Five minutes to boarding my flight in Accra my mind was heavily agitated. I kept wondering whether my decision to continue my trip to Harare was right. This was at a time that the international media was awash with grim reports from Zimbabwe including the fact that there had been an Internet shutdown. How was I going to communicate with my family via the Internet as I always do when I travel?
Nevertheless, I boarded the South African Airways flight to Johannesburg where I connected another flight to Harare. On this flight, I met a Zimbabwean lady by name Eva. I asked her how the security situation was in Harare.
Eva told me that reports she was monitoring indicated that there were soldiers all over the city and that President Emmerson Mnangagwa had cut short his trip to Davos for the World Economic Forum and was returning home.
As anyone would imagine, Eva’s response put me on tenterhooks. But we continued our conversation, anyway. I found her extremely intelligent. I asked her about the economy and she told me it is in total shambles. She said the unemployment rate in the country was 92 percent.
Based on that statistic, I asked her if the crime rate in the country was high. And, that was when she gave me a rather patriotic response. She said, “Zimbabweans will rather sell than steal.”
According to Eva, she had been out of job for several years now. She also told me about her younger sister who has completed her graduate studies but sells airtime by the roadside.
I was curious to know whether all the stories about hyperinflation were true or exaggerated by the international media. She said everything was true.
At 9.25 pm we touched down at the Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport. The immigration officers asked me my mission in the country. I told them I was attending the Agrarian Summer School organised by the Sam Moyo African Institute for Agrarian Studies. I showed them all the relevant documents.
As a Ghanaian, I was entitled to free entry and so I did not pay anything for my 30-day visa. I do not recall when Ghana and Zimbabwe signed that agreement but it will interest many to learn that the first wife of former President Robert Mugabe, Sally, was a Ghanaian. We therefore call ourselves “in-laws”.
Stepping outside, the first peculiar thing I noticed was the weather temperature. The pilot had announced it was 19 degrees Celsius. For a typical West African, that was extremely cold.
I arrived at my hotel, Bronte, after 10 pm. Unlucky me, the restaurant had closed. That meant I had to go to bed on an empty stomach in an extremely cold weather. Quietly, I prayed against a condition we call nkitse nkitse in my language. It is a condition you suffer when you get starved for a long time.
Anyway, by daybreak, all the members of my body were still intact and functioning excellently. I woke up to a beautiful morning. Surprisingly, I had acclimatized overnight and I was already enjoying myself.
The Internet had been restored and I was able to communicate with my family back home. I was therefore excited by the time Summer School opened!
Beyond my conference obligations, I took time off to find out a few things about the country, especially the petrol crisis. The first person I spoke to was the driver who took me out for a town ride. He gave me the local perspective of the petrol crisis.
According to Felix, the price of petrol before the recent increment was around $1.33 per litre. In local currency terms, the price was also around 1.33 bond notes (as the local currency is called). For diesel, it was around $1.15 per litre and in local currency terms, it was around 1.15 bond notes.
Even though the prices were quite high, people did not complain, then, because those who had dollars had a certain advantage. They normally exchanged 1 dollar for 3 bond notes. This meant that, with $1.33, they could get 3.99 bond notes which could afford them 3 litres of petrol instead of one. It was same for diesel.
However, this situation also meant that the government was not getting the dollars it needed to import the commodities. So, what the government decided to do was increase the price of petrol and diesel in local currency terms from 1.33 bond notes to 3.33 bond notes and 1.15 bond notes to 3.15 bond notes, respectively.
With the new arrangement, it is no longer attractive to change dollars into bond notes before buying petrol or diesel. It appears to be a strategy by the government to rake in more dollars.
But, the situation has become complicated because the government has also recently followed up the price adjustments with a new exchange rate policy, pegging the bond notes and dollar at 1:1. This automatically means that the price of a litre of petrol and diesel are now $3.33 and $3.15 (ranking the country as one with the highest prices of petrol and diesel in the world, at least, according to www.globalpetrolprices.com )
Given the effects of petroleum prices on the economy of most developing countries, it is understandable why the people are protesting this 250 percent hike in the prices.
However, the reality also is that, at the moment, the government is cash-strapped and heavily indebted to its traditional suppliers of fuel, particularly South Africa (to the tune of $1.5 billion) and Mozambique. Both countries have refused to offer Zimbabwe any more credits. And so, for now, the country needs to cough up about $100 million every month for its fuel needs. That is the crisis!
Meanwhile, the black market is thriving. Felix told me that a gallon of petrol goes for about 30 bond notes. I asked about of the source of the black market and he told me they were from some of the oil marketing companies who make more money selling the product underground.
At some of the filling stations we passed by there were no fuels available. Some also had long-winding queues. I must, however, admit that there were several vehicles in circulation, which did not give the impression that the country was undergoing a petrol crisis.
So, what are these bond notes? Well, the bond notes were introduced in 2016 to help locals who were not getting access to the dollar. Remember, in 2009, after the country experienced its hyperinflation, it abandoned its old currency, the Zimbabwean dollar. In its place, it adopted the United States dollar and other international currencies including the South African Rand as legal tender.
However, as the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (central bank) does not control the issuance of these currencies, it could not control their circulation. This disadvantaged poor locals who had less opportunity of earning dollars or foreign currencies.
In an attempt to remedy the situation, the government introduced the bond notes which is not a full currency, per se, but rather a surrogate currency. This is because it has no recognition beyond the borders of Zimbabwe and can therefore not be traded with other currencies.
