Saturday, February 10, 2007

Zimbabwe meltdown continues

A useful roundup on this ongoing catastrophe from Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings. (For some recent background, see Zimbabwe, the land of dying children - by R.W. Johnson, via Mick Hartley.)

=> There are a lot of comments responding to this post by Hilzoy, and unlike most "comments" threads, this one includes some intelligent and illuminating contributions. For example, the historian & Africanist Tim Burke, whose social and political analysis is always intelligent, adds some sobering reflections on both the depth of the catastrophe and the absence of any easy solutions--even if the major villain of this story, Robert Mugabe, were to disappear tomorrow.
Much as I think Mugabe is loathsome, and that his loathsomeness was consistently underestimated by many observers and commenters of Zimbabwe's politics in the 1980s, it's important not to overlook the more systemic problems in the postcolonial Zimbabwean state. Mugabe is not in fact a charismatic authoritarian who somehow overwhelmed an otherwise competent or well-functioning liberal democracy and drove into ruin. [JW: Though he and his supporters did take a country that, in regional terms, seemed to be doing relatively well during the first few decades after independence, for all of its shortcomings, and systematically push it over the edge. But Mugabe, as an individual, didn't do this single-handedly.] He's certainly an autocratic and unscrupulous control freak, and has been ever since he first entered politics. But what has happened to Zimbabwe since the late 1980s has as much to do with a wider circle of people around Mugabe, both in the ruling party and in important and powerful institutions, including the military.

When Mugabe dies, I wouldn't expect things to get magically better. First, because much of what gave Zimbabwe a promising economic and social outlook circa 1988 has been thoroughly and structurally destroyed. [JW: That is the really key point, so it is worth pausing to re-read this sentence and let it sink in.] Second, because at least some of the people around Mugabe have instincts just as self-destructive and have every reason to inhibit good management or democratization (as they will likely be the ones prosecuted by a vengeful reformist regime).

The problem with fantasizing about unilateral military action in this case [JW: Not that anyone I know of is really fantasizing about this option, frankly] is connected to this problem. You could drop a bunch of Special Forces guys on the presidential palace in Harare, take out Mugabe, and change absolutely zero. Frankly you could occupy the country with UN forces and change absolutely zero. What's needed is a huge change in the fundamental architecture of the Zimbabwean state and a change in the basic composition of the thin upper range of the most powerful elite. Those are not transformations which occupiers can readily bring about (something which I'd think should be screamingly apparent to everyone by now).

About the only positive short-term scenario is that some of the younger, smarter, more competent guys in ZANU-PF who have been carefully keeping their heads low through the last decade will move aggressively on Mugabe's death to push aside hacks like Didymus Mutasa and clean out the bureaucratic house. But to really succeed at that, they'd have to reverse a lot of brain-drain and draw back competent managerial and professional elites who have (wisely) left for other countries.

Posted by: Timothy Burke | February 01, 2007 at 05:04 PM
Whether or not the "positive short-term scenario" floated here sounds at all plausible is a separate question. I also think that these comments by Burke strangely overlook the political opposition within Zimbabwe (which is substantial enough that the effort to crush it is what provoked the campaign of repression and national vandalism by Mugabe & Co.) and also a range of steps that outside actors (including South Africa for a start, but also many other players in the alleged "international community") could have been taking to pressure Mugabe's regime, try to prevent this disaster from unfolding, and reduce the damage.

But the basic thrust of Burke's remarks strikes me as being on-target. A catastrophe of this scope can't entirely be explained by the actions of one deranged power-hungry individual, and once a society has been so thoroughly shattered as Zimbabwe's has been, putting it back together is going to be very, very difficult. At the very least ...
What's needed is a huge change in the fundamental architecture of the Zimbabwean state and a change in the basic composition of the thin upper range of the most powerful elite.
... and that's just part of it.

--Jeff Weintraub

Obsidian Wings
January 30, 2007
Zimbabwe melts down
by hilzoy

A couple of weeks ago, I figured out what all the other bloggers have probably known for years: how to configure Google News to update me on all sorts of stories I normally try, unsuccessfully, to follow. It's wonderful: so much easier than reading all sorts of newspapers trying to see whether anyone has written anything on Kyrgyzstan recently. One downside, however, is that because I created a Zimbabwe section, I'm more aware than ever of the slow-motion meltdown that Zimbabwe is undergoing. I'll put part of Zimbabwe's tale of woe below the fold. As you read it, bear in mind that all of these stories are from this month, and most are from the last ten days. It would be bad enough if all this had happened over a span of, say, a decade. But this is ten days.

