Wealth and power in Zimbabwe: Today and Yesterday

Well maintained roads in Zimbabwe are an elusive experience, but in the affluent neighbourhood of Borrowdale, in the capital Harare, the roads don’t exactly shout ‘failed state’.

Driving through the suburbs of Harare you are immersed on either side by high, well guarded walls, stamped with warnings of high powered electric fences and bloodthirsty attack dogs. The Beverly Hills sized mansions mushrooming up in the North East of Harare stand in stark contrast to the growing inequality on the margins of the city. After 30 years of independent rule in Zimbabwe the demographic in neighbourhoods like Borrowdale has transformed considerably as educated, young black professionals began to share a larger stake in society.

Traditionally, income inequality in Zimbabwe was attributed to the dominance of white commercial farmers and the highly segregated racist society they had built for themselves. In Rhodesia, what is now Zimbabwe, farmers and industrialists lived in isolation from the rest of society on large farms and estates. They built houses far away from the black townships and distanced themselves from the local population population.

Since independence and black majority rule in the 1980s the ruling party Zanu-PF has tried to reverse the historical injustices wrought by the white community by indigenising much of the resources and businesses in favour of black Zimbabweans. Black majority rule was meant to liberate the people from an undemocratic system while indigenisation and black empowerment was supposed to enhance social mobility for poor working class families. But neither were successful at redistributing wealth and instead black economic empowerment turned into a crude opium of the masses. Sing a long songs about Tony Blair (or Bliar as he’s called by President Mugabe) being a Blair toilet (innovative toilet found in rural homes in Zimbabwe, which someone unwittingly named a Blair toilet) are still popular among the youth at Zanu-PF rallies.

According to the Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal, Zimbabwe is the most repressed economy in Sub Saharan Africa and in the bottom five of the 2015 Index of Economic Freedom. There is some room for good news though, over the past five years the economy has shown “the most improvement of any nation.” Economists and analysts display some positivity concerning Africa’s growth prospects for the next two decades, especially Zimbabwe which has been predicted 3% growth this year by the World Bank and could be hailed a new player in the Africa Rising narrative over the next decade.

However, since 2008 the discovery of diamonds and mineral wealth has not had any visible improvement on the country’s infrastructure, with reports that much of the revenue from diamonds has been funneled into Swiss bank accounts by senior officials. Tendai Biti, a member of the opposition party complained that diamond revenues were “completely absent” from budget statements during the inclusive power sharing agreement between his opposition party and the ruling party ZANU-PF. Today, the state of Zimbabwe’s economy and cash strapped government is dire; top government officials say the country is “facing a tough 2015 as its revenue base is expected to continue dwindling due to the liquidity crunch gripping the country.” If things carry on the way they are – where a small political elite enriches themselves through exploiting public office – Zimbabwe is unlikely to attract any foreign investment and tourism. Its neighbours Botswana and Mozambique are making progress developing their infrastructure and natural resources. Similar to Zimbabwe, both countries have plenty of natural resources.

Returning to Zimbabwe in the summer of 2015 I was in an ideal position to witness the changing landscapes and development in the city. I was not greeted by the same crippled, incapable country that I visited in 2008. The roads in the wealthiest parts of Harare are properly maintained and perfectly adequate to drive on. These neighbourhoods have strong, well funded councils. However, in other parts of the city the council is looting public money. Since the collapse of the railway industry roads across the country are battered and worn out by heavy load trucks. These monsters transporting South African imported goods across the border to local supermarkets in Zimbabwe.

Today the supermarkets are stacked with produce and there is even electricity and water. In 2015, changes to the urban landscape are most evident in the wealthy areas bordering Borrowdale, where a new host of designer and electronic shops have been established; catering to the needs of the less than 1% of rich Zimbabweans. A senior politician from the opposition party declared, “the ruling party owns all production and labour in the country, they have become a small corrupt clique, similar to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. They own and control the entire wealth of the country.”

The emergence of an ultra rich ruling elite is partly explained by University of Zimbabwe Professor Tony Hawkins. He argues that the economy is being led away from agricultural production, becoming “increasingly resource reliant with the share of GDP of agriculture and mining together now virtually double that of manufacturing.” Hawkins argues: politicians reliance on resources for rent seeking and votes creates a “toxic cocktail of resource nationalism and the resource curse.” Zimbabweans have always argued their country is not a poor country. In fact it possesses enough diamonds, gold and platinum to pay off all of its outstanding national and foreign debt.

