We said our farewells at Brisbane airport and then it was a long flight back to the Dark Continent. One of the two good things that have emerged as a result of last year’s coup, is that customs and immigration officials are far friendlier than they were previously. The other, even greater benefit has been the removal of the ubiquitous highway bandits, purporting to be police officers who in the name of road safety made it their business to extract every cent they possibly could from the largely innocent driving public. The guilty ones got fleeced as well, but were allowed to continue their journeys in their totally un-roadworthy vehicles.
So we got home and were soon back into the swing of things. A couple of weeks later, we were off to Victoria Falls for an extended birthday bash for the twin son and daughter of some friends of ours. A very lavish affair. The father is actually and ex-pat Australian who has done very well for himself over the years and the event was extremely lavish. His half-brother came over from Oz for the event and we hit it off. He farms between Melbourne and Adelaide and as it turns out, knows the few people I know from that part of the country, including my cousin and a chap I used to work with in London back in the early 1980s.
The Victoria Falls are a magnificent sight and the Zambezi River is thrilling when viewed from a canoe and serenely beautiful when seen from the deck of a luxurious cruiser. But the Falls (as the town is colloquially known) has become very touristy and is not what it was 30 years ago. We used to take pride in the fact that Vic Falls was nothing like Niagara with its blatant commercialism and a MacDonald’s on every corner. In those days, it was a hick town frequented by remnants of the white Rhodie brigade and a few foolhardy South Africans who dared venture north to the dark place that had become an independent Zimbabwe. Attractions were understated but enough to entertain us and at no great expense. Old colonial hotels, a casino, a golf course, camping fishing, game viewing, rafting, white-water canoeing were all there. Anybody could amble through the rain forest along the track to the gorge where a mighty torrent 1,700 metres wide cascades into a chasm over 100 metres below. Depending on the time of year, there can be so much spray as to make it all but impossible to view except from the air or it can be a mere trickle. But get the timing right and it really is awful. (I had an old English teacher who insisted that awful meant awe inspiring. He also used to say that ‘quite’ meant wholly, entirely, absolutely!)
In any event, these days, the resort has hit the big-time. A new international airport serves as a hub for safari types travelling to the region that includes Botswana and Zambia. Visitors, and there are many, are required to pay an entry fee to get into the park that covers the main attraction. The rest of the town is full of shops selling expensive tat while touts pester anybody who looks remotely as if they may have access to foreign cash. Don’t get me wrong, the place is definitely worth a visit. There is even more to do now in varying degrees of comfort and expense, but whereas before one could imagine living there, for me and many others, that is now out of the question. Too noisy and too many people.
I am sure even the least interested reader will surely be aware that Zimbabwe’s economy is in chaos. Elections had been held at the end of July and despite the fact that people expected them to be rigged, which they were, we all held out some hope that the new president would be willing and able to repair the 37 years of damage inflicted by his predecessor. He wasn’t. I am afraid, the people who run this country are utterly despicable and venal in every possible way imaginable. But there is no point dwelling on that.
In early October, the government issued a new finance policy that included an unforeseen and very dramatic new tax. Because the government has managed to destroy a huge swathe of formal industry, there is a thriving informal market that involves illegal gold mining, trading, importing and exporting etc. None of the people participating in these activities pay tax. Bribery is rife. In the absence of physical cash, even the poorest are forced to perform financial transactions through electronic means. EFT. These are either by swipe card or by mobile phone. That is not in itself a bad thing. It also happens to be the nature of the business I have been involved in since my return to this country. I can swipe my card at a shop or I can use an app on my phone to pay bills or send money to any other bank account, instantly. It works pretty well. What the government decided to do was to impose a 2% tax on all transactions that are effected electronically. In their naiveté, they imagined that the net result of this would be minimal as far as the less affluent consumer was concerned as it would only increase the price of bread from $1.00, to $1.02. Because of their economic illiteracy, they failed to register the fact that that there is something called a supply chain and that each link in that chain would be required to pay the tax which would inevitably get passed on to the consumer. In the space of a month, bread went from $1.00 to $1.25.
