted both the idea and Gono himself, an ambitious, gruff populist rumoured to be considering a run for the presidency in 2007 when - if - Robert Mugabe finally retires. Gono's printing-press approach to the currency problem has helped fuel the rampant inflation, and reinforced his reputation for economic illiteracy.

The bank introduced a new series of notes over a three-week period, rendered old notes obsolete on the changeover date, and banned individuals from exchanging more than 100 million dollars (around $350) without receipts. In a country where most people have no access (or trust in) banks, many responded by rushing to spend their surplus cash before the deadline.

The authorities responded with intense security to prevent illegal transfers - my car was searched fourteen times in one day alone - and to confiscate money from people in possession of amounts over the limit. The sums involved were enormous: the Herald newspaper claimed that $453.3 billion Zimbabwean dollars (around $38m) had been taken from what the government called "economic saboteurs". Yet international agencies estimate that 90% of Zimbabweans are living below the poverty line.

A dying land

The second key to Zimbabwe's collapse is land. The real crisis of Zimbabwe is sometimes more vividly registered outside the main urban centres of Harare and Bulawayo. Here, the social landscape equally feels the effect of policies imposed without attention to the circumstances and context of people's lives.

Robert Mugabe, the champion of the white farmers' cause (it is hard to recall now) when his Zanu-PF party came to power in 1980, changed course abruptly in 2000 when his political star was waning in face of the challenge of Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change. In pursuing a policy of forced removal of white farmers from their land - justified by indiscriminate use of the phrase "land reform" - Mugabe unleashed a devastating cycle of expropriation whose effects are still being felt by all Zimbabweans.

Around the traditional tobacco-growing areas in northern Zimbabwe, huge tracts of former commercial farmland lies dying and wasted in the searing southern African sun. Brown and rusted eucalyptus trees cower above withering yellow scrub. The distinctive concrete barns of tobacco-curing plants, once this region's major employers, stand sad and crumbling by the roadside.

Along with the colonial legacy they embodied, the white farmers took with them generations of agricultural (and job-creating) expertise, as well as - in some cases at least - a philanthropic regard for their communities.

On a baked hillside outside a small town, I encountered a simple low building with small windows and a tin roof. It is home to twenty destitute elderly men, most former employees on local farms. Its superintendent told me that it had begun as a retirement home built on land donated by the town and run with money given by local commercial farmers.

When "land reform" closed the farms, most workers lost their livelihoods. HIV/Aids has decimated the population in this area, and the traditional family networks that would once have supported these men in their old age have all but disappeared. The residents, aged between 65 and 93 (four of whom are blind), occupy a dark, dusty dormitory where the stench of urine is overpowering. They have tried to become self-sufficient but there is not enough water to grow vegetables and their chickens are constantly being stolen.

A development NGO is at work in the area, providing these men with three daily meals of corn-soya blend: a highly-nutritious porridge that tastes vaguely of peanuts. It also runs emergency food distributions and other emergency programmes; its headquarters are the abandoned warehouse of Zimbabwe's national foods company.

A race for life

Zimbabweans are not bowing down to power. In May 2005, Mugabe's security forces implemented operation murambatsvina - "drive out the trash", the organised demolition of urban slum areas and the forced removal of their residents - which left an estimated 700,000 people homeless and without livelihoods.

The slums are now, slowly, being rebuilt, although many people have yet to return. In the Harare suburb of Hatcliffe, people are struggling to make a permanent home amongst the sun-baked rubble of the past. It is a race against time: the government has again threatened eviction if permanent brick homes are not in place by the end of September. Residents tell me they have no idea if the threat will be carried out: in Zimbabwe the government can, ultimately, do what it likes.

It is the middle of the dry season now and the rains are months away. Times are hard, as hard as they've been for decades. But people still mock the currency reform as "drive out the cash"; they still tell each other "count your blessings - the temperature might be thirty degrees, but on the black market it could go as high as forty". The true Zimbabwe spirit lives. 


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