I get why Zimbabwe is in economic crisis the moment I land at Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport (which sounds more impressive than it is: about the size of a small regional airport, its dim lighting leaves it looking as tired as its namesake). Drawing up to an immigration desk festooned with a large KFC advert, I reach into my wallet for the US$55 visa fee. I present my card. Asked if I have cash, I reply that strangely, having just come from Johannesburg – and before that, London – I don’t happen to have American money on me. ‘Rand?’ the agent then asks, grimacing when I hold up the 81 South African bucks I manage to dig from my pocket – hardly worth his trouble.
He sends me to another desk, where after a long pause, another agent pulls out a card reader. ‘It doesn’t take Mastercard’ he tells me when I offer my payment. I fish for the Visa debit card I happen to have on me, and he puts it in the machine, waits a long moment, then says ‘the machine isn’t working.’ I’m told to stand aside. After another long wait, a tall man comes over and, with a stern look of authority, asks me ‘What do you suggest we do?’ Finding myself suddenly thrust into the role of management-consultant to a Third-World airport, I reply ‘Um, if your country has a severe shortage of foreign currency, shouldn’t you make it easy for people to give you foreign currency?’ He doesn’t find this funny. He motions to a young man to come over, and tells him to sort out the card reader. Finally, it works.
Emerging afterwards into the blinding sunlight, under a vast dome of deep blue sky, I see that Zimbabwe is extraordinary in every way – its extreme maladministration mirrored by its dazzling beauty. Harare rises out of the Highveld plateau, magnificent trees towering over sprawling green lawns. The sky is big, blue, the air still, the day warm without being hot. And as I drive into the city, I discover it harbours the full extremes of humanity – poverty and decay, wealth and dynamism.
We arrive in the Mbare district, a vast dusty open-air market bordered by decrepit concrete housing blocks. Surrounded by beaten dry-earth yards through which garbage blows, these monotonous repetitive slabs are cramped places with smashed windows and soot-burned stairwells, shouting the desperate conditions in which Harare’s poor live. Turning to plunge deep into the market, we bump along a rutted dirt road, which becomes a bog in the rainy season. We inch alongside handcarts, informal taxis, minibuses and pedestrians as we pass small shops built from old packing-crates, rickety tables with all manner of wares imaginable, and low-ceilinged workshops in which craftsmen produce any household item, furnishing or building material a client needs. Spotting a white man in the car, some enterprising young men improvise a traffic jam – a minibus suddenly finding itself cornered by a taxi, unable to move. When my driver pulls a few coins from his pocket, they suddenly find a way to unclog the congestion. There are smiles all round: nothing personal, just doing his job.
On the ‘other side of town’, the city feels like a pocket-sized Johannesburg, with expansive open-air shopping centres in which white Zimbabweans mingle with the black bourgeoisie in trendy cafes and South African chain restaurants. The avenues here are broad, if occasionally potholed, and the lawns are mowed. Later, we get to Gotchie-gotchie paMerek (gotchie-gotchie translating loosely as ‘good times’), a row of barbecue pits surrounded by small shops. A group of hustlers, who make their money ‘doing things,’ idle by the back of a pickup truck and drink beer while behind them, children are lined up waiting their turn at a water pump. ‘Nobody has money’ they tell me when asked how business is going. ‘Nobody has money’ the women sitting behind a small wooden table with a few pieces of fruit say. ‘Nobody is buying’ remarks the butcher in one of the nearby shops.
But I look at the fresh selection of succulent-looking meat, at the plump and brilliant array of fruit in the markets, and I know: these people aren’t letting stuff rot, then restocking with new supply that will itself go bad. I nudge a little, and people smile sheepishly. Yes, they admit: money is around. But everyone’s waiting to see what happens in the upcoming election before opening their wallets for public view.
As I write this week in Foreign Affairs, Zimbabwe appears to be on the brink of an economic revolution. One of the remarkable things is how, after years of political mismanagement, the country remains so resilient. Its citizens, harassed by an incompetent and wasteful government, have taken to concealing their economic activity where it can’t be plundered. A people used to finding ways to improvise an existence amid economic implosion and hyperinflation could, if given the opportunity, transform their economy.
But first they need that a government, which desperately wants money but makes it hard for visitors to cough it up, stop blocking their progress.
Image: The Skyline of Harare