Zimbabwe- A Day in a Life of Mr. Average

Thursday, July 24, 2008

By Rejoice Ngwenya,Harare, Zimbabwe

Rejoice NgwenyaHumans of the civilized world cannot fathom how on earth an average citizen survives in Zimbabwe. What with an inflation rate of more than ten million percent, a completely worthless currency and empty supermarket shelves, Darwinian adventure, Cesarean courage and Bonapartean arrogance can be the only vital ingredients in my daily survival kit.

My day starts with a fire in the gazebo to warm a bucket of bathing water. Electricity is usually down and with a water system that collapsed six months ago, running water is a thing of the past. Zimbabwe National Water Authority has a repertoire of excuses why the precious liquid deserted my home. I have stopped asking. Water bills do come, but there are no penalties for ignoring them. In fact, deliberately ignoring water bills has become to me, an act of satisfying sweet revenge! Electricity does appear once in a while, but the risk of relying on stove-heated water is much too high, if I have to guarantee getting to a meeting on time. Forget eggs and a cup of tea. They are not on my menu if the preceding day I had no access to at least six United States dollars. My breakfast is therefore limited to a bowl of corn meal porridge with peanut butter, and boiled sweet potatoes!

Back in the bathroom, I’ll be lucky to find a piece of scented soap tablet. UniLever, one of the few companies that manufactured soap long closed their doors. We survive mostly on cross border traders who sell toiletries from Botswana and Mozambique. If I am lucky to find a piece of soap at the Greek-run Spar, it will probably take all my day’s local currency allocation of one hundred billion dollars.

After a few minutes of watching France 24 news beamed via a free-to-air decoder, I reassure myself that the streets are still safe from an uprising, then drive around the block to pick a couple of neigbhours. Nobody watches the government controlled ZTV news nowadays. After firing an entire staff accused of being opposition party sympathizers in the days preceding the 29 March Parliamentary Elections, the only television station is stuck with a Mugabe crony named Happison Muchechetere who has effectively reduced the broadcaster to a ZANUpf [ruling party] community station.

I cannot leave my neigbhours, because public transport has completely collapsed. Mini bus operators change their fares everyday, claiming to be motivated by a local dollar that is resented and rejected by petrol suppliers who prefer the greenback. One litre of gasoline sells for USD1.50, while a single return trip ranges anything from one hundred to one hundred and fifty billion Zimbabwe dollars. Motor vehicle fares are pegged against the US dollar, hence most mini bus operators have either folded, or

My trip to the city is interrupted by at least four police road blocks. They are not very hostile, since over the long period that these points have operated I have grown to know some of the officers by name. It takes about five minutes to persuade them that my boot is empty – no weapons of human mass destruction like axes, knob carries and catapults. Careless jokes about AK47s and grenades can land one in prison. These poor chaps are really hungry. Mini bus operators are not spared either. They have become somewhat a reliable source of money. Traffic police call them ‘ATMs’. My four passengers will always volunteer to pay me something at the end of the journey, though not enough even to buy one bottle of coke. This is philanthropy. Before driving off to the office, I join a bank queue for my day’s ‘allocation’ of one hundred billion dollars, in case I have to purchase a few buns for lunch. If I get a late call from my wife to pick a few vegetables from the supermarket, I would have to use a locally-denominated Visa Card – a system that has become more reliable than even a cheque leaf, provided telephony is working that day!  

For big transactions like motor vehicle service, my life is a nightmare. It costs around forty trillion Zimbabwe dollars for light service. The garage want their payment in advance, so I generally cannot write a cheque because Reserve Bank regulations banned figures of more than nine hundred billion on cheque leafs per day. Governor Gideon Gono concocted a system called RTGS – an interbank electronic transfer system that has long collapsed due to being overwhelmed by shear volumes and unprecedented zeroes. More often than not, it takes almost ten days for the money to show in my garage’s account and by then, the cost of service has changed. This means I now have to ‘supplement’ with cash sought from the black market, since the bank can only give me one hundred billion!  

Back at the office I have another heart ache – a paralysed Internet system. If I am lucky that the office driver found petrol for the generator, I will have to labour through a dead-slow dial-up system, or a broad band struggling due to lack of electricity at base stations or poor support service since most telecoms technicians have escaped to South Africa! Making calls through cell phones requires extra ordinary patience. The networks can no longer cope because of congestion. Telecel, NetOne and ECONET are the only three players, but government imposes a tariff control on them. As a result, the companies have not been able to inject sufficient capital for expansion, while consumers take advantage of low tariffs to literary ‘sleep’ on the phones. Of late, Strive Masiyiwa’s ECONET have introduced an advanced payment billing system to cover themselves against inflation. What they do is to simply double the figure on my current bill! Net One, the government controlled network is struggling to supply customers with refill cards due to a lack of foreign currency to run the system. Telecel has not had it easy either. Its former owner, James Makamba escaped to London when government accused him of sympathising with opposition MDC in flighting interviews on his ‘private’ television station. The company has since been taken over by a consortium of ZANUpf cronies.

My day ends with another drive back home. I no longer have any social life because not a single point of ‘pleasure’ accepts local currency. In short, Zimbabwe’s economy has been truly and effectively dollarised. Gono is still in a state of denial, but as for me, Mr Average, I will have to live to fight another day.  But before I settle for another dose of France 24, I bundle a few jerry cans into the wheelbarrow in search of water at the nearest well, a water well in the centre of a middle-income, urban residence. Truly, Mugabe has reduced us into a bunch of rural urbanites!

Rejoice Ngwenya is a regular columnist for www.AfricanLiberty.org. He is a Zimbabwean Freemarket Activist and Political Analyst based in Harare.