Zimbabwe

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Due to the delays at the border, the evening was already on me as I took off for my destination, The Lion and Elephant Motel, 100 kms away on the banks of the dry, sandy Bubi river. Uninhabited bush scrub unfolded in all directions, the sunset casting a deep yellow glow onto an occasional large baobab tree along the roadside. Antelope darted across the road. I had heard there were elephant and lion in these parts too. As the miles slipped by and evening fell, a mantra was repeating unconsciously in my head “the lion and the elephant, the lion and the elephant”. It had an addictive rhythm. The lights of the motel became visible and it was dark as I pulled into the welcoming gates.

The Lion and the Elephant
I was to be told later of the origins of the motel. This land, one of the largest ranches in the world at the time, had a hunter by the name of Dyker employed to look after problem animals or “vermin” as they were called – rogue elephants, lion that were attacking the livestock, etc. He was out tracking a buffalo that had killed a local herder, and when he came across it, took aim and shot. The animal went down, apparently dead and Dyker approached it carefully to put the customary bullet in the animals skull to make sure. However as he neared, the buffalo leapt up and gored the hunter repeatedly, “making a real mess of him”. Apparently the bullet had hit the buffalo’s horn only stunning him. The ranch owner built the motel for Dyker’s wife as a compensation for the loss of her breadwinner.

Coincidentally a few hours after writing this I read the following account in the book “I Dream of Africa” by Kuki Gallman…
’With a terrific crash the leleshwa parted, and an enormous snorting black animal came straight for us… they both aimed, and fired… The buffalo had dropped dead a few feet from us. It lay black and massive… Before approaching, Colin threw a pebble. I learnt that day that many buffalo, believed dead, have recovered, to gore their hunters. You cannot be certain that a buffalo is dead until he fails to react to a stone in the eye. This one did not move, and we approached.’

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A Couple of Real Bikers
The motel was booked out by a church group, and as I began erecting my tent in the garden, the managers wife very generously insisted I use the spare bedroom in their house. This was even more comfortable than a hotel room! Drinking a beer later in the bar I got chatting to Nigel, Cindy and Marius, three bikers in their forties up from Johannesburg for a funeral of one their mates in Harare, killled in a bike accident. They were interested in my bike and hearing of my journey. However, they were real bikers (pictured below on Marius' 'ratbike'). Marius proudly produced his leather vest covered with metal badges of the various biker rallies he’d attended throughout the years.
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The collection included the “Iron Butt” badge, granted to a biker who completes a 1,000 km ride without stopping. Nigel couldn’t wear his old leather vest any longer, “Its rotten! Can’t lift it up without it falling apart from the weight of the badges.” He had an earth-moving plant hire business, his wife Cindy worked at Avis, and Marius had a “security systems company. Basically putting in security fences around houses.” Business was apparently booming.

The beers kept coming, and the Irish jokes got wheeled out, with attempted Irish accent too. What can you do – but smile resignedly. And they weren’t even that funny! I mentioned some articles I’d read by a Charley Cooper, who has a regular column in SA Biker, the main South African bike magazine. Tongue in cheek tall stories about biker life in the big city, I found them very funny. The lads knew him, and apparently he was for real - he does own an old ‘Guzzi’. He’s actually a teacher in real life, and his biker mate ‘Gooftie’ is a lawyer.

A Biker's Tale
Nigel, a lightly moustached Charles Bronson lookalike, in his broad Johannesburg accent began telling a tale about one time he had stayed at the Lion and Elephant. He had left on a Sunday to get back to Joburg for work the following day. “Ah felt the front wheel weaving a bit - ah got a puncture,” he said. “But there was nothing this sahd of the border so decided to continue to Messina on the South African sahd. If you have a puncture, keep it at a steady 80 and it takes the wobble out of it,” he claimed.

“But it was Sunday, and there was nothing open in Messina. So ah continued on, up over the mountains, you know, the Soutpansberg.” At this stage, I must have smiled sceptically, as he exclaimed, “No ah’m telling you! But you know you can’t use the brake otherwise the bahk pulls to the side. Anyway there was a police roadblock and when ah braked ah ended up in the bush off the road! So when ah get the bahk back on the road and tell them ah had a puncture, they didn’t believe me. They thought ah was going off into the bush to hahd drugs! So they spent an hour there looking. ‘Ah told you it was coz ah had a puncture’ ah said.

