THESE are gloomy times, with the rand at an all-time low against the dollar. Which is why, here at the Mahogany Ridge, we were greatly startled by Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s sudden and uncharacteristic appeal for financial assistance from hitherto much-maligned Western governments this week.
Hope certainly does spring eternal in the optimist’s withered bosom, and there he was, on Tuesday evening, Handsome Bob, in his first such overture in 15 years of fractious dealings with the US and Europe, cap in hand and calling for a strengthening of ties with the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and diverse other imperialist institutions.
The appeal came in Bob’s first state of the nation address since 2007. And who could blame him for wanting to skip that particular exercise for a while? Matters were going dramatically pear-shaped by then, and there really wasn’t much in the way of report-back material after that. No good stories there, you could say.
In 2006, you may recall, a single sheet of toilet paper reportedly cost more than Z$400, while a whole roll went for more than Z$145 000. Inflation, according to The Economist, neared 80-billion percent in 2008 and 2009, when the treasury began printing 100-trillion-dollar notes.
That’s when the government began to abandon its worthless currency in favour of foreign currencies, including the rand. Demonetisation ends next month. When it started in June this year, one US dollar bought you 35-quadrillion Zim dollars. (It’s a great irony that, as novelty items, the Z$100-trillion notes are traded for hundreds of rands on eBay.)
I mention all this because there has been dark muttering that the rand, too, will shortly be toast, and the country will be basket-cased Bob-style most pronto.
The reality is that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon, but it certainly feels as if it’s not for a want of trying.
Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba’s pig-headed insistence that his barking mad visa regulations remain in place and strictly enforced in order to combat child trafficking is a case in point.
Given the rand’s current troubles, South Africa should be that much more attractive to foreign holiday-makers, but we have already seen dramatic falls in visitor numbers, and the local tourism industry is bracing itself for a miserable summer.
But no matter. The visa regulations are working, and only this week we learnt that a ten-month-old baby girl born in the UK has been declared an undesirable alien and barred from seeing her South African father for the next five years because her mother, who has dual citizenship, had overstayed her visa by 18 days during a visit to introduce the infant to her family.
Home Affairs are not budging, and will not tolerate a contravention of regulations. The scourge of undesirable babies will soon be a thing of the past.
Up north, Bob has apparently seen the futility of such mulish intractability and on Tuesday declared that “all laws that hamper business” would be repealed and announced plans to not only battle rampant corruption, but to revive agriculture, which the land grabs all but destroyed, and expand the mining industry. Although his speech was brief, less than a half-hour, it was greatly jeered by opposition MPs.
Like Pretoria, Harare insists that Beijing is a close ally. The slowing of China’s economy may however have prompted Bob’s volte face regarding the West. That, and “meddling” Chinese officials coming over all IMF and World Bankish with talk of tighter financial controls and fiscal security vis-a-vis the implementation of deals signed between the two countries.
And why not? If the Chinese are to fund infrastructural developments, they’d want assurances that the money will be used properly. As it is, part of the more than $144-million they donated to a project to rehabilitate Harare’s waterworks has reportedly been diverted to buy 50 top-of-the-range cars for politicians and officials.
You know the “two cows” jokes used to explain economic policies? In Zimbabwe, it went something like this: “You used to have two cows. And a farm. Even an economy.”
After Bob turned 91 in May, the joke was given a new twist. “You also had elephants. And lions. And crocodiles. And sable. And buffalo. And impala. But you ate them at your birthday party.”
Such profligacy is appalling to donors, even if they’re communist. Quite why it should now be any different for once-spurned Western governments is a bit puzzling.
One hopes that Luthuli House is paying attention.
This article first appeared in the Weekend Argus.