Thomas Jefferson, we know you're there somewhere. The third U.S. president is visible only as a smudge on most two-dollar bills in circulation here, a victim of mass overuse in Zimbabwe's cash-only economy. Quaint as a $2 bill? Maybe in the United States, but here in sub-Saharan Africa $2 minted by the U.S. Treasury is sought after. "Don't you have a two?" bemoaned Amelia, a flea-market vendor in Harare upset that I tried to pay for purchases with a new $5 bill.
Two dollars will buy a loaf of bread in Zimbabwe-the highest price in southern Africa but less than just over 18 months ago. Then a loaf of bread went for 1 billion Zimbabwean dollars.
That's when government leaders, to cope with 18 months of stratospheric inflation that reached 90 sextillion percent (that's 90 with 20 zeroes after it), declared their currency dead and adopted a "multi-currency" system-in which U.S. dollars, South African rands, or British pounds are formally accepted for all transactions. For now, it's the almighty dollar that rules. What few are in circulation become so soiled, in fact, that they are regularly washed and hung on clotheslines alongside the day's laundry.
Outsiders assumed that the 2009 dollarization solved Zimbabwe's economic problems while the formation of a unity government mended its political crisis. Both are far from true. And as the unity government's two-year mandate draws to an end and the country prepares for elections in 2011, many Zimbabweans fear a return to the violence and hardship from which they have only just begun to recover.
Gone may be the days when it took box loads of Zimbabwean dollars to buy groceries. But along with overseas currency have come mostly overseas prices. Things like school fees, appliances, and real estate have in some cases gone up tenfold. Grocery stores are stocked-unlike during the height of the African nation's 2008 crisis when shelves were bare for over a year-but the price for a box of cereal rivals what American shoppers pay. Zimbabweans are increasingly reliant on imports, which are expensive, and on government control of the money supply, which is tight. And jobs, unlike food items, have not come back: Zimbabwe has the highest unemployment rate of any ranked country in the world-at a reported 95 percent.
Neither has liquidity returned. Want to buy a home in Harare? Be prepared to pay 15 percent interest on a mortgage, and to pay off the loan within two years. "We're lucky to get 12-15 month money for commercial loans," said a banker who asked not to be named because she feared the risk to her employer. "And no one can make a business start with that."
Local business startups and overseas investment are further hampered by controversial rules imposed by President Robert Mugabe's ZANU PF regime, which came to power in 1980 and has ruled by force nearly ever since: The state insists on at least 51 percent indigenous ownership by black Africans of all businesses. That's chased off foreign investors like Caterpillar and others who once operated mechanical, textile, and agricultural factories outside Harare. For a country with abundant natural and industrial resources, and with an average literacy rate of over 90 percent, economic rebound is awaited but slow to come, particularly as foreign debt arrears mounts-to over $7 billion.
The lesson of the hyperinflation crisis in 2007-2008 at all levels (and for other nations courting inflationary policies) was "if you have money, by all means spend it, and quickly." At that time, recalled Itai Gurira, "The money that you got paid at the end of the month was not enough to pay for transportation for one week. Inflation was so bad that people's salaries got to be not enough to pay bus fare for one day." People lost the incentive to work and learned instead to barter their way through life or turn to "suspect ways of living," he said.
The corruption that for decades has typified Mugabe's government now permeates the street: Illegal cabs and vendors make havoc as they haggle for business on Harare's roadsides. Drivers rarely stop for traffic lights, especially at night, because they fear robbery or carjacking. Rolling up the windows and locking the doors isn't a remedy: Even by daylight thugs are known to smash car windows using bricks, grab whatever's inside the car, and run.
The city's deterioration is especially tragic given that Harare (known as Salisbury in then-Rhodesia) was one of the loveliest cities in sub-Saharan Africa and that the country at its independence in 1965 managed a diversified economy with advanced infrastructure and finance. The protracted struggle from white minority to black majority government ended in 1980 when Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) took power.
But suffering under his increasingly repressive rule reached a low point in 2007 with hyperinflation. Mugabe lost general elections in March 2008 to rival Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) but neither party won a majority, forcing a runoff. Scarce commodities and extreme violence led up to the runoff-with human-rights groups documenting over 350,000 election-related injuries, including rape and torture.