"So it was getting late now,” he continued. “ When ah got into Louis Trichardt ah couldn’t find anything. These young okes on bahks were standing around at a corner, and they phoned this utha oke who owns a tyre shop but he wouldn’t come out. Well ah had to give up then, and phoned a friend of mine at home who had a bakkie”, he went on. “But he was in East London and had the bakkie keys with him! So ah had to leave the bahk there. Ah got someone else to drive to Louis Trichardt to pick me up, and got back to Jo’burg in time to get changed and go to work. That evening after work, ah went and got the bakkie - he was back by then - drove over again to Louis Trichardt, loaded the bahk on, and drove back.” He grinned. “Three days no sleeping. Ahm telling you, when we took the tyre off, the tube was like a melted ball of rubber!” He made a round shape with his hands. “The tyre was fine though. Got another few thousand kays off it.” I told him Charley Cooper would be proud of that tale.

'Sylvester'
Later we were joined by a colourful character. ‘Sylvester’ had grown up in the east of the country, and with his wife was now looking after a lodge in the area. In his fifties, slight in build and fit looking, his close cropped head and weathered complexion indicated a life spent predominantly outdoors. It was little surprise to learn he had been a professional soldier – a sergeant major in the SAS he maintained - a farmer and after his farm had been confiscated by the government, a hunter. “You can bet than any farmer you meet in this country was in the army,” he reckoned. “I only bring out a few Americans hunting now,” he said. “Around this area. Yah, you get everything here, elephant, hippo,” and he named off various antelope. “Its over two years ago though since the last lion was seen.”

The South African bikers had retired at this stage, and ‘Sylvester’ had sunk a few beers and was on a roll. Without giving details of who he was employed by – I didn’t ask - it was clear his professional soldiering wasn’t finished when he left the army, and for years after had been employed in various African countries. “You’re Irish aren’t you?” This was the first question he’d actually asked of me, and it wasn’t out of curiousity. “I was in the bush for about four months, me and my trackers, and I was radioed to expect a visitor. Spud O’Donnell was parachuted in. He didn’t know where he was. But he was a laugh. I loved him, he was a good man. But he was a baby. I had to look after him. He was there to learn, but all he was interested in was learning explosives.” His referals to experiences in the bush at times sounded ominous. “I’ll tell you the best trackers are ex Rhodesian African Rifles. And they’re ruthless,” he added enigmatically. He stared at me with his naturally severe, intense expression and said his trackers were that good, he would give a prisoner a half hour start. He paused then with a distant look… “But I don’t want to get into all that.”

How much of it was true I began to wonder as it sounded more and more improbable. But it could have been. From what I could gather from his monologue, he’d lost his wife and kids – why he didn’t say, although he did speak proudly of one his sons and contemptuously of his former wife – and drifted for seven years. He spent time sand blasting hulls in Walvis Bay, Namibia. “There’s beaches there you’re not allowed onto. If you walk on the beach, you find diamonds attached to the soles of your shoes! I had a job for a while driving but gave it up. They body searched you every day when you left the site – even pulling back your foreskin, your eyelids.” At this stage he’d produced some marijuana grown locally, which he claimed an old sergeant who had dropped by gave him, and rolled a small joint. “Very strong,” he nodded. As he continued, the stories became stranger. He’d spent nine months in a South African jail for a murder he didn’t commit. Went to and fro from Madagascar doing some “import, export”. Worked in Saudi and not only speaks but also writes Arabic. He was brought up Jewish, and only found out three years ago from the Zimbabwean Department of Home Affairs that he can’t get a passport as his parents were not his natural parents – he was in fact adopted! How was he going to tell his son? No, he still hadn’t told him but knows he must.

