Christina Lamb, London Times, July 1, 2007
STELLA SITHOLE is a high school teacher with neatly braided hair and a husband who works in a bank, yet in the twisted world of President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe she has to turn tricks to feed her children.
Battling to survive the world’s highest inflation, estimated by local bankers to have reached 15,000%, the salary of Z$2.1m she has just received is six times what she got last month. But it is not even enough to cover her bus fares to school and back. In fact, it is equivalent to less than £3.50 a month.
So for several days of the week, instead of standing in front of her class in Kwekwe teaching history and geography, Sithole takes the bus 146 miles north to Harare. There, she sits at the bar in clubs such as Chez Ntemba, Chez Mambo and the Stars Studio at Rainbow Towers hotel, waiting for a proposition.
At 32, Sithole is pretty and refined, though there is a far-away sadness in her eyes and clients complain that there is not enough of her bottom (“What do you expect on one meal a day?” she asks).
On a pulsating Friday night at the Stars Studio, there is no shortage of takers. “Ministers,” she whispers, “or Zanu big men.”
While the vast majority of Zimbabweans are struggling, like Sithole, to survive on less than £1 a week—”We’re not even have-nots,” she says, “we’re have-nothings”—these paunchy men in striped suits knocking back shots of malt whisky are finding that things have never been so good.
Not only government ministers and officials from the ruling Zanu-PF party, but also top police and army officers and High Court judges have been cleverly woven into Mugabe’s patronage system, benefiting hugely from his despotic rule.
Many have been allotted property that was violently seized from white farmers. But their real wealth comes from access to foreign exchange at less than 1,000th of the rate on the streets.
This enables them to buy expensive vehicles such as the Hummers, S-class Mercedes and Toyota Prados that fill the hotel car park—one of which will whisk Sithole to a lodge on the edge of town.
When I first meet her through a friend, the primly dressed mother of two is ashamed to tell me what she does, referring instead to “colleagues that have become sex workers”. But it is clear she knows too much and in the end she admits her tawdry double life.
“I studied three years at college to become a teacher and was so proud when I graduated,” she says, sadly. “Now look at me. I’m very ashamed and always regret afterwards but otherwise we would starve.”
Her clients pay in “cash and kind”. Pointing at the long black leather boots she is wearing, she explains: “The most I got was Z$600,000 and this pair of boots as well as a mobile phone my husband sold.”
She can earn more depending on what she refers to as “the what”. This means whether she is prepared to have sex with no condom—an enormous risk in a country where at least one in five adults is HIV-positive.
“These dirty things make me scared because most of these guys are infected but I’m desperate,” she shrugs.
To show the impossibility of surviving on a teacher’s wage, we take her entire Z$2.1m salary to a local supermarket. All she manages to buy with the two large bricks of notes is one bottle of cooking oil, one packet of salt, one laundry soap, one pack of powdered soup, some milk powder and a pack of sugar.
In fact, just her bus fares to travel the 15 miles to school are Z$60,000 each way, totalling Z$2.4m a month if she goes every day. “So I’m already on minus,” she says. “I’m actually having to borrow money to go to work.”
On top of that, her bills last month were Z$315,000 for electricity, Z$130,000 for water and Z$800,000 for rent, not to mention food and bus fares for her 11-year-old daughter and nursery fees for her five-year-old son. Her husband earns just Z$1.4m. “We’re the poorest millionaires on earth,” she laughs.
For two years she supplemented her salary by working in a field or cleaning after school. She would use the money to go into Harare and buy cheap clothing. She would exchange this in rural areas for ground nuts and peanuts that she could then sell in town.
Colleagues cross the border to Botswana or South Africa, where they can buy goods for a quarter of the price, and come back and sell them. But Sithole has never amassed enough money to buy the foreign exchange she would need to do this.
This year, as inflation spiralled, she has found herself borrowing more than her salary each month. “I don’t have any family abroad to send me money and we weren’t even having one meal a day,” she says.
One of her colleagues suggested accompanying her to Harare for the night. She earned more in a few hours than for a month’s teaching. When I ask if many of the other teachers at her school are doing the same, she laughs. “Three-quarters,” she replies.
Others have simply left the country, part of a massive exodus of 4m people. At the start of term in May more than 5,000 teachers in Zimbabwe did not return to their posts, among them Sithole’s headmaster.
The children they have left behind are just told to sit and read. “Zimbabweans sacrifice bread for books to get their children to school, then there’s no teaching,” said James Elder of the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) in Harare.
He pointed out that the pass rate had dropped sharply—just 37% passed grade 7, which means almost two-thirds are failing.
“It hurts me that we teachers are abandoning the children to service these beasts with their fine cars,” says Sithole. “But we don’t have an option.”
Her clients’ children attend private schools or study in the UK, America or Australia. They can easily afford this because of the beneficial exchange rate available to those close to power.