They were forced to make some minor adjustments to the policy, but the net impact of that has been that the majority of the burden is carried by those who already pay tax, while the targeted operators manage to elude the clutches of the tax man.
But the 2% tax is not the half of it. A knock on effect has seen the value of our electronic funds, which in theory rank pari-passu with the US$, plummet by 75%. My $1,000 is now only worth US$240. Just the other day, I had to buy a set of 4 tyres at US$100 each, but with an electronic payment it came to $400 each. Bear in mind that salaries have not increased, since the government continues it charade of parity value. But what they have been doing these past years, has been forcing banks to buy Treasury Bills, with relatively high coupons thus getting their hands on all the actual US$ in circulation which they have misspent. (The Reserve Bank of Zimbabe has only been emulating the US Federal Reserve in that respect, though without quite the same level of credibility or fungibility). So now we have a huge deficit, the banks are all technically bankrupt and we have a currency that is in theory backed by the US$ but which in fact is backed by nothing but the say so of the Zim Government which has since inception shown itself to be utterly corrupt and incompetent.
What has this meant for the average Zimbabwean? Well, not everything has risen by 300%. Fuel is still relatively cheap in Z$ terms for a litre of diesel. Only $1.35. Were it to reflect other prices, it would be approaching Z$5.00 and would simply be out of reach of the travelling and working public. Likewise, the staple diet of the masses, maize meal, has increased by a relatively small amount, so they are unlikely to go on strike just yet. But, those concessions are only creating a black hole as they need to be supported by the previously mentioned supply chain. Farmers cannot pay for fertilizer, seeds, chemicals, plant and equipment etc. Many will not be planting the same area of crops as last year. That will mean a deficit which will mean importing maize, soya and wheat. And so the chaos spirals deeper and into the chasm.
Meanwhile, medicines are extremely difficult to acquire unless paid for in US$ cash. Few people have that currency and many, especially the poor and elderly are having to do without. As I said to family members who asked what contingency measures we had taken, I replied, “Don’t get hungry, thirsty or sick. Easy.”
I am well aware that I am more fortunate than others and though the crisis has affected me very substantially, from a purely financial perspective, from survival perspective I am fine, though a lot poorer than I was when I started writing this post! What is interesting though, is how one manages to do without so much that one previously took for granted. Our supermarket shelves are becoming increasingly denuded of products, some of which were luxuries, others which would be considered fairly staple to one’s existence. Coffee has disappeared, as has sugar, though I have no idea why as Zimbabwe produces both in great quantities. Wine is off as are most alcoholic beverages. Pork is fairly stable, but beef, chicken and fish have doubled. Cooking oil is rationed at the checkout. Olive oil? Forget it. Light bulbs too. Washing powder is in short supply. So guess what, you wear your clothes another day before washing and you make sure that there is more laundry going into the machine. Two cycles become one and your washing powder lasts twice as long.
Our electricity supply has been remarkably stable, thanks in part to the good rains which fuel the Lake Kariba hydroelectric scheme and of course as a result of the collapse in industry which frees up capacity, though not the ability to pay for it. Another black hole.
But even if power fails, most people have generators and some have solar panels as well. I have an inverter and battery backup but those are only topped up by the mains. If they go down for an extended period, it will be generator only until diesel runs out. Then the manure will really hit the fan as my water is supplied from a borehole.
We have a South African from Cape Town working with us. In the 9 months he has been here, he has been stunned by the changes while at the same time thoroughly impressed by the ability of Zimbabweans to get on with life without complaining. He is one of those people who religiously drank 2 diet cokes every lunch. He is now bringing his own iced tea to work.
But that is perhaps part of the problem. Zimbabweans don’t complain, well they complain a bit in a cheerful sort of way, but do nothing about it and thus there is never any real change for the good. Zimbabwe, actually Africa generally, under native leadership, is a state where entropy reigns supreme.
