Zimbabwe at 33

On the 18th April 1980 I was seated in the stands at Rufaro Stadium in Harare immediately behind Indira Gandhi from India and to the right of the podium where Prince Charles and Robert Mugabe sat for the flag raising ceremony at midnight. Like most Zimbabweans it was a night of mixed emotions – relief that the long years of a savage civil war were over, the years of mandatory UN sanctions were behind us and perhaps new opportunities lay ahead.

Zimbabwe was born that day as not exactly a “bonnie baby” but for all the problems it was in remarkable shape. Total national debt was only US$700 million, a mixed economy which gave the average Zimbabwean an income that was three times that of neighboring Botswana and compared favorably with South Africa and a currency that was worth two US dollars. The main plank of the economy was agriculture driven by 6000 largely white farmers who generated a third of all employment, half of all exports and a quarter of GDP.

In the succeeding 20 years, Zimbabwe was the recipient of many billions in foreign aid, was able to borrow heavily on international markets and boasted the highest literacy rate in Africa. Despite open access to global markets and the availability of resources to fuel its development, the dominant ruling Party, Zanu PF had not managed national affairs well and deep seated problems, both political and economic loomed.

Its first major violation of accepted international norms was the campaign waged between 1983 and 1987 against its arch enemy, the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU) led by Joshua Nkomo. After what is now accepted as a genocide directed against the minority Ndebele tribe, Nkomo accepted subjugation and his Party was absorbed into the ruling Party. Mugabe called the campaign against Zapu “Gukurahundi” or the “storm that washes clean”.

Over the whole 20 year period up to 2000, the State ran a budget deficit of over 9 per cent per annum – nearly double what was sustainable. Then in 1997 Mugabe caved into pressure from veterans of the war against the Smith regime and paid out reparations worth over US$1 billion. Already overstretched and in violation of agreed targets set by the IMF, the Zimbabwe economy began a rapid slide into chaos and collapse. This was further exacerbated in 1998 when Mugabe ordered 11000 troops into the Congo to support Kabila in the struggle to gain control of the State.

Then, faced with the first serious threat to its political grip on power since 1980 in the form of the Movement for Democratic Change, the ruling Party launched its campaign against the new Party and its perceived centers of support including the large scale commercial farmers. The attack on property rights, exacerbated by “Murambatsvina” or “get rid of the filth” campaign against the informal sector in urban areas, plunged the economy into a deep recession.

By 2008 the State was close to collapse, inflation was doubling prices every few hours, schools and hospitals were virtually closed and incomes had fallen to the lowest in the world at an average of less than US$1 per day. GDP had declined by half from 1997 levels, exports by two thirds and State revenues were restricted to an estimated US$280 million. Civil servants pay fell to less than US$5 per month; hardly enough to buy even basic necessities. Shops were empty and fuel queues endemic.

In an effort to try and rescue the regime in Harare, the South African President, supported by the SADC States stepped into the arena and forced the ruling Party into negotiations with the MDC leading to an agreement on reforms that eventually led to the March 2008 elections won by the MDC. The subsequent run off for the Presidency was so badly managed that regional leaders were again obliged to step into the situation and force new negotiations and the formation of a Government of National Unity which has ruled the country since 2009.

Despite deep conflicts within the GNU, the new government has been able to steer the country into calmer waters. GDP has recovered steeply fueled by rising exports and the adoption of the US dollar as the main means of exchange. Inflation rates have averaged 3,8 per cent over four years and State revenues have risen to the point where public services are slowly recovering.

But even so, Zimbabweans have little to celebrate as their country turns 33 on the 18th April this year. Incomes are less than 20 per cent of neighboring Botswana, lower than Zambia and only marginally higher than Malawi – one of the poorest countries in the world. Zimbabweans have to import nearly all they consume and this has turned the country into a major regional market for imports of nearly all basic needs. In addition, the aura of uncertainty remains like a dense cloud over the country as it makes its uncertain way to elections in the second half of the year that will determine not only the fate of the old regime that brought the country to Independence in 1980, but also the future of new leadership that waits in the wings.

Eddie Cross
17th April 2013