There was lots more. When I saw him the following morning, I told him many of his stories sounded a little hard to believe. “Its all true”, he smiled. If it wasn’t, I had to admire his imagination.
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Zimbabwe Money
Before leaving I changed some money with the manager, getting the equivalent of about Zim$120,000 to the euro – which in fact wasn’t a great rate! Only the previous week it had been twice that, in other words prices had doubled for those changing money. As I was to find, things are very cheap anyway, when you changed on the ‘parallel’ (a more socially acceptable word than ‘black’) market. The official exchange rate would mean a beer would cost a tourist nearly €200! If a child working abroad sends the parents a remittance of €100, it wouldn’t buy a loaf of bread if changed officially.

I topped up with fuel “next door” I was told, a fuel station actually 3 kms away, and continued on my way. Gradually the landscape became more undulating, punctuated with rocky outcrops, to where at the Runde river, massive smooth granite rocks the size of buildings appeared as if scattered in a giant’s playground. Mud huts nestled in their shadow, children playing in the dirt in front of them. Approaching the town of Masvingo, a turn off brought me about thirty kms off the main road to the Great Zimbabwe ruins after which the country was named at independence. The entrance fee was USD15. To pay the fee of less than a dollar in local currency, I would have had to show an official exchange receipt – my first experience of how the cash strapped government is desparate to earn ‘hard currency’. A huge structure the brick walls of which are still standing, metres thick, this was the capital of the Shona empire who gained their wealth from the lucrative Zimbabwe gold mines – fabled site of King Solomon’s mines. Business had developed with Arab traders sailing down the eastern seaboard of the continent on slave trading missions.

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Masvingo
On the outskirts of Masvingo I found the lovely campsite, tidy and well maintained. That evening food was being prepared in big cast iron pots over a fire. The choice was sadza – the ubiquitous maize mash – with either cows intestine, or trotters. I made my excuses and slipped into town for sadza and chicken stew at the Ace restaurant for €1, just as the electricity went off, a regular occurrence I was to discover. Back at the campsite, all was in darkness, the few faces there illuminated by the glow of the cooking fire. I joined them to warm up a bit – things had got cold – and an easy quiet conversation rambled on. Mention was made of “present economic difficulties”, that they would pass. Yes, some whites had left, but others with property in town had stayed and lived off the rent. No mention was made of the government. This area is known as a Zanu-PF stronghold.

Four cops pulled in, the patrol car’s headlights sweeping the dark campsite. In another country this may have caused some unease, but they were just four customers here, each ordering a plate of food. They paid for it too (the equivalent of 40c each). A friendly bunch, they chatted with the others before switching their attention to me, asking about the journey. The inevitable question was asked – what about my family – to which I gave the by now hackneyed response that I was “too young for that”, which duly raised a laugh. The youngest of them rattled off a crack in Shona that had them all guffawing. It was translated for my benefit, that if he was travelling, he would have a child in Masvingo, one in Harare, Malawi, Tanzania… giving him an address to stay in each time he visited. The AIDS crisis apparently hadn’t affected attitudes or humour much.

Zimbabweans
Zimbabweans have one of the highest standards of education in Africa, and 75% have some degree of English, I was told by one of the men around the fire. Also they are not much liked in South Africa - to where a huge number now emigrate mostly illegally in search of work - accused of being a little too proud of the fact the country has such a high literacy rate, and the fact that they achieved majority rule much sooner than South Africa. Many are also proud of the country’s leader Robert Mugabe, for not only leading the insurgency against Ian Smith’s white government, but also for forging his own ‘African’ path despite international pressure, for standing up to the West.

It seemed as a culture they weren’t uncomfortably deferential either, unlike my experience in South Africa. Here I had many encounters where a local person would chat to me confidently, out of curiosity, and without an apparent agenda. I was to find throughout my stay in Zimbabwe the people lived up to their reputation for friendliness. Earlier in the afternoon, my arrival in the campsite had stirred the interest of a few locals who were drinking beers around a ‘braai’. After a few questions about my bike and the journey, a heavily tattooed Indian and his friend wearing a Masvingo United t-shirt, insisted on buying me a beer before they all headed off to a local football match.