The main problem is hyperinflation:

"The month-on-month cost of living for an urban family of six in Zimbabwe has surged by 43 percent, while basic commodities, such as cooking oil, maizemeal and flour have been "consistently unavailable" on the formal market since the onset of the festive season, said the latest report by the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe (CCZ).

Zimbabwe's hyperinflation, which saw levels persist stubbornly above 1,000 percent in 2006, has resulted in a family of six now having to spend US$1,406 to subsist in January, as opposed to the US$982 monthly income required in December 2006. The CCZ noted that the steepest increases were recorded in education (261.9 percent), bread (179.7 percent), white sugar (166.7 percent) and cooking oil (78.3 percent).

The latest figures released by Zimbabwe's central statistics office showed that year-on-year inflation had risen by 182 percentage points in December from 1,098 percent in November, hitting a new record high of 1,280 percent."

Think about that: a family of 6 had to spend US$982 to survive in December, and by the very next month that had gone up to US$1,406. I have lived in a country with hyperinflation (Israel, early 80s), where it really did make sense to buy whatever you needed in the morning rather than the afternoon, since the prices would have changed, but even I find this absolutely surreal.

As a result of the skyrocketing cost of living, more or less everyone seems to be on strike. Today, for instance, the NYT has a story on Zimbabwe's doctors' strike:

"A handful of army doctors struggled to cope with emergencies at Zimbabwe’s largest public hospital on Monday as regular doctors pressed on with a five-week-old strike that has all but paralyzed public medical care.

Officials said there were about seven members of the army medical corps at Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare, the capital, trying to do a job usually done by more than 120 doctors.

“We are very stretched at the moment,” a hospital official said. “But we keep hoping that a resolution to this problem will be found soon for the good of the patients.”

The government called for help from the army this month after doctors walked off the job to protest their pay levels, which they say have been eroded by galloping inflation that is attributed to President Robert Mugabe’s policies.

Junior doctors at state hospitals now earn the equivalent of $950 a month at the official exchange rate, but less than $50 at black market rates. They stopped work on Dec. 21 to demand salary increases of more than 8,000 percent.

The walkout left hospital waiting rooms jammed with desperate patients needing treatment.

The strikers have since been joined by senior doctors and most nurses, all but crippling public medical care in Zimbabwe."

Imagine: a desperately poor country where the doctors and nurses are on strike. But it's even worse than that. The rural health workers who staff the public health system have gone on strike as well. The doctors are now threatening to leave the country en masse if they don't get higher pay. Drugs for HIV have become unaffordable. And now, to top it all off, cholera has struck Harare, probably because of the problems with the water supply (see below.)

Of course, patients are suffering:

"Bridget Sadza, 34, a housewife, was hit by a haulage truck in the small town of Chivhu in Mashonaland East Province on Christmas Eve and sustained a broken arm, which nurses said might need to be amputated.

"I was transferred from Chivhu hospital to Harare because of the seriousness of my injury but, up to now, no doctor has visited me. The young nurses here tell me that if I don't get attention soon, the injury might turn septic," Sadza told IRIN in a barely audible voice."

Some have reportedly died.

University lecturers are already on strike, and teachers are about to join them. Earlier this month an article in South Africa's Mail & Guardian had the charming headline: "Striking Power Workers Switch Off Harare". The one group of government employees that Robert Mugabe truly can't do without is not too happy either:

"Government employees in the security sector, including police and soldiers, who get an average of about US$280 a month, are also reported to be unhappy. They are not allowed to go on strike, but top security officials have warned that if the government does not raise their salaries and improve conditions of service, their personnel may end up joining opposition forces to remove the ruling ZANU-PF party from power.

The state-owned Standard newspaper reported on Sunday that many soldiers had left the Zimbabwe National Army over poor pay to take up posts as security guards or restaurant waiters in neighbouring South Africa and Botswana."

10% of Zimbabwe's police officers have filed the paperwork needed to quit their jobs.

Even the judiciary is suffering:

"A frank admission this week by Judge President Rita Makarau that the judiciary was barely able to function, hit by corruption and under-funding, is the closest yet to an official confirmation that Zimbabwe is fast becoming a failed state, analysts said.

Makarau on Monday broke with tradition to openly criticise President Robert Mugabe for undermining the judiciary by starving it of resources and reducing it to “begging for its sustenance”.

