Polo

19 07 2016

poloponyThere I was, this last Sunday, photographing polo whilst Zimbabwe “burned”. To be sure it most certainly was not the polo of Jilly Cooper novels; helicopters, luxury cars and champagne were not evident and I saw ponies leaving the venue in plain old farmers’ trucks open to the weather.

The polo grounds just outside Harare are, like the rest of the country, not up to their former glory and I do have to wonder how they keep going. The venue is hired out to social events at other times of the year but the grounds are still up to hosting an international event as was happening on Sunday. How do they do it? There was no entrance fee and it was not well advertised on the social media. But for just over an hour that afternoon we could forget about the “imminent collapse” of the country and watch a game that most of the people I chatted to knew little about.

The match was billed as an international between Zimbabwe and South Africa. Nobody I chatted to knew if it was THE South African team. They didn’t look very good and the Zimbabwe team dominated them. It was bitterly cold but I guess the ponies didn’t mind.

 





Restoration and order

16 07 2016
Appropriate slogan

Appropriate slogan

This slogan on the back of a school  bus that I spotted in the industrial sites on Tuesday was strangely appropriate for this last week.

On Monday, Pastor Evan Mawarire, the face behind #Thisflag, released a video clip announcing that the police were requesting to interview him the following day and that the proposed stay-away for Wednesday and Thursday may or may not succeed. He was duly arrested the following day and charged with inciting public violence and disturbing the peace. Alex Magaisa, a Zimbabwean expert on constitutional law who is based in the UK, found it an odd charge given that Pastor Evan (as he is known) has consistently called for peaceful shows of displeasure.

I had to take a trip to the other side of the airport on Tuesday – a route that is normally fraught with police roadblocks. There was only one by the Groombridge shopping centre on College Road. It’s a favorite due to the nature of the stop street and the left turn where motorists are tempted to creep forward over the delimiting line in order to see oncoming traffic. So where were the others? Preparing for the next day’s stay-away?

Meanwhile Grace Mugabe, the president’s wife, took off for Singapore for a bit of shopping in a safer environment. She may also have been celebrating an award given her earlier by the ZNCC (Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce); the “Outstanding Value Investment Addition Award in recognition of the massive work she has done at (her) Gushungu Dairy and her children’s home in Mazowe”. Given that the aforementioned dairy is a massive cash sink, Dr Mugabe as she is referred to in The Herald article, must have been celebrating this extraordinary display of lèche derrière/brown-nosing. Or maybe she was feeling uneasy in the increasingly vitriolic atmosphere of the social media which was actually working sans VPN this time around. Yes, she apparently did get a PhD, in 3 months, at the local University of Zimbabwe. Her thesis is apparently no longer in the library.

Wednesday’s stay away dawned peacefully and not as well observed as last week.  Pastor Evan’s trial was scheduled for the afternoon and a massive crowd congregated peacefully at the court in Rotten Row together with a large number of lawyers who volunteered their services. The police had changed the charges to something more akin to sedition. Their error as the magistrate threw the case out as it was successfully argued that Pastor Evan could not have had a fair trial under these conditions. The crowd celebrated  peacefully and a new hero was born. Social media speculated that the post of Prosecutor General would soon be vacant and someone suggested Alex Magaisa who said it wasn’t his forté; he “would get bored dealing with criminals”. The Zimbabwe situation finally makes the South African news headlines. Only on Thursday do we get on BBC.

The police searched Pastor Evan’s house looking for a police “button” (they meant baton) and helmet. Ridicule followed and a picture was posted of someone looking for the missing “button” at the back of a sofa. A sharp-eyed and clear-memoried person noted that this was not even an original idea as Morgan Tsvangirai of the opposition MDC party had had exactly the same charge leveled at him some 10 years ago (a photo of the actual charge was produced). Nothing suspicious was found at Pastor Evan’s house.

On Thursday evening I received an email from an acquaintance saying that the Ministry of Defense had grounded all UAVs (drones in most people’s lexicon). No reason was given and the Civil Aviation Authority couldn’t clarify this. Was someone panicking and why? I have 3 multicopters of which 2 can be considered toys. The third is looking for work to pay for itself! I guess it may have to wait a while.

