Autumn

19 04 2018

A misty autumn morning

It’s been a strange rainy season. The rain has finally petered out and the mornings are crisp (9 degrees in the photo) but the clear April skies have yet to appear. Of course, here in Zimbabwe, we don’t get the autumn colours of the higher latitudes – we have a sub-tropical climate and what colours there are appear with the new leaves in spring.

The rains arrived pretty much on time in the middle of November and then we had 2 very dry months in December and January. The maize in the foreground of the photo above was starting to look stressed and the general manager of ART Farm where the photo was taken was getting distinctly stressed about the state of the soy beans. Then in February the rains came back with a vengeance and by the end we’d had an almost normal quantity. Distribution is important too and because of the prolonged dry spell yields will not be fantastic. Some parts of the country got excessive rain and others did not plant maize at all.

The economy continues to stagnate. This is not that surprising as it is after all broken and broken economies are not quickly fixed. In the case of Zimbabwe we, and presumably potential investors, are waiting for the general elections the date of which still has to be determined. If the elections are deemed to be free and fair then the money will come. We hope.

The elections have to happen before September. I don’t watch television much and local television not at all but even I have noticed a dearth of campaigning by the parties concerned. The opposition MDC alliance (the original MDC became hopelessly divided  but they seemed to have cobbled together an agreement to stand as a single party) have been holding rallies which apparently have been well attended but the governing ZANU-PF don’t seem to be doing anything. This has made people very suspicious. Either they are super confident that they don’t need to campaign or they are “up to something”. Their track record favors the latter. Newspapers have reported that the military have been dispersed to the rural areas to do the campaigning but nobody actually seems to have evidence of this.

Mary Chiwenga, the wife of the ex-general and now vice president who was key in deposing Robert Mugabe last November, has been reported as helping herself to a government owned farm recently. This seems at odds with the “new dispensation” of president Emmerson Mnangagwa who has promised compensation to commercial farmers evicted under the Mugabe regime and has appealed for the self-same farmers to come back and help rebuild the economy. This may not sit well with prospective investors who shied away for just this reason; a lack of property rights. The story has faded quickly from the local papers who have a notoriously short attention span. When I told my foreman of this latest land grab he commented that this was a “problem with older men who take younger wives that they cannot control” – a clear reference to the profligate land grabbing antics of former president Robert Mugabe’s wife, Grace.

Yesterday was a public holiday – the holiest of holy – Independence Day. In the past crowds would be bussed, sometimes under duress, into the National Sports Stadium to hear then president Robert Mugabe drone on about perceived injustices the rest of the world was inflicting on us. Sanctions was a favorite culprit for the economic mayhem he’d wreaked even though everyone knew they were targeted sanctions against ruling party (mainly) individuals. The crowd had mainly come for the high profile soccer match afterwards.

Sometimes there was a military display and fly-past by the air force. The jets used to practice their run over my workplace but this year they were absent and I’m not even sure there was any sort of celebration at the National Stadium. This did not stop the local branch of ZANU-PF asking me for a donation for their regional party. In the past there had always been an implicit threat that if I didn’t cough up there might be a consequence – farmers have long been a soft target. It says a bit for the changing political atmosphere that this year I turned them down when phoned with “not this year, I have too many financial problems to deal with”. True enough if a bit overstated; it’s been the worst first 3 months of a year for business since we adopted the US dollar as our currency back in February 2009.

We are so used to hearing about the dire state of our economy that I am often mildly surprised to hear about agricultural enterprises that are doing well. Avocados and macadamias are riding their healthy food status wave and those who can are exporting to a near insatiable Chinese market to the extent that macadamia nuts are nearly impossible to find locally. Another horticultural company that I’ve dealt with in the past exports canned cherry peppers in bulk containers and I know an export agent who is concerned about the vast area of blueberries that will come online in 5 years or so – he told me that we lack the infrastructure to export them!

Export markets are highly sort after as the foreign currency earned can be used to import goods. Unless one has a priority requirement such as medical, seed or some other “essential” service it is nearly impossible to import using local currency. A way around this is to purchase the US dollars cash on the market, take it to the bank who will then effect the importation. This is what I did last year to import the coir pith we use in the nursery as a growing medium. I paid a 40% premium at the time – apparently it is now 50%  – and landed the product cheaper from India than I can buy the local equivalent the quality of which I don’t trust.

