Resourcefulness and luck the only way to survive in crisis-riddled Zimbabwe
Decades of misrule force Zimbabweans to eke out a living by any means
Harare — In crisis-stricken Zimbabwe, where prices are soaring, the local dollar is plummeting and time is always short, even a trip to the petrol station can be an adventure in the struggle to survive.
Filling a tank used to require just a few minutes. Now it takes a day of patience and some ingenuity at the petrol station. Even then, success is not guaranteed.
As the sun sets on Harare, Tinashe Magacha is about to spend the night in his car, like hundreds of motorists in the queue, hoping to refuel the minibus he uses for work.
“While I am queuing, my bus is on the road with my driver transporting passengers. If I fill up this car, I will drain the fuel with a hosepipe into the commuter bus.”
All that effort comes with a hefty price tag. Fuel prices more than doubled in January, triggering protests suppressed in a bloody crackdown by President Emmerson Mnangagwa's regime.
For months, lines of cars stretching for several kilometres at petrol stations have become the latest manifestation of the economic ruin left by Robert Mugabe, who died on September 6, almost two years after a coup ended his 37-year rule.
Zimbabwe has been mired in the crisis since the early 2000s after Mugabe’s controversial land reform programme that saw the violent seizure of white-owned farms and investors fleeing the country. Zimbabwe never recovered. Today, there are shortages of everything — from fuel to washing powder, to licence plates and passports. Even local currency is in short supply.
Ruined by hyperinflation and the plummeting Zimbabwean dollar, the country and its banks are desperately short of currency. Forced to pay his bus tickets in hard currency to go to work, Crispen Mudzengerere must spend hours at his bank to withdraw, if he is lucky, at best Zim$100 (about R129 or €8) in cash. He could buy some from street traders, but the service is “taxed” at least a 30% commission.
“To get Zim$20, I need to spend $26. I have to pay for my own money!” he says.
To cut back on transportation costs, Mudzengerere got creative. He now does double shifts at his restaurant, which allows him to have four days of rest, and travel less. In Zimbabwe, resourcefulness and patience have become indispensable means for dealing with daily survival.
But hustling cannot solve everything. The first victim of the crisis has been the value of wages, destroyed by hyperinflation — 175% in June — and the depreciation of the local currency. Within a year, Zimbabweans say, the value of their salaries has been divided by fifteen.
The toll has been harsh. Wakanai Murambidzi, a cleaner in a bank, was unable to pay her children’s school fees. They were forced out of school earlier in September.
“I did not pay the last school fees [in full]. I don’t know what to do. I am stuck,” she says. “We regret removing Mugabe,” she says, referring to the military coup that ended the former president’s reign in 2017. “We used to buy bread for $1. Now it is $10.”
Amid the economic ruin, a new type of market has emerged in Harare, in the poor district of Mbare. Shoppers here won’t find any fresh vegetables, fruit or meat, but only long-shelf-life foods like rice and sugar as well as bars of soap, all illegally imported from neighbouring SA. Prices, untaxed and sold without an intermediary, are unbeatable here.
“We are smuggling,” shopkeeper Blessing Chiona says, with all her goods laid on a wooden pallet in the mud. “The prices change up to three times a day.”
Beside her, dozens of her colleagues wait for customers under the sun. Here, two litres of cooking oil go for $24 in cash, compared with $34 in supermarkets. Sheltered under an umbrella, Chiona sends text messages of shopping lists to delivery drivers, known as “malayisha” or couriers, who travel back and forth between Zimbabwe and SA with minibuses full of passengers and goods.
As if these struggles were not enough, Zimbabweans also have to work around the country‘s interminable power cuts, sometimes up to 18-hours a day. Street-seller Misheck Masarirevhu has found his solution: with a mini solar panel, he charges a car battery during the day, which he uses to charge his phone once at home.
Jocelyn Chaibva, a 59-year-old pharmacist, gets up in the middle of the night, when the electricity is on for a few hours in her neighbourhood, to turn on the washing machine.
“It requires a PhD to survive here,” said Luckmore Bunu, one of her colleagues. “If you come from abroad, you don’t survive a month here, but we are used to it.”