Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Archive for December, 2008

The futility of trying to put a number to Zimbabwe’s hyper-inflation

Posted by CM on December 10, 2008

Zimbabwe’s current astronomical and rising inflation rate will provide years, decades worth of study for scholars. But the over-riding concern now is the way an inflation rate said to be in the millions percent makes hour-to-hour survival a huge struggle for ordinary Zimbabweans.

But it can also be examined as a sort of sad but fascinating, incomprehensible game. And The Zimbabwe Crisis provides all sorts of opportunities for people of all types to sell their ‘expertise.’

A case in point is the silly game of trying to pin down what exactly Zimbabwe’s rate of inflation is. Obviously if an ‘expert’ is asked, s/he can not give the most honest answer and say, “Prices are changing so rapidly, so variably and so unpredictably it is impossible to say what Zimbabwe’s inflation rate is with any certitude.” Or even merely reliably, even with a very large standard deviation. I might add that it is a mostly meaningless exercise anyway.

But that doesn’t stop some people from trying. Newspapers need copy every day and today’s Zimbabwe provides some of the most colourful. And there is no shortage of “experts” who are happy to be quoted by the media. Builds up the consulting CV.

The Guardian (UK) had a story recently about the present cholera epidemic. The report wandered over from discussing hospitals and disease to tackling inflation.

Excerpts:

Money is a complicated business in Zimbabwe even if most people do not have much. Cash has been in desperately short supply because the government cannot print fast enough to keep up with hyperinflation. Officially inflation stands at 231m percent, but that was in July. Since then the central bank has regarded economic statistics as a state secret.

John Robertson, one of Zimbabwe’s most respected economists, has accurately estimated the rate of inflation in the past. He says it shot through the billions, trillions and quadrillions between August and October until it reached 1.6 sextillion percent last month. A sextillion has 21 noughts.

Robertson says the number is almost meaningless. “Inflation at the present rate is academic. Nobody says they’ll increase salaries on this figure. It’s impossible to work with it.”

An interesting piece of  diversion from the reality of what the levels of hyper-inflation mean for Zimbabweans just trying to get by from day to day.

I grinned at the reporter’s judgment that his quoted source had “accurately estimated the rate of inflation in the past.” If it was an estimate, how then could it also be accurate? Besides that nit-picking detail, who adjudged the ‘accuracy’ of the source’s previous guess? On what basis?

Despite the reporters awkward attempt to put a plug in for his source’s reliability, at least the source was honest enough to admit that Zimbabwe’s rate of inflation is so high that the numbers being bandied about, likely including his, are completely meaningless.

Besides knowing that price increases have astonishingly got out of control in Zimbabwe, no one has the slightest clue what the rate of the change is. People like John Robertson might just protect their reputations if they learned that sometimes when reporters come calling it is better to just say, “no comment.”  


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Eric Bloch’s revisionist version of the origins of Zimbabwe’s land problem

Posted by CM on December 10, 2008

Zimbabwe Independent columnist Eric Bloch recently wrote an article on what he considers to be the changes necessary to get Zimbabwe’s land reform back on track to revive agriculture.

Bloch was responding to the ruling of the SADC Tribunal based in Namibia in favour of a number of evicted white Zimbabwean farmers who petitioned it for relief.  The farmers went to the recently established regional court for redress after unfavorable rulings in Zimbabwe’s own court system.

The SADC court ruled that the farm seizures were racially discriminatory and violated international law. It ordered the Zimbabwean government to stop further farm takeovers, as well as to pay compensation for those already taken. Predictably, the Mugabe government scoffed at the court’s ruling and has made it clear it has no intention to abide by it.

Bloch’s overall conclusion is hard to fault. He ends his article with, “It (the government) should work vigorously towards the creation of harmonious inter-racial relationships and support to bring about the revival of the agricultural sector. If it would constructively reform its land reform, Zimbabwe would again become the region’s breadbasket, and its economy would be positively set upon the path to real recovery and growth.

It is how Bloch leads up to his conclusion that is preposterous. He goes out of his way to admit that Zimbabwe has had a long pre-independence history of aggressive laws to make the African majority population occupiers of only the most marginal lands. And he is careful to say that he accepts that the legacy of racially-based wealth and land-holding patterns had to be corrected.

He writes: At the time of government initiating its programme of land reform, resettlement and redistribution, it justified doing so upon the fact that for a prolonged period of time the black population had been legislatively barred from ownership of agricultural lands, and upon a specious contention that such lands had been “stolen” from the black population by the British colonialists of more than a century ago.

Bloch then embarks on an ingenious but utterly dishonest argument, one he has made many times before in his Zimbabwe Independent column, about how the widely-held view that the land was indeed stolen from the natives by British settlers is actually wrong.

No, you see, says Bloch, the natives’ population density was extremely low at the time of the arrival of the British visitors who then invited themselves to stay and dominate the natives. Citing population statistics of that late 19th century period, Bloch says, “Based upon the 1880s/1890s population of 250 000, if the entirety of the lands were stolen from that population, each member of the population, be they adult or child, male or female, elderly or young would, on average, have been  possessed of 156 28 acres! That could not possibly have been the case.”

