Hyperinflation returns to Zimbabwe as ZANU-PF emulates Rhodesia’s authoritarianism


Zimbabwe’s post-Mugabe honeymoon period, if ever there was one, appears to be over. Since Emmerson Mnangagwa’s faction outmanoeuvred that of Grace Mugabe with the help of the military in 2017, a three-year period of general and fiscal stability – at least in comparison to periods of Mugabe’s reign – ensued.

Recent months, however, have seen the ZANU-PF regime revert to type. In March, a US$60m contract for the provision of Covid-19-related medical supplies was awarded to a company called Drax International. Zimbabwean law stipulates that all government contracts must be opened to public tender, but Drax, a company fronted in Zimbabwe by Delish Ngumaya – a criminal associate of one of President Mnangagwa’s sons – and without a registered headquarters or any history in the medical sector, received theirs directly from health minister Obadiah Moyo.

Moyo was arrested on 19 June and bailed four days later ahead of a trial, but imprisonment appears unlikely given Mnangagwa’s preference for a ‘catch and release’ corruption policy whereby senior officials are acquitted unless they belong to a rival faction within ZANU-PF.

On 13 May, three female members of the opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change Alliance, were abducted by suspected members of the Central Intelligence Organisation, the secret police. Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chinembiri and Netsai Marova had organised a demonstration against the lack of Covid-19 protection provided by authorities for the poor. They were beaten, stripped naked, sexually assaulted, and forced to drink each other’s urine. Having spoken out about their torture, they were charged with falsifying their ordeal. Ludicrously, their bail application was then rejected by a magistrate on the grounds that it would jeopardise the country’s already meagre economic prospects.

Indeed, those economic prospects have been brought sharply into view this week with the closure of the stock exchange and of mobile money platforms. The government claimed that it has done so in order to facilitate investigations into illegal foreign exchange trading, but it appears to be a move to deflect blame for the spiralling economic situation.

The official inflation rate for May was declared to be 785.55 per cent by the National Statistics Agency, and unofficial estimates place it at 1,301.68 per cent. Mobile money platforms, which are a form of payment done using mobile phones, use the market exchange rate, 100 to every one US dollar, rather than the government’s, 57 to every one US dollar, whilst the stock exchange is used by wealthy Zimbabweans in lieu of cash savings due to the danger of inflation wiping out the value of the latter. These, the government says, are responsible for the rampant inflation which has seen the prices of bread and fuel treble in recent weeks, not their own policies.

Comparisons with a decade ago, especially in economic terms, would be apt, but the roots of ZANU-PF’s authoritarianism – which enables its corruption, its torture of opposition activists and its deflective response to hyperinflation – stretch back to when Zimbabwe did not even exist.

When the government of Southern Rhodesia issued its unilateral declaration of independence from Britain on 11 November 1965, it proclaimed itself as the successor to values of principle and liberty long since abandoned by the mother country. In reality, Rhodesia was a one-party state in which the ruling Rhodesian Front, chosen by an almost entirely white electorate, governed in an authoritarian manner not overly dissimilar from that of ZANU-PF.

Upon independence, the RF declared a state of emergency, during which they detained the Governor-General and a host of other undesirables. Under the draconian Law and Order (Maintenance) Act of 1960 and the Emergency Powers (Maintenance of Law and Order) Regulations of 1966, the Rhodesian authorities were able to arrest, torture, charge, try and execute political prisoners in secret and without opportunity for appeal. Defendants were expected to prove their innocence, rather than the state having to prove their guilt.

Detention was a frequently used tool in suppressing opposition; it could be imposed indefinitely and without charge or trial on anyone who was perceived as undermining the government. It was even used against entire settlements. As the nationalist guerrillas overran much of the country in the late 1970s, fenced ‘protected villages’ were established by the Rhodesian Security Forces to prevent interaction between the civilian populace and the ‘gooks’. Strict curfews were imposed, anyone who broke them was liable to be shot on sight. Furthermore, members of the Security Forces were immune from prosecution for actions carried out whilst on active service in the bush, and they operated under the assumption that all civilians possessed knowledge about guerrilla activities. They were tortured and interrogated at will, with one method being the beating of an individual’s soles so as to render them unable to walk.