On the whole, then, it seems as if life here is pretty kak, as they would say in South Africa. But it is not. The climate is magnificent and warm sunshine will always bring a smile to anybody’s face. We have beautiful vegetation with some of the most vibrant colours imaginable.
People are generally friendly if largely ineffective. Customer service, unless overseen by non-ethnic management, is non-existent. Drivers will fail to indicate when turning and thus leave you fuming at the missed opportunity to enter the main stream of traffic. But when you berate them, they are so humbly apologetic that your annoyance can only dissipate. However, it does leave you with an extraordinary sense of superiority and let’s face it, we all like to feel superior. An oft repeated adage, “In the land of the blind….”
A lack of choice is remarkably liberating and a greatly underestimated feature of modern life, or perhaps the benefits of choice are grossly overestimated. Think about the stress of choosing food and wine at a restaurant, sometimes called menu envy, as opposed to the happy acceptance of whatever your host offers you at a private dinner party. When you have no choice, you do not have to fret about making the wrong one. It reminds me of the song from 42nd Street.
And then there is Kris Kristofferson. “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
I have mentioned before that I feel freer here than in many other countries. There are fewer laws and society is far more forgiving to those who break them. I am not obliged to wear a cycle helmet, nor do I have to put a fence around my swimming pool. I am not supposed to drink and drive, but nobody is going to shun me if I do. Now that does not mean to say that my behaviour is totally irresponsible, it simply means that I do not have to worry about what the neighbours, police or magistrate might say. I take care of my behaviour and let others take care of theirs. I have always advocated rules ahead of laws. Follow the rules and you won’t need laws.
And that is what I think is so wrong with modern society, Western society in particular. Governments have an overwhelming urge to legislate on everything. Whereas before one refrained from offensive behaviour because it was bad manners, now there are laws that forbid you from saying, doing or wearing quite specific things that may offend others. Teach good manners, respect and discipline at schools and people will be a whole lot nicer. As things stand, the largely innocent, but perhaps foolish are prosecuted for their mistakes, such as blacking up at a Halloween party, while those who are deliberately and persistently unpleasant, get away with it because they are more calculating in their actions.
Actually, I should possibly take that back about Western society. South Africa has become a world leader in taking offence at careless remarks. Use of the ‘K’ word (equivalent to the “N” word) is perceived to be infinitely more offensive than robbery, rape or even murder. I believe most Rhodesians, despite the segregated communities, used the epithet, far less frequently than our South African neighbours. For us it was a question of manners. My parents would certainly have reprimanded me and made me apologise if I did use the word. In that colonial environment, we called the locals natives or Africans. Another term was “muntu” or simply “munt”. It is a Shona word meaning person, derived from the word Bantu. It is no longer PC to use it because of its connotations with the past. But it was never a deliberately offensive term, though like any such term it could be preceded by negative adjectives. And I think as far as Afrikaaners, farmers in particular were concerned, the K word was simply a practical necessity. They had always been called Boers (certainly a word that is now used as an insult by black South Africans), while the indigenous people had always been Ks. While it could have been used in a derogatory sense, it could also go the other way, as in “X is a damn good K.” Of course South Africa and the US are not the only countries to face these problems. According to Wikipedia, “the word coolie meaning a labourer, has a variety of other implications and is sometimes regarded as offensive or a pejorative, depending upon the historical and geographical context.”
All that is beside the point, except to say that we are far less in fear of being vilified for saying something non PC in this country than would be the case elsewhere in more civilized parts of the world. And let’s face it, even the most well intentioned people can make mistakes, as Nobel Scientist Tim Hunt would attest.
Another extraordinary feature of living in a deprived society is how simple things provide such great pleasure. It sounds ludicrous but absolutely true that it gives one a thrill to drive on a road that has recently been resurfaced after years of having had to negotiate potholes. Likewise, getting home to find that there is electricity, having had none for a couple of days.
When the only beer available is second rate local produce, it tastes every bit as a good as the finest lager in the world when you are sitting by the pool on a hot sunny day, surrounded by friends joking about the chaotic environment in which we live.
So, despite all the kak, Zim is still a wonderful country.