There you have it, the masterful exoneration of the early British settlers’ reputation as usurpers of African land by Eric Bloch! They could not have stolen the land because at the time (1890s) there were just a handful of natives roaming around mostly vastly empty space that belonged to nobody. Oh sure, admits Bloch, the settlers may have then gone on to mistreat the Africans in all sorts of ways, but at the beginning they just helped themselves to all the vast open spaces that had just been sitting there waiting for somebody clever to come along and stake Western-legal claim to it. It was not the settlers’ fault that the natives couldn’t produce title deeds, effectively says the intrepid columnist Bloch.

If I sound sarcastic and contemptuous of Bloch’s argument, it’s because I am. It is not only a historically and intellectually dishonest argument, it borders on meeting the standards of that oft-abused,over-used concept; racist.

As Bloch damn well knows, the concepts of ownership of the two clashing cultures were completely different. In the African setting land was communally held. There was no personal ‘title’ to land, but there was a consensual understanding of territories belonging to different levels of groups. This is why when what was understood to be an ‘outgroup’ invaded an area, the result was war. It was not, “Fine, help yourself to that vast open space over there, we don’t have title deeds to it so we can’t prove it is ours.”

Bloch is valiantly fighting an ideas war with an argument that is not just culturally, historically and intellectually dishonest. On a purely practical level he is continuing to fight a battle that in Zimbabwe has clearly been lost. The almost universal feeling amongst black Zimbabweans about the “stealing” of their land is one major why they pretty much unanimously agreed with the idea of waging a long and brutal war against the colonial system. It is also why the idea of radical land reform was quite popular even as some warned about the consequences of doing it the way it was done. It is also why even as many Zimbabweans today would like to see the back of Robert Mugabe for being a repressive despot and for the overall mess he has presided over, the idea of land reform remains widely popular, even if many would agree with Bloch’s broad idea that the reform itself now needs to be reformed.

Each time Bloch has argued the way he has done again in this article, after getting over my initial astonishment, I have often wondered if e could be really naive enough to believe it could have any currency beyond perhaps a handful of people in his circles. Bloch has every right to repeat this argument, but he stands approximately zero chance of convincing either any Zimbabwean government or a significant proportion of the Zimbabwean public of his fantastically revisionist view of the country’s colonial history.

In different contexts, I have heard people fighting the fight that Bloch does so poorly here argue the following: The Africans (Indians, Aborigines, Native Americans, whatever) were indeed dispossessed of what was rightfully theirs by subterfuge and force of arms, but hey, every people has gone through such unhappy experiences. Get over it and move on.

Many would find even this argument a provocative and controversial white-washing of history and of peoples’ legitimate grievances and rights to the same kind of redress today’s white farmers are seeking. Yet I believe this argument  has more validity than Bloch’s crude attempt to re-write history to absolve the early white settlers of their many pretexts for dispossessing Africans. Bloch’s one century-later public relations effort on their behalf is a lost cause in modern day Zimbabwe.

To frankly admit the messy and painful events that have helped bring the society to its present pass is to respect the full historical record and its effects on people in the past and the present, rather than attempt a reductionist resort to misuse of statistics. Zimbabwe has continued under its present post-independence dispensation to be in denial about the ugliest parts of its violent present, the same way people like Bloch are in denial about the reality of its ugly, violent past. Part of our moving forward as a society is to learn to look at ourselves, past and present, with brutal honesty so that the many aggrieved can feel the validity of their grievances have at least been recognised in a way that allows forgiviness and moving on. Blochs’s crude article reminds us how far we have to still go in this regard by its virtual mocking of a central cause of African pain and anger about the colonial past.

It is not just a waste of time of an argument, it also illustrates the huge gap in how blacks and whites in southern Africa in general explain how they arrived at the tense multi-layered adjustments their societies are undergoing to get over a past that was certainly painful for the natives, if not for the likes of Eric Bloch.

Bloch’s ‘clever’ attempts at historical revision also work against his expressed noble desire for the society to work “vigorously towards the creation of harmonious inter-racial relationships.” His regular recycling of this crooked attempt at colonial absolution does not help to achieve his expressed aim.

*******************

This article was also published in the Zimbabwe  Independent, on December 11 2008.

Bloch responded to it on December 18 with:

Many  have urged me to respond to Chido Makunike’s attack in last week’s issue of the Zimbabwe Independent,  upon me and my prior week’s  article  on land reform.

Makunike is entitled to his opinion (even if a wrong one), but is neither entitled to misrepresent, distort or misconstrue that which I have written, nor to libelously accuse me of dishonesty and racism.

If Makunike would remove the chip from his shoulder, he would have a more balanced perception. Accordingly, I dismiss his attack upon me with the contempt it deserves, and will not belittle myself to replying to his spurious contentions.

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In UK reports about Zimbabwe, truth and distortion often co-exist

Posted by CM on December 9, 2008


Zimbabwean villagers have resorted to selling wild berries by the side of the road to buy food

Zimbabwean villagers have resorted to selling wild berries by the side of the road to buy food

The photo above and its caption recently appeared in a story in the UK publication The Independent. The headline of the article was  UN forced to cut food aid to Zimbabwe’s starving people.