The peace and tranquility of the holiday season came to an abrupt end when discontent civil servants took to the streets in protest of pay. Against this backdrop, growth and urban development, particularly around the capital Harare is taking place, albeit at a slow pace. The development most visible in Harare was marginal and superficial; luxury car dealerships had sprung up all over the dirty streets downtown and designer outlets sold Hugo Boss suits to the wealthy minority.

After the Zimbabwean dollar plunged into hyperinflation the currency was dollarised in an effort to restore normality to everyday lives. The move to adopt the US dollar and South African Rand was the decision of policy makers and ministers. However the people on the street; venders, fruit sellers and gadget sellers were the first people to use alternative foreign currencies. Even in a dictatorship like Zimbabwe, the people still exert power over their daily lives, refusing to be powerless.

The hard working middle class in Zimbabwe are still confronted with the prospect of daily power outages, water cuts and worn out roads. If the electricity goes off the only option you have is to call your neighbourhood ZESA (Zimbabwe’s Electricity Supply Association) technician who can explain the causes of the problem. He may even help out, but a technician is unable resolve the inherent corruption and nepotism which has darkened the evenings of many hard working deserving people who are the salt of the earth. People here will always find a reason to laugh, especially when things go wrong. It becomes an in built survival mechanism when all else fails. This suspicion was confirmed when a local business paper, The Zimbabwe Independent, revealed that Cabinet ministers, senior civil servants and top Zanu PF officials have been dodging electricity bills amounting to more than US$200 000. ZESA was owed US$700 million dollars by domestic and commercial customers.

It was evening and we were driving past a popular outdoor mall called Sam Levy’s village on Borrowdale Drive. This mirage place has everything; bars, pubs, several cinema’s, designer labels, a French bakery and several South African supermarkets. It is a mirage of material choice in the sparse and fragmented city of Harare. Normally on a Friday evening the place was buzzing with the sound of young teenagers and adults drinking on balconies (there are no age limits in most places), but tonight the bars were empty. I asked my Zimbabwean friend why it was so dead, he said“Zimbabweans are binge drinkers; after working all week we go out and get soaked (local lingo for smashed). We can’t pace ourselves so we blow it all on Friday.”

The economic climate in Zimbabwe is still volatile, with liquidity constraints and a lack of capital still posing problems for families and businesses. During the era of hyperinflation many families and businesses have lost most of their savings overnight. Some people however took advantage of the inflationary chaos and greatly benefited from hyperinflation, seeing their fortunes soar.

Many Zimbabweans today live in a precarious situation, constantly searching for work and means of earning a living wage. In the early morning this precarious class of urban workers are ferried into town with a guarantee of paid work. Most of these workers are uncertain whether they will work tomorrow or the day after. I had heard stories of men who went too far in fulfilling their material desires without thinking logically about their finances and the possibility of another economic downturn. One man bought a Porsche on a payment plan he couldn’t afford. After driving the Porsche 10 000 km he was no longer able to afford it’s upkeep. He had no desire to sell the useless vehicle which sat idly by in the garage. For him though it was clearly a symbol of wealth and stature. He could not let it go.

Another notable example: a manager from a commercial bank in Harare decided to buy an expensive house in a posh part of Harare, costing him several millions of dollars. A couple of months living in the property, the roof began to show signs of weakening, water began to leak from the roof and soon the whole 1st floor was drenched. He was unable to pay for improvements and so buckets were set up across his house to catch the leaking water from the 2nd floor. A significant share of Zimbabweans who are now enjoying unprecedented amounts wealth, have come from very humble beginnings. The wealthy in Zimbabwe love to show off their toys.

During my stay in Harare, the power cut off frequently. The family and I returned home one early evening in January after an 8 hour drive in the cramped back of a truck. All of us were in the lounge watching a South African soap opera, unwinding, until suddenly the electricity cut off. This would happen on average three or four nights a week; our routines would be plunged into darkness. When you live in the United Kingdom, like myself, you don’t realise how plugged in the system you are until your confronted with darkness, a candle and a copy of that book you’ve been meaning to finish for months. It became a ritual, but whenever we’d be plunged into darkness everyone in the house would mobilise with enthusiasm, preparing the candles and locating the matches in the pitch black.

We casually moved about the house re orientating our evening’s plans. Life carries on, almost as usual; food is prepared on a gas stove and the table is made by candle light. We eat a local dish, Sadza and Nyama. Everyone begins to chat and laugh at the table as we fill the nights air with our tones and rhythms’. There are no caricatures of depressed Africans here.

Only endearing people, gifted with the power of illuminating dark nights like this with an eternal joy and laughter.

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