What the state of the historic Rhodes Bar says about Zimbabwe – Murdo Fraser

The fate of the historic Rhodes Bar in downtown Bulawayo is symbolic of the troubles currently facing Zimbabwe.

Emmerson Mnangagwa has so far disappointed those hoping for a change from Robert Mugabe (Picture: Zinyange Auntony/AFP/Getty Images)
Emmerson Mnangagwa has so far disappointed those hoping for a change from Robert Mugabe (Picture: Zinyange Auntony/AFP/Getty Images)

Sitting on the famous Cape-Cairo overland route, the sign above this popular watering-hole proudly proclaims that it was established in 1931. Sadly, beneath that boast, the main door is shuttered closed. For, like so many similar establishments across the country, the business is simply not there for the owners to open.

The economic situation in this southern African country is dire. Unemployment runs at 92 per cent. There are shortages of basic staples in the shops. There is a desperate lack of available fuel, which leads to queues of hundreds of cars snaking around city blocks at the few petrol stations that actually have supplies. Low rainfall has reduced the output from the hydro-electric schemes at Kariba and elsewhere, leading to regular power cuts. The roadsides are lined with individuals selling anything they can find in order to make a few dollars – bottles of water, vegetables, articles of clothing, old car parts.

The low employment and the lack of economic activity has impacted on the tax base, with the government struggling to raise the money it needs to pay pensions and the salaries of public servants like teachers. Education matters in Zimbabwe; it is still regarded as having one of the best school systems in Africa, but the lack of resources is hitting hard.

A pointer to Zimbabwe’s current woes lies in the address of Bulawayo’s Rhodes Bar – it sits on Robert Mugabe Way. The government of the former President, in a typically narcissistic move, had the principal street in every town and city named after him.

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Mugabe is now gone, but hopes that his replacement Emmerson Mnangagwa would prove any better have so far been disappointed. It was probably unrealistic to expect much more. Mnangagwa was for decades Mugabe’s enforcer, a man known to friends and foes alike as “The Crocodile”, for the brutal and stealthy manner in which he dealt with political dissidents.

Mnangagwa’s government’s latest wheeze has been to ban the use of foreign currency for domestic transactions. Since the collapse of the Zimbabwean dollar in a period of hyper-inflation (worthless souvenir billion-dollar notes can still be purchased by tourists), an event which wiped out the life savings of too many hard-working families, the official currency became the US Dollar, which at least brought with it some economic stability. Now the government is facing fierce opposition for its attempt to reintroduce a national currency in which no-one has any confidence. It is little wonder that foreign investment is so hard to attract.

The tragedy of Zimbabwe is that this is a country with enormous economic potential. Once known as the bread basket of Africa, its soil and climate are well suited to agriculture. It is rich in minerals; it can generate its own energy through hydro dams; and the potential for tourism is substantial. And yet, as I found out over the last two weeks, making my first visit back to the country after 25 years, it is now noticeably poorer than it was a quarter of a century ago.

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A three-year drought has played its part in the economic decline, causing problems for agricultural output and electricity production. But the failings of Zimbabwe are overwhelmingly those of political leadership, and an elite who have enriched themselves whilst the great majority have got poorer.

As Kevin, one Bulawayo local, said to us, Zimbabwe’s problem is that there are too many people only thinking for themselves, and not what is best for the country as a whole.

There is still huge loyalty to the party of government, Zanu-PF, to Mugabe and those who were around him, who are seen as the country’s liberators. This is particularly true amongst the older, more rural voting population. But in the cities, amongst younger voters, there is a recognition that things do need to change, and just voting for a party that delivered independence nearly four decades after that event, when it is manifestly failing its citizens, simply does not make sense.

There is hope for this wonderful country, hope that a new generation of politicians will arise who are more interested in the welfare of their fellow citizens than in creating their own offshore bank accounts.

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Until that happens, Zimbabweans need our help. This is a fantastic country to visit. The wildlife viewing opportunities are second to none, with an enormous (and growing) population of elephants in Hwange National Park and elsewhere, and white and black rhino in the Matobo Hills, all energetically protected from poachers.

The scenic beauty of spots like Victoria Falls and the Eastern Highlands is breath-taking. Tourism infrastructure is of high quality. And, despite all their trials, the people are warm, welcoming, and genuinely optimistic about the prospects for their nation.

When we said we were going to Zimbabwe this summer, many people asked us: “Is it safe?” With all the news coverage here of political conflict and economic disruption, it is a fair question. And yet, despite appearances, this is entirely safe and secure country for visitors, much more so than, for example, neighbouring South Africa, where crime rates are much higher.

I hope it will be less than another 25 years before I can make a return trip to this fantastic country. When I do so, I look forward to finding a people fulfilling their potential as citizens of one of Africa’s economic powerhouses, and where their opportunities match their optimism.