It is one of the many articles chronicling the hunger in a once proudly food self-sufficient nation. As reports in the UK media go, it is a fairly “straight” article devoid of any of the hysterics that often accompany stories about Zimbabwe because of the deep, complicated, not always positive relations between the two countries over more than a century.

The reality of Zimbabwe is bad enough, but it is often made to sound even  worse  than it is because of the many overlaying and underlying issues beyond the obvious ones of horrific hyperinflation, hunger, political repression and so on.

An example is the caption accompanying The Independent’s otherwise admirably restrained, sober story. The women pictured are indeed selling “wild berries,” but everything else about the context of the photo and its caption in a story about hunger in Zimbabwe is plainly wrong, and quite probably in a deliberate effort to mislead, not as an error or out of mere ignorance.

The “wild berries” in the picture are called mazhanje in Shona, and are a widely appreciated seasonal delicacy in Zimbabwe. Many people enjoy their rich buttery taste, and they provide additional income to many rural folks who collect the fruit and sell it, often on roadsides. This has been a practice during the brief seasonal window when the fruit ripens for as long as I can remember.

The selling of the fruit by the women in the photo by the side of the road is therefore very much normal practice in Zimbabwe. It is not because they have suddenly “resorted to selling wild fruits by the side of the road to buy food” as a result of The Zimbabwe Crisis. The importance of selling this non-cultivated, freely-available fruit may have increased during these hard times, but it is hardly a practice that has been brought on in recent years  by the current economic difficulties as the caption, photo and placement in the article very subtly and cleverly imply. Mazhanje have always provided easy supplemental income in the areas of Zimbabwe where the tree grows.

The road side selling of this delicacy is such an age-old practice in Zimbabwe that I find it hard to believe that even a ‘parachute journalist’ bravely flying into the country for a few weeks under cover of being a tourist in order to earn their  “I did the Zimbabwe Crisis” stripes would have failed to find this out.

The average British reader, already trained over several years by their media to understand that ‘Mugabe-land’ is the world’s worst hell hole (“if only they had never interfered with the with the innocent, hard-working white farmers”) is naturally horrified at the true evil-ness of a despot who not only ‘unreasonably’ hates Britain, but confirms his nastiness by driving his people to sell “wild fruit” by the side of the road in order to alleviate their hunger. Oh my God, those poor oppressed people must be so desperate: to be driven to such humiliating survival extremes!

So the article, photo and caption together serve their propaganda purpose for an audience that does not have the context to know any better, and is inclined to eat up the thrust of the propaganda anyway, because of how it confirms what they already feel about Zimbabwe, and what they think they know about it.

Except the article in its totally as featured is a clever, subtle fraud. It is not journalism, but propaganda. The text of the article is largely factual, but the powerful graphic and its caption are not correct illustrations or appropriate accompaniments of the text.

The battle of/for Zimbabwe is being fought on many fronts, and for many more reasons than those stated publicly. Zimbabweans, let us be extremely wary of some of those who claim to be our “we-are-so-concerned-for your-plight”  friends.

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The confusing simplifications underlying calls for Mugabe to go

Posted by CM on December 9, 2008

On a surface level the many and escalating international calls for Robert Mugabe ‘to go’ could not be more clear cut. Many would find tremendous satisfaction at the idea of a passionately hated Mugabe to be forced out of office one way or another.  For a good part of the population in  Zimbabwe (I find myself unable to confidently say an overwhelming majority) and particularly in many parts of the Western world (not necessarily for the same reasons) Mugabe the person has come to symbolise all that has gone wrong in Zimbabwe. Whether this is fair or correct will occupy scholars for decades to come.

For those  for whom Mugabe has become the symbol of evil, the question of what exactly is hoped will be achieved by his departure probably sounds silly, if not downright suspicious or outrageous. Isn’t it obvious why Mugabe must go?

To some it is indeed obvious that once such an ‘evil’ presence is out of power, things in Zimbabwe must somehow improve, almost no matter what else happens in addition to the removal of Mugabe from power. To  others, it really doesn’t matter all that much what happens afterwards as long as the hate-inspiring personage of Mugabe is no longer on the scene.

The first assumption is naive, the second cynical. Unfortunately, both naivete and cynicism account for a lot of the (particularly distant) reaction to “The Zimbabwe Crisis.”  It has become such a symbolic cause for so many different things that for a lot of people, what becomes of the Zimbabweans is secondary. Many oppose or support what Mugabe symbolises for them (ideologically, racially, etc) more than they care about the eventual outcome of Zimbabwe’s multi-layered problems for its people.

Here are just a few of the many relevant but unclear details it would be necessary to know about the ‘Mugabe must go’ campaign.

Would it be considered enough for he as an individual to step down and be replaced by someone else from within his party to carry on with the currently stalled power-sharing talks between ZANU-PF and the opposition MDC? Or are the calls really for Mugabe and his ZANU-PF to resign as the government and hand over power to the MDC, based on the latter’s win of a slight majority in the recent parliamentary and presidential election?