Although the Reserve Bank knocked three zeroes off the currency last November, the Zimbabwe dollar has continued to lose value at an astonishing rate. At the start of the year it was 3,000 to the US dollar. Last month it fell from 100,000 to 300,000 in a week on the streets where most people exchange. Yet the official rate is 250.
“Imagine the money you can make,” a merchant bank director explained. “Say you buy US$100 at the official rate—that costs you Z$25,000. Then you sell that US$100 on the streets and get Z$30m. With that Z$30m, at the official rate you can buy more than US$100,000—all for your initial outlay of about eight cents.
“And that’s not to mention fuel vouchers,” he added. A litre of fuel for the privileged costs just Z$400 while everyone else must pay Z$185,000. “If you’re one of Mugabe’s cronies, you can live in fantastic wealth.”
That wealth is visible not only from the number of new luxury cars on the streets of the capital but from a spin round Borrowdale Brooke, a private housing estate with its own golf course in northern Harare.
Many government ministers have elaborate mansions. On the hill is a three-storey glass monstrosity with its own lift, owned by the army chief, and beyond a heavily guarded entrance is the shining blue pagoda-style roof of Mugabe’s multi-million-pound new home.
The local Spar sells Mozambican prawns, lobster and Laphroaig malt whisky at Z$9m a bottle but if residents prefer to eat out, they can head down the road to Amanzi, where dinner for five costs more than Z$26m.
“At the same time most people are barely surviving, those with access to power are literally bleeding the country and becoming richer daily,” said Roy Ben-nett, a leading member of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) who had to flee to South Africa after 10 months in jail.
“It’s not just Mugabe. There’s an elite of around 5,000 scoring from the situation and there are enough of them in high places to maintain the status quo.
“They realise their only way to survive is to keep Mugabe there, because once he goes it’s a bun-fight between them.”
It is not only those holding the reins of power who are benefiting. Zimbabwe’s stock market is booming. At a cafe in Harare I met Robert, a flashily dressed 26-year-old who was showing off a Ford Triton for which he had just paid Z$14 billion. He and his friend had five mobile phones on the table that kept ringing.
“More deals to make,” he explained, describing himself as a commodity broker, which in today’s Zimbabwe seems to mean black market profiteer. “It’s chaos but we’ve never had it so good,” he said as he drove off in his new car.
“We have this ridiculous dichotomy where this is the cheapest country in the world if you’re earning US dollars and the most expensive in the world if you’re earning Zim dollars,” said an importer of luxury perfumes and cosmetics. “You can pretty much afford anything you want if you have access to foreign exchange.”
But he added that after a couple of boom years, his sales were now falling. “The numbers are becoming less and less and noticeably so,” he said.
With inflation so high that the Reserve Bank needs to double the amount of money in circulation every month, it is struggling to print enough of the country’s Monopoly-style notes and recently had to bribe printers to work overtime with a Z$5m bonus.
It was the Reserve Bank that pushed up the exchange rate so precipitously last month, buying up foreign exchange on the black market to pay Eskom in South Africa for electricity and to repay money owed by Air Zimbabwe so it could keep flying. It also paid for US$2m worth of surveillance equipment, following the introduction of a law that permits the monitoring of phone calls and e-mails.
The biggest payment, however, was US$39m owed to the US Export-Import Bank to avoid legal action from the US Treasury. Gideon Gono, the governor of the Reserve Bank, wrote a furious letter to the US attorney-general, complaining that the repayment had forced the government to “divert funds which were meant for importation of . . . medical drugs for our hospitals, antidrought food imports, fuel, electricity, seeds as well as agricultural equipment”.
He added: “The people of Zimbabwe have paid an invaluable sacrificial welfare price to meet your abrupt harsh turn of spirit.”
Short of foreign exchange and having run out of farms to hand out to supporters—all but 200 of the 4,500 white farms have been confiscated—the government last week announced legislation to seize 51% of foreign companies.
Although the government has stopped issuing inflation figures since it hit 3,700% in March, prices are doubling weekly. A loaf of bread that cost Z$8,000 in May is now Z$50,000.
In supermarkets such as the Bellevue Spar in Bulawayo, staff struggle to keep up with the increases. Every aisle has someone busy with a pricing gun and some items have six or seven price labels, one on top of another. The baked beans on sale for Z$66,000 five days ago have just been repriced at Z$125,000. Hardly anyone in the shop seems to be buying anything. People stare at prices and window shop as if they were ata luxury department store.
“We’re going round from place to place to see if any shop has items it hasn’t yet marked up,” says Charles, a young man with dreadlocks who is foreman of a local factory.
He has just discovered hair gel for Z$30,000 that is going for Z$130,000 elsewhere, so he buys up six to sell on the street.
Others, such as a white-haired pensioner, walk out with nothing. His monthly pension is not even enough to buy a toilet roll, he tells me.
