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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Zimbabwe begins to look toward the future

Robert Mugabe looms large as nation begins climb out of economic slump 

In this file photo taken on December 14, 2017 Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa delivers a speech during the opening of the 107th annual conference of the Zanu-PF Central Committee at the party headquarters in Harare. Jekesai Njikizana / AFP Photo
In this file photo taken on December 14, 2017 Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa delivers a speech during the opening of the 107th annual conference of the Zanu-PF Central Committee at the party headquarters in Harare. Jekesai Njikizana / AFP Photo

The hustle and bustle of Harare's Josiah Tongogara Street reflect both the beating heart of a capital city and the short history of Zimbabwe as a nation state.

Named after a guerrilla fighter from the struggle for independence from what was Rhodesia, heavy traffic and congestion make the busy road a natural venue for newspaper sellers. Billboards advertising the latest headlines are a reminder of how Zimbabwe, for now at least, cannot avoid the past even if people are crying out for a new future.

"Mugabe to lose properties," said one. "Mugabe fights back," reads another, referring to the former president, who was ousted in November last year.

On the road itself, the many potholes drivers edgily steer around feel like a metaphor for the struggle that lies ahead. Zimbabwe's economic fabric is shattered. Unemployment stands at 80 percent.

"Mugabe killed us. We are starting from zero," John Sibanda, a maize farmer from a town east of Harare, told The National.

Among tens of thousands to suffer during the agricultural collapse of the nation once known as Africa's bread basket, Mr Sibanda came to the capital to boost his income by working as a driver.

He is pleased with what the country's new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has done so far, though little has changed.

"It is like trying to raise a ship that has sunk. It will be difficult, but the new president wants to do business. He wants to get investment for Zimbabwe."

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The nightmare continues for poor Zimbabweans

Celebrations on the streets as Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe resigns

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Josiah Tongogara died in a road accident in neighbouring Mozambique in 1979, just days after the Lancaster House Agreement was signed, paving the way to the creation of the republic.

Then aged 41, many suspect there was foul play as he was a rival to Mr Mugabe, who would go on lead the country from its infancy to his eventual demise at the hands of the military.

The street named after Mr Tongogara has seen better days. Long-since disused street-lights bow over junctions. As the "robots" – or traffic lights – turn red, hawkers flood the junction peddling wares as diverse as phone chargers, packets of crisps, oil paintings and giant maps of Africa. Lamp posts and trees bear hand-written advertisements for services such as tree-felling, thatching and building-repairs.

Everyone is trying to eke a living. The newspaper sellers are focused exclusively on Zimbabwe's politics and politicians: there is nothing about Donald Trump or North Korea. Pop or sport stars do not feature, nor do celebrities.

Zimbabwe is awaiting the first presidential election since the end of Mr Mugabe’s 37-year rule. Voting is due to take place at some, as yet unspecified, point between June and August.

Mr Mnangagwa said in January that the elections will be "free, credible, fair and indisputable".

What comes next, most people say, cannot be as bad as what went before. Hence the voracious interest in news about the country's leaders - past and present.

"The rock stars of our country are our politicians, which is a tragedy if you think about it," said Larry Kwirirayi, a presenter of a prime-time radio talk-show in Harare.

"It means aspects of other things, such as culture, for example, disappear through the cracks. It also tends to be clasped within a collective pessimism. We are a bit British in that way."

A sense of resignation also hangs in the air.

"Zimbabwe won an important game of cricket, and you go on Twitter and people are saying: 'Yeah, but we are going to get fined by the ICC because of the pitch invasion'," said Mr Kwirirayi, of a recent World Cup Qualifier victory.

"Or, 'Oh, but they are probably going to lose the next match'. We just beat Afghanistan, who have always beaten us, but there are a lot of people who won't give themselves the chance to celebrate."

President Mnangagwa set out a plan to reinvigorate the economy when he was sworn into power.

The 75-year-old has spoken of the need to attract foreign companies, of his desire to re-engage with the West, and reiterated that he wants Zimbabwe to rejoin the Commonwealth, 16 years after its suspension over human rights abuses attributed to his predecessor and his cohorts.

Mr Kwirirayi, however, queries the idea Zimbabwe is at "zero", suggesting there is still a long way to go before things are even that good, no matter what experts from the International Monetary Fund might think.

"Things got so bad that it is going to take a while for it to become even just OK. People can use clever terms like 'austerity measures' but people are so hamstrung," he said.

"Our budget is $5billion or $6billion - for our whole country. We hear there are deals that have been signed and what not, but things were minus-20. It is going to take a while just to get to zero."

The IMF has told Zimbabwe not to bother clearing its $1.75 billion foreign arrears by borrowing from lenders, as it would worsen the national debt.

Instead it has suggested cuts to public sector wages, reducing farm subsidies, improving transparency in the mining sector and reaching an agreement on compensating farmers affected by Mr Mugabe's land clearances in the 1990s.

While political candidates attract air time with pronouncements about ambitious projects such as a bullet train to dramatically cut the travel time between Harare and Bulawayo, Mr Kwirirayi believes the focus needs to be more basic. There is a scarcity of services, food and cash, he says.

Even now, that contrasts starkly with Mr Mugabe's personal wealth. According to a report in the state-owned Sunday Mail, Mr Mugabe "for years received his salary in cash, and has demanded that the same apply to his pension lump sum of nearly half a million dollars and monthly pension payments of over $13,000".

In contrast, ordinary citizens have to queue, sometimes for days, to access amounts as low as $20 from a bank.

“In 2016, you had products, but people didn't have access to cash, an even now people don't have access to cash,” Mr Kwirirayi said.

Goodson Chikowore, who works as a supervisor in Harare, is not certain if the elections will be nearly as transparent as Mr Mnangagwa has said.

He points to how the president previously served as the head of Mr Mugabe's main intelligence service as a reason to doubt.

"The president is doing his job properly at the moment," said Mr Chikowore, sounding positive but stressing the importance of the elections.

"But he was in the same bracket as Mugabe in the past, so we don't know if it will be free and fair. They were in the same cabinet.

"We do worry about the outcome. The result will determine the future. This is the short term. We don't know what the long-term will be."

One thing that has changed is the mood toward speaking about the man in charge of the country, compared to even four months ago, when "people were probably scared the even think about criticising the president". There are also a lot of younger candidates seeking elected office, which is also contributing to a better outlook.

"People feel less distrusting of the political processes at the moment than they were under Mugabe," said Mr Kwirirayi.

"They aren't quite trusting – but they are less distrusting."