There is the fact that the MDC won more seats than ZANU-PF in the parliamentary election of March 2008. And even according to government figures that many believe to have been fixed to save face for Mugabe, he was outpolled by Tsvangirai in the presidential contest, though allegedly closely enough to require a run off election. Mugabe’s legalistic reason for claiming to be the legitimate president who cannot be told ‘to go’ is that Tsvangirai chose not to stand in the run-off, citing unconducive state-sponsored violence, thereby automatically forfeiting the election to Mugabe.

Of course those who call for Mugabe to go are overlooking this election legalism as a ridiculous technical gambit. He in turn holds on to it very tightly as a reason for remaining president in any power-sharing agreement.

None of these details have been dealt with by those calling for Mugabe to step down for the obvious reason that the details are not really the point: for many the departure of Mugabe has become the point. But if the system he heads now remains in place after he goes, how much change would this represent? Is Mugabe so personally powerful that the system would crumble on his exit? That is possible but not a foregone conclusion.

Or is he merely (or mostly) the figurehead, albeit a powerful one, of a system that could continue in power, changed or not, without him?

If the system (ZANU-PF) were able to continue in power after the ‘sacrifice’ of Mugabe stepping down in response to international pressure, would this represent a meaningful change for Zimbabwe? Would those powerful forces who particularly revile Mugabe as a person be satisfied with drawing blood by having him step down? Would they then be willing to ‘work with’ a ZANU-PF successor on the basis that anybody would be better than Mugabe as president, even if the ‘preferred option’ of Tsvangirai as president were not achieved ?

Is Mugabe such a dominant force in ZANU-PF that if the party were able to hold on in power even after his forced resignation, there would be a dramatic change in the party’s policies? And if so, would those changes necessarily result in an overall improvement of the situation in Zimbabwe, assuming also that the party under a new ruling leader would be able to re-engage with the ‘international community?’  Is it enough (for Zimbabweans and for that ‘international community’) for the main change to be Mugabe’s departure?

Or would ZANU-PF as the ruling party with someone other than Mugabe at the helm remain essentially the same, complete with its refusal to share power with the MDC, and with its so far disastrous go-it-alone attitude with regards to a Western world that is simply not accustomed to dealing with such a ‘rebellious’ African state in a continent of weak, Western-dependent countries?

These questions are vital to the fortunes of Zimbabwe, and are relevant even if Mugabe is eventually forced out by age or natural death, rather than immediately by local political and foreign diplomatic pressure.

Mugabe is an unusually powerful symbol, both for his supporters and for his opponents. Such is the nature of the combination of his political cunning, his clarity of articulation, his fearlessness, his ruthlessness and his intellectual sharpness.  And there is no questioning how unusually personally dominant he has been able to become in the party he leads and over Zimbabwe’s whole political landscape. But it is far from sure that the general intransigence that is come to be associated with Zimbabwe’s government is entirely due to Mugabe’s personal dominance.

We may not know to what extent except in hindsight several years down the road, but ZANU-PF as a political force, positive and/or negative,  is far more than just Mugabe. It would suffer a serious dent as a force to reckon with if it no longer had him to lead it, but the assumption that it would either crumble or radically change course is not necessarily correct.

It has been seriously corroded over the years, but there is no doubting that ZANU-PF was forged and toughened over many years by a very strong defining philosophy of African independence.  The internal cohesiveness that was formed by its bitter path to power through a bloody liberation struggle is poorly understood and under-estimated abroad. It is far from being a simple political gathering of mindless, bloodthirsty looters and murderers as shallowly portrayed in much of the media we are exposed to.

This is not to deny that greed, intimidation, power-lust and murder have increasingly come to the fore as the party has lost its way over the years. And in the the increasingly messy efforts to retain that power in the face of economic and moral decline it  has lost much of its gloss amongst a population that once overwhelmingly supported it.

The point is that however diluted, corrupted or out of fashion it may have become, there still remains a strong ideological core that binds ZANU-PF together. A broad Africanist thrust may have been increasingly replaced by ‘the white world is out to get us’ consipracy-theorising, but both are powerful glues within ZANU-PF in a way that much of the media that has made Zimbabwe its specialty shows very little sign of appreciating. And of course at many levels of the party, its role as a means to the benefits of patronage in a dilapidated economy is another very strong incentive for members to stick together and try to fight off local and foreign foes by any means available.

So ZANU-PF is still very much a system, and its resistive/intransigent power cannot be simply or entirely reduced to that if its current leader, no matter how personally, politically and militarily powerful he has been allowed to become.

ZANU-PF as a system may therefore be severely wounded without Mugabe as its powerful figurehead, but those who put all their hope of positive change in Zimbabwe in the mere exit of Mugabe the person may be barking up the wrong tree.

It must also be remembered that for all its many failures and its repressive excess, it’s history and what remains of its original ideological defining center still has a core of support amongst the voters. Given what is widely assumed to have been widespread rigging in several of the most recent elections and the voter intimidation that accompanied them, it is very difficult to accurately gauge the real level of remaining support for ZANU-PF amongst ordinary voters. But such a core of support undoubtedly exists, and may be larger than may be guessed by the messy state of the country.

