Into Africa: Mugabe’s Zimbabwe–the Fear and the Fiat Money

In which the author, exclusively for CounterPunch, goes by train but also by ferry, bicycle, plane, and rental car from Nairobi, Kenya, to Pretoria and Johannesburg, South Africa. This is Part VI. To read part I, click here.

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe: High Court in downtown

On the Bus to Lusaka, the Zambian Capital

Kissinger (my taxi driver, not the war criminal) dropped me at the Lusaka bus. Earlier that morning I had purchased a ticket, which assigned me a seat in the back near a grubby window. At least I could squeeze it open and bask—if that’s the word for a Zambian bus—in the breeze. The journey would last almost five hours.

The elegantly dressed woman next to me drank Fanta and watched Tom & Jerry cartoons on her laptop. I read my books and gazed out the window, amused to see again all the boltholes where the minivan driver had stopped to make dividend payments on the way up to Ndola.

After Kapiri Mposhi the bus paused for a rest stop in Kabwe, another sizable town, where a scrum of street vendors, all with Pepsi, cookies, and potato chips—standard African fare—poured on the bus as the passengers were trying to get off. I bought cold bottled water and retreated into my emotional shell, while the hawkers descended on me as if locusts armed with Fanta.

I had mentally prepared myself for Lusaka, at least the bus station, by watching some YouTube videos of the central depot. Still, I had to squeeze my way through the welcoming taxi lobby, as if going off tackle.

Because I was only stopping overnight in Lusaka, I had booked a hotel near the bus terminal, knowing that the surrounding area would be dodgy, which proved the case.

No one I asked had any idea where I could find the Diamond Acres Hotel, which I finally found after making several loops through a dusty slum. The building looked new (well, 2000s new), but the lobby had an empty feeling, as if the last guests were during a 2007 Pan-African Congress.

Again, I was several days late for my reservation, although the clerk was happy to honor the discounted Internet rate. I paid in cash and signed the register (literally, I just signed my name, and it could have been Alfred E. Neuman).

At least the room had air conditioning, although the motor on it might well have been stripped from one of the bus carcasses that litter the route down from Ndola.

The Diamond Acres isn’t the kind of hotel that has taxis waiting in line outside the front door (although there were a lot of wheelbarrows from the job site across the street). I found a car and driver at a nearby strip mall, and he agreed to drive me around Lusaka for two hours, to see a list of places (Bwacha House, Chilenje House, Matero House, etc.) that I had printed out.

Around Lusaka: The Spirit of Independence Wears Elevator Shoes

I had thought Lusaka might well be an endless African slum, of Kibera dimensions, but I was wrong. Much of it—at least diplomatic Lusaka—is a new city, similar to Canberra or Brasilia, purpose-built for the illusion of democracy, and the government quarters of Lusaka are tree-lined and have roundabouts and four-star hotels.

During the joy ride, we passed the presidential residence (surrounded by a gated park the size of London’s Kensington Gardens), the supreme court, parliament, and a once vacant lot where past presidents, after they have died, are memorialized in what looks like a gated community. I tried to take a picture of the three-bedroom mausoleums, but a guard shooed me away, saying that I lacked a photography permit. (I could come back tomorrow and buy one.)

One of the memorials is for Frederick Chiluba, who was discovered to have purchased more than 100 pairs of shoes (with elevated heels) from a Geneva boutique, besides having $46 million stashed abroad.

We ended up at the bungalow home of Zambia’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda, who at the time of independence in 1964 commuted to his guerrilla war from this small council house just outside the city.

Now the small house is a museum, to which later that week the South African President Jacob Zuma was planning a visit (together with the aged Kaunda, who is in his 90s but still able to get around). It’s Zambia’s Mount Vernon, except limited to three cramped rooms (when you factor in that the Kaundas had nine children).

Before coming to Zambia, I read Martin Meredith’s The First Dance of Freedom: Black Africa in the Postwar Era, published in 1984, a sweeping history of how independence came to black Africa.

