Long Lines for Bread, Banks in Zimbabwe

In response to his critics who say Zimbabwe cannot much longer withstand the failed economy, the million percent a year hyper-inflation, the food and political and diplomatic crises, Robert Mugabe has defiantly said, "Countries don't collapse." So far he's been right; reports of his regime's imminent collapse are at least six years old now. Here in Bulawayo, the nation's second-largest city, there is at first glance proof of that. It's in a region plagued by drought, following a winter harvest in the southern Matabeleland region that nearly completely failed; unemployment is 85 percent, while relief groups with few exceptions have been ordered to cease their activities. And yet there are no crowds of hungry people on the streets, which are clean and tidy, nor even many beggars. It's something of an illusion, of course; there are no traffic jams because there's only scant traffic, and the chief forms of activity are lines, bread lines before every bakery, and bank lines in front of every bank. But still, you'd expect it to be far worse than it is, and somehow it doesn't seem to be.

Because Mugabe has banned all foreign journalists, I was obliged like many of my colleagues to make my way here by a route which I'm unable to specify, linking up with an underground network that has promised to make sure I can travel wherever I need to go in Zimbabwe. There is, so far as I know, not a single Western journalist here legally; and it's explicitly against Zimbabwean law for us to come. And though Western journalists are regularly rounded up and expelled, most are able to report in the country so long as they exercise reasonable care. In large part, that's because so many of Zimbabwe's people are fed up with Mugabe; polls taken before opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai pulled out of Friday's runoff election put him ahead 63 percent to 37 percent against the man who has ruled the country since its first free election in 1980. So in Bulawayo, one of the most impressive revelations is how easy it is to move around openly, even for a white foreigner, and even, so long as no police are around, to talk to people. Our contacts urge us to use cellphones only in coded text messages, or guarded voice calls, and on the Internet, resort to a secret e-mail service that disguises and encrypts messages, but it hardly seems necessary. We are fish, swimming in a friendly sea.

In the heart of downtown Bulawayo, even the headquarters of Tsvangirai's party appeared to be unmonitored by authorities. In the courtyard, behind high walls but with a gate hanging wide open, the news had just come down that Tsvangirai was pulling out of the runoff, and the reaction of his MDC supporters was stunned--but also understanding. "Some of them were saying we've been getting killed for nothing, how could he do this?" one MDC official there said. "It was only five more days to the election." Most, though, felt like Sen. Dalumuzi Khumalo, who was greeting party workers coming in from rural areas, licking their wounds and looking for a place of refuge. "It was a sham, there was no reason for him to go on and see more people killed."

The apparent tranquility of Bulawayo proved a superficial thing. At Lopel's Bakery, where I went with a photographer, another American, who needed some shots of breadlines, folks were remarkably hushed considering the block-long queue, which was hardly moving. Mugabe's regime has ordered all private bakeries to offer loafs of bread at an official, "gazetted" price of 3 billion Zimbabwean dollars. That's about 25 U.S. cents, whereas such a loaf on the blackmarket would sell for literally 10 times as much. Hence, each customer is limited to two loaves of bread apiece, and the bakeries, which lose money on each sale, bake them slowly, putting most of their effort into cakes and fancy breads, which are not price-controlled. The photographer was interested in this particular queue because a campaign poster of Mugabe was on the wall at the front of it. But it wasn't a great picture, because people were so apparently passive and calm about it all--a three-hour wait for two loaves of bread, and no one even seemed bothered.  But it turns out that many of those people were just speculators, who would buy their two loaves, then sell them on the black market, buying other commodities with the proceeds. "How do you get by?" I asked a teacher, who earns $150 billion Zimbabwe dollars a month. "We just do this and do that, and we get by somehow."

Among the biggest speculators, and perhaps one of the reasons why we were so unmolested, were policemen. By custom or by force, it wasn't clear, they would go to the front of each bread queue--half a dozen were waiting at the Baker's Inn on Tuesday--load up on subsidized bread, and then, people said, come right back again. As a judge of the high court in Bulawayo said recently, most public officials only go to work because they're able to use their offices for illegal gain. 