Medical cannabis is also being grown but is very much a closed market. An email call to someone in the know got me a curt “I’ll contact you when the way forward is clear” reply. I guess I’ll just have to keep looking.

 

 

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It’s mushroom weather

18 02 2018
mushrooms

Mushrooms are thick on the lawn (not edible).

It rained all day Saturday and most of Sunday. Monday and Tuesday there were heavy showers. The dogs are getting tetchy because we cannot get onto the farm where we take them for a run in the morning because it’s too muddy. Even my 4×4 would slide off the road. The bridge over the Gwebi River on the way to work is so potholed that I’m down to first gear. Actually it’s all pretty normal for February which is our wettest month it’s just that I don’t remember the weather being this normal for many years.

For most of the country these “normal” rains have come too late for a meaningful harvest. The first rains in November were on time and heavy but then there was nothing much until Christmas and then another 3 week break. Those who got the maize planted by the first rains in mid November will likely get a reasonable harvest but in some parts of the country no crops at all have been planted.

The new president of Zimbabwe, E.D. Mnangagwa commonly referred to as just ED, has stated that white commercial farmers still on their farms will get a 99 year lease. There are some 200 in this situation down from 4,500 before Robert Mugabe’s catastrophic eviction policy in the early 2000s that effectively destroyed the nation’s economy. This will apparently apply to anyone wanting to go farming but it is not clear how anyone will raise a loan against a long term lease. The banks have said they will not give loans against a lease so it will be interesting to see how this develops. Coupled with poor harvests country-wide and ED has more than a few headaches.

We had dinner with some friends 2 nights ago and the other guests were Swiss embassy staff. Nickolas mentioned that he’d gone into Meikles Hotel in the city centre to be told that it was full and that many of the other hotels were in the same situation. Businessmen are flocking to the country keen to see what investment options may be on offer. The USA government has however renewed sanctions against senior political figures and said they will be reviewed once the elections, that have to be held before September, are over. If they are seen to be free and fair then the sanctions may well be scrapped and, as I suspect, Zimbabwe will be seen to be open for business. Until then our economy continues to slide. The host for the evening works part-time for NamPak, a South African based business, that is big into packaging and the local subsidiary owes the parent company some $36m. They have plenty of money in the local bank but cannot externalise it to settle the debt with the parent company.

And still it rains. I got soaked this afternoon whilst out at the local microlight club as I was about to test a large 4m wingspan model glider that I’d acquired in rather a dilapidated state last year. In the nursery the seedlings are being closely monitored for diseases and the golden orb spiders, conspicuous by their absence over the last 3 years are back. Insects like wet weather too and spiders like insects. They will thrive regardless of the state of the economy.

Not a golden orb spider. This white spider relies on camouflage and ambush rather than a web.

 





Joseph

11 12 2017

Joseph and his diploma – first class!

It’s been nearly a month since the very Zimbabwean coup that forced Robert Mugabe out of his 37 year reign over Zimbabwe. Much has happened.

Emerson Mnangagwa has been sworn in as the new president, he has appointed a cabinet which had to be reshuffled just 2 days later as there were too many non-parliamentarians in it and a budget has been presented for next year. The latter goes a long way to reduce the bloated government budget by making cuts to various ministries and doing away with a lot of travel perks that were the hallmark of the Mugabe regime. Mnangagwa even refused to attend the inauguration of the Kenyan president as he was “too busy” which was not an excuse that Mugabe ever used. The ubiquitous police roadblocks of the Mugabe era are still mercifully absent making everyday commuting much less stressful but not less dangerous – Zimbabweans must still rank as among the continent’s worst drivers.

In his inauguration speech Mnangagwa, or just ED, said that the land redistribution that Mugabe used to trash the country’s economy was irreversible but that displaced farmers would be compensated. No further details have been forthcoming but a friend who farms near Chinhoyi some 1.5hrs NW of Harare had his squatters kicked off by the military last Monday completely unexpectedly. He  immediately got on with his sowing for the summer crops (he’d been at the point of leaving the farm).