Meredith writes repeatedly about the way that Britain, at the end of the interregnum, turned over its colonial governments to men with little taste for democracy. Kaunda was one of them. Meredith writes that Kaunda, at the time of the transition, “had once threatened that if he did not get his way, he would make Mau Mau look like a picnic.”

Later, Kaunda would say “that independence had been achieved in Northern Rhodesia without bitterness.” But that’s easy to say when you have served as president for twenty-seven years, and after having abolished all rival powers and political parties.

Abroad, Kaunda aligned himself with liberation theology and, notably, with the dictatorial regime of Robert Mugabe in neighboring Zimbabwe. Kaunda said: “I’ve been saying it all along, please do not demonize Robert Mugabe. I’m not saying the methods he’s using are correct, but he was put under great pressure.” With or without that alleged pressure, Mugabe’s methods included torturing and killing his political opponents, and running a once prosperous country into the ground.

Without its revenue stream from the industrial Copperbelt, Zambia would be even more insolvent than it is—a nation of sidewalk merchants and government remittance men. But the biggest statue in Lusaka is one dedicated to FREEDOM.

King Lion to Harare, Zimbabwe: Across Container Pass

Because Lusaka isn’t the kind of city where you stroll around the center after dark to find a restaurant, I stayed put that night at the Diamond Acres. The staff kindly cooked me dinner and served it to me in a lobby bar, together with a cold beer, while I watched football replays on a large-screen television.

I remember the hotel with fondness, as the staff, with few resources on hand, treated me royally. At 7:00 the next morning, the chef made me poached eggs, toast, and tea, even though the restaurant had yet to open.

My bus for Harare, operated by the King Lion Corporation, left the next morning at 9:00, although the ticket agent wanted me to be at the station by 8:30, no doubt so that every hawker in Lusaka could wave plastic bottles in my face.

I had a little more space on this bus than on the one from Ndola, and I enjoyed the scenery both north and south of the Zambezi River, which is the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, and as majestic as the Mississippi or Ohio rivers.

South of Lusaka, the dry landscape is broken occasionally by small clusters of native huts, and from my window I even saw a zebra, although I suspect it could have been kept in captivity. On my travels, I missed the Big Five (lions, rhinos, elephants, giraffes, and zebras) but saw lots of the Little Three—cows, goats, and stray dogs.

Getting processed into Zimbabwe, in many ways a failed state, took more than two hours. To leave Zambia, a woman stamped my passport and handed it back to me. That took about three minutes.

To get into Zimbabwe, however, meant standing in several long lines, purchasing a visa for $30, and having to show the contents of my wallet to another officer, who counted my money and stamped a customs form. Then I had to pass my bags through a luggage scanner while another agent went through my pockets.

Finally, to get back on the bus, yet another immigration officer inspected my passport stamp and related paperwork. No wonder I was the only foreigner on the bus trying to get into Zimbabwe.

Nor was my first glimpse of Zimbabwe that of a promised land, as it is often described in the memoirs of early Rhodesian settlers. South of the river, the landscape is a series of abrupt, rolling hills and scrubby landscape.

On many of the hairpin turns trucks had rolled off the highway and down hillsides. I nicknamed this stretch of the road Container Pass.

I always had an eye out for big game, on the hope that, in the future, I might save $5K by being able to say, “Yes, I saw giraffe in Zimbabwe.” But the country’s national parks were far from this stretch of the highway (never more than a two-lane road).

The Trump Boys Hunt Big Game in Zimbabwe

In one of the books I had with me during the long day to Harare (the trip took almost twelve hours), I read a passage relating that the Mugabe government and its ministers are willing to be paid off so that big game hunters in Zimbabwe can take aim at the Big Five, which in many other parts of Africa are protected animals.

Among those who have paid-to-play with corrupt Zimbabwean officials are Donald Trump’s two sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, who have come to Zimbabwe to stalk big game, including leopards, elephants and lions.

