Written on 31 Aug 2009 by  / Published in Blog

“We’re just waiting for him to die.” As the former British colony of Rhodesia enters its 30th year of independence, the young nation of Zimbabwe finds itself searching for confidence, devoid of a currency and clinging to the hope of life after him.

The ZANU-PF party led by Robert Mugabe still possess a stranglehold on Zimbabwean political, military and police power that appears unbreakable whilst Mugabe continues to breathe.

The formation of a coalition government hinted at a potential weakening in this stranglehold but it would appear that any political attempts to improve the nation’s standard of living will have to emerge from a framework dictated by Mugabe, a framework that seems as changeable and unpredictable as the actions of the whimsical Mugabe himself. He is supported by a military top brass that has prospered on the pain of ordinary Zimbaweans, black and white, young and old.

As we travelled through Zimbabwe (entering in the North/East from Mozambique via Nyamapanda and exiting in the South to South Africa via Beitbridge) we were both cautious and fascinated. Cautious as to the implications of engaging Zimbabweans in political discourse and fascinated as to what would emerge from such discourse. I adopted a policy of feigning complete ignorance (it’s not a massive jump to feign complete ignorance when one is already quite ignorant!) and simply ask innocent questions that gave people an opportunity to either engage with issues facing the country or dodge any meaningful expression of opinion. The picture of a nation that emerged from these conversations was as diverse and intricate as the people who painted it.

As we sat in a restaurant annexed to a petrol station in the Midvelt the owners described the reality behind the oft’ repeated phrase ‘hyper-inflation’. “If you had ordered a breakfast here 18 months ago it should probably have cost you 20 billion Zim Dollars. Unless I had spent that 20 billion within three to four hours the ingredients alone needed for that breakfast would have been double its cost. Therefore I had to charge you 80 billion, give the money to my wife immediately to use the morning’s takings to stock up on as much food as our freezers could hold and then double the price again the following morning.” On separate occasions the government cut 13 and 18 zeros off the value of the Zim dollar thus rendering people’s savings worthless. In order to survive business owners began trading in foreign currency (SA Rand and US Dollar predominantly), the government response was swift; large fines were imposed for trading in foreign currency and businesses were shut for repeated offending. Mugabe’s reliance on the national mint to solve any monetary shortfall and complete disregard for all economic principles culminated in a forced de-monetization that even he could not oppose. Thus Zimbabwe now functions without a currency, prices are displayed in Rand and US Dollars and tattered dollar bills are exchanged with change given in the form of sweets (coins are conspicuous only in their absence). Yet people adapt; “What else can we do?” asks Pieter, a columnist for a national newspaper. “We have to pay for food, the price of which is inflated due to the continuance of the sanctions (U.S. sanctions imposed following the state sponsored land dispossession). Complaining doesn’t feed your family, and anyway, who would listen?”

At the turn of the millennium approximately 70% of the most fertile land in Zimbabwe was owned by about 4000 white commercial farmers. Whilst undoubtedly inequitable when one considers that Zimbabwe has a population of 13 million, (huge emigration to South Africa has occurred following the loosening of visa requirements by South African President Zuma, and thus the population is probably greatly reduced today) production under the previous land holding method placed Zimbabwe at the head of Southern Africa’s agricultural production table. Maize and Tobacco were exported by the ton and although poverty was still rife amongst the indigenous population, Zimbabwe had avoided famines that had devastated many of its neighbours. The scheme devised by Mugabe aimed at appeasing an increasingly frustrated working class population claimed to redistribute fairly the ownership of land, breaking the white monopoly. It was ostensibly an attempt to empower the downtrodden peasant farm worker, the reality was a bloody (both white and black Zimbabweans were attacked and killed) government orchestrated attack on innocents based on nepotism and bribery. Far from empowering the poor, land ownership was given to party members, senior army officials and to the highest bidders. The result has been a decrease of approx 80% in agricultural productivity and the in the ensuing years a country with fertile land enough to feed ten countries has struggled to feed itself.

A maize and tobacco farmer of Irish heritage explained how land was ‘transferred’; “We hid in our houses as soldiers and local farm workers waited outside our farm for the ok to enter. Friends warned us that things had gotten violent at a number of farms and that we should leave even before we were forced to. I packed a single suitcase and left 40 years of my past in a house that had been my home since 1965. Parents of children who I had fed, clothed and brought to school shouted and gestured violently at us as we drove out the gates of our farm.” Today, Maire and her husband live in a house belonging to their friends who have given them indefinite use of the house. I met Maire en route from South Africa where she recently collected supplies and clothes for a group of local children living near her new home. “The children have no guilt in what happened to us. I’m not going to change who I am because of it.” This courage and unwillingness to indulge in self-pity is representative of many ex farmers who were dispossessed. Their anger seems focused on the government rather than on those who supported what they believed was an equitable redistribution. However, many black Zimbabweans, who supported the policy, are less forgiving of themselves. As I watched a football match 180km from the South African border two local teachers told me of the embarrassment and guilt they carry with them as a result of the violence and hate that came to embody the policy. “We watched as good people were forced from their homes without warning and still voted for the man who preached a policy of hate towards whites. Now we have realized that we were naïve to think that all problems would be solved if owned our own land and the whites were gone. We are paying for our stupidity!”

Everywhere we went we were greeted with a welcome and warmth that made a mockery of the relentlessly peddled media story of a country still riddled with hate and distrust. Shops are often barren save for the bare essentials. A reliable water and electricity supply has, in many areas, become haphazard. Good farm land lies idle as irrigation schemes are left in disrepair. Political posters of Mugabe proclaiming “We did it in 1980, let’s do it again!” adorn street lights. Banks and ATMs no longer serve a purpose and workers sit idly at desks serving no-one. But hope still remains. Cautiously we were told that things are getting better. Shops are re-opening and people are now able to shop in Harare rather than go South to keep businesses open. Tourists have begun to trickle back and everywhere we went people greeted us with a thank you that was both genuine and inherently patriotic. We were invited into homes, schools and churches to sleep. Acts of kindness unheard of in the most prosperous societies were displayed almost daily. While a nation waits for him to die, we must not. Zimbabwe and its people are ready to be discovered now. Staying away will not weaken Mugabe, it will strengthen him. The only people hurt by the continuance of sanctions and the absence of tourism are average Zimbaweans, black and white, young and old.

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Since 2008 David Burns and Maghnus Collins have embarked upon man-powered adventures across the globe. The pair have cycled, run and kayaked for over 30,000 km in some of the most remote locations on earth.

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