A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) has been signed by the leaders of Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU PF and the two formations of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
The politicians are talking, the economy continues to decline at an unimaginable speed and hunger is stalking the nation. On the surface all seems to be quite normal. People who still have jobs are still going to work. Students who can, are going to school or college, while vendors continue to make a quick buck from selling food in short supply at parallel market rates.
Our money has gained so many zeros, I am amazed anyone can still make sense of it. I salute my colleagues in the accounts section and those who work on our electronic accounting system to effect various purchases and payments day-in-day-out. How they can whizz around the zeros is a miracle.
This weekend I bought an imported bottle of red wine at Z$8.5 trillion, which in real money is about US$71 if you use last week's cash rate of $120 billion to the greenback. I also bought several 500ml bottles of mineral water there were no bigger bottles) at Z$1.2 trillion each.
We have had no water for more than a week. There was a time when we took having access to water for granted. Not anymore. I have become quite skilled at bathing myself in miniscule amounts of water. There is water in Zimbabwe but at times there either an inadequate supply of water treatment drugs or there is no power to pump water into our homes.
Negotiations under the MOU for a political settlement started a week ago but we have only now just learnt they have either been abandoned or adjourned, depending on who is speaking. I and colleagues I have spoken to are skeptical about the outcome of the talks. I guess we are realists.
While we wonder what our political future is going to be, the Reserve Bank Governor of Zimbabwe, Gideon Gono, has just announced that we are dropping 10 zeros from our currency!
Most Zimbabweans, even vendors, had become multi-billionnaires and now they will find their money has been re-denominated. It should make sense,but it does not. The coins that had been abandoned years ago, are once again legal tender. We will now have a $500 note which in real terms is 5 000 000 000 000 (five trillion). This will be the highest new note in circulation. A twenty-five cent coin will be part of the new currency. I am not so sure what it's real value will be.
You want to go shopping after this announcement - I can assure you, it is a mind boggling experience. There is not much to buy from shops anyway. In any case whatever money you have, loses value well before you set off for the shops. Our daily bank withdrawal limit was $100 000 000 000 ($100 Billion) which was just enough for a one way trip to work. From the beginning of August it has been set at $200 which is actually $2 trillion of the old money. You need three trips to the bank to access the equivalent of the highest note (500) now in circulation.
We are going to have to re-configure our lives. Public transport providers will have to re-work their fares and prices in shops will also have to shuffle around this new currency. We are even going to have a $10 coin and $10 note! And we have been told that we can do the switch over from old to new currency at "our own pace" until the end of the year. How very generous! I suppose this means all our problems are solved.
Unless the political situation in Zimbabwe is resolved, all these constant currency reforms will never work. They will remain temporary measures that only serve to prolong the suffering of Zimbabweans. Soon after the Governor of the Reserve Bank announced the new monetary reforms, President Robert Mugabe, who attended the presentation for the first time chided those who want him to step down. He also denounced his usual imagined detractors the leaders of America and Britain. To him it does not matter that Tony Blair no longer leads the British Government. He is still seen as a threat and behind the regime change agenda and so he also got a special mention (attack).
If Mugabe still sees himself as the main and indispensable part of the equation in a new Zimbabwe, what are the so called talks about then? Is he really serious about wanting an end to the political and economic turmoil? The opposition Movement for Democratic Change will either stand their ground and refuse to play the underdog, because they won the first round of the presidential and parliamentary elections, or accept being swallowed like what happened to the former ZAPU, led by the late nationalist Joshua Nkomo.
I am a cynic when it comes to politics so I do not see a happy ending to the talks the MOU gave birth to. It will all end in tears. We have representatives of the two formations of the MDC and ZANU PF talking in a secret venue in Pretoria, South Africa. On the other hand state radio, television and the papers seem to be still running a campaign of sorts for President Mugabe. A month after the June 27 presidential run-off war music is still being played on national radio. Do they know something we don't?