The issue of what will become of our domestic/pseudo US dollar currency remains vague. A visit today to a newly opened hardware superstore (well, a superstore by Zimbabwe standards) revealed that prices were still stupidly high if priced in US dollars as the till slip claimed.

Alex Magaisa, a Zimbabwean constitutional law professor working in the UK, was grudgingly impressed by the 2018 budget (you can read his comments here) but Tendai Biti, opposition parliamentarian and one time Finance Minister, was not though I suspect the only budget he’d like would be his own.

The more odious of the G40 faction of the ruling ZANU-PF party that was gunning to get Grace Mugabe, the ex-president’s wife, lined up for her husband’s job, were rounded up, roughed up in the case of Ignatius Chiombo, and paraded before the courts. A judge said that Chiombo had been illegally detained (true) and set a bail of $5000 and he has to report three times a day to a police station. Other odious characters of the G40 group remain at large, probably in South Africa. The most vocal of these is one Jonathan Moyo who is a Twitterer in the mold of Donald Trump. He is also a slime-ball (the Americans do have some delightful terms!).

Zimbabweans have embraced politics. Everyone has an opinion – even the doormat salesman whom I engaged at the traffic lights on 2nd Street and Churchill Avenue – and the national constitution is hotly debated on the social media. My friend Shelton, who uses the public transport extensively, tells me that he’s had minibus drivers go out of their way to drop him off at his destination just to finish the political conversation. People were generally too terrified to discuss politics under the Mugabe regime.

The euphoria immediately following the resignation of Mugabe is now gone. We have been disappointed too many times in the past to get excited. In true Zimbabwe fashion we will wait and see. Joseph, the student in the picture, who did a 4 week attachment earlier this year at my nursery is off to Australia to further his studies. He admitted that he wasn’t that optimistic about Zimbabwe’s future but 4 years is a long time by African standards so who knows what will happen in that time?

 

 





The party is over

23 11 2017

Bob’s birthday celebratory billboard. I had designs on this one but was beaten to it. His glasses are just still visible top right.

It’s been an extraordinary week. Robert Mugabe resigned his presidency at the last moment as a multi-party committee was discussing reasons for his impeachment. Jubilation ran rampant through the country and, here in Harare, people partied for 24 hours straight. They had good reason to – Mugabe had ruled with an iron fist for 37 years and for many people he was the only president they’d known. He tolerated no dissent within or without the party and opponents were eliminated (the Heroes Day public holiday honours list ceased to be shown when it became apparent just how bad drivers many of his opponents were) and freedom of speech existed only in the national constitution. In the end his extreme age and increasingly poor judgement gave his recently fired vice president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, reason to move against him with the assistance of the army who mounted a non-coup (see previous post) and he buckled under the pressure.

Mnangagwa, sometimes known as The Crocodile or just ED, will be sworn in tomorrow as the new president of Zimbabwe. It will be his job to resuscitate the comatose Zimbabwe economy and hopefully bring back a semblance of compliance with the constitution. The first obstacle is a general election that must be held in the first 6 months of next year and already there is speculation about how free and fair it will be for Mnangagwa is the chairman of ZANU-PF, the ruling party that Mugabe claimed as his own over the last 37 years. To assume that the ruling party has any intention of playing free and fair given that they beat and cheated their way to victory in 2008 and 2013 would be naive indeed. The generals who concocted the non-coup that forced Mugabe out will also want their piece of the pie (statesmen they are not) and rewards for the considerable risks they took. We might have decapitated the monster and found a new head but it’s still the same body. A cynical friend commentated that we are just swapping one group of mbhavha (thieves) for another.

One thing the ruling party will need to remember is that the people of Zimbabwe tasted the power of free speech and expression and may not be so subservient as in the past. The street protests of the past Saturday and Tuesday were unprecedented in our history and amazingly peaceful. As one wag put it; “Only in Zimbabwe does the crime rate go down when the crowds protest and the police are locked up” (the military have made sure that the ubiquitous police roadblocks have been absent over the past week). There were no reports of violence or looting – remarkable considering that the crowds in Harare numbered well into the 100,000s. It was of course expedient for the non-coup plotters to approve of the demonstrations to show the world (we were immensely popular on the news channels for the last 10 days) that the population supported them and the social media was completely unfettered. Will this practice continue or will we suffer the same fate as the Egyptian Arab spring of the past where ex-military types are common in the government?