For this reason, if by ‘Mugabe must go’ it is meant not just the exit of the individual, but the capitulation of ZANU-PF to an MDC government, it is not clear whether this would be universally or overwhelmingly considered a good thing amongst the Zimbabwe electorate. MDC has done well to assure the many new land holders that it has no plans to reverse ZANU-PF’s messy but popular land reform. Doing so was to recognise that the fear that this was part of the MDC’s agenda would have turned many who want Mugabe ‘to go’ against the opposition party. This is but one example of how some/many who may agree that Mugabe should move on nevertheless do not necessarily have in mind the dismantling of his entire legacy, the way many of his more distant detractors might have in mind. With all his warts and his many failures, Mugabe in Zimbabwe is not regarded as the one-dimensional un-mitigated disaster that the British in particular so feverishly tries to sell to its readers, who are quite inclined to buy that messege because of the “kith and kin” sympathy with Zimbabwe’s Mugabe-dispossessed white farmers.

The lingering support for ZANU-PF maybe partly because of the incompetence of the MDC in managing its image in light of the still strong anti-neocolonialist streak that remains a part of Zimbabwean politics. But even amongst those who have reason to fear ZANU-PF for its long record of ruthlessness going back to before independence, there are many new landholders to whom having piece of land to call their own really represents a revolution. This is so even if overall economic conditions are so poor that few are able to work that land in any meaningfully commercial way at present. But on speculative, sentimental and also on future economic levels, the vote-getting power of ZANU-PF having made new land owners out of many who could not have dreamed of it otherwise cannot be under-estimated. The fact that all the prime farms with houses and infrastructure went to the ZANU-PF elite does not change this.

So it is folly to assume that because it has become violent, corrupt and disrespectful of election outcomes, ZANU-PF necessarily does not have a support base. The question mark over the size and the depth of that support base  also muddies the ‘Mugabe must go’ call. Many of those grateful for the ’empowerment’ of being new land-owners may be tired of Mugabe for over-staying and for seemingly being so out of touch with successful day to day management of the country. But this is not to say that they reject the overall ZANU-PF ‘project’ of un-abashed African empowerment, no matter how flawed and corrupted it has become.

Of course, on a purely propaganda level it makes for a much clearer, sexier, easier-to-sell message to reduce the ‘solution’ to ‘the Zimbabwe Crisis’ to ‘Mugabe must go.’  Particularly in the West, and especially in Britain, people have over many years been set up to think of Mugabe as a frightening ogre of almost supernatural powers. So they have been softened to understand and positively receive the ‘Mugabe must go’ message. And in Zimbabwe Mugabe has loomed so large over the country’s affairs during good times and the current awful times that many also believe that his exit alone may on its own somehow change things for the better.

And perhaps it just might. Being sure of that requires the kind of star-gazing skills I am not capable of . But my point is that this is far from guaranteed.

There are now so many forces who have their reputations wrapped up in the exit of Mugabe that they are not at all really worried about the details I have tried to explore here of what exactly is meant by ‘Mugabe must go.’ For the many individuals, organizations and countries with only cynical point-scoring or self-serving interest in Zimbabwe’s politics, they would have ‘won’ as long as Mugabe is no longer the president of Zimbabwe. That is partly how large (mostly but not totally in a negative way) a symbol and a personality ‘Mugabe’ has become in the minds of many people.

But for the Zimbabweans whose lives and country’s fortunes far into the future depend on the answers to questions such as those I have tried to pose here, these are far from academic or irrelevant points to ponder.

It is possible for Mugabe ‘to go’ but still leave a lot of the system that he represents in place, in which case there might be little change from the status quo. Perhaps  ‘the system’ might use Mugabe’s exit to cling on to power by Mugabe-like ‘by any means necessary’ ways, but appoint a less polarising figure as its head that ‘the international community’ can do business with, even if s/he is less than the democratically elected leader that ‘the international community’ claims is its main concern. But we have countless examples all around the world to show us that ‘the international community’ is not as concerned about democracy as they claim: they are quite happy to live with a despot who speaks and behaves as expected of him, unlike an independent-minded loose cannon of a despot like Mugabe!  So it is not so much that Mugabe is a despot, it is more that he is a despot that refuses to fit into the prescribed pockets of ‘the international community.’ A more malleable despot as president of Zimbabwe, even under ZANU-PF, may be quite acceptable to ‘the international community.’

‘Mugabe must go’ is a catchy, easy-to-market phrase, sold by many different groups who have many various motivations including but not necessarily exclusively Zimbabweans’ best interests. Mugabe has aroused many other passions, especially in Britain.

But ‘Mugabe must go’ is not in and of itself a ‘solution’ to the many things that ail Zimbabwe. His going is long overdue and may represent a welcome psychic watershed for his party and for the country, but the solutions to Zimbabwe’s problems will be as complicated as their causes. Even if many of the foreign voices who have adopted the cause of Zimbabwe for their various interests cannot be bothered about these fine points, Zimbabweans have no choice but to look much deeper than the ‘Mugabe must go’ campaign for the solutions to their messy, complicated problems.

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Cholera crisis changes political dynamics

Posted by CM on December 9, 2008

The cholera epidemic sweeping Zimbabwe is mainly a humanitarian tragedy. But it also will have lasting effects on the country’s messy political situation.

