By: Peta Thornycroft
Zimbabwe’s founding president Robert Mugabe resigned after almost four decades of hubris and misrule. His likely successor Emmerson Mnangagwa may, despite his past, be a far better leader for the economy than Mugabe, whose legacy is a country on its knees.
Politically, Zimbabwe’s upheavals are easy to understand: one lot of thugs is replacing another lot of thugs. The good guys today are the army, who support recently sacked vice-president Mnangagwa and detest former first lady Grace Mugabe. The bad guys are those who backed her bid to become vice-president.
Mnangagwa (“The Crocodile”) seems to have the support of about three-quarters of Zanu-PF MPs and the leadership of all 10 provinces who had sacked Mugabe days before he resigned just as MPs began to impeach him.
Part of the support for Mnangagwa could be due to some in Zanu-PF being afraid they may be arrested, beaten up, or lose income, or all three, if they don’t back him.
Zimbabwe has no democratic reputation to defend. It is a grubby state with ever-deteriorating social services, no money in the bank and not much hope of being able to pay its bills, foreign and domestic, in the foreseeable future.
The lower ranks of the army, the ones on the streets for the past week, seemed well-behaved, young, full of grins and slightly embarrassed when people gushed over them. They waved back and smiled.
The handful of troops in Harare on Monday were absolutely in control because they had no war to win. No enemy. No one opposed them, on the streets at least. And the police had gone … where, no one was sure. So there were none of the roadblocks that were extremely disruptive this year on all main roads in each city, terrorising motorists, raising money from spot fines.
On Monday, five days after this oddball coup d’etat, only a few army juniors were around. One armoured troop carriers in the city centre had no one in it, and a small tank along Samora Machel Avenue, had one soldier. No one took any notice. Though the stock market had shrunk 20% it was hard to notice a coup had occurred.
But let us remind ourselves: a decade ago, Zimbabwe’s military leaders said they would not take the salute or serve Morgan Tsvangirai, president of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), if he won the elections of 2008. He did win, and was cheated out of his victory.
The generals made a statement on Monday saying they had launched “Operation Restore Legacy”, which sounded like a Soviet-era code name. They wanted to get rid of Mugabe not because he’d destroyed the country, but he booted out their man, Mnangagwa, who may (despite his past) be a better leader for the economy than Mugabe whose legacy is a country on its knees.
And they detest Grace. Fair enough. A dynasty would have been in the making had she become vice-president at Zanu-PF’s December pre-election congress.
The generals were also embarrassed by the couple’s badly behaved, outlandishly extravagant sons, who are supposedly studying in Jo’burg. Grace’s fantastic spending, the generals indicated, had destroyed the legacy of the “revolution” that led to independence in 1980.
The background to it all is, of course, the economy. It was appalling for people, even as extraordinarily rich as some generals and Zanu-PF leaders, to see the Mugabes spend millions from the treasury on his medical treatment in Singapore and her shopping in Dubai. Each of several annual medical appointments in Singapore cost R15-million a trip on the only surviving Boeing 767 of Air Zimbabwe, which is bankrupt and reduced to three aircraft. Mugabe refuses to use commercial flights. He’s paranoid about security, terrified not of foreign agents but of his own people.
The economy is at the heart of the coup. ATMs are empty. Banks have no queues as there’s no cash inside. Neither US dollars, nor bond notes (“bollars”) – the locally printed small denomination currency that emerged a year ago from limited print runs, apparently backed by Afreximbank, a mystery bank in Cairo in which Zimbabwe was a founding shareholder.
Afreximbank would not have been needed had Mugabe allowed his previous, reformist finance minister Patrick Chinamasa, a Mnangagwa loyalist, to trim the civil service budget and the numbers of employed – which eats 80% of state revenue – so he could pay back US$1.8-million to the World Bank and African Development Bank, and then borrow from the IMF.
Each bollar is supposed to have the same value as the preferred US dollar. But the black market rate last week was about 30%-40% for real US dollars.
Bollars are as hard to come by as US dollars. So there are other ways of shopping, such as phantom currency. Bank account-holders can swipe their bank cards. Six months ago they were swiping US dollars, which they could get out of the bank in green notes. Today they’re swiping phantom notes, as the notes to back up the swipes of the debit cards are not there.
Only some shops and hotels accept foreign credit cards. Foreign debit cards cannot be used in most places and cannot be put in an ATM to draw cash.
