Since the fall of Zimbabwe’s longtime leader Robert Mugabe in November 2017, the new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has been making it known to the world that his country is finally “open for business.” At the moment, per capita income is contracting, the fiscal deficit has surpassed a tenth of GDP, and the official currency trades on the informal market at a premium of about 30 percent. There are certainly signs of genuine intent coming out of Harare that the new government wants to reintegrate Zimbabwe into the global economy and make life easier for business, but the question remains: Will what it calls the country’s “new dispensation” be more than cosmetic?
The Mugabe regime essentially destroyed the country’s economy. During the first two decades after its independence in 1980, Zimbabwe was considered an African success story, with a stable regime overseeing steady if unspectacular economic growth—real incomes growing an average just over one percent a year, although some years recorded double-digit gains. Then, at the turn of the millennium, Mugabe adopted an anticolonial platform and a nationalist economic policy reminiscent of earlier experiments by other countries that had achieved autarky, and began to seize land occupied by white farmers. In the two decades since, Zimbabweans have watched their average incomes decline by a third. Even that figure is not the lowest Zimbabweans have seen, as the Government of National Unity (GNU) brought about a period of recovery between 2009 and 2013. When the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), entered government for the first time in 2009, in a coalition with Mugabe’s ZANU-PF, per capita income had more than halved over the previous decade. After four years of recovery under the GNU, Mugabe swept back to office in 2013, and the rot resumed.
Yet on the streets of Harare, it’s hard to spot the signs of an imploding economy. The roads are congested, the store shelves are brimming with fresh produce, and the restaurants are respectably busy.