Saturday, April 21, 2007

Remembering Zimbabwe

It was the year 2000. I'd bought a bright yellow beach buggy in South Africa. BeitBridge, an easy going border post by African Standards, was my first stop as I crossed the border to Zimbabwe. At the time, Zimbabwe was still relatively stable. White farmers were afraid of a referendum on whether the government should seize their land or not.
The referendum took place two days after I arrived. The vote was "No."
Zimbabwe was suffering from its first petrol crises. Having not paid their bills, fuel shortages started to occur throughout the country. In the tiny boot of the buggy were two full Gerry cans in case I ran into problems, though I never did.
Children, dressed in neat uniforms, waited for school busses by the roadside. They danced, clapped and cheered when they saw my funky yellow car approaching.

Zimbabweans are some of the friendliest people I've come across in all my travels. They seemed tolerant and relaxed, a nice break from the post-appartheid frustration that I felt still simmering across the border in South Africa.
"At least we are at peace," my Zimbabwean guide told me when I asked him about politics. "That is why I support Mugabe."
He led me around the Great Wall of Zimbabwe and up into the nearby hills, explaining the high-ground stronghold of the long-ago African kingdom.

Back in 2000, there was still optimism. President Robert Mugabe, though he'd made some alarming decisions, stomped on a few political freedoms and began down the path of tyranny, was still a respected war hero who hadn't yet decimated the country. Zimbabwe was still the bread basket of Southern Africa. The thriving agricultural economy that had been built up by British settlers was a model for surrounding countries.
Despite the referendum's "No" result, Mugabe immediatly passed legislature allowing the white-owned farm seizures to go ahead. The economy went from major food producer to net importer of food within the span of a few years.

It can be argued that native Zimbabweans were only getting back what was stolen from them more than a century ago. In what became Rhodesia, all land and cattle was seized by British settlers, who, despite being much smaller in number, devastated the local King's army with some of the first high powered machine guns to be used in a war.
I do agree that land should be reallocated to the locals it was once taken from. But the method was an obvious failure: akin to taking a forest's worth of English books and distributing them to illiterate people as compensation for not teaching them.
What are illiterate people going to do with books?
What are city people going to do with acres of land and no money or tools or clue as how to maintain it?

Since the land seizures, Zimbabwe has gone from break basket to basket case. Millions of Zimbabweans have migrated to surrounding countries, mostly South Africa. 80% of Zimbabweans live below the poverty line. In 2000, Victoria Falls had been bustling with travellers staying in hotels and campsites, but it is now a virtual ghost town.
The once magnificent national parks are being poached to near extinction to fill empty stomachs.
Inflation, the highest in the world, is currently somewhere around 1600% per year.
There were still coins in circulation when I visited in 2000. US$1 equalled Zim$30. On the black market, it now equals between 25,000 and 35,000 - and that's after chopping three zeros off the currency in 2006. Based on that, the currency has gone from thirty to thirty million to the dollar in seven years.

I visited Zimbabwe briefly late in 2002, taking a quick detour from Mozambique. At the border, I needed car insurance and they accepted either South African Rand, or US dollars. The rate at which they accepted the two currencies varied dramatically, and was perhaps closer to the exchange rate between the currencies five years previously.
They didn't accept their own currency, or Mozambiques. (I was at the Mozambique Zimbabwe border)
For some reason, despite having on-off petrol shortages for years, gas in Zimbabwe was the cheapest in the world. It cost around ten cents a litre for petrol and even less for diesel.
My next pleasant surprise was in Harare, which cost me a few dollars for a few days stay. The highlight was a big steak dinner in an upscale restaurant with big windoes and tablecloths and chandeliers. I washed the meal down with two beers and had ice cream for desert. The best meal I'd had in months came to around one US dollar.
At that time, black market currency was around 500 Zim to the dollar - though the official government rate was around fifty.
Democracy in Zimbabwe seems to have reached an all time low. Even though fixed elections are expected and media freedom is non-existant, severely beating the opposition leader for holding a gathering is a new one. Jailing and threatening, fine, but severely beating him?
The Zimbabwe of old was a pleasure to travel in. Watching cricket in Bulwayo, playing a round of golf in Hwange and sipping coca colas afterwards with my caddy. Sneaking into Victoria Falls National Park at night to view the full moon over the Smoke that Thunders.
I wonder if it will ever come back around?

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