President Mugabe's wife, Grace, has become almost the main political face of ZANU PF. The state media feature her dishing out food handouts and telling people about the "virtues" of ZANU PF. Is she campaigning for her husband or is she building the foundations of her own political career? It might spice up the already hot political scene if it turns out she is aiming for the top job. She has been opening state funded "People's Shops" where goods are sold at way below their true value. She has also been dishing out free food hampers that contain a 2,5kg of sugar, 1kg salt, 2,5kg flour, a 750ml bottle of cooking oil, bath soap, 100ml of toothpaste, vaseline (a paraffin based petroleum body jelly) and a 500g laundry powder soap. When sold in the people's shops, the same hamper costs a paltry $105 billion. That amount cannot buy a loaf of bread.
All these foods are imported under the Government's Basic Commodity Supply Side Intervention (BACOSSI) programme which is bankrolled by the central bank. Our manufacturing industry continues to suffer a severe decline in output. Agriculture is almost non-existent. There is no new tangible investment inspite of all the stories we read in the state media about countries in the Far East expressing interest.
Mad does not even start to describe the everyday decisions of some of our political leaders. It is surreal. The fact that we have been able to survive this madness for seven years must mean we are all well and truly CERTIFIABLE.
There is a sense of pending doom. A sense of something being plotted. President Mugabe is still thanking Zimbabweans for voting for him "overwhelmingly" in advertisements in the state media. This is despite the fact that he won in a one-man race. We still hear advertisements promising us "100% empowerment, and total independence" but all we feel is total impoverishment and a sense of foreboding. And of course, Mugabe believes we have a "real" democracy, but then again, democracy is in the eye of the beholder!
Sorry there have been no posts recently from me, I’m just back from the most welcome holiday of my life.
My previous blogs have reflected Zimbabwe’s plunge from hope in March to despair and fear today. The feeling on Harare’s streets is that – yet again – the people have been denied the leader they voted for and that – yet again – the world doesn’t care. Some countries’ choice to prevent the UN Security Council from taking action last week has convinced Zimbabweans that they are on their own, facing a lethal and cruel Government with no interests beyond clinging onto power.
Despair and fear infects us working at the British Embassy too. Living through such a period is taking chunks out of us. In June we held our annual reception to celebrate the Queen’s Birthday, and give some aid and comfort to our community and friends here. Some of the guests could not attend, as they were being held as political prisoners. Others have been savagely beaten since the party. It hurts to see such cruelty close up.
Every day we see the latest victims of torture and murder – sometimes photos, sometimes face-to-face. The latest man to die horribly is a driver called Gift Mutsvungunu, whose ‘crime’ was to move the furniture of a previous murder victim. Gift was abducted. His eyes were gouged out and he was burned. Only then was he killed. His torture was sub-human. It’s only motive was the sadistic fury of ZANU-PF’s revenge on the MDC for its 29 March election victory. It is shredding us inside to see such horrors, particularly when all we can do is document what we see and hope for eventual justice.
And we feel that our little bubble of diplomatic safety is contracting. The state-sponsored papers are loaded with hatred every day. We are accused of causing the crisis, of ordering the MDC to commit murder, of racism. When we venture out of the Embassy, we are treated as suspicious people. We are questioned and sometimes even threatened. We feel reasonably confident that the police will do us no harm. But we see ZANU-PF militias on the streets – young thugs pumped up with alcohol and drugs and indoctrinated to believe that whites are the enemy. How stable are these people?
There are rewards of course – like reading that the Prime Minister used the very latest – and particularly shocking – information, supplied by ourselves, to argue for action at the G8 summit. But real results are scarce, and after a few months of Zimbabwe in a tail-spin, we all need a break to stop our heads dropping. For me that meant a couple of weeks of safari and beach in Tanzania.
One of many sad thoughts I had about Zimbabwe while on holiday is that it can be misused as a piece of evidence to confirm the racist and incorrect prejudice some still hold that black Africans cannot govern themselves, without dictatorship, genocide, starvation or economic collapse. At the time of the Gleneagles’ summit in 2005, ‘the year of Africa’, when we were full of hope for the continent’s future, figures like Idi Amin belonged to another century. Now we have Zimbabwe, a Uganda for the 21st century. The cynicism about Africa that Zimbabwe is generating is just another piece of ZANU-PF’s rich legacy to the world.