At one point Tsvangirai himself was arrested, forcing him to drop out of the race. With the government imposing wage and price controls, workers-including doctors, teachers, bus drivers, and other city workers-went on strike and stores could no longer afford to stock goods. For more than a year, stores were empty, transportation halted, and even hospitals closed. By November 2008 prices were doubling on average every 24.7 hours (rivaled in economic history only by a similar period in 1946 Hungary).
In 2009 a regional coalition led by South Africa negotiated a unity government, with Mugabe as president and Tsvangirai as prime minister. The arrangement was momentous, considering that during one of Tsvangirai's arrests Mugabe's thugs beat him to the point of collapse and threw him out of a window. But instead of leading the country toward democracy, the configuration has saddled what was the opposition with joint responsibility for Mugabe's policies.
Memories of 2008's daily hardships are fresh: "Buying bread was a chore everyone dreaded," said Gurira. "You'd start queuing at 5 a.m. and five hours later you might have one loaf. Then you had to queue at the bank to get enough money to go back home." Gurira, who lost his job during that time and is now studying to become a teacher, keeps at home a stack of 100 trillion dollar notes issued by the government during the crisis, he says to remind him of what could happen again.
Few Americans realize they have a vested interest in what happens next in this southern African nation. The U.S. government is Zimbabwe's biggest donor-providing more than $1 billion in aid since 2002, including an additional 10 percent pledged for next year for development and treatment of HIV/AIDS.
How much government-to-government aid reaches the street is hard to say, but churches and local charities continue to play a large role bridging the gap for Zimbabweans who live below the poverty line-by some estimates over 80 percent of the country's 12 million people. Gurira has been working with the Social Concerns program at Central Baptist Church, a downtown Harare church with roots reaching back to the British colonial era, when it was an all-white congregation. Now the congregation is mostly black. At the height of the food crisis in 2008 the church was feeding over 2,000 families a month; today its food program continues to feed 350 families on a monthly basis, in addition to also running a vocational training program for young women and helping to launch microfinance programs in the city.
Many continue to come to the church for regular food distributions. On Saturdays Gurira and other young workers travel the city to deliver food parcels to those who can't make it and to check on the living circumstances of others they help. On the Saturday that I made visits with them, our first stop was the home of Annie Joseni, whose brother-in-law had just died of AIDS. Joseni lives in a "high-density area" called Mufakose, helping to support her now-widowed sister and three children, along with her mother and a mentally disabled cousin. The only food evident in their two-room home when we arrived was a struggling plot of kale and okra in the front yard. The church provided cooking oil, maize, and other staples, and Joseni promptly slumped down on her slab floor to pray in thanksgiving.
"I feel overwhelmed," Gurira said of such outreach. "We are a little sandbag in the middle of a flooding river."
The Social Concerns group makes regular rounds to other high-density areas, where slum-like conditions prevail and ZANU PF youth gangs often predominate. One week after I made rounds with the church workers, police barred them from delivering food or visiting clients in Mbare, a restive area where housing once built as dormitories (to house black male workers) now is overcrowded with extended families living in dilapidated one-room dorms.
Officers told the group they would need to apply for permission to visit Mbare, which would take three to five days and be valid for only one day. "The police did not seem to be convinced of our good intention despite evidence to the contrary," reported Social Concerns head Tom Rakabopa.
Many fear that such roadblocks signal a return to election-year harassment and intimidation. Instead of regarding the charity work as much-needed help, ZANU PF zealots often see it as a threat to the regime, or an instrument of the opposition. "There are always threats, and people go along out of fear," said one Zimbabwean who asked not to be identified-out of fear.
"Nobody would dispute the statement that in free and fair elections Morgan Tsvangirai would emerge as the clear winner. Our difficulty is getting free and fair elections," said Eddie Cross, a member of Parliament and economic adviser to Tsvangirai. Cross, who is white, opposed the white rule of Ian Smith but joined the MDC in 1999 over the corruption and decline under the black rule of Mugabe.
"Yes, we are part of the government now," he said of the MDC, "but we don't have any hard power. And the only real power to change our circumstances lies with regional leaders, like South Africa . . . but they are ambivalent." One reason for that, Cross believes, is that regional leaders are themselves tied to their own revolutionary parties that led their countries out from colonial-era rule to black rule, and they are unwilling to turn against ZANU PF: "We have mixed feelings about democracy in this part of the world."