However, be that as it may, it helped the locals to now get a currency with which they could transact business. When it was introduced, it was pegged at one bond note to one dollar. However, due to the activities of the black market, it depreciated to 3:1.
As stated earlier the government has re-pegged the rate at 1:1. But, I can confirm that this is not being adhered to. In all the shops where I bought items, the prices were always at variance.
The truth is that the business community has no confidence in the value of the bond notes, as I learnt from questions I asked shop owners.
I spoke to Freedom (a political activist) regarding the political situation in the country. He told me tensions were still high as a result of the dispute surrounding the July 2018 presidential election which opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) who scored 44.3% claims was rigged in favour of President Mnangagwa of ZANU-PF who scored 50.8%.
According to Freedom, some people are calling for a government of national unity (GNU) because in 2008 when they had a similar situation that was the solution they came up with. He said when the GNU was created in 2009, everything normalized (including the hyperinflation) and the country became peaceful again.
Freedom told me he suspects some foreign powers are behind the woes of the country. According to him, their problems began in the 2000s after the land reforms in which lands were expropriated from white farmers to blacks without compensation.
He said the reforms attracted sanctions from Britain and her Western allies, particularly the European Union and United States. Ever since then, the country has been slapped with all manner of sanctions including travel bans for some political figures.
I also spoke to Joyce, a Zimbabwean diplomat living and working in South Africa. She told me all about the hardships in the economy. According to her, the country’s economy is largely being supported by Zimbabweans living abroad, particularly in South Africa, United Kingdom and United States.
Joyce explained how remittances from Zimbabweans abroad have become a major pillar of the economy, ranking as the second largest foreign exchange earner for the country. And for this, she praised for President Mugabe for the massive investments he made in educating Zimbabweans.
According to Joyce, because of their high levels of education, Zimbabweans abroad are able to fit into any economy and earn high incomes. Using herself as an example, she explained that she came from a very humble background, in one of the remotest rural areas of the country. However, because of the educational opportunities she benefited from, she has today been able to find her feet in another country.
Joyce expressed worries that corruption has engulfed the country. Her version of the causes of the economic crisis dates back to the years when the government introduced a compensation package for independence war veterans.
According to Joyce, the scheme was so abused that people were not even born at the time of independence found their names into the scheme. She said some people did multiple registrations and received double packages. Given the high amounts involved, with some receiving as much as $50,000 compensation, the economy bled profusely!
She bemoaned the situation where every Zimbabwean wants to get rich overnight with mansions and cars for no work done. She said that attitude was letting the country down.
On the hyperinflation, she narrated her personal experiences when there were times one entered a shop and within five minutes the prices changed twice. She recalled a story where some two foreigners who were visiting the country, unaware of the situation, found a sack load of currencies and thought they had become millionaires. It was only when they got home that their host told them all the money in the sacks could not buy even a bottle of water!
Is Mugabe Missed?
I intentionally asked all the people I interviewed with whether Zimbabweans missed former President Mugabe and the response I got was that, all across the country people, people are saying that, if for nothing, under President Mugabe they could demonstrate and not get beaten.
People also had high expectations from President Mnangagwa but, so far, these expectations have not been met. The economy is still in an abyss as unemployment figures skyrocket. The current petrol crisis is also having a heavy toll on the population and they are not enthused about it.
Some people are also said to be of the opinion that President Mnangagwa is not managing the petrol situation well because he lacks the clout former President Mugabe had to be able to negotiate with South Africa.
Supporters of President Mnangagwa, however, are said to be dismissive of these comments, describing them as sheer sentimentalism. They are confident President Mnangagwa is the right man to fix the economy and that he only needs a bit of time to settle well into the job.
What kind of Zimbabwe did I see? Well, I saw a capital city that appeared deserted. This is because throughout my stay, I saw more cars than human beings. I was told the city is quite small and with a population of about 3 million.
In view of the soldiers who had been deployed (I saw a few of them either walking in pairs or standing at street corners) it seems many people were avoiding the central part of town where I lodged.
I saw downturn Harare which is extremely beautiful with all the high rise buildings. But, what I told myself was that: this looks more like a city which has seen more glorious days in the past.
We drove past the presidential palace which is vast in size and very green with beautiful gardens. We visited the sports stadium but, for security considerations, did not continue to the Heroes Acre (where national heroes are buried and every VIP Zimbabwean is said to already have their tombs marked).
We also drove past the headquarters of ZANU-PF which is located adjacent to the national museum. The ZANU-PF building is quite imposing and demonstrates the party’s dominance in the country’s politics.
All in all, I had a pleasant and memorable trip to Harare and I look forward to going back any day. All the people I encountered were very warm and friendly. They proved to be real hospitable African “in-laws”.
Agrarian Summer School
The summer school was started by Prof. Sam Moyo some 11 years ago. Rather tragically, Prof. Moyo lost his life in India in 2015 through a car accident while attending a conference. In his absence, the fort has been held by Prof. Issa Shivji (Tanzania); Prof. Paris Yeros (Brazil); Prof. Dzodzi Tsikata (Ghana); Prof. Praveen Jha (India); Prof. Adesina Jimi (Nigeria); Mr. Joshua Nyoni (Zimbabwe) and Mr. Walter Chambati (Zimbabwe) and several others.
Every year, the summer school brings together academics and social activists who converge to share their research findings on various socioeconomic and political issues. The 2019 edition was held from 21st – 25th January 2019.
This article was first written in February 2019. It is being published now in memory of the late President Robert Gabriel Mugabe and the Zimbabwe he fought for all his life.