By Edward Chinhanhu*
Between 2008 and 2009, Zimbabwe experienced its harshest socio-economic and political crisis since independence. Slowly but surely, every economic sector and government institution – from industry to education, health, transport and social amenities – crashed, leaving only the ever-visible military. Inflation was an astronomical 231 million percent, the highest in the world. The entire nation was in limbo.
Eventually, the crisis led to the establishment of the Government of National Unity in September 2009. Remarkably, within three months, goods had reappeared on supermarket shelves, children had returned to school, transport had improved massively and, in short, the nation saw hope. The next four years under the Unity Government were some of the most blissful that many Zimbabweans remember. But then came elections, and the Unity Government was abandoned, leaving Zanu PF, which had been in power since independence in 1980, back in sole control.
Now the signs and symptoms of the pre-Unity Government era are returning. This time around, the crisis could even be worse, unless immediate steps are taken to avert it.
Worrying signs in Harare
The first signs that things have once again fallen apart in Zimbabwe are evident in the first buildings you see as you enter the one-time “Sunshine City” of Harare. Water flows freely on the roads, the buildings are dilapidated, the streets are awash with litter, which is often piled by the roadside. The people look frail and grim as they amble along or group awkwardly in conversation.
The air in the streets is smoky, with old vehicles spewing carbon monoxide and rubbish burning. Humanity is clogged in every vacant space, a good many people shoving bundles of notes into your face, asking if you want to purchase US dollars or South African rand.
All around people push and shove, as pedestrians weave around bodies and vehicles for space to get out and be anywhere else. Everywhere are shouts from touts and the blaring of horns as public taxis compete for passengers, which they pick and drop anywhere, adding to the chaos.
Only a few privileged people travel by taxi these days, with most left to walk to and from town. And in the same streets are lines of vendors, some well sheltered under umbrellas, others holding their delicate wares on their chests or balancing them on their head.
If you have been here before, say during the 80s and 90s, the question uppermost on your mind is not “how are you?”, or “how is life?”, but “what happened?”. And you ask that question with trepidation, anticipating a horrific answer.
But everywhere you turn for an answer, it is the same. “Life sucks, bro”, people exclaim, avoiding eye contact. You sense shame, guilt and powerlessness.
Pushed further, people point to politicians as the cause of the fall. “They are shamelessly corrupt” said one interviewee, “they don’t care about us”. And he moved quickly away, not out of fear, but for more pressing matters. People no longer fear to speak their minds publicly, but they are still powerless to do anything about the situation.
For those who still have a job, things are often no better. All banks have declared a critical shortage of cash, and have placed restrictions on withdrawals. Civil servants, the biggest chunk of the employed, have had their pay dates delayed until the middle of the following month. Yet they complain of additional work constantly piled on top of their normal working hours. Restaurants and bars, which once flourished on the back of Zimbabweans’ love for social life, are but dark caverns frequented by the homeless, and a few vendors who walk in and out.
The problem, most people agree, is that the country is not producing anything worth exporting. Once the few US dollars still in circulation leave the country, there is no way of recouping them. Many families used to rely on groceries purchased in nearby South Africa, but this has been banned in order to protect domestic industry, which falls far short of meeting demand. On 1 July 2016, residents from the Beit Bridge area joined forces with cross-border traders in violent protests, and torched a large warehouse in which customs officials stock confiscated groceries and other imports. More than seventy people were arrested.
The NGO sector, which used to provide a cushion in terms of employment, money and moral support in voicing dissent, is facing a serious problem in funding. Most NGO employees and staff now work only two or three days a week. As a result, public demonstrations are few and far between, and some demonstrators have been arrested, tortured or disappeared, with few repercussions.
Needless to say, these problems take their toll. Many people seek solace in religion, and churches have sprouted up everywhere, preaching hope and the gospel of prosperity. Some priests have taken over the roles of doctors, promising to cure anything from headaches to HIV and cancer. Seeing this, and true to custom, the government is extending its hand to the churches for related taxes.
Is violence next?
Amid all this chaos and confusion, political, religious and social rumours and intrigue swirl. These rumours, one fears, might one day run out of control, causing panic and the outbreak of violence. Already there have been scenes of violence and demonstrations by public taxi operators against random police roadblocks. Social media is awash with news that teachers and nurses will stop work this July in protest against unpaid June salaries.
Meanwhile, the political bickering escalates. The next general election will be in 2018, but judging by the restlessness, anything could happen before that. The government has vowed to do everything in its power to win. The opposition, on the other hand, remains at sixes and sevens, playing a game of egos, while the people suffer silently. There is no doubt that the Government of Zimbabwe needs to act now to avert a serious socio-economic crisis, or things could get out of hand.
About the author:
*Edward Chinhanhu is Insight on Conflict’s local correspondent for Zimbabwe. A peace activist and fellow at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town, he has an MA in Peace and Governance, and also studied for a postgraduate diploma in governance and public policy in the Hague. Edward is a Rotary Peace Fellow of Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand.
This article was published by Insight On Conflict.