If I was having any doubts, Tanzania showed me that the stereotype of the corrupt African is not just unfortunate, but also untrue. I met diverse people who didn’t agree about everything, but managed to disagree without killing each other. People were united in the desire to create a more happy and prosperous country. The economy is doing well, people speak without fear and I saw plenty of evidence of the tolerant government that Zimbabwe lacks.
While I was in Tanzania, its Human Rights’ Commission published details of violations in the last year and urged the Government to address the problem. The newspapers discussed a recent building collapse and criticised the Government for not regulating construction. Continuing tensions between the mainland and the Zanzibar archipelago were openly reported and discussed. I’m not an expert on Tanzania, but it looks like a great country, honest about its problems and trying to do better. I hope the UK looks as open, friendly and tolerant to foreign visitors.
And in case you think I spent all my time reading newspapers, let me tell you that I sat in the Serengeti watching lions gnawing wildebeest, pondered whether that bright-eyed, long-legged bird at Ngorongoro was the black-winged or Senegalese variety of plover; and relaxed on the beach, letting the Indian Ocean splash over my toes. All washed down with crates of ‘Kilimanjaro’ beer to keep my belly in shape – heaven!
Please keep Zimbabwe in your thoughts, as its terribly put-upon people consider their options at the start of another five-year Presidency. Zimbabweans showed enormous courage on 29 March, but others have not matched that courage and the future is now grim.
And please also don’t give up on Africa, most of which is peaceful and beautiful. And if you’re looking for a holiday – try Tanzania!
No jokes in this piece, sadly. It’s just too grim.
I am making yet another election monitoring trip in Masvingo this week, along with our Human Rights Officer. It’s the eighth trip the British Embassy has made to the province since February in an effort to know first-hand what is going on. People are starting to recognise us.
The call comes through while we are in Bikita, watching a group of officials and stony-eyed youths in ZANU-PF regalia giving maize meal to party supporters. The Government has annihilated agriculture and has now forbidden UN agencies and NGOs from distributing food. So unless you promise ZANU-PF that you’re going to vote for Robert Mugabe on 27 June, you starve.
The call says that there has been a bomb attack in Zaka and that people are dead. We aren’t planning to go to Zaka, but it’s only 20 miles away, 15 minutes the way Elvis drives, so we go.
First stop the police station. A smooth plod denies any knowledge of a fatal attack in Zaka. He’s really good and we actually believe him. But I should have smelled a rat when he showed no interest in investigating my report, but lots of interest in who had called me with the tip-off.
On to the MDC office where we’ve been told the bombing took place. I have to get Elvis to pull over so I can admire the view behind a tree and, as we are parked, a police Landover, going fast, overtakes us. By the time we reach the MDC office, two policemen are standing some distance from it, instructing us to leave the area.
I must admit I lose my temper a little. I ask the more senior policeman why he is obstructing international observers going about their proper business. I ask him if he had arrested anyone for murder. I ask him if he, in fact, knows exactly who has done this.
The policeman says he had orders to obey. I ask him if he’s heard of the international tribunals where war criminals are put on trial, and the Nuremberg defence. I do appreciate that all this is going too far, but honestly, the indifference of this man to every aspect of a horrifying mass murder, other than covering it up, is too much to tolerate.
While our unsatisfactory conversation is going on, we manage to get reasonably close to the MDC office. It is entirely burned out. Elvis pulls the car up beside me and says sharply, “it is time to go NOW, this man is losing control”.
As we shoot off, another call. A man injured in the attack has been taken to a hospital in Masvingo. We zoom over there, Elvis-fast, and find the man - bandaged hands and feet and burned hair. His story of what happened is horrible.
Six MDC officials, sleeping in their office, were woken by the arrival of an armed gang at 4am. The armed men forced the officials to lie down and shot three people immediately. (I pray to any available God that they were killed outright). Petrol was poured over them all and they were set alight. The man I am talking to managed to tear off his clothes, beat out the flames burning his body and escape. Two men are dead, their bodies unrecognisably burned, and another suspected dead but his body is missing. Two men have burns over large areas of their bodies. They will be lucky to live.
