Alas, Zimbabwe!


I had visited several African countries, but my 2009 flight to Harare turned out to be the most stomach churning. The ongoing expropriation of farms owned by people of European descent and the associated violence in Zimbabwe was international news in those days. On the plane, I watched two movies, Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland. Aided by a couple of glasses of wine, the two movies and the news from Zimbabwe got mixed up in my mind. I was expecting to encounter a violent society, general chaos, and militants with AK-47s. I was craving for my plane to somehow turn around.

But Harare proved safer than many other places I had been to in Africa. When we arrived, the airport was in complete darkness because of a shortage of electricity. The officials looked bored and sleepy. Yet interesting events awaited me. I was to get arrested in Harare. I was to spend time with Morgan Richard Tsvangirai, who was at that time an international star, a hero of human-rights activists for his opposition to President Robert Mugabe, and soon to be prime minister (a position without much power) under him. I was to be befriended by a relative of Mugabe, with whom I spent two days. I was also soon to become, to use a word that is yet to find a place in the dictionary, a multitrillionaire.

When I asked for it, someone soon brought me a bundle of 100-trillion dollar bills, all for free.

Zimbabwe had recently lost control of its currency. Inflation was so rapid — reaching as much as one million percent at one point — that the nation’s money was left with no value. A few months before I arrived, people had stopped using the local currency. The only medium of transactions was the US dollar, the South African rand, or the euro. When I asked for it, someone soon brought me a bundle of 100-trillion dollar bills, all for free. By this time, you couldn’t even buy a local bus ticket with those notes.

Nothing was cheap. Even for simple food and fruit, the prices were much higher than I would have paid in Canada. A kilo of onions was US $1.60, sugar was $0.85, and potatoes were a dollar. I could have bought a cheap table fan for something between $50 and $110. A 300-gram packet of Kellogg’s cornflakes was $2.10. A 400 ml of Pantene shampoo was $7.

In Zimbabwe, labor is dirt cheap — a couple of dollars or less a day — and land amply fertile. Development economists struggle to explain why even basic foodstuffs are so expensive in such countries. Why does manufacturing from China or at least from Europe not flood into places like Zimbabwe?

The explanation is very easy, but very incorrect, politically. I will zero in on it at the end.

Despite the high price of goods that should have provided huge incentives for people to work, the roads of Harare were full of thousands and thousands of unemployed men. Those trying to do something were selling produce — exactly the same produce — from small roadside shops. Prepaid vouchers for cellular phones were being sold everywhere, partly as currency or a hedge against inflation.

In Zimbabwe, labor is dirt cheap. Why does manufacturing from China or at least from Europe not flood into the country?

But what I was exploring was the economy that represented the higher tail-end of the national GDP, which was then $606 per capita. Harare, not the hinterland, was my principal location.

Despite extreme poverty and unemployment, Harare was a safe city. I tried striking up conversations in fast-food joints with those of European descent, and contrary to what I expected, they told me about the lack of ethnic conflicts in Zimbabwe. Most of the land expropriation and violence that had been happening was the responsibility of a minority of the populace, mostly connected with the ruling party. I got the impression that it wasn’t necessarily the violent aspects of Zimbabwean culture but its relative sheepishness that allowed violent people to rule the country’s institutions and not get challenged. If a significant minority doesn’t get fired up about liberty and proper institutions, the society must fall into political tyranny and chaos. I soon lost my fear and walked around freely, but bad things managed to happen, evidence of the tyranny beneath the calm.

At one point, a policeman came out of nowhere, started shouting at me, and held my wrist while I was midway crossing a road. He was shouting at me and pulling me in the other direction. I declined to go with him unless he let go of my wrist. We agreed that I would walk with him to his small post at the corner of the road. He had seen me photographing the parliament building, which is illegal. For him not knowing that law was the ultimate crime. He was obviously looking for a bribe, but not knowing how much to give, I could have easily fallen into a never-ending negotiation. My only other option was to look important and name-drop. So that’s what I did. In a tribal society, it is pecking-order and might-is-right that rule. The rule of law is not just unimportant, it isn’t worth the paper it is written on — it is incomprehensible to anyone, including the judges.

