By Aashu Anshuman:
Hyperinflation, along with all the anarchy in the Zimbabwean economy, is very well exemplified in the banknote staring me in the face right now. The banknote reads a very high figure. In another currency, it would empower you to buy virtually anything you like, be it ten private jets, a hundred Ferraris, even an island. My Zimbabwean friend tells me it can’t buy you one bubble gum!
Knowing that the Zimbabwean economy is in poor shape is one thing; a rendezvous with a virtually impotent five billion dollar note is quite another! The following article is based on my conversation with the friend I mentioned above, who visited her homeland a couple of years ago during the elections.
Around the end of the freedom struggle in 1980, Zimbabwe was left with a veteran of the war, Robert Mugabe, in power. Mugabe has retained power ever since, from 1980 to 1987 as Prime Minister, and as President post-1987, a reign tainted by political sabotage, hyperinflation, large scale emigration and general downfall of the Zimbabwean politico-economic situation. In spite of being the state with the highest literacy rate in Africa (over 90%), Zimbabwe now is also among the highest in unemployment, a whopping 94% (2009 census). Once the largest African exporters of Maize, it now imports large quantities of the same annually. Needless to say, there is widespread dissent among the citizens, which has led, among other things, to large scale migration to neighbouring countries (particularly South Africa).
But how does such a popularly unpopular figure remain in power so long in a democracy? “Well, it is hardly a democracy,” she says. Having been home during the 2008 elections’ runoff, which was contested by the two leading candidates from the first elections held a few months earlier, she has been witness to one of the most blatant charades in the name of an electoral process.
Exactly one week before the runoffs, ZANU-PF (Robert Mugabe’s party) had established ‘command centres’ in different parts of most cities. A resident of Harare, she had a command centre in her house’s vicinity. The centres were run by youth, mostly boys aged 18-25, living in that area. Every citizen was expected to have a t-shirt featuring Mugabe, with an official ZANU-PF membership card and sing songs and slogans. Besides this psychological whitewashing, there was effectively an open ballot system (votes in the closed ballot were in the kept in the same order as names in the voters’ list and so cross checking of votes was easy). And then there was bogus voting. “In a village adjoining Harare, which had a population of less than 5000, over 7000 people exercised their democratic right of voting,” she recollects. As expected, they voted Mugabe! “While CNN, BBC and even South African news channels were rife with reports on the manipulation of the elections, local news channels featured absolutely no such stories.”
There were certain areas of the city that were known to be pro-MDC (Movement for Democratic Change, the opposition party), one of which was hers. Her mother had been pretty vocal about her dislike of the Mugabe regime, while her elder sister was an active MDC member. “During the week before the runoff, one patrolling party came to my house one evening. After asking a few casual questions, they left. We even had our Mugabe t-shirts on.” Later, however, they found out from a friend that their house had been marked as ‘pro-MDC’, and her sister was advised to rush to the command centre and apologise, surrendering all her MDC support material. “My sister was made to apologise on local TV. A speech had been prepared for her, in which she ‘confessed’ that she was ‘lost’, she has ‘gone astray from her path in life’, and now she’s ‘found her direction again’. After this, she was made to set to fire all the material she had surrendered.”
Mugabe’s support base comprises of war veterans and army men. “My brother-in-law, a lieutenant colonel, is a staunch supporter,” she adds. Morgan Tsvangirai, the head of MDC and current Prime Minister, is the effective second-in-reign and the spearhead for the popular movement against the existing political order.”Tsvangirai is the not the best we have, but the bravest. He pleads people to strive or freedom, but only after ensuring their safety. “Whatever keeps you alive!” he says.”
On the economic front the currency, the Zimbabwean dollar has been devalued to the point of being obsolete. Irrational taxation, rampant printing of the currency for plugging the government’s deficits and other ‘Mugonomic’ measures led the Zimbabwean Reserve Bank to declare, in August 2006, a new Zimbabwean dollar, equal to a thousand old Zimbabwean dollars. Through two more such ‘currency reforms’, the bank has been successful in erasing a total of thirty one zeroes from the original Zimbabwean dollar. “And even now, a bus ride covering a few kilometres would cost one a hundred billion dollars.” Not that they use Zimbabwean dollars any more; today, you can only buy stuff if you pay in the South African Rand, or the U.S. dollar. “My nephew, who just turned six, can only count in billions; he doesn’t know how to count in units or hundreds!” Advertisements in local newspapers include rubber bands for bank notes, and note counting machines that count thousands of notes in a minute. “When Tsvangirai was arrested in June 2008, it took several men just to carry his bail money to the court!” The currency was officially suspended in February 2009. The economy is in such a bad shape that shopping is an international expedition. “You want cooking oil, you buy it from South Africa. Mozambique is good for sugar, while blankets can be bought from Botswana. Eventually, however, it all became about food.”
It is saddening how such a rich nation is eroding away. Churchill said that history is written by the victorious. Let us hope that it is the Zimbabwean people who emerge victorious from this socio-political war, and that the people who are responsible for the downfall of this great nation are met with the judgement they deserve, and not worshipped as heroes of yet another war.
Image courtesy: http://containersofhopewa.org.au/
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