If you are one of the few people in this world who believe there is not a ghastly crisis in Zimbabwe; if you believe the brazen official lies that the MDC is responsible for the violence; or if you believe that a fair election is possible when opposition party workers are being burned alive, I urge you to reflect on what you have just read, and think again
Good manners and repression go hand-in-hand in Zimbabwe. The officers who arrest, abuse and detain peaceful demonstrators, do their immoral work with a cheery smile.
It was like that on Friday when I turned up at Harare Magistrates’ Court. An amiable chat about the weather with some cops with enormous assault rifles; a wave and a joke with a dozen prison officers, sitting round waiting for somebody innocent to lock up; and a friendly chat with the court clerk, who asks me (half seriously) for a visa to go to the UK, as she can’t live on her Government salary any longer. After some banter she waves me into the building.
Into court six, where 15 women belonging to an organisation called “Women of Zimbabwe Arise!” are sitting tensely waiting for the lawyers and magistrates to carve up their fate. I have a chat with the women. They have been locked up at Harare Central Police Station for two nights already and are worried that their detention may be extended further. They are cold – Harare is at altitude and this is winter; nights are really chilly. They are developing coughs. Three of them have been beaten, but these women are tough and shrug the injuries off as ‘not too bad’. They are trying to keep their spirits up, but are dreading a weekend, or more, in the grim and unsanitary cells.
The women have, of course, not been found guilty of anything. Their offence is holding a peaceful demonstration without permission. Under the terms of Zimbabwe’s Public Order and Security Act – remarkably similar to Apartheid legislation – this innocuous act of civic expression is a criminal offence. A few women calling for no more than ‘bread and peace’ therefore experience violent arrest and detention with no ready prospect of release. Meanwhile forty miles from Harare, ZANU-PF militias are killing, beating and burning, while the police sit on their hands, deaf to the cries of those being tortured.
The magistrate finally comes in. It’s late afternoon and he wants to go home. Praise be! He accepts the application from the women’s lawyer that they be given bail. But the prosecutor – his smile warmed by the power of tyranny – has an ace up his sleeve. He immediately appeals against the Magistrate’s decision. Under Zimbabwe’s prosecution-happy legal code, he is given a week to prepare this appeal. The women are devastated as they realise the consequences. They will have to spend another week away from their families, in squalor, despite the triviality of their charges and despite not having been convicted of anything.
We at the Embassy see these things happening, and far worse. We see the corpse of murdered MDC activist Tonderai Ndira. We see evidence of the torments he was put through before he died. And we wonder what we can do. We worry that we are not doing enough.
Certainly we show our sympathy for the repressed and the beaten - we go to their trials and their hospital beds. We catalogue abuses, hoping for eventual justice, and tell our Ministers what is happening so that they can condemn and instigate international action. But it never seems like enough.
This impotence in the face of cruel abuse stings, but is not ours alone. Zimbabwe’s government is increasingly deaf even to its former friends - neighbouring African states - which have finally realised that the violence, electoral fraud and the economic decline have to end. The violence in South Africa has shown the region the ghost of SADC future, a region haunted by Zimbabwe’s political sickness and economic failure; the ghost of Tonderai Ndira, the Steve Biko of Zimbabwe, which will haunt the region until something is done. This Government of old men, basking in isolation and basting in the hatred which the people now feel for them, has few friends.
The light from the candle on the trestle table catches Tobias’ face, casting Rembrandtesque upward shadows from his features. A big-eared bug lights on his shoulder, but Tobias is concentrating so deeply on the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission manual that he doesn’t notice the creature, which appears to be peering down to study the impenetrably bureaucratic guidance too.
“Now we can open the seals on the ballot boxes. But first I must warn our foreign observer from the British Embassy that once I break these seals you cannot leave until the counting is fully complete.”
