Drive 15 minutes northeast of Harare’s city centre, away from the streets where soldiers and riot police patrol, and you could almost imagine that Zimbabwe was booming. The political violence, the hunger, the highest inflation rate in the world: it could all be just an illusion.
Around the exclusive suburb of Borrowdale, teams of labourers sweat under azure skies, building mansions with sweeping driveways, acres of manicured lawns, palm trees and pools. Some of these homes – the Chinese-style palace owned by President Robert Mugabe, for instance – make your average Beverly Hills mansion appear unassuming. Zimbabwe’s ravaged economy may mean misery for the many, but it’s also creating opportunities for the few, with black-market foreign-currency dealing and diamond- and emerald-smuggling among the growth industries.
Meanwhile, there are few signs of the shortages afflicting the nation down the road at the Sam Levy shopping complex. The shelves and trolleys are full of premium products. White ex-farmers and their families eat hearty breakfasts in the outdoor café, with members of the black elite seated nearby. After their farms were seized in the land invasions that began seven years ago, many farmers retreated to Borrowdale’s Dandaro Village, a sprawling gated community nearby. More than 100 years ago, their colonial predecessors fended off the natives by circling their wagons and carts into laagers. Now, in a neat historical twist, Dandaro has become another kind of laager for remaining whites.
Yet beneath the surface calm, there’s an inescapable sense that Zimbabwe has entered its fin de siècle.
The signs are there in the potholed roads, the streets without lighting, the daily power cuts. They’re in the absurd outpourings of the state-controlled press (“President Says No To Violence,” announced The Herald a few days after his police force had detained and brutally beaten 50 members of the opposition). Then there are the bizarre conversations one finds oneself in.
Late one night at a largely deserted local bar, where the price of Castle beer rises virtually every day in line with inflation, a member of one of Zanu-PF’s leading political dynasties is holding court. We laugh as he pretends to address a rally, parodying the rhetoric of the regime he’s aligned to.
“You don’t have water, you don’t have electricity, you don’t have food,” he proclaims, “but you have your freedom, your sovereignty!” Then he turns serious. “Before, we were oppressed by external forces – now we’re oppressing ourselves. Last week I had this fat South African with a cigar telling me, ‘Oh you Zimbabweans, you’re too docile, you have to do something for yourselves.’ But we fought a liberation war for our freedom, while South Africans were given theirs on a plate by the international community. Who is he to tell me that we’re docile?”
None of us mentions the blindingly obvious: that he’s a member of Zanu-PF, the party doing the oppressing.
Across Africa, in countries that would still be classed as “least developed”, street moneychangers offer the best rate of return. But soon they may have competition – the ATM. In Kinshasa, the sprawling capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the moneychangers are women. They sit on street corners next to enormous piles of dirty – and rather smelly – Congolese Francs. But the arrival of Kinshasa’s first ATM has put them under pressure. No longer does the visiting businessman have to haggle on the street. He can use the ATM and get the official bank rate instead. In Chad, new found oil revenue is also bringing banks to the capital N’Djamena, now its famous moneychangers will have to work harder to offer “best price”.