It has given Robert Mugabe’s many detractors a more graphic reason to wind up their condemnation of him. International calls for his removal have  reached a crescendo in the last few days, with even prominent foreign religious leaders calling for his forced removal.

While Mugabe has been masterful at deflaying criticism over stolen elections and violence against his supporters by framing them all in an anti-imperialist cloak, that is not so easy to do with the cholera crisis. People dying of cholera cannot be accused of doing it because they are stooges of a Britain bent on re-colonising Zimbabwe!

Some of the muted-ness of the criticism of Mugabe, in Africa in particular, is because of the strong underlying current of suspicion of the opposition MDC and its leader Morgan Tsvangirai. He is a brave man, but one who in recent times has repeatedly blundered by appearing to confirm suspicions that he and his party have become a completely compromised ‘project’ of Western interests with a dishonorable record in Zimbabwe in particular, and in Africa in general. Fairly or unfairly, many have let Mugabe off the hook for his many transgressions of the rights of Zimbabweans on the basis that his main opponent is such a lacklustre character.

But none of this kind of thinking can apply to the cholera epidemic. The horror of ordinary people dying from cholera in a recently highly functional country like Zimbabwe provides some of the most effective anti-Mugabe ammunition for his many detractors in many years. Even those whose ‘interest’ in Zimbabwe is entirely cynical and for ends having nothing to do with the welfare of Zimbabweans have found a particularly effective bandwagon on which to ride in the long fight to depose the widely hated Mugabe.

So Mugabe is faced with a problem that he can not brush away with this standard accusations against all who oppose him. Those afflicted by cholera are ordinary Zimbabweans whose political affiliation has nothing to do with their contracting what should be an easily preventable disease.

Blaming sanctions for the government’s inability to buy water-treatment chemicals sounds absurd. The amounts mentioned in public reports as being needed are not in the millions of US dollars, but in the hundreds of thousands. The Mugabe government merely confirms the accusations of it being totally un-concerned about the welfare of Zimbabweans when it makes those amounts of money available for things like the globe-trotting of Mugabe and his always large entourage, but then claims to not be able to afford basic chemicals essential for public health.

For these and many more reasons, politically things are unlikely to go back to pre-cholera ‘normal.’

Mugabe is dramatically more cornered, isolated and reviled than he was just a few weeks ago. This is saying a lot because particularly in the West, and especially in Britain, he has already long been portrayed as a horned devil, sometimes to absurd extents. But even in Africa, the discomfort level with him has risen dramatically, with increasingly loud critical statements coming from politicians in South Africa, Botswana and Kenya. Utterly predictably, the Mugabe government has dismissed a lot of these criticisms as being from leaders as Western-compromised as Tsvangirai, although the response to South African criticism is a lot more careful.

However the Mugabe government interprets the growing African criticism of the escalating crisis that Zimbabwe has become, the fact is that Mugabe’s international circle is growing ever smaller. Without the support of even his neighbours, his room to even keep his immediate band of supporters becomes more restricted, and whatever remains of his Africanist prestige severely dented.

Whether the MDC-ZANU PF power-sharing agreement was dead before the cholera outbreak or not, it virtually is now. The Mugabe side’s response may well be that they didn’t want to share power with the MDC anyway, and were only willing to consider it if it guaranteed relief from all the international pressures, particularly the cutting off of foreign money. The dramatically increased international criticism since the cholera epidemic began is not likely to make the Mugabe government more inclined to share power with the MDC. Instead they are likely to retreat further into their bunker and say “to hell with the MDC.”

It would not be surprising if the increased international pressure on the Mugabe government caused it to tip over eventually. But it is far from clear that this would necessarily mean the MDC would just walk into government. And if they did under those circumstances, they would be beginning with a terrible millstone on their necks: as indeed the government that was installed in office by Western pressure. This would obviate much of their significant support in Zimbabwe, even if perhaps the initial reaction might just be overwhelming relief at the exit of the Mugabe government.

Even if Mugabe did now agree to whatever differences are holding up an MDC-ZANU PF power-sharing deal from being effected, would it be wise for the MDC to co-govern with ZANU-PF at this point? There might well be far more negatives than positives for them as a party from going to bed with ZANU-PF, unless the MDC had a clear upper hand in the balance of power, which ZANU-PF is not likely to concede.

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Gono again blames inflation symptoms; causes, solutions remain beyond his control

Posted by CM on December 6, 2008

For the five years that Gideon Gono has been governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe he has tried all kinds of things to try to prevent inflation from shooting way out of control. All have failed.

But the economic, social and political pressures of hyper-inflation are so strong that he must be seen to continue to be trying to control it, even though its ultimate causes are way beyond his purview.

One does not need to be an economist to understand how falling productivity in agriculture, mining and other sectors caused the currency to lose its value. And how then continually printing more currency over the years for all sorts of needs without linking it to to increased economic productivity simply devalued the Zim dollar even further. That inflation has now reached the unprecedented, unfathomable level of millions of percent!