Most of the land expropriation and violence that had been happening was the responsibility of a minority of the populace, mostly connected with the ruling party.

One evening, Morgan Tsvangirai visited the hotel bar, where I managed to have a private conversation with him. Before becoming a politician, he was a trade union leader and had worked in a nickel mine. He told me bluntly that if he came to power he would be “fair” but would expropriate whatever he needed for the good of Zimbabwe. When I told him that international investors would not put money into Zimbabwe unless they saw profits and safety for their capital, the idea made no sense to him. He seemed to have absolutely no understanding of the concepts of private property and profit. Lack of ideas was in him so palpable that I doubt he could even be labeled a Marxist.

The truth was staring nakedly at my face: Zimbabwe after Mugabe would be much worse. Ironically, that understanding had completely escaped the international media and other international organizations that were lobbying to have Mugabe replaced by Tsvangirai.

I had met a lot of well-educated Zimbabweans who were living in London and New York. They expressed their patriotism and their craving to return. But they made it amply clear that they weren’t going to do so except as expatriates with hardship allowances added to their Western salaries. In the economic structure of Zimbabwe this would simply not add up. So they did not return.

He was obviously looking for a bribe, but not knowing how much to give, I could have easily fallen into a never-ending negotiation.

For whatever reason, I had come to be seen in Harare as a man wielding huge money power. A relative of Mugabe befriended me and decided to show me around during the last two days of my visit. He showed me his fleet of cars and his several palatial houses. He also showed me expropriated properties and farms of ethnically European farmers. Genteel readers may find my happily “enjoying” a trip to such farms a bit repulsive. But revulsion would simply have meant that I wouldn’t have had the experience, or have been able to write about it. We drove around Harare and surrounding areas like royalty, with the police now extremely servile. Our vehicle always picked up pace when we drove closer to police blockades.

So what does the future hold for Zimbabwe?

Zimbabweans are extremely unskilled and have a very high time preference. The moderately skilled Zimbabweans have moved on to greener pastures. Brain-drain is real, in Zimbabwe as in the rest of the Third World. None of this augurs well.

I reflected on what the “liberation” movement of Zimbabwe must have been like. I had good laughs with a lot of Zimbabweans and found them very friendly, but I found no ingredient in them that would make them fight for liberty and freedom, if they had any concept of what those words meant. The nationalist movements of the colonized countries are too sugarcoated in history books. Those movements were mainly about local goons fighting for power when Europeans were getting tired and colonization had started to become less profitable.

The truth was staring nakedly at my face: Zimbabwe after Mugabe would be much worse.

As I write this, Robert Mugabe has been removed in a coup. He had been in power since the foundation of the republic in 1980. He was, in effect, installed by a relatively rational entity: the British. No such entity exists in the extremely irrational and tribal Zimbabwe. The concepts of liberty, planning, reason, and the rule of law do not exist there. Zimbabwean democracy is incapable of finding another Mugabe. It will by definition find a significantly worse “leader.”

The world today is celebrating the end of Mugabe and the rise of new light in Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans danced and celebrated the removal of Mugabe and the appearance of their new-found “freedoms.” But behind the facade they are happy for something completely different. When they use the word “freedom” they are expecting the end of Mugabe to produce an era of free-stuff, goodies that flow without having to put in any effort. In their worldview, free-stuff should come to them without obligation to plan, invest, or strive for something more than momentary pleasure, including the pleasure of political “liberation.”

Let us zero in.

Zimbabwe was once the breadbasket of Africa. Gleaning out the key factors that made it a comparatively prosperous society is fairly easy, but hard to utter. In the old days its institutional spine was British rule and farmers of European heritage. Without their return in some form, Zimbabwe has no hope.

A year or two from now, the World Bank, the UN, and the media will again be complaining about Zimbabwe not turning out to be what they thought it would.

Of course, the milieu of Western society and international organizations is such that anyone who holds a politically incorrect view is immediately thrown out. So these organizations simply do not have the capacity to prescribe corrective action for Zimbabwe. They recite “democracy” as a treatment for all ills. But a “democratic” society that lacks the concepts of practical reason, limited government, and the rule of law does not have the ability to find a good leader. It will merely feel attraction toward the person who offers the most goodies.