But there is a saviour. His name is Strive Masiyiwa. He fled Zimbabwe years ago and lives in London. He is a billionaire, a major funder of the poor and of good causes. Many people think he’s almost a saint.
He created the largest mobile network, Econet, in Zimbabwe. He got it going with help from Europe, by going to court again and again as Zanu-PF tried to stop him.
Econet is huge. Its network is huge. It also has the most expensive mobile calls in the region – in US dollars – but it works. It supplies most of the internet via fibre, costing about R3000/month for unlimited access – not really unlimited, but it’s there.
In the past six months his swipe mechanism EcoCash, for people who don’t have bank accounts (most people, even in urban areas), has become efficient and keeps urban dwellers able to shop, buy fuel sometimes, pay rent, services, salaries.
It’s improved dramatically in the past six months. It helps Econet as users need not scramble for cash to buy a recharge card. They can do it on their mobile. It’s easy to sign up to at a post office or any of Econet’s many outlets. Those who have Zimbabwean ID need not need to prove where they live.
Meanwhile the cost of living is shocking. Groceries, apart from bread and mealie meal, are up about 30% since the panic of September, when Zimbabweans believed the economy had crashed as it did in 2008.
In 2008 the Zanu-PF administration crashed everything. The Zim dollar had no value. Hyperinflation was incalculable. Then came an inclusive government and the MDC, assisted by the international community. Much was restored.
Today EcoCash makes life bearable for those in a country with not much to offer its citizens. Without it there would be collapse, as happened under the Zanu-PF administration which chose to print dollars and steal real ones from the central bank. Grace Mugabe did this at the height of the collapse – nicking R15-million for her eldest son and sending it to South Africa.
But EcoCash is phantom cash. There’s little to back it up. No one is sure how long it can last. Some think Afreximbank will come to the rescue again – there’ll be a new era, new administration, a new Zimbabwe.
For rural people – 67% of the population, many of whom live as they did 50 years ago – life is particularly tough, eased only by the great agricultural season of last year due to abundant rain.
Zanu-PF has lived on a myth since independence: that another nation, the UK or some other country in the West, wants it or wants to invade it. Zimbabwe is an uncomfortable place to live in. Its natural beauties are under threat. Its forests are disappearing as poor new farmers use trees, not costly coal, to cure tobacco.
Zimbabweans are scattered across the world. Since 2000 the UK has had more black Zimbabweans there than there were whites in Rhodesia at the height of the colonial era. Many Zimbabweans abroad are professionals.
Mugabe has left office, as constitutionally as could be managed. Any sensible person hopes the thugs in the winning section of Zanu-PF will include some of the more sensible, rational democrats in the MDC and its allies to help fix the administration (it has to be dramatically shrunk) and to borrow some cash.
Mugabe has been negotiating for immunity for all the crimes he allegedly committed, including his family’s thefts from treasury, and to secure his lifestyle.
The generals knew they had to satisfy the SADC. Ironic, in retrospect, as only Botswana’s Ian Khama spoke out at the time against the abuses, the murders, the mass arrests and torture of MDC members. (The MDC, remember, nearly defeated Zanu-PF at the polls in 2000, nine months after it was formed.)
Mugabe and his colleagues always said Zimbabwe had huge resources, and that its economic failure was due to sanctions. This cannot be true, as EU financial and travel sanctions have only been against Mugabe and Grace for the past four years. And Zimbabwe’s trade with the US, which is tiny, was not affected.
Natural resources, apart from platinum and chrome, are small, and well used without graft. But it’s not enough to pay the debts. Tobacco production, now at about 200mkg, financed by Chinese and US companies, has probably reached its limit in the international market. Agriculture not destroyed in the land invasions post-2000 was good, creative and diversified but not a game-changer. The other forex earner is from Zimbabweans sending cash home.
Even if Mnangagwa chops the civil service, runs a tiny cabinet and cleans it all up, there isn’t much room to pay debts. The West will have to help with aid to restore social services, fix roads and railways and many Zimbabweans will work like hell to try to restore their country.
The MDC is key in Zimbabwe’s move to a post-Mugabe democracy. Former SA president Thabo Mbeki and his team never recognised this when they helped produce the inclusive government that was heavily biased in Zanu-PF’s favour. Mbeki and Co admired Mugabe.
But it was the MDC which restored some confidence via the inclusive government from 2009 to 2013. A broad coalition of democrats can help restore Zimbabwe, but the country is not nearly as rich as Mugabe said it was.
Peta Thornycroft is a veteran journalist