The desperate situation has led to some appalling acts. In the state-owned Herald newspaper last week was the story of a Rushinga man who murdered his 10-year-old son with an axe for eating four mice that were meant for the family dinner.
Power cuts are so common that at night the centre of Harare is as dark as remote countryside. The government recently announced 20-hour power cuts, but some areas of the capital often go without for three days at a time. People sell bundles of firewood in the city centre. Many areas of Bulawayo and some parts of Harare have no water.
The state-owned media blame it all on a plot by British and American governments. Last week the Chronicle wrote: “We can reveal that British and US governments, after failing to incite a public revolt against the government of Zimbabwe, are now working overtime to destroy the economy, mutilate the Zimbabwe dollar, foment civil unrest . . .”
Few are taken in. For the first time in years of going to Zimbabwe, I found people speaking out openly, suggesting that anger is overtaking fear in a police state where one person in three is now thought to be an informer.
“The rule of economics is the one law Mugabe cannot break,” said Christopher Dell, the US ambassador, who predicts that inflation will reach 1.5m% by the end of the year. “Historically, no regime has ever survived six or seven-digit inflation.”
Dell’s criticism of the regime has outraged Mugabe and in his office is a framed front page of the Herald with the headline, “Dell can go to hell”.
“They’re printing money at madcap rates to pay for fuel, maize and electricity imports,” he said. “It’s all self-inflicted.
“It’s like when you pull out the plug on a bathtub. First the water goes slowly but then as it gets near the plughole, it starts swirling faster and faster. I think we’re in the final swirl.”
Dell admits it could get even worse after Mugabe. “I think we could see a period of instability with maybe three or four presidents in a row,” he said. “The most dangerous thing will be if the military gets involved.” At the moment the least threat to Mugabe seems to come from the opposition. The MDC has been crippled, first by internal splits, then by the regime’s silent campaign of torture and intimidation.
“Of course we’ve gone quiet—we’ve been battling to stay alive,” said Bennett in exile in South Africa.
“In the last month I’ve had an influx of more than 30 members of the senior leadership running away from the police and seeking asylum.”
Following the beatings of the party’s president, Morgan Tsvangirai, and other senior members, which drew international condemnation in March, Mugabe’s thugs set about destroying the MDC’s entire network.
“They raided our headquarters and seized all our computers and accessed documents so they could see who’s who in all our structures,” Bennett said. “Then they systematically went about arresting all our members so it’s impossible for us to organise.”
Although many have criticised Tsvangirai’s lack of leadership, the opposition is not helped by the make-do culture of most Zimbabweans. “No one is ever going to rise up,” said a restaurant owner in Harare. “If there’s no power, we light a candle. If there are no candles, we light a fire.”
Mugabe’s exhausted population has no time or energy for protests. Every morning a flood of people can be seen walking into Harare and Bulawayo—the so-called “human train” of people walking for up to four hours to get to work because they cannot afford the fare.
Many are surviving on remittances sent from the estimated 4m Zimbabweans who have left the country—almost a third of the population. Just £10 a month sent back would triple the salary of a teacher such as Sithole.
Shops and factories across the country have been closing, unable to afford imported raw materials. Bakeries in the southern town of Masvingo on Friday suspended the production of bread following a government order to reduce prices by 50%.
“We no longer have an industry to talk about,” said Callisto Jokonya, the head of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries. “We have deindustrialised ourselves.”
At one clothing factory in Harare, the owner said he had lost 10% of his workforce in the past two weeks. “Frankly I don’t know why workers still come,” he shrugged. “It can only be hope.”
Hope is all they have in many rural areas such as Matabeleland in the south of the country. A severe drought has resulted in a 95% crop failure in the south and in villages around Plumtree, one family after another showed their recent maize harvest was enough for only two or three weeks. Nationwide, the country’s harvest of maize, its staple crop, is thought to have been between 500,000-800,000 tons, compared to annual needs of 1.4m tons.
Yet this works in Mugabe’s favour because he will again be able to use food as a political tool in the run-up to elections next March.
If the situation seems grave in rural areas, things are even worse in parts of Bulawayo.
A whole community of people whose homes were demolished by the government two years ago now live on the Richmond rubbish dump, surviving by foraging for glass bottles and plastic.
Remedio Moyo, 26, shows the black plastic shelter he lives under with his wife and children aged three and five. Small black flies cover everything.
“This is not a proper life,” he said. “I went to school and all I wanted from life was a job anda small house, not to be a big man. There is only one person to blame for this situation and I would like that man to die any minute.”
Pius Ncube, the outspoken Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, said things were now so desperate that he was calling on the West to invade and oust Mugabe’s regime.
“Anyone who is ready to starve his people to death for the sake of power is a murderer,” Ncube said. “What more does he have to do?”