I nod. Some fiddling with keys and sealing wax; and suddenly a pile of ballot papers pours onto the table. Slumbering polling officers spring to life and grab ballots chaotically, shouting out and flinging papers at each other:
Tobias tries to referee the frenzy and finally persuades his colleagues to collaborate in producing three piles, one for each of Zimbabwe’s presidential candidates. I am so captivated I find I’m holding my breath. The piles take shape. One is just a few papers; the second is a decent pile, about as tall as a doughnut. The third is a tottering, towering Pisa of papers.
I am in a tiny place called Bikisa, deep in rural Masvingo, where Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party has won every election that has ever been held. (Ian Smith did not believe in elections for black folk). So my assumption is that the big pile is Mugabe’s.
But I am wrong. The presiding officer asks for the votes to be counted. The smallest pile is Simba Makoni’s – 11 votes. The middling pile is Mugabe’s – 44 votes. Amazingly, incredibly, the Pisa-pile belongs to Morgan Tsvangirai. The polling officer gets tongue-tied at ‘one hundred and twenty-seven’ and loses count. She sighs desperately and starts again. 167. Tsvangirai has won with about three-quarters of the vote.
I force myself to keep breathing steadily; fainting at this point would not become an officer of Her Majesty’s Government. Though I suppose I could plead hunger. Anticipating that I would be locked into the count for hours, my bag is full of chocolate and other essential rations, but I feel too self-conscious to stuff my face while this little piece of history is happening right in front of me.
Bikisa, of course, is only one of 9,400 polling stations. So my result is just one small head of mealie in a very big field. But it’s suggestive, and as I travel round other polling stations and speak to British Embassy and DFID colleagues in remote parts of every province, it’s the same story. Tsvangirai has done well and his Movement for Democratic Change has made gains in areas where its activists used to be beaten for wearing a party t-shirt.
Tobias, like a million other Zimbabweans is a decent and principled professional, who has done his job scrupulously and well. This election may be fiddled, but not by him. By the time he releases me it’s the early hours of Sunday morning. The Milky Way stretches over me. Weakened by lack of chocolate I am overcome by whimsy – I see a starry pathway to infinity paved with hope and new possibility. Definitely time to take a breath and eat some chocolate. Not, sadly, a Milky Way.
A policeman sidles up and whispers in my ear:
“Mr Philip, we are so pleased you are here, but do you really think there is hope?”
Tonight the answer is yes. Tomorrow, who knows? Will they ever dare to release these results? How does a country that has only ever transitioned by violence accept peaceful change? Next week’s questions. Now to bed.
It is the best of climes, the worst of crimes....
I can honestly say, even on day 742 of my posting in Zimbabwe, that I never overlook the beauty. As I’m brewing up in the kitchen, I see armies of Abdim’s storks impaling frogs, shadows 10 metres long cast by the dawn sun; hooded weaver birds defying gravity with their nest-building and my ancient Rhodesian Ridgeback, bounding around consumed with the joy of another bright morning, impervious to the fact that the country he’s named after no longer exists. It’s a great day for us both to be alive.
Sadly not all is beautiful in Harare and as I cycle the 20km from home to the British Embassy, I see much that is vile and immoral, alongside the decency and kindness of a terribly put-upon people.
First I pass the turn-off for Hatcliffe Extension: a township flattened by the Government in 2005 as a collective punishment for electing an opposition MP. I remember standing chatting with Savemore, a remarkably crinkley granny, in the ruins of her house, a plastic sheet her only roof. She can’t understand why she’s been targeted, as she’s never voted. Her grown-up son and daughter-in-law died of AIDS leaving her to look after four grandchildren, in her damp and feeble shelter. God knows if she’s still alive – and indeed God is the best chance for her and her family. Churches are doing brave work rebuilding homes and lives smashed by the Government in 2005, with a little help from the British taxpayer.
Onwards up steep Crow Hill. As I labour along, gasping and wheezing, everyone has a friendly word – wishing me a good morning and asking after my health. (My health would be better if I lost some weight). The humblest Zimbabwean is literate and fluent in several languages and the universal practice of good manners never fails to lift my spirits. There is a dark-side, of course. Female cyclists can be harassed with wolf-whistles and rude suggestions; an echo of the silent crimewaves of rape and child abuse, which shatter families and fuel the HIV epidemic.
