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?

 

 

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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.





A Brexit. If only…

12 11 2016

Saturday midday we like to gather at the Gallery Delta in town. It’s Robert Paul’s old house, one of the oldest still standing in Harare and thus is listed. It also has good contemporary art but we like to sit and discuss politics, finance and generally anything of interest. Interesting people come through – it can attract diplomats and others but today it was the turn of local financial wiz Melissa. Married to a local Zimbabwean she has consulted to all manner of financial institutions both local and international and always has something of interest to contribute. The conversation inevitably turned towards Zimbabwe’s impending financial implosion and, of course, bond notes.

Background
In October 2008 the Zimbabwe dollar became worthless. Having been revalued three times and had 18 zeros removed over the period of 18 months (not of course in linear fashion) it really was worth less than toilet paper and also less effective. In the previous month my company went broke despite being  busy and after much soul-searching I brought in US$2000 of my own money which covered my expenses for the following month when customers started to ask if they could pay in US dollars.  The Zimbabwe dollar was officially abandoned at the beginning of February 2009 and the US dollar became the de facto currency in this part of the country. In the southern regions the South African rand and Botswana pula became more accepted due to the proximity of these countries. Change was initially an issue and supermarkets gave out sweets and ballpoint pens in lieu but come 2013 -2014 the South African rand was valued at close to 10 to the US dollar (2013 – 2014) so it made for useful change. We also had our first brush with bond coins (valued in USc but not exchangeable outside the country). Initially ridiculed they gained acceptance once the rand drifted above 11 to the US dollar. Currently there are a number of currencies that are officially trade-able; UK pound, US dollar, Australian dollar, euro, yen, Chinese yuan, Botswana pula and of course the rand.

As Melissa explained adapting the US dollar was a mistake. Zimbabwe became a magnet for criminals and money launderers the world over as there was little control over the use of hard cash – if you had it in the bank you could withdraw it as cash. Millions of dollars in cash were taken out through our extremely porous borders. The start of the rot was nearly instantaneous.

The rest of us were too enamoured with the new freedom to do just about anything we liked with our money to notice. You could travel unfettered by the need for endless currency applications; real VISA cards worked anywhere! South African supermarkets moved into the country and bought out the local chains and imported goods flooded the shelves at vastly inflated prices. But hey, we had choice.

The economy expanded due largely to the mining sector and high prices of gold and other minerals. Agriculture, once the mainstay of the economy, continued to flounder on the back of the land redistribution exercise though there were a few years when tobacco enjoyed a resurgence, driven by buoyant prices. Attempts to get external investors interested were hamstrung by the contradictory message; invest with us but the majority of the shares must be held by a Zimbabwean.

Corruption and nepotism have gone from strength to strength. Perhaps a new word should be coined here – nepotist + kleptocrat = neptokrat. Readers are welcome to make suggestions. It seems that every day there are new revelations of squandered, stolen and diverted funds. The most famous is the fifteen billion dollars that was unaccounted for from the Chiadzwa diamond fields in the east of the country, alluded to by none other than President Mugabe himself. Now $15bn is a lot of money for a small country like Zimbabwe, a bit more than the GDP in 2014, which could have wiped out our external debts and left a sizeable chunk to get things going again but nothing appears to have happened to those responsible.

As the economy founders so the tax base shrinks and there is little wonder that lower ranking civil servants have not been paid for months (civil service salaries gobble 97% of the cash budget). The military of course do get paid – the police have been told to raise their own wages and do so by the myriad road blocks and spot fines throughout the country that have left them thoroughly discredited and despised.

It’s all about trust
In May this year the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) governor announced the introduction of the bond notes and the run on the banks began. The proposal was to ensure the value of the bond notes at an equivalent to the US dollar but they would be for internal use only so no good to those who would seek to externalize them. The public saw it as a ruse to bring back the Zimbabwe dollar in another guise. The restrictions on withdrawing cash soon followed and served to fuel the panic. It didn’t help that the bond from the Afreximbank that serves to support the value of the bond notes is veiled in secrecy and ignorance. Unexplained delays in releasing the notes and the refusal of a German company to print them haven’t helped.  Some banks are allowing more cash to be withdrawn than others but reports abound of clients queuing overnight to withdraw as little as $20 a day.

