Life goes on despite economic decay


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Godie is an architect. He loves his beer. But when he has had one too many, he starts lambasting bottle store owners.

“How can you expect the country to prosper when it is run by bottle store owners?” he asks in a soft drawl. But he is very serious.

His colleague, an engineer, asks: “But they do not all own bottle stores?”

“I am not saying they all run bottle stores,” Godie says. “But they all think like bottle stores owners. All they are interested in are quick returns. They are not prepared for long term investments. They want their profits now. This lack of foresight has destroyed our country.”

Though Godie is the only drinker in the group, people quickly gather around to hear his theory.

“Everyone should have seen it coming, but no one paid attention. At independence most of the United (now Zupco) Buses were heading to the industrial sites each morning and evening. They only started taking people to town after delivering industrial workers.

“More and more buses started heading to town. The drift was sealed with the introduction of emergency taxis. Everyone was now heading to the city centre. Industry began to die, a slow, but painful death. Production declined until there was none. People started selling services, until there were no takers. And finally they started selling money itself. That’s where we are now.”

Godie’s theory maybe too simplistic but it reflects what has happened in Zimbabwe over the past few years. The massive bus termini that were dotted around most of the key industrial areas like Belmont and Donnington in Bulawayo, Workington and Graniteside in Harare just to name a few, are now white elephants.

They were designed for a booming industrial sector and cannot be converted into anything else. They would have made ideal market stalls but they are too far from customers.

The rot started soon after the boom in the first three to four years of independence when government ministers discovered they could make money with impunity by selling cars from the government-owned motor assembly plant at Willowvale. Despite the widely publicised scandal and commission of inquiry, most got away scot-free.

But the economy started coughing. The dollar, which was stronger than all hard currencies, started plummeting. Inflation started rising. The government introduced an economic structural adjustment programme that promised hardship in the initial years and milk and honey after five-years. But it was a total flop. Growth averaged only 1.2 percent instead of 5 percent a year.

With a restless population, especially those who had participated in the liberation struggle, the government was forced to implement a rushed land reform programme and to reward the war veterans.

Things went haywire and the economy has not recovered since.

Now only 4 percent of industry is operating at full capacity. Everyone has moved to the city centre. Operation Murambatsvina, though hailed a success, has failed to drive people out of the city centres.

A new breed of entrepreneur, a speculator has developed. The speculator does not produce anything but looks out for bargains, shortages and price disparities. On seeing something cheap, the speculator cleans the supermarket shelves, puts a mark-up and sells it at a higher price.

The speculator makes millions but does not in any way promote production. Commerce and industry continue to die. The few available goods become expensive. And because he or she makes money easily, the speculator blows the money easily as well, patronising fast-food outlets, hotels and the increasingly popular out-of-town braai spots.

But because there is no production taking place, the economy continues to shrink. People lose jobs. Industry struggles to survive and sells the few products it is able to manufacture at ever escalating prices. Sadly, it becomes cheaper to buy imported products than locally produced ones. But because most people are unemployed and inflation erodes workers’ incomes, people have no choice but to buy the cheaper, lower quality products.

Life suddenly turns into a survival game. More and more income has to be spent on food and accommodation. It turns into a vicious circle. Work, home, work and suddenly one realises that one will starve even with that full-time job unless one joins the circle of speculators, or steals from one’s employer.

There is something for everyone to sell within one’s trade or profession. The hospital worker steals drugs. Staff from milling companies steal the mealie meal. Teachers go for exercise books or exam papers. Driving schools offer fake drivers’ licences. Magistrates, police and prison officers set criminals free. Journalists spike stories for a fee. The list goes on.

Result, total breakdown of the rule of law. But no one realises this. Everyone is busy trying to earn a living, blaming the next guy for the economic decay.

While all this is happening, someone has to keep the fires burning through promises that keep the people hoping that things will change for the better.

“The fuel situation is set to improve because of the discovery of jatropha,” people are told. Or: “Tourism is set to recover following the acquisition of new planes by Air Zimbabwe.” Because of the constant blackouts, someone says: “Power shortages will soon become a thing of the past following the discovery of uranium in northern Zimbabwe.”

And so life goes on. As things get tougher, bottle store owners make more money as people try to drown their sorrows, only to wake up broke the following morning. But the problem is still there.

Posted-13 April 2006

 

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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.

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