Posted on April 3, 2007

Hitchhiker’s Guide To A Failing State

Daniel Howden, Independent (London), April 3, 2007

The Kingdom is empty. It boasts all of the trappings of ersatz tourist Africa apart from the tourists. The vast dining hall of the hotel which should be the centrepiece of Zimbabwe’s tourist industry has fake elephant tusks, shield-shaped menus and empty tables. Outside in the car park a battalion of beige uniformed porters hide from the fierce sun, rousing themselves only to compete for tips from the very occasional arrival.

Across the Falls, Zambia’s town of Livingstone and its packed hotels deliver hard currency holidays in the shadow of one of the great wonders of the world. Leaving The Kingdom, beggars crowd to the open windows of the pick-up. What traffic there is, either battered taxis or the white 4x4s of the NGOs, disappears beyond the airport.

At the wheel, staring straight ahead is Cameron. The road is Romaically straight, cutting a tarmac line as far as the 35C heat haze on the horizon but he doesn’t look away for a second. “You have to watch for the cows and goats, especially the goats,” he says. “You never know with them which way they’ll go. With the cows it’s easier, if their heads are down they won’t move.”

There used to be a wire fence, he tells me, protecting the road, but it has long since been stolen and sold for scrap. Cameron is one of the dwindling number of white Zimbabweans who have stayed on despite their privileges being eroded and their lives and livelihoods coming under physical and political threat.

The dry bush with its low trees and burnt red earth stretches away from the road in all directions. The maize fields that provide the porridge that is the staple for most Zimbabweans are dry and dead. The rains have failed again this year and starvation is coming. The crop failure in this region is 95 per cent.

“People have started eating the field mice,” says Cameron. “Usually there would be thousands of them. Where are they?”

Starved-looking children stand with hollow faces and swollen bellies at the roadside. The lucky ones are holding out the only thing there is left to sellanaemic watermelons, little larger than grapefruits.

Halfway Hotel to Bulawayo

Even for those with money there’s next to nothing at the Halfway Hotel. The only watering hole on the five-hour drive between the Falls and Bulawayo, its picnic tables once provided an opulent lunch for well-off travellers. Now the four-page menu is a memory. Whatever it says the kitchen runs to a tired burger and an antique Fanta. At the filling station next door they’ve had no fuel for weeks. An ambulance parks by the pumps and draws a curious crowd. But the driver is just looking for shade on the forecourt. It goes without saying that it’s a private ambulance, no one’s seen a public ambulance for years.

Two white men on an empty road arouse suspicion. With the latest round of brutal suppression of all opposition the roadblock count has sky-rocketed. Cameron counted eightbetween the Falls and Bulawayo. And the police are terrified of reprisals. “You never see two policemen, they’re always in groups; safety in numbers,” he says.

Lazy from the sun the police still perform the ritual of the stop and search. Satisfied that we are on our way to a family wedding in Harare, the search is less than half-hearted. I ask them what they’re looking for. “Gold, diamonds or guns,” says a tired-looking officer. No one seems to think we’ll have any of these.

In fact, Cameron came back from studying in the UK in the hope that the family mining business might survive the economic holocaust. One of the few industries that had survived was the same one which drew Cecil John Rhodes here in the first placegold. With nine out of 10 Zimbabweans jobless and the economy in freefall, Cameron explains that thousands of people had turned to panning for gold again in recent years. Now even that has stopped. As the bankrupt regime has hunted down every last cent of hard currency, or “forex”, in the machine, it has closed in on and killed its own goose that laid golden eggs by forcing panners, miners and millers to sell to the state at official prices. The state buys gold at a price linked to the official exchange ratea wildly unreal 160 Zimbabwean dollars to the US dollar. The real exchange rate, the one that rules the black market, was running at Z$16,000 that day. Until the end of last year the commercial mines had survived by giving a small cut to the state at official prices and selling the rest at black market rates. Now police raids across the country aimed at forcing gold to be sold through official channels have closed the mines and brought production to a near standstill.

“No one can afford to mine or process rough gold at that priceit’s like paying the state to give them gold,” he says.

At the outskirts of Bulawayo the graveyard shift is clocking off. These mud and rubble cemeteries are spreading fast in a country that is dying on its feet.

Bulawayo to Kezi to Bulawayo

The tight grid of central Bulawayo was built for a world and a climate which no longer exist. Its main roads are criss-crossed with giant humps designed to let the heavy seasonal rains run off and prevent flooding. In today’s arid weather the cracked tarmac just gives the driver a mild seasickness like a boat bobbing in gentle waves. Heading south the avenues of jacarandas and flamboyant trees with their intense blood orange flowers give way to the savannah and the dramatic rock formations of the Matopos National Park. Jonathan joins me from a lay-by halfway to Kezi. Unemployed and beating a path back and forth through Matabeleland looking for work, he doesn’t mind our grim destination and is happy to help in return for a Coke and a free ride to Kezi. We are looking for what remains of Balagwe Camp.

After independence in 1980, the new Zimbabwe was still home to three armies: the Rhodesian forces that fought for Ian Smith’s white minority; Robert Mugabe’s Zanla guerrillas, the army drawn from the Shona-speaking majority; and Joshua Nkomo’s Zipra force of mainly Ndebele fighters.