A drone's eye view of the farm where I live

A drone’s eye view of the farm where I live

Friday and I’m looking for wages for a week’s time. I have worked out that if my application to one bank to withdraw cash en masse fails I’ll have to go the multi-account withdrawal route. In all I have 3 accounts; 1 personal and 2 corporate. By moving money around I can withdraw $800 per day – $300 each from the corporate accounts and $200 from my personal. I put the application in anyway and the clerk drops a broad hint that those accounts that receive cash receive more favorable consideration to withdraw it. I point out that putting money in merely to withdraw it later is pointless, expensive and anyway, can I trust the bank to give it back? My cash takings have plummeted by 70% in June over May.  I withdraw the $300 anyway and the teller laughs when I point out, loudly, that his drawer is full of cash. It’s not as much as it looks he says. When I ask if he has plenty of South African rand he says no, that’s also restricted to $300 equivalent per day.

Although Pastor Evan claims no political affiliation his demands to government have broad appeal.

  1. Pay civil servants on time
  2. Reduce roadblocks and stop officers harassing people for cash
  3. President Robert Mugabe should fire and prosecute corrupt officials
  4. Plans to introduce bond notes to ease a cash shortage should be abandoned
  5. Remove a recent ban on imported goods.

It’s notable that the Reserve Bank already seems to be back-tracking on the bond notes. They were supposed to be releasing $200m of them in October. Now that’s been pushed back to December. Today’s press notes that the Government is still behind on last month’s wages. President Mugabe is joining his wife in Singapore and the cops were out in force yesterday. The ban on importing basic goods looks like a bad idea and probably unenforceable. And government corruption? Yes.

According to the newspapers...

According to the newspapers…





Blame it on the Cremora

6 07 2016

Cremora, that coffee creamer stuff, can no longer be imported into Zimbabwe. Actually, there’s quite a long list of goods that are now prohibited including dairy products, steel, bottled water and more. This first came into effect (yes, it’s been rescinded and reinstated at least once) some 10 days ago and immediately sparked riots at the southern border post of Beitbridge on the South African frontier. Customs officials were confiscating goods that cross-border traders in this country depended on to make a living. Normally placid Zimbabweans were incensed and rioted. The revenue authority backed down. Then the ruling was reinstated and the riots started again. A warehouse was burnt which apparently contained new bonded vehicles.

On Monday, perhaps inspired by these events, minibus drivers clashed with police in the southern suburban areas and in Ruwa, a small town to the east of Harare. Word was they were fed up with the bullying attitude of the police at roadblocks. Even the government owned Herald newspaper weighed in on this topic a couple of weeks back, criticizing the police. A disturbing photo of a policeman wielding an AK47 with one booted foot on the head of a protester did the rounds. I was sent a particularly brutal video clip of police beating protesters. Yesterday civil servants were due to go on strike over delayed wages and the first reports of WhatsApp started to filter in. Evan Mawarire of #ThisFlag fame sent out an impassioned and widely circulated video calling for a national shutdown today. He emphasized for it to be peaceful and non-political, calling for the government to act against rampant corruption that had been detailed in the Auditor General’s report submitted to parliament last week. She estimated that around US$1bn had been misappropriated by government officials in 2015 alone (this is about 8% of the GDP). The ZTV news report started the day with a story about grain millers (it’s a government channel) and nothing was said about any disturbances.

This morning, while at work (we were closed for business but seedlings don’t stop growing in protest), I received 2 calls from friends in Germany obviously concerned about developments. One was on WhatsApp the other on Skype. They could hear me but I couldn’t hear them. When I got home for lunch there were widespread reports on Facebook about the apparent blocking of social media by the government. There were also more than a few suggestions about how to circumvent the blocks with VPNs (virtual private networks).  Photos abounded of empty streets and shopping centres. Hackers have taken down government websites in punishment for blocking WhatsApp. Facebook is currently unavailable on my desktop computer which has no VPN. My phone has one and I can read FB.

The Zimbabwe Government is broke and cannot pay its employees, including the military. Hence the restrictions on imports which are depleting the national coffers due to our appalling balance of trade deficit. Zimbabwe produces little of anything these days due to government actively scaring away investors by insisting that companies investing have a 51% locals shareholding. The once productive agricultural sector is moribund; most commercial farmers were evicted in a disastrous land reform exercise in the early 2000s.

The Minister of Finance, Patrick Chinamasa, and his entourage are in London begging for money. Their meetings with interested parties were poorly attended and they had to be escorted by the police as he exited Chatham House and was confronted by The Vigil – Zimbabwean protestors living in the UK.

