Economy /

Face down on the concrete, arms limp at her side, an elderly woman lies unconscious. Debris from the scuffle – shoes and hats, mostly – lie around her; and in the background, baton wielding blue-helmeted men watch on. Just one of the scores of protesters savagely beaten by Harare police earlier this month, her fate is unknown. Authorities had banned the demonstration amid security concerns, but, spurred by dire living standards, disgruntled citizens gathered in peaceful defiance. With Zimbabwe’s economic crisis worsening, civil unrest is on the rise – as is the government’s brutal suppression of dissent.

Irate at months of deteriorating financial and social conditions, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) – Zimbabwe’s principal opposition party – called for street demonstrations on August 16. Those who defied the protest ban, including women, children and the elderly, were met with whips, water cannon, and batons. The aftermath was equally violent – house-to-house raids saw MDC officials detained, and even a well-known comedian – Samantha Kureya – was kidnapped and tortured for publishing a skit on police brutality.

If Zimbabwe’s security situation is bad, its economic crisis is worse. President Emmerson Mnangagwa took power on a platform of investment, transparency and economic reform. The rot of Mugabe-era mismanagement would be reversed – “good days [are] ahead” for Zimbabweans, he proclaimed. But his narrow election victory, though peaceful, was marred by accusations of vote-rigging – and promises that the country would be “open for business” have fallen flat.

Over $27bn of global investment had been agreed with the world’s richest nations, Mnangagwa said upon taking office. Eighteen months into his presidency, the foreign-funded platinum mines, steel mills and hydropower dams are yet to materialise. In their place, Zimbabweans have a recession – the first since 2008, when inflation surged to an estimated 500bn%. Today’s situation isn’t quite as dire, but it’s worsening at pace. At the end of 2018, inflation was 42%; in June of this year, it soared to 175%. Estimates put the current figure at 500%, placing Zimbabwe ahead of only Venezuela in global rankings.  

Much like his bungling predecessor, Mnangagwa’s grand economic plan amounts to petty currency tampering. Where Mugabe simply printed more zeros on his banknotes, his successor chooses to tinker with electronic deposits. Desperate to stem black market demand for foreign cash, the president launched a local digital currency, the so-called ‘RTGS dollar’. But amid abject levels of public trust, the government’s new money has done little to relieve fiscal strain, experts say.

“There is a pervasive lack of confidence among many Zimbabweans in the country’s economic policies and its national currency,” said Nathan Hayes, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit. “This will push people and companies towards using foreign currencies, as Zimbabwe dollars are not trusted, and people want to protect themselves against sustained depreciation and soaring inflation”.

Regular Zimbabweans are bearing the brunt of Mnangagwa’s mismanagement. Food prices have rocketed, with the UN warning that by early 2020, roughly half of the country’s population will struggle to eat one meal a day. So grave is the privation that food aid is being distributed in cities – a first in Zimbabwe’s turbulent history. Children are particularly vulnerable, humanitarian groups say. Tanyaradzwa, a schoolboy, sells cigarettes on Harare’s streets during the school holidays.

“I am not a street kid. I come here to sell my things, go home and use the money to buy food,” the 13-year-old says. “These holidays just mean more work. There is no break, because I now have no excuse not to work every day”.

Fuel prices have increased fourfold since June, and rolling blackouts leave many Zimbabweans, even in the capital, with electricity for less than 10 hours a day. Coupled with food insecurity, it’s little wonder that civil unrest is brewing. Troubled by the rise in dissent, Mnangagwa has overseen a savage crackdown. When a petrol cost hike in January led to protests, 13 demonstrators were shot dead, with hundreds more raped or beaten. Sporadic violence has continued ever since.

Like all poor leaders, the president blames his nation’s misfortune on outside forces. Sanctions imposed by Western powers – including a recently reinstated US trading ban – are crippling the economy, Mnangagwa argues. He’s not wrong, but unwilling to enact political reform and uphold democratic principles, he’s inviting Western censure.

The weather is another of the leader’s favoured scapegoats. Cyclone Idai, which hit southern Africa in March, and a regional drought have undoubtedly contributed to pitiful harvests – but Zimbabwe’s problems are mostly man-made. For any hope of recovery, Mnangagwa must awaken to his fiscal folly. Without foreign cash to back up the new currency, its precipitous devaluation will continue. US dollars can only be collected through exports, though, and with power and raw materials severely limited, manufacturers are struggling. 

His focus must, therefore, be on reestablishing stable electricity and getting business back on its feet. Dialling down state sponsored violence is fundamentally important too, if he’s to avoid the global isolation endured by Mugabe. Mnangagwa’s totalitarian tendencies are likely deep-seated, however, and so the plight of everyday Zimbabweans – people who’ve endured so much – looks set to continue.