Finally the top of the hill – it’s flat all the way now. There is a remarkable number of people waiting at the junction for a bus. The buses aren’t running too well at the moment, because ZANU-PF has appropriated their fuel for electioneering.
And there’s another problem deterring people from travelling. The police – plundering like modern Defarges – have set up a roadblock a few hundred metres along. They are pulling over buses and making passengers turn out their bags. Anyone carrying maize meal is threatened with arrest for being an illegal trader. So people trying to take food to their families on the other side of town don’t want to risk boarding transport just yet. They may have to wait for hours. As I cycle round the roadblock the coppers give me a cheery wave – amazing how people can be so happy while condemning their compatriots to hunger. But I suppose they are desperate too trying to survive on a few pence a day.
Down Domboshawa Road I cycle past waste ground. A group of Apostolic women pray in radiant, white robes. Graffiti: "Vote MDC!" has been crossed out and replaced with blood red letters: "Vote ZANU-PF or you will all starve." It’s normal for parties to play dirty tricks on each other, but the message is a chilling reminder that the campaign leading up to the election here on 29 March will be more than dirty – it will cost many lives.
Picking up speed, I head into town on Borrowdale Road. I pass a particular rock, about the size of a football. It sticks in my memory because one dark, rainy night a year ago the Presidential guard pulled a man from his car, beat him, then hit him on the head with that rock. His ‘crime’ was failing to pull his car sufficiently far off the road as the motorcade roared by. He was lucky to survive. The truck carrying these brutes then drove dangerously fast to catch up with the presidential limousine and had a horrific head-on collision. L'État, c'est moi.
A right turn into quiet Fifth Street. I pass a hospital and remember a sunny day when I handed over a generator paid for by the British Embassy Community Projects fund. We do what we can to help the people left behind as the economy crashes. Again there are darker memories, of March 11 last year when dozens of civic and opposition leaders were brought here after being tortured by the regime. Doctors braved death threats to help them - it is a far far better thing they do than I have ever done! The state media accuses us of using British resources to bring down the Government. In fact our assistance goes to victims like those tortured on March 11. We have nothing to apologise for.
Nearly there now. Avenues lined with dense purple jacarandas. Parents carrying children tied with towels to their backs. I pass State House, dripping with gaudy furnishings. I can almost imagine the residents to be Louis and Marie, baking huge cakes to celebrate their endless birthdays, which the people never eat.
The Embassy. Two floors of a failing office block right in the centre of town. There’s a power cut, so no traffic lights. I weave my bike through gridlocked chaos. The lifts are out so I drag my sweaty blubber up six flights. As I get into reception a stick-thin woman gets painfully to her feet and introduces herself as Esther. Can I look at her application for funding? I could really murder a shower and a coffee (and maybe a doughnut), but there’s a spring of hope in Esther’s eyes, rather than the usual winter of despair. She’d like a few billion dollars - which luckily translates into little more than a hundred pounds - to set up a small peanut-butter factory in her area for HIV+ people (of whom she is one). The scheme is well thought-out, practical and offers a chance to a group of people who will soon return to dust if they can’t make a living. I agree to the grant on the spot. I hope she doesn’t think I spend my whole day in crumpled shorts and a sweaty t-shirt.
After meeting Esther I check out the notice on the Embassy door. The exchange rate for a pound has gone up from $12 Million to $35 Million. Damn. I’ve got $500 Million in my pocket, so I’ve just lost £25. We live in the age of foolishness here.
Finally through the door and nearly in my office. It’s 8.05am, I’m almost on time, the day’s just starting, but I feel that I’ve lived my whole life in Zimbabwe - a country with everything before it and nothing before it - in the course of my journey to work.
We've decided to expand this blog from just my observations to those of other members of the Embassy. We hope this will enable us to give a broader picture of life in Zimbabwe and our work here.