R.W. Johnson

Harare is morose under the rains, more drenching this year even than last year, and longer than most can remember; five or seven centimetres, day after day. It’s made the water table too high and water lies permanently on the surface, sewage floating in it, for the city’s long-neglected sewage system is on the point of collapse. This wouldn’t be easy for anyone to bear, but it’s particularly hard for the residents of Harare, who point to the colossal mansion which the mayor, Solomon Tawengwa, is building for himself and the Mercedes cars which he and his municipal colleagues have awarded themselves. Most angry of all are the council workers whose pay cheques bounced. They went on strike despite a ban on strikes decreed last year by President Mugabe, in the wake of a second round of urban riots caused first by food and then by fuel price hikes, themselves the result of a 60 per cent devaluation of the Zim dollar (which, having started life at two to the US dollar, is now 67 to the US dollar). Mugabe wasn’t bothered by the council workers’ strike any more than he has been by the recent teachers’, doctors’ and telephone-workers’ strikes. It is ZCTU, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, that he fears.

ZCTU had organised mass stay-aways in protest against the food and fuel price rises (which then turned into riots); and mindful of the implicit challenge to his power which ZCTU poses, Mugabe wants to make sure that there won’t be any such stay-aways in the future. To make the Government’s displeasure clear, mysterious assailants burst into the office of ZCTU’s secretary-general, Morgan Tsvangirai, in December 1997 and beat him up. His deputy, Isidore Zindoga, was attacked at the beginning of this year by three men, one of them believed to be a police officer, who beat him unconscious with an iron bar. Tsvangirai told me when I visited him a few weeks ago that he managed to identify the men – they were all former guerrillas in Zanla, Mugabe’s one-time liberation army. The plan, he believes, was to throw him out of the window – his office is on the tenth floor. The police did nothing when he identified his assailants, so now, he says, the union is pursuing its own inquiries. He laughs, not because it’s funny, but because Zimbabwe used to be the sort of place where the proprieties were observed and it feels almost surreal that now they’re not.

The potholes in the roads and the overflowing sewage are the result of municipal corruption. The fact that most phones don’t work is more or less due to the Telecom strike. The occasional power and water cuts are a bit harder to fathom, as is the fact that bank computers send out crazy statements every month. Far more important, there is no mealie meal – the staple African diet – in the shops. Neither the Government nor anyone else seems sure why this is, but meanwhile hunger looms. One thing is certain: as and when it appears its price will have greatly increased. Inflation is running at 47 per cent and shopkeepers, who can’t be sure that today’s takings will buy tomorrow’s supplies, often opt for pre-emptive price increases. With interest rates at 55 per cent, car purchases have fallen by half (causing job losses in the country’s Mazda assembly plant) and the property market has frozen solid: the whites who are flocking abroad are renting, not selling, their houses (building societies have anyway stopped extending mortgages). White Zimbabweans talk almost exclusively about the economic facts of life and how mad they are – the politics have been mad for quite a while. Ian Smith was invited to give a seminar at the University of Zimbabwe not long ago and was greeted as a hero by an overflowing hall of black students.

The recently released Zimbabwe Human Development report (funded by the UNDP) shows all too clearly the straits to which the Mugabe regime has brought Zimbabwe, once one of Africa’s richest and most developed countries. Per capita income has fallen back to what it was a generation and more ago and the grotesque expropriation of wealth by the governing élite (every minister is rich and most are at least dollar millionaires – US dollars, that is) has produced one of the most unequal societies in the world. Poverty is increasing rapidly. Sixty-one percent of the total population are now below the poverty datum line and 45 per cent are ‘very poor’ (i.e. have incomes 40 per cent or more below that line). The latter ‘very poor’ group includes 75 per cent of the rural population and 39 per cent of town-dwellers, with the worst-off living on the old communal lands and in the resettlement areas. As the UNDP report puts it, ‘in addition to the mis-targeting and inefficiency of social spending programmes, corruption contributes significantly to poverty and inequality ... The tax base is shrinking due to tax-evasion, the maldistribution of resources, poor tax administration and disproportionate exemptions favouring the better-off and the well connected.’

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