In normal times we would expect Gono’s RBZ to control inflation by adjusting the quantities of currency in circulation and putting in place various monetary policy measures to try to control production and spending in one direction or another. But Zimbabwe’s inflation situation has gone way beyond the ability of the central bank to do that.

The currency is not going to be suddenly stabilised and then strengthened by increased economic activity. There is absolutely no reason to believe there is going to be any sudden increase in earnings from agriculture, tourism, mining or manufacturing in the short term. Foreign credit that would also help to artificially shore up the Zim dollar is no longer available to the country in any meaningful amounts.

Given these basics, there seems no other realistic currency/inflation-stabilising pressure to look forward to other than a large hard-currency injection of some sort. And that is impossible to imagine in the absence of an implemented political settlement between Robert Mugabe’s MDC and Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC. Even with it, there is no guarantee that aid and loans would come in the quantities required and soon enough to lower inflation to the levels pertaining in the rest of the world in a hurry.

Obviously Gono and the RBZ have no influence on the successful  implementation of power-sharing between ZANU-PF and the MDC. And not only does the RBZ no longer have the ability to control inflation by controlling money supply, the hyper-inflationary pressures have forced it to do the exact opposite: print cash like crazy so that the public can try to keep up with prices that escalate by the minute, but in the process further “fuelling” hyper-inflation.

Gono is criticised by economists for worsening inflation by churning out more currency every week despite falling production, making the currency ever more worthless. But if he tried to “rein in” inflation by reducing circulating currency, there would be an outcry from the public who would not be able to access the amounts of currency required to keep up with skyrocketing prices. What you need a bag of cash for this week you may need a suitcase’s worth next week.   It is hardly surprising that after years of this  situation that simply could not continue indefinitely, foreign currencies like the US dollar, South African rand and Botswana pula have become the preferred media of change, causing other problems.

Mr. Gono is on a treadmill and cannot get off: he is fully aware of these inter-linked imperatives of a capitalist economy like Zimbabwe’s, but he is in a position where he simply has no choice but to try to reconcile the un-reconcilable. The effect is that all his efforts are to merely run around in endless circles. Only a political settlement and emergency external hard-currency injection of some sort can now break the circle enough to eventually make it possible for him to eventually play a traditional central banker role in any positive, meaningful way.

Three days ago Gono released the country’s first ever $100 million note to try to reduce the daily bank queues as people struggle to withdraw amounts of currency sufficient to keep up with galloping prices (not just of goods, but of the forex that is now very necessary to buy all sorts of goods and services at all). The system struggles and fails to keep enough of that currency because of the extent of the hyper-inflation, and despite the currency printing presses working overtime to keep pace. And it is  necessary to print currency of ever outrageously higher numerical value. It has already been announced that next week a $200 million note will be released. A billion dollar note cannot be far into the future at this rate, but this can’t go on forever, or even for very much longer.

So Gono releases trillions of Zim-dollars’ worth of his new $100 million note to the banks the day before it is to become legal tender. The next day he has a temper tantrum against some of these banks for releasing the notes into circulation a few hours before they technically became official currency. Gono goes to town, accusing the banks of being responsible for many of the sins for which he and the RBZ are often blamed, such as buying foreign currency from the street, making nonsense of the official exchange rate(s).

All of Mr. Gono’s many pent-up frustrations seemed to find an outlet on the discovery of this infraction by the banks. We are told of how the managers at several banks “have been relieved of their duties after vast sums in new notes issued to them by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe found their way onto the illegal parallel market on Wednesday evening (i.e. night of release to the banks by the RBZ and eve of becoming official tender). Several top bankers found themselves “banned” from their profession for five years.

Gono makes  a very big deal about the notes hitting the streets a few hours “early.” He insinuates that this is proof that the banks have a big role to play in ‘economic sabotage’ activities like driving the ‘illegal’ foreign currency market.

“We are sick and tired of being labelled crooks,” said Gono in regards to himself and the RBZ (said to be the biggest buyer of ‘illegal’  forex, not an unreasonable suspicion given that none is easily available ‘legally.’) His over-dramatic out-burst seemed designed to say to the public and what he as called his ‘principals, ‘ “Aha, you see? You have been accusing/suspecting me of being the bad guy all along, but here are the real culprits; we have caught them red-handed, I have been innocent all along.”

Technically and legally Gono has a point about the impropriety of the notes being released a few hours before they should have been. But the technical, legal correctness of his position has been far superceded by the economic realities. In the circumstances, it is petty in the extreme of Gono to make a big deal about this.

The banks acted exactly as you would expect based on the economic survival imperatives that have come to over-rule any law in the Zimbabwe of today. It is now overwhelmingly about survival, not a relatively little thing like legality. The “early” release of the notes, whether to buyso-called  illegal foreign currency or to just pay account holders writing cheques, was simply to try to use the currency before it lost a big chunk of its value, which it is doing by the millisecond. A deal negotiated the afternoon of the RBZ’s release of the new note to the banks, but only paid for the next morning when the note was legal would have been worth considerably less for the cash recipient. That is how fast the currency is losing its value.

