Economical with the truth

At the end of an IMF assessment mission to Zimbabwe last month, the IMF team leader remarked on the parlous state of Zimbabwe’s economy. He noted that inflation is the highest in the world, at 1600 percent, that 80 percent of the workforce is unemployed, that commercial agriculture has been ravaged, that a majority of businesses have closed and the rest are working at half capacity. In conclusion, he professed himself “baffled” by the continued survival of the government and national institutions.

If the IMF team leader had asked those of us who live here, rather than talking only to government officials and foreign diplomats, we could have cast some light on his bafflement. At the centre of the web, like a malignant spider, sits the Old Man, the President. He knows his days are numbered, though he still believes that Death will take him down before politics do. He knows there are five or six hundred apparatchiks who keep him in power – generals, cabinet ministers, a few of the more powerful MPs, some businessmen (a handful of whom are white). Many are his relatives, of course, for this is still a tribal culture, beneath the veneer of modernity.

These are the only people with whom he has contact. They know that when he goes, they go too, so they have a powerful interest in making sure that he only hears two messages: You are wonderful and the people love you. And if you leave us, the country will collapse.

In its dying days ZANU (PF) has adopted an ideology that might best be described as Socialist Kleptocracy. Publicly the hierarchs proclaim a determination to redistribute wealth and promote equality, to protect the workers from rapacious capitalists, to promote solidarity with the oppressed masses at home and abroad, and to resist resurgent colonialism and imperialism. In private, they loot, steal, coerce, bribe, accept bribes, and occasionally murder those who cross them.

In order to keep their snouts in the trough as long as possible, they have adopted asystem used by many failing despots in their last years. First, fix the exchange rate. In Zimbabwe the Reserve Bank quotes an entirely arbitrary rate of 250 Zimbabwe Dollars (ZWD) to the US Dollar. This morning the black market rate is ZWD7,200 to the US, up from 6,400 last week.

General This or Comrade Minister That can call the Reserve Bank and order a thousand US dollars, in cash, for which he will pay ZWD250,000. He will then sell these US dollars (to a desperate manufacturer with a critical import requirement, or a desperate mother with a child who needs chemotherapy in South Africa) on the black market, for ZWD7.2 million. A return visit to the Reserve Bank, and the Honourable Minister has turned a cool profit of USD 27,800. And all you need to make it work is a ZANU PF card and a history in the Liberation struggle. ‘Happy Days’, as old white Rhodesians would say, clinking gin and tonics on the stoep at sunset.

To maintain the façade that government policy is driven only by a desire to protect the workers, prices are also fixed for bread, maize flour, sugar, cooking oil, fuel, and a handful of other essentials. As a consequence most of the time these commodities are not available in the shops, only on the black market. The controlled price of a standard loaf of bread ZWD570. It costs twice that to manufacture. So canny bakers make rolls, and “fancy loaves” (with a couple of poppy seeds on top) which are not subject to price controls.

The system works because Zimbabwe’s most significant export in 2007 is people. This of course suits our leader: one of Mugabe’s most trusted lieutenants said a year or so ago that better we have only six million people living here, all of whom are loyal to the government, than twelve million, half of whom want change.

In Shona culture, it is not acceptable to rebel against your chief. If you do not like the way he runs your village, you leave. And this is what a quarter of the population has done – to Botswana, and South Africa, and Australia, and so many to the UK that London is now know locally as Harare North.

The diaspora’s relatives back home have to eat, however. So those two or three million Zimbabweans working outside each remit around USD50 a month. The annual total – say USD1.2 billion – is close to what we earned from commercial agriculture at peak production in the late 1990s.

The system has worked well for five years, but it is starting to collapse. The Governor of the Reserve Bank this week told parliament that he would not be able to find foreign currency for the police or the army. He didn’t say that this was because his colleagues had stolen it all, but he might as well have done.

There will come a day, in the coming months or years, when President Bob’s acolytes will decide that he is no longer an asset. That he has become a liability. That’s the way it works in Shona culture – when the Chief oversteps the mark, a small group of elders tell him, in confidence, that it is time to go. They may even pave his way with gold – give him a titular job as Head of State for Life, for instance, the political equivalent of promotion to a big office with great views and no telephone.

But for the time being, the looting continues. And those of us who care about this country must curb our impatience and do all we can to encourage our fellow countrymen and women in exile to prepare for the day when they come back to rebuild this land.

(The writer is a Frontline Club member who lives in Zimbabwe. He would rather not spend the next two years in jail for reporting without a permit, so has asked to remain anonymous.)