Dollarization, Democracy & Daily Life in Zimbabwe

Against the Current, No. 155, November/December 2011


SATELLITE TV IS big in Zimbabwe; owing to the limited and propagandistic programming on state-sponsored Z-TV, and the travails of night travel on a decaying road network, just about every house in Harare, from the poor/working class Mbare township to the luxury suburb of Burrowdale, sports a dish that brings South African soapies, Al Jazeera and, most importantly, the latest in reality TV to living rooms across the land.

On my last trip to Zimbabwe all eyes, it seemed, were glued to the latest season of Big Brother Africa, a reality show in which participants from various African countries compete to be the last man standing by winning the votes of television viewers. After a sad defeat last season for Munya, Zimbabwe’s popular contestant in Big Brother Africa, hopes were high for redemption this time around. In this latest season, Zimbabwe had not one but two contestants competing for the $100,000 prize.

In a country where elections are indefinitely on hold, the show provided not only entertainment, but an outlet for Zimbabweans to express their frustrations with the current regime. Vimbai Mutinhiri, BBA contestant and daughter of former ZANU-PF [the ruling party headed by Robert Mugabe — ed.] secretary of labor, Tracy Mutinhiri, made TV history as the first BBA contestant to lose the support of her own country; voting by text message, Zimbabwean viewers taunted her with injunctions such as “Go back to the farm, Vimbai!!” — a reference to the parcel her mother appropriated as part of Zimbabwean’s “land reform.”

[ZANU stands for Zimbabwe African National Union. Its full formal name is ZANU-PF, where PF stands for “Patriotic Front,” a tactical alliance formed during the liberation struggle of the 1970s with the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) led by Joshua Nkomo, which ended following independence in the brutal repression described below — ed.]

The second Zimbabwean contestant — Wendell who (as he put it ) “happens to be white” — won the support of Zimbabwe and the contest overall. Both contestants were feted by Robert Mugabe himself, who bestowed further cash prizes on them as winner and runner-up.

My take — Zimbabweans didn’t love Wendell and don’t think anybody “happens” to be white. But they have bigger fish to fry. As a result of the liberation struggle and white Zimbabweans’ unwillingness to engage as equals with black Zimbabweans in the social and political arenas (Hughes 2007), whites are nearly totally irrelevant to Zimbabweans’ political and social life.

 On my first trip to Zimbabwe — after months of living in South Africa — this was the most immediate impression of the place. The liberation struggle had succeeded in producing something I had never previously experienced as an American “who happens to be white” or a white person living in South Africa; an urban space and social life in which race does not over-determine everything, from real estate to micro-interactions with strangers on the street.

It’s a difficult experience to describe and quantify, but a striking one.  White racists in South Africa often accuse Mugabe and supporters of being “racist against whites (whatever that would actually mean).” This is emphatically not the case — the few ZANU officials I met, like most Zimbabweans, were friendly, generous and politely failed to notice my mangled attempts to speak chiShona or my race.

Atmosphere of Decay

My first trip to Zimbabwe took place shortly after the 2009 dollarization of the economy, following a severe inflationary crisis. Discussion with family and acquaintances there were circumspect with respect to outright criticism of the regime, but peppered with the phrase “things are much better now” and reminiscences of the days when a month’s wage was not enough for taxi fare to work or a loaf of bread.

“Much better” meant that government workers — such as teachers with decades of experience — were now making $125 per month and able to buy food in the shops, though I noted that dollar for dollar, the prices were not out of line with U.S. grocery stores and sometimes more expensive (i.e. $1 for bread or $2.50 for two liters of Coca Cola). One family friend gave me a 10,000 zim dollar note as a souvenir, not as impressive as the two-trillion dollar note he was unwilling to part with.

It goes without saying that the state of Zimbabwe’s infrastructure was depressing. Once stately avenues have deteriorated to a series of successively deeper potholes. Electricity outages are an every-other-day experience, and the municipal water, I was assured was “safe again” after a period during which cholera forced everyone to boil their drinks.

My husband constantly pointed out small things that had changed for the worse, saying that “when we were growing up (shortly after liberation in 1979) the grass by the roadside was cut, the parks were maintained.” Now municipal services are basically nonexistent, creating a neoliberal dystopia in which it is every man for himself. Those who can afford it rely on gas generators for electricity and dig wells for water. Everyone burns their garbage or, given no other choice, simply dumps it by the roadside.