Now that the headaches have faded and sobriety of body and spirit have returned, Zimbabweans are starting to question just how sincere Mnangagwa is. He’s certainly making all the right sounds; “rebuilding” and “servant of the people” appear in the same paragraph but then Mugabe started out well in the 1980s too.

As I was about to leave work this morning a customer walked in. We followed the customary Zimbabwe greeting;

“Good morning, how are you?” he asked.

“I’m fine and how are you?”.

“Oh, so-so” he replied.

“Only so-so? Why is that? Were you just testing to see if I was listening?” I asked surprised.

“No” he responded with a mirthless laugh, “we must be careful we are not getting into more trouble”.

The party is over.





The Grassy Knoll and other stories

18 08 2011

Zimbabwe is fertile ground for conspiracy theorists.

Earlier this week Solomon Majuru, a former commander of the Zimbabwe Army and Robert Mugabe’s commander-in-chief from the war years died in unusual circumstances. He was apparently burnt to death in a house fire at his farm near Beatrice south of Harare. Not unusual you might say. However, his wife is one of the vice-presidents (there are two, just to be sure) and he didn’t have much of a security detail and those who were with him at the time only noticed too late and couldn’t get near the fire because it was so hot. His body was burned “beyond recognition”. It was also common knowledge that he was not in good health. So, where was his nurse?  Why was the security detail, such as it was, not close by? Those on the street wonder if he was even alive when the fire started.

Some years ago, when I had a TV, I was watching the list of heroes scrolling down the screen on Heroes’ Day. This is a public holiday to honour those who fell in the war for independence against the Rhodesian forces. It is not a bad thing to be a National Hero – for your family that is. There are substantial financial benefits to be had in the form of juicy pensions. That aside, it was striking how many heroes had died in car accidents (in those days they listed the causes). It is well known of course just how bad Zimbabwe drivers are – one only has to venture onto the local roads to find that out. Indeed, Morgan Tsvangirai, our Prime Minister in the bizarrely acronymed GNU (Government of National Unity) found out to his cost just how bad the truck drivers can be. In a convoy of several vehicles one managed to hit his car (not the first in the convoy) while travelling in the opposite direction. His wife died in the accident. At the time it was widely believed that it was not an accident but it was never proven thus.

Then some years ago, Moven Mahachi, the then Minister of Defence was killed in a vehicle accident near Nyanga village. Now I saw the result of this accident some 30 minutes after it happened (I had no idea whose vehicle it was and it was a Landrover Discovery not a Range Rover as in Wikipedia) and I don’t think it could have been anything else. But, he died and the other 5 occupants walked away. And  he’d been critical of Those On High in a country not known for tolerating criticism. A one Border Gezi also died in a car accident shortly prior to this incident. A Party significant, he had a back tyre blow out and I know from experience how dangerous that is. I just slowed carefully down but Border Gezi was known for driving fast.

Our president, the Honorable Comrade Robert Mugabe, is old. In the press he is said to be 87 at least, though there are those who claim he is much younger and his advanced age is fudged a little to garner a bit of respect. Not surprisingly there is a power struggle in the ruling ZANU-PF party to find a successor to Robert. One of them was Solomon Mujuru, the other, Emmerson Mnangagwa – another Party heavyweight. In fact I’ve heard it said that NO-ONE got anything done at a high level without Mujuru’s approval – he was that powerful. Maybe a bit too powerful. He’d also been critical of the Highest – not wise in a country intolerant of criticism.

What IS clear is that the political landscape has suddenly changed – radically. Who will step up to fill the vacuum? Meanwhile flags are at half-mast as is befitting a true National Hero of the Liberation War (or second chimurenga as it is known locally). No doubt tears will be shed, both crocodillian and genuine and the guessing game will continue, because if there really were other shots fired from the Grassy Knoll at JFK then just about anything is possible. Isn’t it?