Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Scar Tissue of Zimbabwe

- Judy Maguire -

Early in December I had an unexpected opportunity to visit Zimbabwe for 10 days; my husband John has been busy for some time with an ongoing geological project there.

Having been to the country many times over the past 37 years I have been in a position to notice the changes that have happened during this time. However, not having been there since the mid-1990s I was not quite prepared for the reality of the collapse of so many values, institutions and services that I witnessed this time.

It was a moving and deeply horrifying experience, not because at any stage I felt physically threatened or unsafe, but because of what I saw there and because of the recurring spectral idea that the same thing could happen here, given the same circumstances of mismanagement.

Everywhere you look, you see “scars” – the unsightly scar tissue at the sites of unsuccessful attempts to graft another culture, another way of life and other sets of values – call it “Western Civilisation” if you will – onto the African continent. The graft has withered and the basis rootstock has reasserted itself. This, and the collapse of institutions and services which in South Africa we take so for granted, and which have become inextricably crucial to our lifestyles. To see these – the banking system, clean water supply, electricity supply, the agricultural sector and food supply, or terminally ailing business sector and shops, and many other facets of everyday life – crumbled away is a sobering and unnerving experience.

Visually perhaps most prominent are the effects of lack of maintenance – telephone lines lying almost on the ground, some roads so pot-holed that it is better to drive alongside the road on the cleared verges than to attempt the impossible by avoiding them, buildings with paint peeling (there is no paint to be had these days) and public spaces rank and unkempt. I always used to enjoy walking across Cecil Square, as it used to be called in central Harare, beneath the tall flamboyant trees, well-clipped lawns and the fountains playing to soothe the tropical heat. This time, the lawns were uncut and mangy, nobody had bothered to replace the dead and dying plants in the corners, and the fountain was empty save for litter, crumpled plastic bottles and fruit peels.

Economically, hyper-inflation of some 20 000% has caused shops to empty. One of my regular stopovers is the excellent bookshop “Kingston’s” just opposite the square. This time I was shocked to see its shelves totally empty except for a small number of locally printed school textbooks (all African socialist history books, with local recent history renegotiated), well spaced out on the middle row of a floor-to-ceiling set of shelves. The rest were totally empty. There were eight Christmas cards, all the same – a handful of African Business and New African magazines, a dozen balls of string and the only paper were small, individually packaged bundles of blank newsprint. There was a small pile of off-the-shelf Wills and Power of Attorney documents.

An individual pencil costs ZIM $500 000. To sell and manage this pitiful stock are four or five assistants, as well as a security guard, to stamp your purchases slip at the door.

A street “parallel market” money changer was happy to give ZIM $70 million for R100 and last week John got $100 million for R100 on an informal exchange. Another example of galloping inflation is that a simple meal of “sadza” (stywe pap), indigenous spinach relish, and chicken stew from a street take-away cost ZIM $8,2 million for one person in the first week of December. In the second week of January, the same plate of food cost ZIM $17,2 million.

A teacher we spoke to said that her salary was ZIM $25 million when she left school at the end of last year. Too little to teach in school more than one day a week, given that transport cost her ZIM $1 million each way, each day. There is a system going that one teacher comes on Monday, and teaches geography, say, and the next day the history teacher comes, and so on.

We had opportunities to speak to local businessmen, both black and white, a teacher, the vice-head of a private school, a Spar shop franchise-holder (if you think the Prince Albert Spar has supply problems you should try the one in Kwe Kwe – it is totally empty), an elderly traditional Spirit Medium and several farmers whose properties had been plundered and confiscated, a chauffeur and a Chinese business woman whose Mandarin-speaking son is learning Shona and English, had interesting things to tell us.

All these people added their comments to our growing picture of what it is like for ordinary people to live in Zimbabwe. It is a daily struggle, a daily challenge to find creative ways for getting around seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

One or two were positive in their praise of Mugabe – “things have got to get worse before they can get better”, they say. Others were openly disparaging and critical but not hopeful about the outcome of the forthcoming elections. They cannot imagine how anyone can pull the country out of the mess.

One is aware of an all-pervasive mood of struggle – everything is difficult: standing in two-block long bread queues and equally long queues to draw the maximum amount of $5-million from the bank daily (not enough for a single plate of food in December when we were there), petrol queues of over 2 kilometres and shortages of basic foodstuffs.

The dairy industry has collapsed, so there is no fresh milk and butter, no cooking oil and no flour. Our hotel had to bake its own bread.

Lack of chlorine for water purification has resulted in all public swimming pools being closed and the drinking water supply appears to be contaminated – the shower water actually had an unpleasant smell and I got an almost immediate dose of ‘gyppo guts’ from drinking powdered milk made up with tap water in my tea.

Yet the people are on the surface cheerful and courageous and resourceful. There are so many splendid people still living in the country. However, its life blood – the well trained, successful young people – has all seeped away, leaving behind an ailing struggling economy, apparently the world’s worst, for a country that is not in a war zone.

There are many millions of Zimbabweans who are not going to be there to vote in March, and no postal votes are allowed. I am left wondering what Mbeki can do to remedy the situation. And I am left wondering what we can all do to avoid a similar free-fall situation from developing here.

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