When the victorious Mugabe swept the first elections he wasted little time in disbanding Zipra and launching a campaign of ethnic cleansing against his tribal rivals. Gukuruhundi”the wind that sweeps away the chaff”lasted for nearly eight years and claimed as many as 40,000 lives, according to disputed estimates.

Mugabe unleashed the North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade on Matabeleland and the former army base at Balagwe became a notorious holding camp.

In Kezi no one can understand why we want to find Balagwe. Confused directions lead straight out into the bush. Villagers eventually lead us to a collection of derelict buildings, with thorn trees pushed through ruined doorways. It is hard to imagine that this is where so many men were beaten and tortured, while hundreds of women were raped, many with broom handles or gun barrels. We ask the villagers whether they know what happened here. Someone says something about soldiers. Jonathan explains: “Everyone lost parents and family. No one wants to remember the camp.”

Everyone is agreed that the bodies were dumped in the mine shafts that honeycomb the local hills. Smallholders near by complain that the hills are haunted and that skeletons prowl around, carrying guns. Others still insist that in the afternoon you can see human bones and clothes at the bottom of the shaft.

But the light is fading and the thin ribbon of tarmac that leads back through the roadblocks to Bulawayo beckons. There is no time to find the mountain graves.

Bulawayo to Harare

It takes longer to count the money than to fill the tank. The pick-up takes 50 litres. More violence and more unrest has seen the exchange rate leap to Z$25,000 to $1. That means a little over Z$1m. And that kind of money needs to be carried in bags, not wallets. Hyperinflation and the ensuing fuel crisis has pushed petrol beyond the means of normal people. Zimbabwe is now a nation of hitchhikers, the lay-bys crowded with people waiting and waving, sometimes for days if they can’t afford to pay for a lift.

The police are no exception. Dominic is a young policeman looking for a ride outside Bulawayo. His friend who is carrying a fishing rod hops on the open back, but the policeman rides up front. Far from questioning me, Dominic needs little prompting to air his frustrations: “This country is a bloody mess,” he says, taking off his cap and looking at me for encouragement. I’m going to run away down to South Africa.”

He asks me if I’ve been and what it’s like. I tell him there are a lot of Zimbabweans and that conditions for many of them are very hard. Dominic can’t believe that it can be any harder than his life is already. I tell him that at least he has a job here. He’s not convinced. “This job is worthless, the money they give us is nothing.” He reaches into his pocket. “You can’t buy anything with this money,” he says showing a fistful of Z$1,000 notes. “What future is this?”

After dropping him off the next policeman I meet is at a roadblock. “Tell me how much gold you are carrying,” he bellows. I point at the steel frames of my sunglasses and try to make a joke. Happily he laughs at the ludicrousness of the question and waves me on.

Joyce joins me just beyond Gweru. A middle-aged woman, she is trying to get to church. She hitches her way along this road to work every morning, she explains, and comes on Sunday as well for morning prayers. Sometimes the bus which charges Z$4,000 is cheaper, sometimes paying for a lift works out better. “I have a car but I can’t afford to use it anymore,” she says. “Who can get fuel now?”

Joyce earns Z$100,000 a month working in an office, and after transport there’s barely any money left at all. She used to buy mealie-meal in 50kg bags but you can’t find them anymore. The 20kg bag is Z$20,000, and that lasts about two weeks, she explains. It doesn’t add up and she admits that she goes to work hungry and comes home hungry.

Like everyone else who flags me down she expects to pay for a lift and uncoils a wad of fast depreciating notes to do so.

Crossing Harare

Off Robert Mugabe Drive, there is a large queue building of patient-looking people. John, a young journalist sacked from the information ministry for suspected sympathies with the opposition, has joined me. He explains the crowd are waiting for passports. None have been issued for nearly four years. The Registrar’s office has long since run out of paper, or ink, or bindings and, in fact, everything else they need to do its job. “There’s a lot this morning. There must be a rumour that they’ve got ink,” says John. “People come back each week to see how their application is going.”

Mothers and babies, young men and pensioners stand in the unmoving line, and everyone is carrying sheafs of battered old papers. “They are always told to come back next week.”

This exhausting pantomime is just one of many being repeated patiently around the city.

At night Harare exists in a confusing half-light. Many of the “robots”, or traffic lights, have stopped working. The bulbs and aluminium parts, like the streetlights, have been looted and sold for scrap. The confusion is added to by the closure of the main avenue leading north out of the city. From 6pm until 6am, it is sealed off to stop traffic from disturbing the presidential residence.

At the filling station closest to Mugabe’s residence they laugh at me when I ask if they have fuel. Makeshift blackboards like specials menus now hang on the forecourts. Those that don’t have fuel advertise specials such as brake fluid or firewood.

Later and lost in search of a safe house in the wooded northern suburbs, I take one wrong turn too many. I find myself driving beside an endless blue and white wall, it goes on for kilometres. The sight of a single, lonely-looking soldier tells me this is a VIP estate. I’m told the next day that actually no one lives in the vast buildings behind the walls. It is Robert Mugabe’s unfinished retirement home, and its construction is a no-expenses-spared hobby for his extravagant wife, Grace. As for the soldier, he lives in a battered tent pitched on the verge outside.