But despite the decay of common goods, not everyone fared ill in the inflationary spiral. In fact, the “crisis” for the many was a boon to the already elite who had access to cash and foreign exchange. “Money burning” became a common method of accumulation for the strategically positioned — salaried workers paid by direct deposit would trade huge electronic sums for small amounts of cash needed to buy the food, because shops had stopped trading in electronic money. Under conditions of such rapid inflation promises of future payment, like electronic transfer, were worthless.

Also useless, at least in financial terms, was the massive post-liberation investment in education and skills that produced record numbers of professionals and skilled workers. Beginning as a trickle in the mid-2000s, this group along with opposition activists being targeted by the state began to leave Zimbabwe for (hopefully) greener pastures in South Africa, Britain, Dubai and Commonwealth countries.

During the crises, the exodus spread to all levels of income and education, and even to the beneficiaries of land reform who were unable to cultivate without capital inputs and basic infrastructure. As many as three million Zimbabweans may be living in South Africa, nearly a quarter of the Zimbabwean population, and disproportionately the young, the educated and the economically productive. A million or more may be living in other countries. Documents for those who can afford them, such as passports or police clearances, are an important source of revenue for the state.

While the Mugabe regime has succeeded in stripping services to a degree that would inflame the imaginations of U.S. Tea Partiers, “drowning“ that state “in the bathtub” would be like attempting such a feat with a vicious and highly intelligent feline. The state is everywhere present, large and in charge — from the inquisitive and officious “baggage handler” who greets foreigners like me at the airport, to the spectacle of a bustling central business district coming to a halt as Mugabe’s motorcade makes the main drag.

Workers describe intelligence infiltration into every aspect of work life; there is at least one Central Intelligence Office (CIO) agent in every school whom everyone knows about and, it is assumed, a few more who are incognito.

While police operate without vehicles, fire brigades without water (!) and prisons (for a period) without food (!!), groups of ZANU-PF youth and state security had the capacity to visit nearly every local pub and many homes and businesses in the runup to the 2008 elections, in order to encourage party fealty through threats and outright violence. Even this repression, however, failed to win a majority (or in Harare, even a sizable minority) of votes.

Ubiquitous Repression

On my second trip to Zimbabwe, a year later, the tone had changed. Now used to having access to food, transport and basic goods imported from South Africa, few mentioned how “much better” things are. Increased government wages (to $300 per month) fail to impress as a livable sum, particularly given accompanying layoffs.

There is a general weariness of a system where lollipops and cigarettes serve as change for purchases not even to a dollar, and the hassles of converting South African rands to dollars and back again at the grocery store — losing money each time. The mass exodus of Zimbabwe’s young adult population is a tragedy despaired, and the cost of keeping in touch across borders taxing if not prohibitive.

While no one welcomes a new round of elections, for fear of even worse repression, friends and even acquaintances were often openly inspired by the developments of the “Arab Spring” in Egypt and Tunisia, and declared that “it’s time for Mugabe to go.” In the same breath, however, they often lamented that Zimbabweans are “too frightened” to build their own liberation square.

Unfortunately, this fear is justified. Mugabe’s record shows he is willing to unleash the power of a state stripped to its marshal functions on internal enemies, political and economic.

The 2008 election violence is no isolated incident. In 1982 Mugabe-led forces enacted the infamous Gukuruhundi, an assault in which thousands of mostly Ndebele supporters of Joshua Nkomo and civilians were executed (Holland 2010).

More recently, the Marange diamond mines, discovered in 2006 and controlled by the army, have become emblematic of state violence and rapaciousness.Workers are reportedly being enslaved and tortured into mining (Human Rights Watch 2010); the proceeds from the mines have gone missing to the tune of $1 billion (Manyukwe 2011).

That willingness to resort to massive violence and suppression, so far, continues to allow Mugabe to cling to power, in the face of economic turmoil and massive unpopularity. With elections off the table for now, the “Unity” government falling apart, and a population cowed into quiescence, Big Brother Africa offers an illusory political reality in which Zimbabweans at least get a vote.

Published Sources

Holland, Heidi, 2010. Dinner with Mugabe: The Untold Story of a Freedom Fighter Who Became a Tyrant. Penguin Group Australia.

Hughes, David McDermot, 2007. Whiteness in Zimbabwe: Race Landscape and the Problem of Belonging. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Human Rights Watch (HRW), 2010. “Deliberate Chaos: Ongoing Human Rights Abuses in the Marange Diamond Fields of Zimbabwe.”

Manyukwe, Clemence. “Diamonds worth US $1 billion Missing” The Financial Gazette. August 12, 2011.

November/December 2011, ATC 155