When asked during the election campaign for a statement about his sons’ big game hunting in Africa, Donald Trump equated their passion for killing animals with the Second Amendment, as if the U.S. Constitution guarantees citizens the right to kill endangered species in Africa.

As president, Trump relaxed the ban on the importation from Zambia and Zimbabwe of dead elephant parts into the United States, no doubt to please his trophy-hunting sons, but then put his decision “on hold” so he and his Department of the (Fracking) Interior “can review it.”

Spare yourself the grotesque image, but online there is a picture of the vapid Trump boys posing with a dead leopard in Zimbabwe, although they might as well be standing for pictures with the strongmen of the Mugabe regime or one of their torture victims.

Down from the high ground, Zimbabwe is a vast plain, not unlike Wyoming or parts of Colorado, land that looks ideal for agriculture—although very little of it is being cultivated.

Around the town of Lions Den, I did see some large fields of maize and grain, but on the edge of many fields I could also make out the ruins of the abandoned farmhouses that the government expropriated from white landowners in the early 2000s and turned over to their political cronies.

At the time these farms were going concerns—with tractors, barns, and export earnings for Zimbabwe. Now, however, many of the commandeered fields lie fallow, and the farmhouses themselves are missing windows and roofs.

Most white farmers fled the countryside, if not the country, and a number were killed. The government later refused to prosecute the killers, implying that they had acted in the patriotic interest of the nation.

The land policies of the Mugabe government, in power since 1980, turned a country that should export millions in agricultural products into a nation that only feeds itself with alms from the international community, notably China.

The ironic footnote to this tragedy is that a few white farmers, having seen their farms in ruins, have leased back the land from those that stole it and now are trying to restart their old production.

Around Harare on a Bicycle: Into the Path of AK-47s

In planning my travels, I had marked Harare for some recovery days. I would have had several days on the train from Dar es Salaam to New Kapiri, the detour up to Ndola and the Hammarskjold site, and then twenty hours of bus riding from the Copperbelt to Lusaka and Harare. I figured that by the time I got to Harare, I would need to catch my breath, wash my clothes, and answer emails.

Instead of a hotel, I reserved an Airbnb room in the nearby suburbs. As it turned out, I had booked into a household full of angels and saints, all of whom devoted themselves to making sure that I would love Harare.

I arrived tired, hot, and cranky after almost twelve hours on the bus from Lusaka, but no sooner had I walked into the Airbnb than the hostess invited me to have a beer and join the family dinner, which was attended not just by children home from school and sports, but a cockatoo who spent much of the meal perched on my shoulder. (“Pieces of eight…”)

The next morning I borrowed a bicycle from a neighbor and set off on errands around Harare, which included a visit to the U.S. embassy, where I needed to get my signature notarized on a legal document.

Biking around Harare was something of a challenge, as local drivers, especially in taxis, take it upon themselves to shout insults at anyone on a bike. On one street, by the Royal Harare Golf Club, I was intercepted by a menacing soldier holding a machine gun, who waved me to the other side of the street (directly into oncoming traffic).

My offense? I was riding too close to one of President Robert Mugabe’s personal residences (he has many). This presidential palace had the look of a Hamptons McMansion, assuming that the hedge funders out there had access to guards armed with AK-47s.

I got pleasantly lost looking for the U.S. embassy. I didn’t mind, as it got me acquainted with Harare, one of Africa’s nicer cities. Too bad it has a murderous government. (Just to be clear on the timing: I was in Harare just before the coup d’état and wrote up these impressions before Mugabe left office, although the government that succeeded him is one of his cronies, his army, and his intelligence services, which may explain his $10 million severance pay.)

Harare’s traffic does not compare to Nairobi’s gridlock. The sidewalks, while uneven, make it possible to walk around, and street crime is less than, say, in Mombasa or Dar es Salaam.