The court that permanently sits in the capital and in Bulawayo was unable to hold circuit courts in other major centres because there was no money.

Court libraries were basically empty, judges and magistrates lack basic stationery, while corruption has taken root among critical but poorly paid judicial support staff, said Makarau, speaking at the opening of the 2007 High Court legal year."

And some workers in low-paying jobs can't afford to go to work:

"Jacqueline Munyaka (35) of Harare resigned from formal employment as a merchandiser in December.

She told The Standard: "It was no longer making sense for me to travel to the city centre every day because transport alone would take up over three quarters of my salary then. I would have to scrounge for money for rentals, school fees and food from friends every month."

In December she was earning $28 000 a month. "Buying and selling" is now her source of livelihood, Munyaka said, without elaborating."


Meanwhile, other catastrophes loom. Yesterday brought this news:

"The Zimbabwe Electricity Authority (ZESA) has admitted to a nation already suffering sweeping and extended power cuts that it is broke, and things will get worse. (...)

In some parts of Zimbabwe people have been without electricity for three months. The power utility's inability to keep users supplied is being caused by the unavailability of foreign currency to replace and repair outdated equipment; ZESA said it required US$30 million to repair equipment that had become inoperative.

Zimbabwe's economy has been in freefall in recent years, with the formal economy shrinking by 65 percent, agricultural production down by 50 percent, unemployment touching 80 percent and inflation running at 1,281 percent, the highest in the world, causing a slew of shortages, including food, fuel, medicines and foreign currency. (...)

With power no longer guaranteed, urban Zimbabweans are now using firewood as their main source of energy for cooking or heating, stripping the surrounding countryside and farms of their trees."


"Zimbabwe's biggest sewage plant has broken down, sending tonnes of raw effluent into a major river and polluting the water supply of the capital, Harare, city authorities said on Monday.

Harare's Firle sewage plant has been down since last week and requires at least Z$20-billion to fix, a huge burden for a country already in the grip of its worst economic crisis in decades.

Officials from the national water authority said half of the raw sewage from Harare -- a city of about 1,5-million -- was now discharged into a river that flows into the capital's main water reservoir, the state-owned Herald newspaper reported."

Zimbabwe's second largest city is also short of water, and the whole water system is in crisis. And then, of course, there's the looming famine:

"Zimbabwe is facing a food deficit of hundreds of thousands of tonnes - a third of its requirements - an international monitoring agency warns.
The Famine Early Warning System says the cereal balance sheet projects a shortfall in maize - the staple food - of some 850,000 tonnes.

By December only 152,600 tonnes had been delivered, meaning widespread hunger looks set to continue.

The monitors say Zimbabwe's lack of foreign currency is a key problem."

It might be even worse, since agricultural workers are leaving Zimbabwe's farms because of low pay. No wonder even the wealthy have taken up urban farming.

Even dying is unaffordable in Zimbabwe:

"Long before dawn I received a phone call with the news that an elderly man had died. For the family the pain and grief of the loss was almost immediately swamped with the horrific reality attached to dying in Zimbabwe in January 2007.

Doctors have been on strike for over a month and hospital mortuaries are overflowing. The body of the deceased had to be moved, immediately.

Petrol has increased in price from Z$2 900 a litre on Monday to Z$3 400 a litre by Friday. It was going to cost a whole month's pension for the new widow to have her late husbands body moved the few kilometres to the funeral home.

None of the man's family are left in Zimbabwe. The request was made for a cremation so that the ashes could be later given to the family. Cremations are undertaken in Harare but there is no gas in the country for the ovens.

It may be three weeks, at the very least, before a cremation could be done. For each single day that the body was kept at the funeral home the widow would be charged half of her entire monthly pension.

A wood fuelled cremation could be done but only in Mutare, a town 180 kilometres away. The funeral home wanted $700 000 to transport the body - the same as two and half years of the woman's pension.

The quoted cost for the cremation, including the transport, was the same as five years of the widow's pension. "


As if all that wasn't bad enough, the Mugabe government, whose thuggish and idiotic policies are responsible for all this, is making it worse. The government has threatened the media, announced its intention to seize more white-owned farms, arrested thousands of people who are illegally panning for gold out of economic desperation, and threatened to carry out another round of its brutal slum clearances, in which poor people with nowhere else to go are forced from their homes, which are then bulldozed.

Think about it: this is about ten days' worth of bad news in Zimbabwe. At some point, something has to give.