A year or two from now, the World Bank, the UN, and the media will again be complaining about Zimbabwe not turning out to be what they thought it would. They will be expecting fresh elections to do the job. This demand for elections and democracy has been the never-ending, simplistic prescription of international organizations in the postcolonial world. But the prescription does not work. Zimbabwe will, unfortunately, get worse, much worse.

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Out of Africa

Nice article, as always, Mr. Bhandari.

One reproach: The zero-in paragraph does not really answer the questions it was supposed to. Let me try, and feel free to contradict me.

The question is: "Why does manufacturing from China or at least from Europe not flood into places like Zimbabwe?" I spent about 15 years in Africa and Oceania, in places that were once colonized by European powers, mostly France and England. In every one of these countries, the 19th century Europeans immediately started building infrastructure. Invariably, there is a museum or exhibit devoted to the huge construction efforts that gave birth to the local railroads or hydro dam. And invariably, there are pictures showing workers toiling under a harsh sun.

The pictures almost always reveal a high proportion of imported workers, especially from India and China. Why is that?

Dusty texts explain, with the clinical if un-PC precision of 19th-century ethnographers, that locals were not reliable laborers. According to these old books, local workers didn't show up, were cutting corners, and stole tools and materials. The European workforce was very small. There was no other solution than importing workers from countries with a good track record.

But I wasn't satisfied. These explanations describe symptoms, not root causes. It took me years to find tentative answers. Again, feel free to contradict me.

First, sickle cell. This blood disease is a mutation that survived because it gives an edge in protecting the victim against malaria. It is present in more than a third of the population in Equatorial Africa. People with the disease are often suffering from joint pain and insufficient oxygenation. Any extra effort will leave them panting. They were dismissed as "lazy" by Western standards, but in reality, they are physiologically unable to sustain a heavy effort.

Second, the clan culture. In most places in Africa, the sacred duty of a man is to provide for his extended family and to shower them with gifts, if they are expected to keep their social status. The Viking chieftains and the European kings of old were in the same boat: They were expected to offer banquets to their entourage and grant land and titles to their favorites. It is a very human trait. You still see it in today Southern Europe, where family patriarchs often show extravagant generosity as a way to display their dominant status. In Africa, men are not only expected to be generous with their family, including third or fourth cousins they barely see, they are disparaged and publicly humiliated if they fail to do so.

Moreover, there is no stigma attached to stealing from people outside the clan, particularly foreigners. So, obviously, an able man from such a background will try and maintain his status by stealing what he can. He is not malicious: It's just what he has to do. If a European employer left valuable hardware laying around, he is going to grab it before someone else does. (When confronted, a thief would reiterate the point, punctuating it with the local equivalent of "Duh. I spend too much time explaining the obvious").

Third, the family mooches. As we saw above, a family man has to provide. Conversely, relatives of lesser status don't hesitate to mooch from him. Actually, their own wives and children require it. As a consequence, any salary earned from a steady job has to be dilapidated in gifts and free food. This leaves little money to improve your life, and very few incentives to earn more. Why work if all the income will be gobbled by fourth cousins?

At higher levels in society, these traits manifest themselves as corruption, kleptocracy and clan rivalries that make a developed society impossible.

These simple facts go a long way in explaining why Africans seems perpetually reluctant to work and improve their lives, at least at home. Some African emigrants, away from mooches and corrupt bureaucrats, are doing quite well.

So here is our answer. Manufacturers need a reliable workforce, which many African countries are unable to supply.

Again, feel free to poke holes in my explanations, such as they are.


I was born and educated in Rhodesia, pre-Zimbabwe, (though we all loved the name).

I applaud your journal for being honest, perspective and courageous enough to brave, even dare, certain liberal criticism for these views.......even observations.

I studied Economic Geography and these opinions make good sense. They form the rationale for the "colonial" policy of passing on political control gradually and maintaining a viable economy while the change took place.

I'm surprised the article contained no mention of how fully China has stepped into the gaps created by post-independent government failures. China has been far thinking and patient and now seems to have become the major player in agriculture and natural resources.

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