Theroux likes it, writing: “But Harare did not look like a ruin. Even in its bankruptcy, Harare was to my mind the most pleasant African city I had seen so far—the safest, tidiest, the least polluted, the most orderly.”

On the bike, I wandered through downtown and several leafy parks, went past the rubber-stamp parliament, stopped at a print shop, and drank several bottles of cold water.

The embassy, ringed by crenelated bomb barrier that resembles a medieval rampart, feels hermetically sealed from the outside world. I passed through two sets of security checks, left my phone at the desk, and walked through several steel curtains, into what felt like a fish tank.

For some reason, I was the only person that morning in the consular division. Maybe Zimbabweans have given up on the idea of ever securing an American visa?

The officer who notarized (for $50!) my signature was professional and friendly. We chatted about my train travels around Africa, but spoke to each other through bulletproof glass, as if we were Maxwell Smart and the Chief having a meeting in the Cone of Silence.

Harare: Foreign Correspondent Peter Godwin Takes on The Fear

For the rest of my ride around Harare (I got the hang of biking on the “wrong” side of the street), I had as my guide Peter Godwin, whose book, The Fear: The Last Days of Robert Mugabe, is one of the reasons I had decided to come to Harare.

An account of Mugabe’s crackdown against the opposition political party in 2008, the book was published in 2011, and when it came out, a friend of mine a friend of mine invited me to a book reading that Godwin gave in New York.

Until that evening, I had known little about Zimbabwe’s culture of repression. I liked Godwin’s remarks. On this trip I had his book in my luggage, and used it, metaphorically anyway, to get around Harare.

Godwin’s book, while well written and engaging, does not make for easy reading, as he graphically describes how many figures in the Mugabe opposition were tortured and killed around 2008 when it appeared the MDC party (the Movement for Democratic Change) might replace Mugabe in power.

Instead, the president-for-life dealt with the possibility of a recount or new election by dispatching his goons, who killed, maimed, and tortured the political opposition with impunity.

Godwin has worked as a foreign correspondent of the Sunday Times (London) and Vanity Fair and has published several memoirs, including Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa, about his Rhodesian childhood.

When he traveled to Harare in 2008 to write about “the last days of Robert Mugabe” (too bad he hung on another nine years), Godwin was already on the ruling party’s hit list. Throughout the reporting for this book, he feared reprisal and arrest if it figured out he was on the loose with his pen and paper.

To write the book, Godwin traveled twice to Zimbabwe, both times in the company of his sister, and so at least the grim reporting about the electoral repression is mixed with accounts of the Godwins going back to their childhood homes, some of which are in ruin.

Growing up, Peter’s father was an engineer and his mother was a medical doctor, but the family, with the many crackdowns in Zimbabwe, lost everything—either to the henchmen of the Mugabe government or through the extortionate inflation that followed in their wake.

Godwin tells the tragic story of selling his parents’ house and putting the proceeds of the sale in a local bank. Because his father’s will was still being probated, it took a year for the paperwork to clear. In that time, the money from the sale, as he writes, became worth less than an economy air ticket to London, where his mother resettled, much to her sadness.

One of the important insights in The Fear is Godwin’s thesis that while in power Mugabe redefined the concept of genocide, at least in a modern African sense.

Godwin describes it as “policide,” the idea being to maim and torture citizens almost to the point of death, but then to return them to their communities, where their deformities send powerful messages to others considering taking up the opposition cause.

Godwin writes:

Frances uses a phrase I’ve started to hear: ‘smart genocide’, a grotesque science that Mugabe is apparently honing. There’s no need to directly kill hundreds of thousands, if you can select and kill the right few thousand. Is this really a ‘refining’ of genocide?

He continues:

The people have given this time of violence and suffering its own name, which I hear for the first time tonight. They are calling it chidudu. It means, simply, ‘The Fear’.