So yes, banks that are supposed to be outstanding upholders of propriety can be accused of acting willfully illegally in this case, but my point is that the overall economic environment is such that this is a petty point: almost everybody is always technically flouting one law or another in the course of just trying to stay one tiny step ahead of hyper-inflation and all the other things that have gone wrong in the economy.

So the banks may have acted technically illegally, but they behaved entirely rationally for the situation. It is fooling no one for Gono to mainly focus on what in the circumstances is the really minor ecnicallegal, legal point of the ‘early’ release of the new notes.

Far more important are the bigger, more significant factors that account for that behaviour being entirely expected and rational in the present situation. Unless and until those factors are dealt with by Gono’s principals, then his little temper tantrum was simply an irrelevance of a side-show. Banks, their clients and everyone else will keep trying to find ways, legal or otherwise, in the ultimately futile exercise of trying to avoid, reduce  or delay the effects of hyper-inflation.

Gono famously said “failure is not an option” in regards to lowering inflation when he began his first RBZ term with much fanfare five years ago. What Gono’s little performance in regards to the release of the latest note shows is that for now, failure is a reality, and not necessarily for reasons within his control.

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The mishandling of Zimbabwe’s cholera epidemic

Posted by CM on December 5, 2008

Nothing seems to be going right for Mr. Mugabe’s government. The sad, horrific cholera epidemic is not just a public health/humanitarian tragedy, it is also a public relations disaster for an already image-battered government.

Mugabe has survived the seemingly un-survivable many times before. There is, therefore, no reason to believe this latest calamity will force him from office the way it would do the administration of a functioning democracy. But still, the cholera epidemic is more of a knock to whatever reputation his government  still had than even anything the perennially out-foxed opposition MDC could throw at it.

The government’s defense has been, “Yes, the water treatment and sewage systems are falling apart, but this is not our fault but that of  ‘illegal’ Western sanctions.”  This is now the standard excuse whenever there is a problem.

But whether one buys the sanctions reason as the reason for the pitiful state of the country or not, there are so many ways in which the Mugabe government has completely dropped the ball in this case, unfortunately as in many others.

The government first disastrously tried to treat the epidemic in an information-control way rather than as an emergency public health issue. It initially denied that there was a cholera crisis. But the evidence was overwhelming so that couldn’t work. Then it tried to downplay the extent of it, just as certain other organisations in the country and outside are trying to exaggerate an already terrible situation for their own fund-raising, propaganda and other reasons.  But the nature of the crisis is such that it could not be easily minimised.

When the weight of  the evidence of the extent of the problem became too clear to deny, the government was grudging about owning up to it in a way that entrenched its growing reputation for callousness.

First it was only the deputy minister of health who came out of the bunker to tentatively, sheepishly admit that there was a problem after all, and that it might well be of a magnitude and of an urgency beyond the ability of the government to handle.  As the crescendo of condemnation of the government increased along with the deaths, the minister of health eventually came out of wherever he had been hiding, seemingly reluctantly.

Some NGOs had been calling for the declaration of a disaster (probably for their own self-serving reasons, as even those with little or no ability to intervene in a public health crisis competed to put out statements showing their ‘concern,’ very useful at fund-raising time with their donors.) The government initially reacted in it’s usual way: with a ‘we can take care of it, everything is under control’ bravado. But the negative publicity against it, the illnesses and the deaths all conspired to force the government to change tack and admit that it had a problem of a scale beyond its ability to handle.  The subsequent appeals for international help were late and sounded grudging, insincere, unconcerned, cynical.

In many countries, even the most notorious dictatorships, a calamity of this magnitude would have shamed the ruler to make at least a show of being personally concerned about and touched by the suffering of ordinary people. Even at a cynical, politicking level, the ruler would have recognised this as an opportunity to claim to be a benevolent, concerned “man of the people.” He would have made a show tour of the worst affected areas to be filmed “with the people” for the evening news shows.

Not Mr. Mugabe. In the midst of this humanitarian crisis, this indictment of his government’s management abilities and this latest shame to its image, he chose to go to Qatar for an economic summit. While there and on his return, not a word did he say about the cholera crisis sweeping the land he wants to continue ruling no matter what. Inappropriately, bizarrely, disastrously, the only comments from him were from Qatar on how he believes developing countries should mobilise funds for their own development bank. Who on earth is going to listen to and respect the opinions of a president on such an issue whose government cannot handle importing water-treatment chemicals or cholera-treatment packages?

His government’s inability to do so cannot be because of “illegal santions.” The money spent on the trip of he, his wife and their entourage to attend a talk-shop in Doha, Qatar would have made a significant difference if it had been instead applied to importing aluminium sulfate for treating water to help prevent cholera, or hydration packages to treat those afflicted. And canceling the trip to instead spend time at home even just pretending to be concerned about Zimbabweans dying of cholera, of all things in 2008, would have prevented the incremental increase in the image of Mugabe as an incredibly small-minded, self-important, deluded despot with no interest in the most pressing problems of his fellow citizens, and of no relevance to addressing those problems.

‘Illegal’ sanctions or not, what the Mugabe government has done with this latest own goal is to show its lack of concern for the citizens it claims it clings to power to serve, and its horribly misplaced sense of priorities at a time of numerous escalating crises.

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