A man counts a wad of the new Zimbabwean ten-dollar notes received from an ATM outside a bank in Harare, Zimbabwe in May 2020.

| Jekesai Njikizana | AFP

Getting by ‘on thin air’ in Zimbabwe

What you need to know:

  • Teachers, nurses, soldiers and even bureaucrats have seen their incomes evaporate as inflation soars to triple digits.
  • Despite the claims of President Emmerson Mnangagwa's administration, the coronavirus pandemic is not the reason the Zimbabwean economy is in its worst state since the late 2000s.

Without money, people are just getting by in Zimbabwe.

Teachers, nurses, soldiers, and even bureaucrats, have seen their incomes evaporate as inflation soars to triple digits.

Teachers, some of whom are actually starving, earn a pittance, their monthly pay – received in Zimbabwe dollars – worth about US$30, and falling fast. Bad as the situation was before, Covid-19 has made conditions in Zimbabwe worse, and this has translated directly into overt hunger on the streets.

Tourism is dead, along with the thousands of jobs it supported.

But, despite the claims of the Mnangagwa regime, the pandemic is not why the economy is in its worst state since the hyper-inflation of the late 2000s. The reason, say critics, is the regime itself.

‘Zimbabwe on the edge’ and ‘Crisis in Zimbabwe’ have been among headlines in South African media as the situation deteriorates for those living at or below the rapidly-rising poverty line.

Police arrest Zimbabwean novelist Tsitsi Dangarembga (centre) and her colleague Julie Barnes during an anti-corruption protest march in Harare in July 2020.

Photo credit: Zinyange Auntony | AFP

After a fortnight of crisis that saw more than 60 arrests, including of journalists, writers, lawyers and democracy and civil rights activists, Zimbabweans say they feel like they are “back in the bad old days of Bob at his worst”, a reference to the wide scale oppression during former President Robert Mugabe’s reign.

News coverage has shown images of riot police arresting people merely drinking coffee, of a woman carrying a placard calling for an end to hunger and of people being beaten for protesting.

Unsuccessful in raids to arrest journalists, police have seized family members instead. There have been accounts of abduction and torture.

Intimidated, most Zimbabweans have kept their heads down and tried to navigate the deadly Covid crisis, even as their government has tightened control on the media and on the streets.

Covid crisis

President Emmerson Mnangagwa told his countrymen and women that their misery was not his government’s fault but that of the Covid crisis and critics of his regime who were trying to “destabilise the country.” He branded them “rogue Zimbabweans” and “rotten apples” who he said would be “flushed out”.

In recent weeks, critics have also been called “terrorists” and “dark forces”, and the president said new measures would criminalise “campaigning against one’s country”.

But the real crisis was not foreign plots, say Zimbabwe experts. It was that people were dying of hunger, even before Covid – and that millions more were now at risk of starvation.

Botswana’s former president Ian Khama said on Twitter: “Let’s not forget to pray for our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters in Zimbabwe as the situation is deteriorating rapidly.”

Low morale

With doctors and nurses on strike, patients are being turned away, even during the Covid crisis, medical staff morale said to be its lowest ever.

One doctor was quoted in social media saying: “Many doctors, like me, are afraid to say this because our government only knows how to use force. That's why I am writing this anonymously. But the reality here is that the tragic case of babies (dying in the delivery room) is just one of many. There are many more people dying.”

The situation was already desperate last year. Medics were struggling to get by on low wages and working in terrible conditions, leading to a strike in September last year.

Doctors only returned to work in January when telecoms tycoon Strive Masiyiwa offered to supplement government wages with a monthly subsistence allowance through his charitable foundation.

Then Covid arrived in Zimbabwe.

Workers from the Zimbabwe United Passenger Company spray a disinfectant liquid at a commuter bus rank in Harare, Zimbabwe in April 2020.

Photo credit: Jekesai Njikizana | AFP

“Pay has remained desperately inadequate,” says the doctor.

“Health workers are not asking for money to buy expensive houses and go on holiday, but just enough to survive. As a doctor, for instance, I receive about $175 a month. That's a little less than $6 a day.

“Both my wife and I are frontline workers, and we struggle to pay the rent and bills.” The situation is worse for nurses and other less skilled workers – and much worse yet for the vast throngs of unemployed.

President Mnangagwa's disdain for ordinary Zimbabweans could be seen in his administration's stifling of people's freedoms, said this doctor and other critics who point, as evidence of government priorities, to the purchase of Range Rovers and pick-up trucks for senior civil servants and diplomatic staff.

I go to bed every night hungry, tired. I cry going to sleep.

For people like James, who declined to disclose his other name due to fears of reprisals, life is tough. The 29-year-old, who has worked in South Africa but is currently in Zimbabwe, has a partner and three children to support.

“There’s no money. Literally no money, no notes. Everything has moved towards barter – I do this, you give me that. But if you have little, how can you trade? I have never been so poor. I have to try to get work, which means standing all day long somewhere where it is busy and there are not too many other job-seekers.

“I’ve been hired for the day a few times, but that is all, in months.

'Don't care'

“I go to bed every night hungry, tired. I cry going to sleep, I cry in my sleep and I cry when I wake up. I’ve decided to go south and cross the border over the (Limpopo) river.

“I don’t care if they lock me up. Even prison in South Africa (which is very dangerous) is better than this life, which is no life. If I don’t leave I know I shall die soon.”

James’s story is similar to millions of others now living below the poverty line on hand-outs and scrounging in rubbish bins and dumps for anything to eat, use or sell in a desperate bid to keep body and soul together.