The Road to Harare
On the cold, damp ride from Musvingo a number of fires were lit alongside the road warming small groups, and the odd motorist next to cars that had apparently run out of fuel. The nearer I got to Harare, the more piles of stacked firewood there was for sale on the side of the road. I was to read later that many resettled farmers on land confiscated from whites, were having difficulty with their crops due to drought conditions – and poor training in land use – and instead were cutting down trees on their land to sell as firewood to a willing urban market needing heat and cooking fuel, as electricity cuts were an everyday occurrence.

I had found no petrol available since the station in Bubi until arriving in the outskirts of Harare. There I filled up and the manager accepted rands as payment - the price working out about the same I’d paid south of the border. As this transaction finished, a pick-up truck pulled up next to me in the forecourt, and the driver asked me if I had rands to sell. Not particularly interested unless the rate was favourable, I mentioned the older rate from last week, which to my surprise he accepted. I changed the equivalent of about sixty euros and had trouble finding space for the huge amount of banknotes! And so I entered the city in a good mood, my two concerns allayed – fueled up, and pockets stuffed with cash.

Shopping
These were interesting times in the country. The government had just instructed shops and supermarkets to cut prices of goods on the shelves by half as inflation, already running at 4,500% a year, had doubled over the previous two weeks. Of course the effect was a rush on a number of items, with many accused of stockpiling, and some shopkeepers and suppliers withholding the goods rather than sell at below cost for many of them. This happened while I was in Harare - one day the local supermarket was quiet, the following day very busy with many shelves empty. The fresh meat counter had packets of biltong, or beef jerky, displayed. The local butcher was closed due to meat shortages according to a notice in the window and was just “servicing existing orders”, or, as a local (white) resident informed me, only selling to those who will pay the higher price.

A White Rhodesian
I met 'Mike' (not his real name) chatting over the empty meat counter. An elderly gentleman and one of the radically diminished population of whites left in the country, in former times he told me he used to represent the Rhodesian beef industry when the country was isolated internationally, travelling all over the world on an Italian passport - his grandfather was Italian - looking for markets. And found them. "One butcher in London had a sign in his shop window advertising 'Rhodesian Beef'", he recalled laughing. "It wasn't for a few days that I heard and immediately got word to the butcher to take it down before too much PR damage was done!" Because of the very useful list of contacts he'd built up, he was offered a job by the Uruguayan beef industry, with a big salary and a house. "I even met the American Ambassador who was going to organise schooling for my kids. My wife and I bought books to learn Spanish. Things would have been a bit different!" He mused. Why didn't he take the opportunity? "Well the government changed. Mugabe came into power and we decided to stay here..." His voice tailed off.

He was giving me an idea of how he gets by in these restricted times, transferring a monthly rand deposit into a friends account, who then transfers the equivalent in Zim dollars to Mike’s account. Cash for living expenses is a problem. As a measure to slow down inflation, the limit on ATM withdrawals is about €15. That may be enough for some, he said, but what if you need to buy a battery or a tyre for your car? He has an arrangement where he pays for groceries with his debit card, and will then ask the cashier to add an extra few million onto the bill, giving him cash change. I noticed this happening with other shoppers at a checkout. These are the ways around the restrictions those with money can use. “This situation can’t last too much longer. I just can’t understand why they – the blacks - don’t take to the streets,” he added with frustration. “I reckon its just a matter of weeks before there’s a meltdown.”

'A Peaceful People'

A Kiwi staying in the same backpackers as me, working for an NGO, has a theory that there wasn’t violent upheaval yet “because the Zims are such a peaceful people. I reckon the revolutionary ones were all part of either Zanu or Zapu, which joined together, and now there’s no serious opposition.” I was to hear other more menacing interpretations. The 'Green Bombers', so called after their uniform, were youth squads used to intimidate any opposition. The minority Ndebele tribe, which largely made up any opposition in the country, are based in the south and west of Zimbabwe. Reference was made a few times I was there to North Korean trained troops committing atrocities in the south of the country in the mid eighties. Tens of thousands were reported killed. And any opposition in the Eastern Highlands by a more moderate sub group of the majority Shona was also harshly dealt with. My suggestion that surely Mugabe must have some degree of legitimacy and support among the majority, was usually met with derision. The opposition has been subdued through fear.

