Tuesday, January 03, 2017

[The Life of Shaun #544] The Myth of Mugabe

I recently started reading Sapiens, a fascinating book on the history of humankind.  In the opening chapters, it discusses the myths around which Homo Sapiens have built their world: law, human rights, nations, money.  These exist only because people believe they do, as opposed to the laws and forces of nature, such as gravity and radioactivity; you can abandon all belief in either, but they'll both kill you nonetheless.  This is not to say myths aren't important or don't impact our world - they do immensely, and the widespread loss of faith in these beliefs can be disastrous.

Riding high on the myths of empire, land ownership and the value of the local currency, the British colony of Southern Rhodesia was amongst the richest and most advanced nations in the developing world.  The breadbasket of Africa exported all manner of crops, earning hard currency and supporting a vast network of farmworkers and dependents.  Several decades later, the rebranded Zimbabwe has endured a complete loss of faith in the government that runs the country and the currency that facilitates its economy, becoming one of the most dysfunctional and destitute countries on the planet.  It's a stark warning about how quickly a nation can fall apart, and how much damage one man can do.

Having followed the fall of Zimbabwe against the rise of its inflation (as high as 79,600,000,000%), I was keen to see what had become of its capital, Harare (née Salisbury), since abandoning the ZimDollar for the US Dollar in 2009.  The country is still poor and misruled, but at least there is a measure of financial stability.  Surprisingly, central Harare, with its neat street grid, parks and slightly shabby towers, appeared cleaner, safer and more prosperous than Johannesburg, Africa's wealthiest city.  But a telling sign of the despotic, paranoid rule of Robert Mugabe was that we had to register with and get permission from a military post downtown before we were allowed to walk its streets.  We were also requested not to take too many photos of the CBD, as that could be taken as an attempt at espionage.

Despite its interesting recent history, Harare was quite lacking in local diversions.  Other than the local markets, shopping centre (in the surprisingly large white section of town) and universally friendly residents, there is not a whole lot to recommend the non-business visitor.  Quickly realising this, Sushil and I rebooked our outbound flight to the next evening and rode out our 26 hours in the capital with a city tour, cheap local beer and mediocre Ethiopian food.



A reasurring sign welcomes you on arrival to Harare International Airport.


From a nearby hillside, Harare could pass for a mid-sized American city.



Worshipers spill out into the courtyards in Zimbabwe...



...and into the fields.


The Parliament of Zimbabwe was surprisingly understated, especially compared with the presidential compound (where pictures are not allowed).


Africa Unity Square, at the centre of Harare.


The Old Mutual building downtown.  

"As hyperinflation accelerated, the value of the Zimbabwe dollar declined fast against other currencies, yet official exchange rates published by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe were infrequently updated; this made it impossible to tell from an official source how much the Zimbabwe dollar was really worth against other currencies on a particular day, which in turn disrupted international business transactions involving Zimbabwe dollars. Staff from WM/Reuters devised an indirect means of measurement that was termed the Old Mutual Implied Rate (OMIR).  This took the daily price of shares in the insurance company Old Mutual that traded in the London and Harare stockmarkets and derived from it a notional daily exchange rate between the Zimbabwe dollar and the pound.  Shares had much less strict capital controls than through the Zimbabwe banking system, so the shares were used as a vehicle for moving capital between currencies by buying stock in either London or Harare and then selling in the other location.  The Old Mutual Implied rate was widely adopted benchmark rate for unofficial currency exchange until intervention by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe in May 2008 to prohibit the transfer of shares in Old Mutual, ABC and Kingdom Meikles Africa out of the country, therefore stopping their fungibility."



A child standing next to a rather unique newspaper headline.



Sushil and I at Sam Levy's Village, the main shopping centre in the white section of town.  Our guide stressed to us several times that people from all over the world mix there.


The markets in the black sections were a bit more up-and-coming.



Well-decorated social housing.


Indeed, this is where we started our party!


A mobile DJ stage with Afro-techno music kept the party going on the streets.


The most famous of the Chiremba Balancing Rocks, made so by its appearance on the ZimDollar, including the Z$100 trillion note.




The outskirts of Harare are literally built on and amongst the rocks at the edge of the park.


A headline announcing the introduction of bond notes, a parallel currency being introduced to mitigate the shortage of USD.



A newspaper insert explaining how bond notes would work...what could possibly go wrong?!



The lack of USD was apparent in the condition of the bills that were in circulation.



ZimDollars, worth more as souvenirs than they ever were as currency.



Nondiscrimination laws are not quite up to Western standards.


A rather appropriately named intersection.


It's a personal choiceShaun H. Coley ~ Shadwell ~ Tower Hamlets ~ London E1 ~ UK ~ shaunism.blogspot.co.uk

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