Godwin is a relentless reporter. While dodging Mugabe’s secret police, he goes into prisons, hospitals, and opposition safe houses to “bear witness” (although it’s not a phrase that he loves) to the unfolding tragedy.

He writes: “I seem to be part chaplain (like my grandfather before me, ministering to wounded sailors in World War I), part scribe, part journalist, part therapist. Part lawyer (as I once was) taking testimony. And as these shattered people recount their full experiences in a complete narrative, many for the first time, they sometimes break down.”

The book ends in 2011—although the Fear continues—with a new coalition government between Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC, which decides that sleeping with the devil is better than a protracted civil war although Mugabe had little interest in power-sharing.

One man Godwin interviewed tells him that: “Robert Mugabe is an enigma—he evokes conflicting emotions in people. Liberation hero versus cruelty; the unleashing of violence, in Matabeleland, Murambatsvina, and now this post-election violence. I think he’s driven by power—nothing else.”

He is also driven around in a Rolls-Royce. While I was on my bike in Harare, local newspapers were carrying a story about the president’s wife, know locally as “Gucci” Grace, paying $600,000 in cash to buy a Rolls-Royce Ghost in South Africa. At the same time, her son, Russell Goreraza (Mugabe’s stepson), was buying two other custom Rolls-Royce limousines, thought to be worth about $2.5 million—yet more vehicles driven by power.

No wonder, after I left the otherwise bankrupt country, the army decided to lock him away in his many mansions although his successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, as Mugabe’s right-hand man in 2008, organized the crackdown the Godwin came to describe as The Fear.

Fiat Money in Zimbabwe: Mugabe Goes For Broke

To get out of town, I was taking the night train to Bulawayo, a city in western Zimbabwe, and on the bike I no trouble finding the station or the stationmaster who could sell me a ticket. I paid $12 for a berth in first class and told the agent that I hope I would be alone in the compartment.

Like so much of Harare, the railroad station evokes middle England, if in a rundown condition. The station reminded me of that in Cambridge—it is made of red brick, and has long porticos with columns. According to a poster, travelers can even take a shower at the station.

I am sure that when Zimbabwe was Rhodesia the country still had a functioning railroad and strong links with England’s railroad culture. But now passenger service is an afterthought in a country that to get around relies on buses, minivans, and cars.

After buying my ticket, I walked around the station and looked at the rolling stock parked near the platforms; sadly the rail cars looked as though they had been through the Blitz.

During my time in Harare, most of the conversations that I had were about the country’s monetary policies, which in my mind will eventually sweep away Mugabe’s (and now Mnangagwa’s) ruling ZANU-PF party and replace it either with a military dictatorship or old-fashioned anarchy (more than what the country has already).

Back when Godwin was writing his book, Zimbabwe was in the grips of runaway inflation, of Weimar proportions. Currency notes denominated in trillions were then in circulation, and people paid for coffee with bricks of cash.

In 2008, the rate of inflation was estimated at 231,150,888%. The only reason the Zimbabwean dollar, in those days, did not become a wheelbarrow currency was that no one could afford to buy any garden equipment.

The Zimbabwe solution to the problem of its fiat money being worthless was to allow certain foreign currencies, notably the U.S. dollar, to circulate freely and to be accepted in day-to-day transactions.

Suddenly the country was awash in small domination U.S. bills, many of which were delivered from the four million Zimbabweans who live and work abroad and who keep the country afloat financially.

The complication with eliminating a national currency and using foreign currency for local specie—it was the practice in the early days of the American republic—is that suddenly the government no longer can generate wealth (mostly its own) by printing new money.

For wealth, the country would need a functioning economy, exports, and foreign reserves, none of which Zimbabwe has had since the 1990s.

Many people I talked with in Zimbabwe described Mugabe, despite all his liberation theology and solidarity speeches, as a spendthrift heir—just another rich kid who inherited a fortune (a very productive national economy in 1980) and since that time has blown the fortune (on things such as presidential mansions and Rolls-Royces).