Earlier this month a coalition of church groups issued a strongly worded statement in light of increasing reports of intimidation by security forces, calling for an election delay. "The political environment remains highly volatile, uncertain, and tense," the groups said, and "does not favor the holding of elections," which Mugabe wants to take place next June. The joint statement by the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe, the Christian Alliance, and the Student Christian Movement of Zimbabwe warned that 2011 elections will lead to violence. It also said free and fair elections aren't possible unless laws and institutions set up to favor Mugabe's party are changed.
"I believe the church is the strongest force in Zimbabwe next to ZANU PF," one Harare pastor told me. And in recent years it has grown in its opposition to Mugabe, a shift not lost on the president. Mugabe not only has increased pressure on church ministries, the Catholic president also has distanced himself from traditional church activities in favor of a growing sect known as Vapostori, or apostolics.
In July Mugabe made an unexpected appearance at a Vapostori gathering wearing a long white robe and carrying a long stick typical of the group. Vapostori congregate usually outdoors and sometimes for days at a time, dotting the hillsides with their starched-white head coverings. Some wear or carry crosses, but the group is syncretistic, blending tribal worship with Christian teaching along with charms and potions.
"Some of the churches have very beautiful buildings but go against the Bible. Could that be God's church?" Mugabe said, referencing the Anglican Church, which he said "condones marriages between men." Mugabe and the Anglican Church have long tangled: In 2008 the church excommunicated Nolbert Kunonga, the former bishop of Harare and an ally of Mugabe, for trying to withdraw his diocese and seize church property. Mugabe in return gave Kunonga a farm confiscated from a white farmer (see sidebar). Recently, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said Anglican bishops in Zimbabwe have been threatened with assassination.
John Bell, senior pastor at Central Baptist, believes that despite the circumstances, the church continues to have an important role to play. "I am not hopeful in terms of the country. I think it is going to stay bad or get worse. But I am very hopeful about the church. If I didn't think the church makes a difference, I wouldn't still be here. And the church as people of God are doing well. This is what God does in bad times-He does good for His people."
Gary and Jane Sharp have spent over 10 years trying to hold onto their 3,000-acre farm at Shamva in northeastern Zimbabwe, which they moved to with government permission in 1987, but in September-following a lengthy court battle and the seizure of their home that left their son trapped inside-they gave it up.
Sharp had successfully diversified a traditional cotton, maize, and wheat operation to include tomatoes, citrus, and bananas, earning buy-in from Malaysian investors and gross crop revenue of $1.5 million a year. He employed 500 black workers. "But early on we were given an ultimatum, either give up half or lose all of it to the state," he said.
Commercial farming in Zimbabwe was majority white-owned until just over a decade ago, when President Robert Mugabe launched a policy of land confiscation to forcibly turn farm management from successful white owners to black, politically connected farmers who in most cases proved agriculturally illiterate. Zimbabwe's farm population-including blacks employed in white-owned operations-a decade ago totaled 2 million. Today it is 350,000. Of nearly 5,000 white commercial farm operations, less than 600 remain.
"It's almost impossible to hold a rational discussion about land in Africa," said Eddie Cross, a member of Parliament from MDC, the opposition party now in a unity government with Mugabe. "If you are white and a farmer and you own land, then you are part of the colonial past, even if your family has been here for generations. You are naked in a snowstorm." Cross (who is white) said land reform has been needed to allow blacks an agricultural stake, "but what's emerged in Zimbabwe is criminal land reform."
Extensive media coverage of violent confrontations between white farmers and black ZANU PF units sent to chase them from their farms has recently subsided. But the violent confrontations have not.
Sharp agreed to divide his farm because he had seen the protracted battles other farm owners endured with the government. But that didn't stop armed Zanu PF youth gangs from harassing his workers, and at one point for three weeks surrounding the Sharp home with the couple's 23-year-old son locked inside, able to get food only through neighbors. During that time the government besiegers also did extensive crop damage.
The Sharps went to court and eventually won their case, but despite the ruling authorities tried to arrest Sharp earlier this year and eventually succeeded in forcing the case back to court. "We were carrying on believing we had the blessing of the authorities, but we had nothing," he said. After another court proceeding attended by Mrs. Sharp in June to secure the family's personal belongings, she was arrested upon leaving the court and held in the Shamva jail overnight. That was enough to convince the Sharps to give up the battle (leaving hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment and crops on the property) and begin looking for an alternative form of income. Continued confiscations ironically are uniting many blacks and whites in opposition to Mugabe as it becomes clear that black farm workers suffer, too, and commercial farming is on its heels. As Sharp said, "It's destroyed our community."