Very recently, I had the opportunity to see the 83-year-old head of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe. The contemptible cranium was traveling at high speed in a convoy of shiny black Mercs, souped-up and overcrowded army trucks, police cars and motorcycle outriders.
I, and very likely every other poor chump of a motorist delayed by the hastily thrown-up police cordon, watched “the Big Man” zoom through the Namibian capital of Windhoek with a mixture of frustration and impatience. And in my case revulsion. All the passengers on the Air Namibia flight that had been ordered to maintain a holding pattern for 30 minutes until Mugabe’s plane turned up (late as usual) no doubt also sympathized.
Bread basket to basket case
Mugabe! What can I say? When he inherited Zimbabwe (formerly the British colony of Rhodesia) from white rule in 1980, he had in his hands the grain basket of southern Africa. By the standards of sub-Saharan Africa, the country was an economic giant. It was blessed with fertile soil, magnificent national parks, a functioning infrastructure and a vigorous export market.
He then turned it into a basket case of global proportions.
Unemployment currently stands at more than 70 percent. The inflation rate is the world’s highest (1,500 percent annually). A third of the population has fled into exile; another third live well below poverty levels that would shame an Ethiopian famine. Hundreds of thousands are homeless thanks to Mugabe’s vicious “Remove Filth” campaign to bulldoze informal settlements and shanty towns. Agriculture has collapsed. The government has just publicly acknowledged that its treasury is bankrupt. Human-rights violations are routine. All protests in the capital are banned. And once-prosperous white-owned farms are now rotting and neglected.
A fellow journalist took a photograph of a team of malnourished cows pulling a tractor that was pulling a plow. The tractor had run out of juice.
Nice job, Bob!
Mugabe: Economic adviser
The interesting thing about “the head with the Hitler mustache” that sailed past me on that hot, car-clogged afternoon was that I knew later in the day it would be addressing a collection of fawning African dignitaries on the subject of economic development.
That deranged head would — get this! — be recommending strategies! Offering advice!
I watched the convoy recede. And a thought occurred. Alright, I’d read the stats, I’d seen the pictures of riot police in action and young drunken rent-a-thugs seizing white-owned farms and beating the owners and staff, I’d talked to many black Zim refugees (some of whom had been forced to personally dismantle their shops, houses and business premises because they’d neglected to join Zanu-PF, the ruling party) — but I’d not been to Zim recently. Not seen things first hand.
I decided that it was time to go shopping!
A fistful of dollars
First things first. Money. I’d obviously need that. I approached a Zimbabwean exile named Blessing. I asked him if he had any. He asked me why I wanted Zim dollars.
I told him that I intended to go on a bit of a spree in the Zim capital, Harare, and, you know, I needed some. Three days later he delivered an envelope. Attached was a breakdown of what the notes (and there were a lot of them) could buy.
There was also an explanatory letter. “With soaring inflation, the people of Zimbabwe have been finding it difficult to wield their large wads of cash,” he had written. ATMs had become overwhelmed and shop tills simply didn’t have the space to store the incoming bills, he explained. The government-controlled central bank eventually rose to the challenge last August. It erased three zeros from all the notes.
Z$1,000 became Z$1.
Z$10,000,000 became Z$10,000. And so on.
I have a 3-year-old daughter and she has some coins and dollar bills issued by the Bank of Toyland (Taiwan). The new Zim dollars looked slightly less convincing.
An Executive Summary of my newfound purchasing power went thus:
For Z$1, Blessing assured me, I could buy “absolutely nothing.” For Z$5 “absolutely nothing.” Same deal with the new Z$10 note. (Why waste money printing the things? They weren’t even sufficiently large to serve as toilet paper! I couldn’t help wondering. Blessing said he couldn’t help wondering, too).
For a few dollars more
Serious shopping action began with the Z$20 bill. I was now in the “one small sweet” league. Hey!
Things brightened further.
Should I cough up 20 bucks (formerly 20,000 bucks) I could, with luck, locate myself a “nice, good-looking tomato.” If I wanted to put my nice, good-looking tomato into a sandwich , I’d need to up the stakes slightly. Z$1,000 (formerly Z$100,000) for a loaf of bread. Then I’d have to cough up Z$5,000 for sufficient butter and condiments.
After that, a cheap bottle of Scotch to round off my breakfast, perchance? Z$25,000. Maybe Z$50,000.
Currently the highest denomination note available is Z$20,000, and that is the only bill ATMs bother with. In a country where a modest monthly grocery bill for a single young professional man (who has to boil his breakfast porridge on firewood cut from decorative street trees because of power cuts) costs Z$500,000, Mugabeland is still printing Z$1 bills!
I decided that I needed a bigger wallet.
The blessed Blessing has been out of Zimbabwe for some time (nearly two months), and I soon learned that his advisory — while no doubt accurate at time of delivery — was seriously obsolete.
Supermarkets in Harare are currently in Wacky Races mode.
Employees race around like hares from shelf to shelf changing product prices. They have to move fast. The shoppers move faster. The latter have become sprint-shoppers because they want to get their hands on items at the old prices (yesterday’s prices) before the shops’ employees can get there to rocket them up to current rates.
The electronic tills frequently have no idea what is going on. And neither do staff or shoppers. Arguments break out.
“The price tag says this banana is Z$60. You are charging me Z$70!”
“Our people can’t change all the price tags in time! It was Z$60. But now it is Z$70.”
Getting to the supermarket is a chore. Harare’s city buses, purchased by Mugabe’s government from China, frequently fail to work, arrive, depart or do anything one might reasonably expect a bus to do. That’s due to malfunctions, fuel shortages and spare-parts shortages.
Pirate taxis fill the void, but nobody knows what the fares should be. In fact, nobody knows what their money is actually worth.
I ask a young man where he gets his potatoes. I can’t find any.
“Musina. South Africa,” he says.
Take note, all you dear Japan Times shoppers: Skip Mugabeland (aka ZimBobwe). The craft goods are first rate but they are all being sold in other countries. By exiles.
Take note economists: Don’t invite Mugabe.
Assassins! Snipers! That head shot could have been a cinch! Where are you people when a nation needs you?