Zimbabwe’s Continuing Political and Economic Crisis
Zimbabwe has been experiencing political and economic decline for almost twenty years now. The government of Robert Mugabe, when threatened with losing to the opposition in 2000, instituted a land grab from mainly white commercial farmers, sparking off a precipitous economic collapse from which the nation has never recovered. Mugabe clung to power through a combination of intimidation, violence, patronage and fraudulent elections while the country’s economy imploded with hyperinflation which reached into the billions in percentage points.
Robert Gabriel Mugabe: 21 February 1924 – 6 September 2019. Photo: Kremlin via Wikipedia (CC BY 4.0)
A brief respite occurred during the years 2009 to 2013 when ZANU PF was forced to share power with the opposition, but his return to full power in 2013 set off a new downward spiral. One year ago, with the ruling party fragmenting into rival factions and the 93-year-old Mugabe threatening to pave the wave for his unpopular wife to succeed him, the army chiefs intervened and “persuaded” Mugabe to step down. Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had held various ministerial portfolios including defense and security ever since 1980, succeeded him, and promised to resolve the multiple economic crises by eliminating corruption, abandoning racist and nationalist economic policies, paying off the debt and inviting foreign direct investment. Very little progress in any of these spheres had been made by the time he sought to consolidate his power in an election in July 2018, however the promise and the hope remained.
The July election was hotly contested by a resurgent opposition, but ZANU PF and Mnangagwa were declared the winners. The opposition believed the outcome was rigged but their legal challenge was dismissed on technicalities by the Constitutional Court. Generally the foreign observers accepted the result. The way was now clear for Mnangagwa to move forward to put the economy back on track.
However, this has been extremely difficult, and the crises seem only to have multiplied. The current situation puts most of the population in a desperate position and people struggle to survive, as does the government. We could describe the main issues that plague Zimbabwe at present as follows:
Mnangagwa is President, elected for a five-year term. One of his two vice-presidents is the former army chief. Three cabinet ministers and several permanent secretaries are from the army, from which they have had to resign, increasing military influence in government.ZANU PF holds a substantial majority in Parliament, sufficient to make constitutional changes, but continuing and multiplying factionalism within the party make it doubtful whether Mnangagwa can count on his own party members to support him.Some former office-holders including ministers, have been arrested on corruption charges, but most of these have not yet been convicted or gone to prison, and only those who did not support Mnangagwa in his power struggle with Mugabe have been targeted.Many of the most corrupt are still in the cabinet or having been left out of the new cabinet have been given lucrative positions in the party bureaucracy.
Opposition MDC President, Nelson Chamisa [Credit: Official Facebook Account]
The opposition, which formed the MDC Alliance to fight the election, continues to function as an alliance, led by Nelson Chamisa. It refuses to accept the election result and threatens mass demonstrations. Rumours that Chamisa would work with Mnangagwa have not come to fruition, and he maintains that he is the authentic president. Cracks in the alliance are evident.Generally a freer atmosphere has been reported, including in the media, where people are able to express their views openly.Informal traders, especially in Harare, the capital, have been targeted and had their goods confiscated, probably because they mainly support the opposition, but on the pretext that they create chaos in the city. Some are also black market traders.
No sector of the economy has recovered from the devastation of the years 2000-2009. Small-scale tobacco farms have matched production of the 90’s, but a limit has been reached for what the international market can absorb. All other agricultural products have experienced various problems and the attempts of the army to motivate production have largely failed. Manufacturing has all but collapsed, and the slight recovery over the past year encouraged by tariffs on some imports will not continue as the tariffs have been lifted recently.Tourism is making a very slow recovery, but only at the very high end of the market. Costs are high compared to other regional destinations.Mining continues to bring in revenue, but prices on the world market are depressed.
Small scale (artisanal) gold producers have been brought under control to some extent, but there is still much leakage of diamonds through well-connected syndicates.An out-sized army of about 50,000 (in a population of 13 million) plus many superfluous patronage positions in the civil service are an enormous drain on the national budget. The country is deeply in debt, both long-term to international lenders who have stopped lending, and locally through treasury bills. Expenditure continues to exceed revenue, increasing the debt month by month. Afreximbank appears to be the only institution prepared to lend. Others want to see reduced expenditure and repayment of arrear debts. The currency used remains the US dollar, since the Zimbabwe dollar was abandoned in 2009.
But when a shortage of US currency produced a crippling cash shortage in 2016, a new “bond” note was introduced which was declared to be at par with the US. Shortages of bond notes also soon appeared, leading to a continuing cash drought. This has led everyone to use electronic transfers instead of cash payments, mainly through their cell phones, which are ubiquitous. A recent introduction of foreign currency bank accounts for importers and exporters has not solved the cash shortages but has led to a devaluation of the bond note which at present trades at 3:1. The majority of people have no access to the US dollar and are forced to pay in bond electronic transfers at 3 times the official amount.Recently government attempted to increase its revenues by introducing a 2% tax on every electronic transaction.
Since lack of cash means that everyone is forced to make payments electronically even for the smallest purchases, this is a heavy burden on people who have very low salaries (teachers are now getting about US$500 but in bond currency). There has been a popular outcry.Inflation has set in, especially with the devaluation of the bond note, resulting in higher cost of living as well as shortages of goods. Government services have inadequate budgets due to inflation, with two months of expenditure remaining before year’s end. Boarding schools, for example, are claiming that they might have to close early as they have run out of funds to buy food.Strikes are threatened, including strikes of teachers, who are demanding a salary increase, which government clearly cannot provide.Meanwhile, daily exposure of more and more corruption scandals, dating back for years and continuing up to the present, lead to increasingly frantic calls for punishment of those responsible. However, up to now only those who did not support the president’s faction have been arrested and or charged.
Impacts on the Library:
Clearly life for every family and every organization has become more difficult. In spite of all the problems, the library has been able to continue with all its programmes by being very disciplined and working around obstacles. Possibly the new foreign currency accounts will work to our advantage as we have been allowed to open such an account where we will deposit transfers from donors. It is too early to tell what exactly the impacts of this will be.
Inflation means that our operations are more expensive and our staff’s salaries do not take them as far as they previously did. If we cannot increase our budgets we will be forced to try to make cuts in some areas, which would be unfortunate.
As government services become ever more tenuous and inefficient, the impact on schools and education is significant. We hope we do not reach the point which we did in 2008 when the schools were barely functioning and in the third term of that year most did not open.
In such a situation the service that we provide to school children and to tertiary level students take on an even greater significance. When there is nothing in the schools to read, the library will still be there, stimulating their interest and helping them to develop their reading skills and their learning.
Edward Ndlovu Memorial Library has continued through the years to provide on-going hope to children, young people and adults in Gwanda town and Gwanda district. We believe must not fail in the current extended crisis.