Zimbabwe has been slow to adapt to the plastic money found elsewhere. ATM and debit cards have been around for years and mobile banking has seen a major increase with the rise of smart phones which are ubiquitous even among the poor. The RBZ has been pushing the plastic money hard and most outlets now have POS (swipe card machines as they are known locally) machines and accept mobile banking. While unemployment is difficult to quantify (there haven’t been any recent surveys) it is undoubtedly high and a substantial proportion are informal traders who have to pay for the goods they bring across the South African border in hard cash. No small wonder they are suspicious of bond notes and local plastic money.

Cash is now commanding a premium of some 15% and I’m told traders abound at the local Roadport (bus terminus) in town and they have lots of $100 notes that cannot be found in banks. Likely they are in the employ of the neptokrats. I can now only buy the low sulphur diesel for my pickup with cash and some filling stations restrict the amount of fuel that can be bought with a card. Most businesses will give a discount for cash.

Legal challenges to the introduction of the bond notes have followed but on the 1st November Robert Mugabe signed the notes into law. Fait accompli.

Imports and nostro accounts
Nostro accounts (the money banks use to pay for imports) are heavily depleted due to our massive trade deficit. A friend who imports agrochemicals cannot pay his external suppliers despite having the money in the bank. VISA cards, which also depend on nostro accounts, work anywhere in the world for the moment and the crippling power shedding of last year and earlier this year have not reappeared largely due to the pay-as-you-go metering installed by the national power provider but I for one don’t expect this to continue. Greenhouse plastic, considered an essential import, is no longer available and this week when buying some basic pharmaceuticals I was informed that the calcium tablets had to be paid for in cash!

Smoke and mirrors
The people behind the bond note issue are not stupid – they must have known what the reaction would be. Why did they do it? I think it’s all a red herring to force us into the digital money arena where zeros are easily added with a few computer key strokes. After all, only $75m bond notes will initially be introduced in the form of $5 and $2 denominations. This is very small money though few actually believe that the neptokrats will be able to resist printing more, which may or may not be backed by a bond. The bulk of the cash in circulation is in US$100 and US$50 notes so the bond notes will have minimal effect on the nation’s liquidity. The various protest movements that sprung up this year, over various other social issues, including #thisFlag and #tajamuka were instrumental in sparking the riots that rocked Harare and Bulawayo, the second city, in July and August this year but it’s been quiet over the last 2 months as people’s attention is diverted into getting their cash out of the banks. Was this intentional or just fortuitous from the authorities’ point of view?

It's not looking good (Chatham House report)

It’s not looking good (Chatham House report)

We may yet be bailed out by the IMF Melissa suggested. Mozambique is also in dire financial straights as are Angola and Malawi. Zimbabwe imploding might well drag down the whole sub-region –  propping up the current regime would be preferable. Zimbabwe has cleared its debt with the IMF so this is possible.

And last but not least
As with any crisis of this proportion there are those who will find the humorous angle. “With the tumble of the English pound, the waver of the US dollar, the volatility of the rand at least the bond notes are stable” is a popular social network joke. When Harare’s main rubbish tip mysteriously caught alight a week ago, and dumped noxious fumes over the northern suburbs, there were those who postulated it was being fueled by bond notes!

20161107_082741

Pomona rubbish tip burning – bond notes the fuel?

Ah the Brexit, if only our problems were so small.

 

 





A country on the brink of disaster

1 11 2016

We in Zimbabwe are apparently teetering on the brink of disaster. The much-dreaded bond notes alluded to in the previous post have been signed into law by President Mugabe (yup, Bob notes are real guys!) and it’s all down hill from here. We are still not sure where they are coming from as the German company behind the printing of the now defunct Zimbabwe dollar refused to print these. Never fear, someone will step up to the plate where there’s money to be made.