Around 2015, Mugabe’s financial wizards decided to issue yet another Zimbabwean dollar, but this time peg it to the U.S. dollar on a 1:1 ratio. In theory, that meant that whenever the government printed a new Zimbabwean dollar, it had in its foreign reserves an equivalent U.S. dollar (much the way governments once printed currency if they had sufficient gold reserves).

Pegging a local currency to the U.S. dollar can work fine; the Chinese, in effect, despite all their manipulations, have maintained a peg between the renminbi and the U.S. dollar, although the key element in such monetary policy is the belief in the market that the government in question can be trusted to limit the local circulation of its currency.

Once traders figure out that a government is, in effect, trying to coin U.S. dollars by printing up its worthless local money, the peg dissolves, which is what is happening in Zimbabwe.

Now the situation in Zimbabwe has been made worse, I would say untenable, by the fact that government has drastically cut back on the amount of Zimbabwe dollars in circulation.

While I was in Harare on my bike, I wanted to change money but found it impossible. ATM machines had been milked dry, and store owners, while they wanted foreign currency, were leery of changing money with a stranger. When I asked a friend if he wanted to change some money, he said he had not had seen local currency in several weeks.

What keeps the economy from shutting down is a smartphone app called EcoCash, which allows everyone (except travelers passing through the country) to settle routine transactions. Locals use the app to buy groceries and taxi rides, and to pay their light bill. It’s the only currency in circulation, and payment is made, in effect, by tapping smartphones.

Meanwhile, the banking sector (although I am sure it’s bankrupt) has the illusion of prosperity, as the banks only lend money in hard currency (normally the U.S. dollar) and at rates of interest from 12 to 20% per annum, if not more. For deposits, the banks pay nothing.

Even a failing Zimbabwean bank will think it can get rich on a 12% spread, and I guess it will until the music (think of that played in German beer halls in 1923) stops.

The Money Laundering Elite Comes Home To Roost

What’s the current situation really all about? My guess is that the currency peg to the U.S. dollar is part of a huge money laundering scheme undertaken by Mugabe and his ZANU-PF henchmen.

How does it work? I suspect that anyone close to the president can go the central bank with local Zim dollars (often called “bonds”), and convert them into U.S. dollars at the 1:1 exchange rate, even though (when I was there) on the street the Zim dollar has fallen to 1.75 to 1 against the USD.

That means whoever has conversion privileges at the central bank (perhaps in a back room) can generate thousands of dollars by playing in a rigged foreign exchange market. (One Zim dollar becomes one U.S. dollar, which on the street becomes 1.75 Zim dollars.)

Zimbabwe must also have become the destination of choice for the money laundering elite (much the way big game hunters such as the Trump boys are flocking to the country and its accommodating virtues), because the U.S. dollar is legal tender, although without any of the bothersome restrictions that track cash transactions in the U.S. or other countries.

How does this three-penny opera end? Historically, no government—not Weimar nor Bourbon France—has survived runaway inflation. I would expect that, when the next invoice reaches Mugabe’s desk, his government will dissolve much the way that post-World War I Germany vanished under the government’s worthless money.

Leaving aside Mugabe’s torture and other cruelties, his government’s monetary policies sabotaged a functioning economy, much the way he confiscated the white farms.

He wiped out retirees across the board, and he destroyed the stabilizing effect of home ownership (the banks own all the houses). And he wiped out the agricultural base of the country by using land expropriation as an instrument of power, not for more efficient production.

In the next act I would assume, Zimbabwe will become bankrupt, whether it declares it or not, and then the government will be up for auction. I imagine the army and the Chinese will be among the bidders, although among the liabilities they would be acquiring is an unemployment rate close to 80%, although the asset side of the balance sheet will include, at least, a few Rolls-Royces.

Up next: The Night Train to Bulawayo, in western Zimbabwe, and the human trafficking bus into Botswana. Click here for Part V – Who Killed Hammarskjöld.




Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.