Today, that method is a mainstay of the Central Intelligence Organisation, the Gestapo-like secret police responsible for the suppression of dissent and for the abduction of the three opposition activists in May. Their repressive function, mobilised repeatedly against government opponents for forty years, originates in their formation as the Rhodesian state intelligence agency in 1963.

Such totalitarianism is a far cry from how Rhodesia portrayed itself as the last bastion of European liberal democracy in Africa. And although the limited enfranchisement which enabled it may now be a distant memory, today’s Zimbabwe is led by a despotic ruling clique in just the same way as Rhodesia was half a century ago.

This postcolonial perpetuity is also to be found in Harare, the nation’s capital.

Renamed, just as the city itself was in 1982, the roads of the city centre memorialise heroes of the six-year armed struggle which toppled minority rule, as well as other liberation figures from across the continent. Robert Mugabe Road, Jason Moyo Avenue and George Silundika Avenue – the latter two being leaders in Joshua Nkomo’s ZIPRA forces during the Bush War – intersect with Nelson Mandela Avenue and Sam Nujoma Street, so-named after the first post-Apartheid leaders of South Africa and Namibia respectively.

And just as Samora Machel Avenue has replaced Jameson Avenue, Africa Unity Square deposed Cecil Square, the plaza in the centre of town where Rhodes’ Pioneer Column hoisted the British flag above a new outpost of Empire, Fort Salisbury, a century before.

Yet this decolonisation of the built environment is only a veneer, an inch-deep mirage, for the grid layout and many wide boulevards envisioned by Salisbury’s early twentieth century planners remain, as do – besides a few vulgar glass and steel contraptions hoisted into the air since independence by Chinese finance – the dated, block-type skyscrapers built during Southern Rhodesia’s post-Second World War boom. The diminutive Rhodesian-era parliament building, despite several scandalously expensive plans to build a replacement, still stands aside the aforementioned Africa Unity Square, the new name of which fails to hide the paths that crisscross it in the pattern of the Union Jack.

Some colonial street names, moreover, did survive the post-independence cull, such as those of explorers Speke and Livingstone and that of Frederick Selous. Selous, a big-game hunter whose knowledge of what was then Matabeleland and Mashonaland saw him act first as a guide to the first European settlers, commanded a cavalry brigade during the First Umvukela, an 1896 Ndebele uprising against the recently established rule of Rhodes’ British South Africa Company. In 1973, his name was affixed to the Selous Scouts, an elite unit of the Rhodesian Army which gained notoriety during the Bush War for what some would call devastating effectiveness, and what others would call atrocities.

Outside of the city centre, these somewhat surprising exceptions become the rule. If you venture north on Simon Muzenda Street and westwards along Josiah Tongarara Street, beyond the Cape Dutch pavilion of Harare Sports Club and past the endless fuel queues and countless hawkers, you’ll reach the leafy suburb of Belgravia, a realm of foreign embassies and streets such as Lanark, Fairbridge, Ross, Pascoe, Elcombe and Cork. If it wasn’t for the razor wire-topped security fences and the sun which beats down from above, it would be a place seemingly transplanted from the home counties.

On Phillips Avenue is what was once the home of Ian Smith, the sole prime minister of Rhodesia and a man who despised the perceived communism of his nationalist opponents as much as he despised any attempt to introduce immediate egalitarianism to his pariah state. In his later life, the house besides Smith’s became the Cuban embassy. And they were the friendliest of neighbours.

Forty years after legal independence, fifty-five after Smith’s UDI, the sad irony of today’s Zimbabwe is that it resembles the settler state which preceded it to a frightening degree. For just as the roads and the buildings and the street names stand unchanged, so do the tactics and organisations which maintain the autocratic status quo.

Image: J. Ross Baughman via Wikimedia Commons

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