Marondera air day. Fun in the name of fund raising

Marondera air day. Fun in the name of fund raising

Going out to an air day organised for charity at Marondera, a small agricultural town 3/4 hour from Harare, on Saturday there was little sign of impending disaster. Vehicles clogged the road and drivers drove badly. There were no queues at filling stations but I’d had to search out low sulphur diesel the previous day as my regular supplier didn’t seem to have it anymore. When we arrived at Marondera aerodrome there was a fair collection of aircraft  both ancient (see the Cessna 182 in the foreground) and brand new – a 2 seat helicopter. I guess it was all small fry compared with a similar event in the civilized world but hey, it was actually happening! The Air Force had even been roped in (camouflage aircraft back left) to supply parachutists for entertainment and paid rides for the public. The parachutists certainly were entertaining with some spectacularly hard landings and bad approaches through trees to the LZ. And yes, I mean THROUGH trees! The inevitable party after the show was over was not well attended and the music was not great either but hey, we could still buy imported beer.

The man in charged of the local parachute school said he was still very busy though it seemed that paramotoring, which is why we were there, is not so attractive as we didn’t have any inquiries. The next day the wind was too strong for us to fly so we packed up, had a late breakfast with our host the other side of town and headed home along a busy road.

Today I am breaking news to my employees that they will no longer be paid in cash and like the rest of us will have to get themselves a debit card. It’s not going to be a popular move but they were warned 2 months ago that this was coming. Cash can now be bought for as much as a 15% premium which can make for a useful bargaining tool when buying. My partner and I have decided to embrace the crisis and have bought a house in a suburb that needs considerable refurbishing before we move in. Surprisingly not all the companies we’ve got quotes from are that interested in cash and only offer a 5% discount but with the bond notes now inevitable that might change. Who knows, we might be able to pay off the mortgage with a few bond notes and actually save a lot of money as they rapidly become worthless. (People who had mortgages in the Zim dollar days were often able to pay them off for a few notes as they became completely worthless.)





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…





Not an insect season

14 04 2015

Stick insects are difficult to photograph. Have you ever tried photographing a stick? They are aptly named.

Not great camouflage

Not great camouflage. The front legs are pointed towards the top left of the photo. The head is about 1/3 down from the top left corner.

This one I rescued off the floor in the dining room one morning. How it had got in I don’t know but Zak would almost certainly squashed it with his nose or a paw so I lifted it up onto a vase of roses and there it stayed for the next three days until Marianne took pity on it and moved it outside.

It has not been a great season for insects. Come to think of it, it has not been a great season for growing crops either. The rains were very late starting last year and early planted maize succumbed to a long dry spell that lasted into the first week of December. Savvy farmers (who could afford it) replanted after the first good rains in December but short-season maize, as it is known, does not yield heavily at the best of times and erratic rains since December have really given the late plantings a hard time. And now to top it all the rains have finished earlier than usual.

Insects of course also flourish in good rainy seasons so I have not seen anything like the variety and numbers this season that I have seen in previous years. I should be seeing a profusion of golden orb spiders in the nursery about now but they have not appeared either. I guess it must be something to do with a low prey population.

Droughts and erratic rainy seasons are nothing new in this part of southern Africa but in the distant past we had strategic reserves to fall back on. And farmers to grow the reserves in the first place. Now much of the once productive commercial farmland lies idle and Zambia produces a surplus of maize, thanks largely to displaced Zimbabwean commercial farmers. The government is bankrupt and the President, Robert Mugabe, has gone on a state trip to South Africa to try and attract investment. But South Africa does not have spare cash so I guess the begging bowl will be once again held out to the World Food Programme.





Zimbabwe in 2015

2 01 2015

We can expect a lot of changes in 2015. President Robert Mugabe is looking increasingly frail and has all but named Emerson Munangagwa as his favored successor. The latter, Shelton tells me, would be entirely unacceptable to most of the inhabitants of Matabeleland. He should know, he grew up in Bulawayo.

The rains are ongoing, hopelessly late for a good harvest and completely unexpected in what was supposed to be a drought year. It’s wet enough that the caterpillars have a punk hair-do!

Even the caterpillars have a punk hair do

Even the caterpillars have a punk hair-do

The introduction of low denomination coins are NOT an attempt to re-introduce the Zimbabwe dollar.

The Zimbabwe economy is moving even slower than the snail below and has less sense of direction too.Who knows where it will be end of 2015?

I have a feeling 2015 will not be boring.

...even the snail has direction

…even the snail has direction