Quite who dreamed up the list of imports to be restricted to save us money is not clear. Yes, we can do without bottled water and imported vegetables but Cremora? Really, how much is that going to save us? Of course the MDC opposition was quick to take advantage and claim that various ruling party members were favoring their local business. A bit too quick as it turns out. A MDC politician making just this claim on South African TV could not show that this was indeed the case. Twit.

And no, I don’t even use Cremora.





Déjà vu

13 06 2016
Just change the date and the bank details...

Just change the date and the bank details…

 

It was quite simple really. All I had to do was open the “Labour”
folder in Microsoft Word, look for a file with “wages request” in the title and change the date and the bank on the existing letter (above). Back in 2008 the hyper inflation was raging, shop shelves were empty, money was being printed and the money changers were making small fortunes.

Now we are in 2016 and money is about to be printed, shop shelves are full for the time being and money changers are making small fortunes if they have access to cash. And I have to make an application to the bank to withdraw my own money as cash for wages.

Last Friday I’d called in at my local bank to check on cash withdrawal limits; $300 per day for small businesses. The bank manager suggested I get my staff to open accounts so that they could use debit cards. I pointed out that a number of my labour force signed their name with an X. They were pretty much illiterate. How was I going to explain that a piece of plastic now represented cash and the actual money was held at an institution which they didn’t trust in the first place. Well then, she suggested, I should make an application to withdraw cash but they couldn’t promise anything.

So here I was, a little over 8 years later, changing minor details on a letter so that once again, I might get access to my own money to pay wages. Yes, they are US dollars now but I couldn’t help but feel a strong sense of déjà vu.  (I did also have to change the phone numbers and email address on the footer.)





VAWZ scruffs show 2016

12 06 2016

It’s that time of year when for just a morning we can forget all the nonsense of living in Zimbabwe, the impending disaster of the bond notes, the pantomime that is politics and just be normal. It’s the annual VAWZ, fundraising, scruffs dog show. All dogs are welcome, breeds and otherwise. There were demonstrations by the Harare Kennel Club including a nearly blind Labarador that insisted on completing the agility course. Tomorrow, well, that’s another day.





Insults and injury

19 05 2016

From today’s papers:

The injury. Whilst farmers evicted from Zimbabwe who have settled in Zambia have ensured that country has a surplus of maize around 500k tonnes, we are going hungry here.

The injury. Whilst farmers evicted from Zimbabwe who have settled in Zambia have ensured that country has a surplus of maize around 600k tonnes, we here are going hungry.

 

 

And the insult. Not only are bananas perishable but the gift also included yams which are not eaten here. And it was all imported from Equatorial Guinea just when we are restricting imports of, among other things, foodstuffs.

And the insult. Not only are bananas perishable but the gift also included yams which are not eaten here. And it was all imported from Equatorial Guinea just when we are restricting imports of, among other things, foodstuffs.

 





Return of the Zimbabwe dollar

6 05 2016

There was a demonstration against the rule of Robert Mugabe recently. That’s not news by most country’s standards but it most certainly is news here. It was small, about 2000 participants, but noisy and although the police originally refused permission the High Court granted permission. So what exactly is happening here? Is this the beginning of the end of the Mugabe regime?

I was in town for my French lesson with Shelton. He was late, comme d’habitude, as he has to rely on the notoriously erratic minibuses. While I was waiting a call came through from an unknown number.

“Hello, is that Mr Roberts?”

“Yes it is”.

“I am name given from  ZANU-PF Gomba District at your office. I am requesting a donation for Monday”.

“What’s happening on Monday?”

“It’s Independence Day”.

I’d genuinely forgotten this most sacred of Zimbabwean holidays. There aren’t a lot of reasons to remember it. After 36 years we have steadily regressed to the point where currency restrictions are being reimposed because our balance of trade is so heavily skewed towards imports that we are once again running out of money. No, we cannot just print some more as we did with the Zimbabwe dollar; we are now using the US dollar. We don’t even have a currency of our own. Well so I thought.

Shelton told me that for 3 days this week he’d been translating at a feminist conference in town. It wasn’t just feminists, the whole spectrum of LGBTIQ (I had to ask what the last 2 letters meant) were there and it was quite an experience for him. No holds barred; there were tears, shouting and bad language aplenty but as he said just that it happened at all was remarkable. It would have been unthinkable just a few years back. Progress perhaps?