Actually, many of the civil servants don't even go to work for much of the day; instead, they wait in bank lines, which are often even longer than bread lines. Why would anyone put their money in a bank when the Zimbabwean currency depreciates as much as 20 percent a day? No choice, is why. Those in the lines at Stanbic Bank and the Intermarket Building Society in downtown Bulawayo early this week were a mix of government employees, whose salaries go right into their bank accounts, and others who are receiving remittances from the Zimbabwean diaspora (it's illegal to withdraw hard currency). These lines are even more tragic than the bread lines; depositors are only allowed by law to withdraw 25 billion Zim dollars a day--and on Tuesday the exchange rate of 11 billion to one U.S. dollar made that worth about U.S. $2.27.

Do the math: an average laborer earns Z$ 15 billion a day. Buses or minibuses to work cost at least Z$3 billion each way, and often more if you're farther from town. A kilogram of chicken or beef at the T.M. Hyper store, Bulawayo's biggest supermarket, costs Z$ 22-23 billion--if they have any, and 90 percent of the Wal-Mart-sized store's shelves are empty. On the day I visited, scores of people were queued up at the registers and every one of them had the same purchase, a Z$ 2.8 billion dollar plastic bag of nondescript tea biscuits, about three-quarters of a pound of them. No one was buying meat.

The real travails, though, start outside of town, and not even very far outside. At Killarney, just east of Bulawayo, there are squatters' villages in the thornbush countryside, dwellings thrown together from pieces of rusted metal, scraps of fenders from cars, brush, whatever they could find. Around the huts are scrabbly vegetable gardens, and patches of corn fields, most of them picked clean. At Village 6, an old man named Weba Mumba, a welder out of work for many years, was welcoming to visitors, but explained that the women were all away--they had gone to Bulawayo to pick through trashcans in the search for food. Relief aid, he said, had stopped a couple months ago--around the time Mugabe banned all non-governmental relief organizations from operating, shutting down groups like World Vision and Care, which had feeding and health programs. Further along, in front of a mud hut, grandmother Rebecca Dube was making dinner--a pair of vegetables, and some greens boiling in a pot--for three grandchildren, all orphans (their parents, like her husband, had succumbed to AIDS). They too had seen no relief aid in months, and the children were perilously thin. Priscilla, 8, played with a rag doll that she had made herself; she'd named it Joseph, and was very proud of it. To supplement their income, Mrs. Dube and the children collect thatch, which grows in small patches among the thorntrees; it takes them a day to gather a bundle, which they'll sell on the market for Z$ 100 million--which is actually less than a U.S. penny at today's exchange rate, but then perhaps the value of thatch has changed without her realizing it--hyperinflation is like that.  Sometimes there are bargains to be had.

Quite late in the day, I realized I hadn't eaten, and went out seeking food myself. It was 8 p.m. and everything was closed, with the sole exception of the Pizza Inn, a Pizza Hut knockoff in an upscale part of town, where a medium pizza was about a day and a half's average wages, Z$ 25 billion. The shop had previously had an electronic sign that posted the changing prices, but it had long since run out of digits and read only, $###,###,###. The advertised special was the Banana Surprise, a pizza with bacon and banana on cheese and tomato, but I went for something less ethnic. While I waited for it, a well-dressed young man approached me and introduced himself as an MDC member of parliament, Arnold Solulu, and straight off offered to take me to MDC activists who had been beaten up by government party thugs. He seemed to think I was a journalist but I said, "Look, I'm just a hungry tourist." Then he told me he couldn't afford the price of a pizza himself. I took his number, but not the hint, and promised to call him tomorrow, went off to my hiding place to eat my pizza (somewhat guiltily), and then checked him out. There is no MP in Zimbabwe by the name of Arnold Solulu. I suppose I won't be frequenting the Pizza Inn anytime soon, and Arnold won't be getting whatever bounty it is they pay for foreign correspondents.