It did seem to me as an outsider looking in, that things couldn’t get much worse. The man in the street was now having difficulty finding food for his family. There is an
official 80% unemployment rate, in reality said to be higher. The infrastructure does seem to be deteriorating to a serious degree. Approaching a bridge near the outskirts of Harare, I was struck by a vivid green plant growth covering the surface of the water. I was then struck even harder by the sharp stench as I approached! Managing to hold my breath long enough, I breathed easier after I’d passed. It was strong! The following day I read a report in The Standard of water hyacinth weed thriving on the raw sewage pumped into Lake Chivaro - from where the capital draws its water!

NGO's in Zimbabwe
‘Richard’, a political science professor from a top US university here on an NGO project, was preparing his peanut butter and jam sandwich from two jars and a loaf of bread in front of him. “I had to queue for an hour for it!” As an American academic his presence in the country was a little precarious to say the least. The US government, along with the British among others, is accused by Zimbabwean officials of actively supporting a ‘regime change’ in the country – the outgoing US ambassador had the previous week been quoted as saying he believed the government would be overthrown within the next six months. ("An unfortunate, and unhelpful comment," said 'Richard' ruefully when he read it in the paper.) And NGO’s here are in a difficult situation. Any foreign aid has to go through through the government, and is only dispensed through the traditional chiefs in outlying areas. These chiefs are financially supported by the regime to reinforce their loyalty. The aid is associated then by recipients with the government. NGO’s who were not prepared to operate under these restrictions either pulled out or were not allowed to continue.

On top of all of that, in my discussions with ‘Richard’, it was clear his views are most obviously quite liberal - in the social rather economic area - and quite lucid on the realities of US aid. "The US demand for ‘Human Rights’ and ‘democracy’ is really driven by the principle - what is good for American business." He says despite being considered as quite ‘left’ in his views back home, he is quite clear that “greed, and staying in power at all costs, are what is driving the policies of the present government in Zimbabwe”.

A newspaper article on trees being cut down struck me as poignant and sad, starkly highlighting the country’s descent…
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“Farms on the fringes of the city have been denuded the quickest of trees, because petrol to drive to farms further away remains in short supply… The effects of the logging spree are easily seen in the streets of Harare, where avenues of trees have been felled and the sight of people carrying large bundles of freshly cut wood in the city’s central business district is a common sight.”

The Press
It was interesting to read the newspapers and recognise their different allegiances. I was amazed that with the climate of apparent repression the two weeklies critical of the governmnet continue to publish, and wondered how long that would be allowed to continue. Within a few minutes of picking up the daily “Herald” it is quite clear it is a government mouthpiece, the tone of articles very obviously propoganda, and actually not very well written (even given English is not the first language), with shrill and negative language and arguments that don’t at times make sense. Defending the government’s handling of the economy, The Herald, blaims the shortages on unscrupulous businessmen who want to sow discontent and topple the government. Others reckon its because there is no money to buy flour and raw materials. The weekly “Standard” presents as more intelligent and reasoned, and seems to represent business and international (Western) values and interests. This along with The Independent is owned by Trevor Ncube, who also owns the South African weekly Mail & Guardian, with which I was quite familiar. It is claimed he has outside financial backing.

A further cause for concern is news i read of an Interceptions of Communications Bill passed by Parliament and ready to be signed into law. It seems to “allow government to monitor and regulate Internet, mobile and fixed line phones for information it deems subversive or used for organised crime”. Of course the Herald has opinion pieces about it, the main argument justifying its introduction is comparing the situation in Zimbabwe with that of the US - the fear of a threat to national security provoking President Bush there to bring in the US Patriot Act.


Some quotes from The Herald, Tuesday July 3rd 2007…

… land reform has achieved its primary objective of empowering blacks and decongesting communal lands… The worst is over. We are now taking off. – Comrade Chombo, Zanu-PF Secretary for Land Reform and Resettlement.

Trevor’s two weeklies (The Independent, Standard)… are definitely tools that have been deployed to cause destabilisation….

Perhaps there is a need to remind Trevor that the concept of press freedom existing anywhere in the world is a fallacy. Information policy as expounded by the US and its allies has largely become openly recognised as a weapon of war.

