It is in the most ordinary encounter that one first discovers the surreal nature of Zimbabwe today. Arriving at Harare airport I bought two Cokes and handed over a $5.00 bill. For my change, I received a crumpled dollar bill and a small packet of dried mealies.
“This is how it works here,” my Zimbabwean colleague said. “He has no rand coins so he has to give you that snack as your change.” Zimbabwe is a country without a currency. US dollars and rands serve as a strange, inaccurate amalgam of economic barter. Botswanan pula occasionally find their way into the mix, but euros, pounds and Mozambican meticais are scarce indeed.
For those with access to foreign currency, life has returned to a semblance of normality. For those without access, life remains a terrible struggle for survival. In the resort town of Victoria Falls desperately poor people try to sell tourists the crisp unused ZIM$100-trillion – Z$ 100, 000,000,000,000 – that were the last flutter of Zanu-PF’s attempt to run an economy.
In a jaw-droppingly wacky moment, I was an hour’s drive or so outside of Harare, when the Voice of Zimbabwe informed that “his Excellency, the Head of State and Chief of the Armed Forces, President Robert Mugabe” had returned from the United Nations in New York. He assured the nation that Zimbabwe would never “bow to the West”. A minute later I pulled up at a roadblock where I had to pay one crisp new US dollar bill for road maintenance.
The brutal and orchestrated political violence and intimidation that has become a regular part of Zimbabwean life since 2000 is on hold at the moment, pending, no doubt, further elections. But it remains imperative to protect the identity of Zimbabweans one speaks to. “My savings have been totally wiped out,” one young father in Harare told me. “I don’t know how we can ever go back to our own currency. People are so scared of what happened. There will be chaos if we try to go off the dollar.”
The country is ruined and destitute. Recently I visited Zimbabwe for the first time in seven years and I travelled well over 3,000 km through the country. The landscape is desolate. Once productive farms lie barren, their barns, greenhouses and tobacco curing sheds stripped or in the process of being dismantled. I deliberately kept a running toll of how many irrigated fields I saw – it was less than five. Of course, that is not a comprehensive figure, but the visual evidence of a destroyed agricultural sector is overwhelming.
“We talk among ourselves about this all the time,” another Zimbabwean told me. “Why have they done this, we ask. We have no answer.” The long debate about land ownership has become largely a question of history today. White ownership of land never was the main issue in Zimbabwe anyway. The real truth of Zimbabwe’s suffering is that the majority of the country’s people do not want Robert Mugabe and Zanu-PF to govern them any longer. They have made that clear at the ballot box, but he and those who surround him will not relinquish their hold on power.
The decency and resourcefulness of ordinary Zimbabweans is extraordinary. Mugabe’s relentless cruelty and determination to cling to power have brought out the best and the worst in his people. Everywhere one goes, from government departments to the desperate hawkers on the streets, one finds resilience and an incredible determination to get along. This alone requires courage and willpower in a society that has been so worn down and diminished. Perhaps the saddest thing of all in the country today is that one is constantly faced with the death of human dreams. Just to hang on and hope for something better one day is hard enough.
The greatest split in Zimbabwe today is not between black and white, nor between the forces of freedom and the colonial West, as Robert Mugabe and those who benefit from his patronage would like the world to believe. The real struggle is between ordinary Zimbabweans who live the truth of surviving day-to-day and those who continue to pervert the democratic process through violence and the repeated telling of worn-out illusions, half-truths and deliberate, dangerous lies.
There is an air of exhaustion, but not of hopelessness in Zimbabwe. No one expects, or wants, a Nato-backed rebellion to unseat Mugabe and his cohorts, but the reality of his old ally Muammar Gaddafi’s fate is whispered across the country. The widespread sense of fear remains, but there is a palpable hint of change that reverberates through the country.
The majority of Zimbabweans have been forced by so many years of oppression to keep silent, to retreat into the private space of their own beliefs and conscience. It is in these stoically courageous and overwhelmingly decent people’s hopes that the future is slowly being re-imagined. No one has a real sense yet of how it might work out, but there is a faint, growing conviction that a cycle is ending, that nothing can last forever. DM