Bond coins - not enough for this cup of coffee!

Bond coins – not enough for this cup of coffee!

Then today I was on the way to do some company shopping in the industrial sites when I saw the newspaper placards advertising that the Reserve Bank is introducing bond notes. Bond notes? Really? We already have bond coins that are useful only in Zimbabwe and are on parity with the US dollar which is our de facto currency, but bond notes? Is this the start of the return of the Zimbabwe dollar as was suspected when the coins were introduced? Those fears were unfounded – it was just a means to alleviate the chronic shortage of small change – but it only gained acceptance when the South African rand plunged in value. We’d been using the rand coins, which fortuitously were one tenth the value of the US dollar, but when the rand started to run the bond coins became acceptable. Rand paper money also became unacceptable and the US dollar now rules supreme representing 95% of the currency in circulation. I decided to see where the public opinion lay.

Newspaper vendors on Coventry Road in the industrial sites were my first target.

“Can I pay for your newspapers with bond notes?”

“Yes” (no, I can’t – they haven’t been released yet)

“The Zimbabwe dollar is back!”

Nervous giggles – clearly I was not going to get a response here.

I stopped at the Zimbabwe Fertilizer Company yard to buy some gypsum. Despite my best provocations the clerk who served me would not be drawn to any sort of opinion on the matter. I was more blunt with the labourers who loaded the fertilizer. They were so bored with the lack of business that even those not involved wandered over.

“Pamberi ne ZANU-PF” (forward with the ruling party) I shouted and gave a clenched fist salute. Laughter.

“Pamberi ne Zimbabwe dollar” elicited a similar response. Nobody showed much interest in a debate.

My campaign reached it’s finale at the accounting office where I had to sign my companies’ annual returns (to indicate they were still active). The clerk’s response to my provocation was simply; “Ah, but what can we do?”. Protest perhaps?

Getting onto the internet at home was instructive. A statement from the Reserve Bank governor was circulating that was instructive and entertaining. The bond notes are going to be issued in $20, $10 $5 and $2 denominations and will be equivalent to their US cousins. They will be backed by a bond (hence the name) of $200 million from the Africa Export-Import Bank though they will be released as necessary (the $50m that backed the release of the bond coins last year has not all been used). But why are we in this mess?

  • as the economy has declined our balance of trade deficit has ballooned. There is less money around to buy the cash we need. It’s going into importing goods.
  • the cash we need has dwindled because it has become a commodity in itself. People are hoarding it because they don’t trust the banking system that let them down so badly in the past. The Reserve Bank estimates that some $3b – $7b is circulating in the informal sector and never goes through banks.
  • the countries around us with more volatile currencies are eager to get hold of US dollars and are mopping it up any way they can.
  • the cash is being illegally exported. Who is responsible? In the words of a teller at a bank I deal with  – “The big men are stealing it all”. Also the Chinese. One was caught recently at Harare airport leaving with a large amount of cash.

So the elastoplast fix is multi-faceted. Heavy restrictions on imports especially luxury items. Raw materials, medicines and fuels are unrestricted. Paying for students overseas is restricted. Cash withdrawals are limited to $1000 per day. This should make paying wages for the big companies interesting. There are heavy restrictions on taking cash out the country but I saw nothing about using local Visa cards outside the country. Use of plastic money is going to be heavily encouraged and in some cases laughable; “To this end, every business in all geographical areas and sectors of the economy must have a point of sale per till machine or purchase point” in the words of the Reserve Bank governor. Really? That rural bottle store in the Honde Valley must get a POS machine?

So will it work? No, as I said earlier it’s not addressing the source of the problem – the gravely ill economy. Luxury goods will of course be available at a hugely inflated price (better stock up on wine now!) as those who can circumvent restrictions. Local producers will lack competition and hike prices. Cash is already being sold at a 10% markup and really, what will $200m do? Real $100 and $50 notes will be hoarded and smuggled even faster than before and the run on the banks that started some time ago will not stop as people fear the worst. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So is this the return of the Zimbabwe dollar? Whilst the Reserve Bank has stated it has no plans to reintroduce the Zimbabwe dollar I don’t know anyone who actually believes that – apart from maybe itself.

 

 








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