Philani Dube veteran lead guitarist... of the group The Black Spirits… died early yesterday morning after a long battle with tuberculosis. (There are many obituaries of this nature. TB is often given as the cause in cases of Aids related deaths.)

Brace for severe cold, say experts
“Zimbabweans should brace for a very severe cold front which is likely to see temperatures dropping to 18 degrees celsius and causing drizzle in some areas this week.”


The Last 25 Years
Zimbabwe had had an ‘interesting’ time over the 25 or so years since Robert Mugabe led the country to independence, particularly in the previous six or seven years when land reform was accelerated. Most white owned farms were seized and supposedly redistributed to landless peasants, though its claimed Zanu-PF members and army officers were the true beneficiaries. The result has been a rapid decline in agricultural production and the near collapse of the economy. Where the country was once known as ‘the breadbasket of the region’ it now can’t produce enough food to feed its population. On the outskirts of Harare, I’d noticed a queue, about fifty metres in length, outside the outlet shop of an industrial bakery.

Of course there are differing interpretations on what is happening in Zimbabwe. One extreme, a view held predictably by a certain generation of white South Africans as well as obviously by dispossessed ‘Zimbos’ ("Mugabe and his cronies may be prepared to go back to loin cloths and squatting around three stones and a fire, but I'm not!") , is that the country was doing very well, majority rule was going to come without Robert Mugabe’s insurrection, and the man has completely ruined the country since. The other extreme is that Zimbabweans owe Robert Mugabe a debt of gratitude for gaining independence, that land reform was necessary, and the continuing ‘economic difficulties’ are instigated and continued by Western multinational interests seeking to overthrow the present regime in favour of one more friendly to foreign investors interested in the huge natural resources of the country.

In South Africa as well as with some people I spoke to in Zimbabwe, there is frustration at the lack of pressure put on the government by Zimbabwe’s neighbors, particularly President Mbekii of South Africa. In fact many just can’t understand why a seemingly blind eye is being turned, not just to the apparently random and corrupt redistribution of farmland, but also to the government’s repressive and violent behavior towards any opposition in the country. One interesting interpretation I heard was that Robert Mugabe, the longest serving leader now in Africa, the last of the successful revolutionaries still around, because he is unafraid of threats from the West, still commands a certain respect among southern Africa’s other leaders. At 82, he is very much the senior actor, and is not to be dictated to or ‘advised’ by any of his peers.

Zimbabwe and My M'Beki Theory
After two months in South Africa listening to different views, fears, concerns, and - through the press - beginning to understand the issues a little in that rapidly evolving experiment in social engineering, that new democracy, I arrived at a theory to possibly explain further Thabo M’Beki’s reluctance to ‘interfere’ in Zimbabwe’s affairs. The transition from apartheid to democracy is seen internationally, and by most in South Africa, as a ‘miracle’. Much of this is put down to the Mandela effect – the moderating and tolerant influence of who many consider a saint. More interestingly, in the months leading up to democracy the ANC leadership were given a crash course in the importance of a stable economy in maintaining any type of investment and prosperity in the new South Africa. Some would see this as largely responsible for the non radical, moderate policies adopted since 1994.

Now more than a decade later, South African President M’Beki is under increasing pressure from various sides. Grassroots ANC activists maintain not enough has been done to raise the living standards of the majority with housing, education and health needing much higher priority in government spending. The ANC’s partners in government, the Communist Party and Cosatu, the trade union movement, are demanding nationalisation of national resources, and more progress in ‘land reform’ – the phrase that strikes fear into the hearts of white landowners. And the very wealthy and powerful business lobby – banking, insurance, and huge mining interests - sees any move to the left as a threat to investors confidence in the economy which could very quickly lead to the markets collapsing.

My theory is this: as long as Robert Mugabe is in charge in Zimbabwe - with all his excesses, the repression and the disintegration of the economy - President M’Beki can point to him as an example of what could happen through mismanagement, and has a chance to rein in the more extreme demands. And so it does him no harm for Robert Mugabe to remain in power, and for Zimbabwe to suffer. And that applies to other African leaders as well.

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