PEDESTRIANS walk through a petrol station that was shut after protests in Harare. Fuel in Zimbabwe is now more expensive than anywhere else in the world.     Reuters
PEDESTRIANS walk through a petrol station that was shut after protests in Harare. Fuel in Zimbabwe is now more expensive than anywhere else in the world. Reuters

Zim economic meltdown poses threat to our national interest

By Shannon Ebrahim Time of article published Jan 18, 2019

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Zimbabwe’s economic crisis has reached catastrophic proportions. With the government raising the cost of fuel from R19 to R41 a litre, fuel became more expensive in Zimbabwe than anywhere else in the world.

The economic meltdown of our northern neighbour poses a serious threat to our national interest.

If Zimbabweans are unable to survive, it is to South Africa that they will turn. How will we absorb thousands of new economic migrants with our current levels of unemployment and already overstretched social services?

According to our national police commissioner, Khehla Sitole, 11 million migrants visited South Africa and never returned home, a figure which police spokesperson Vish Naidoo said was based on data from the Department of Home Affairs.

While the actual number of illegal migrants in South Africa is disputed, we are already home to the highest number of asylum seekers in the world.

It is right that we do not turn away Zimbabweans from our hospitals, but our system is unlikely to cope with a new influx of Zimbabwean refugees. Assisting Zimbabwe to right its economic ship and resolve its political challenges is arguably our most important foreign policy priority right now.

On Boxing Day the governor of the Reserve Bank, Lesetja Kganyago, met his Zimbabwean counterpart and agreed to work together to assist the Zimbabwean economy.

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni has come out saying that Zimbabwe needs a new currency and that he would like to see an end to economic sanctions against Zimbabwe.

There is no question that our policy makers are concerned. The currency is a major issue that needs to be attended to and a week ago Zimbabwe’s finance minister announced that Zimbabwe intended to introduce a new currency within the next year - it may be that the time frame needs to be drastically brought forward.

The Zimbabwean government abandoned the Zim dollar in 2009 after inflation reached 500 billion percent the year before.

Rands and dollars were then supplied, but by 2016 the government had started issuing bond notes that were pegged at three bond notes to a US dollar. The system of the government borrowing via treasury bills was always problematic as a government should never create money without the backing of gold or currency reserves.

Implementing a 150% fuel hike was the government’s latest bid to ease its economic woes, but for Zimbabweans struggling with poverty and rampant unemployment, that was medicine too bitter to swallow and for many the final straw.

As is the case with many grassroots uprisings, price hikes that are outrageously unaffordable for the masses become the catalyst for bringing people out on to the streets in revolt.

Zimbabwe could have taken a leaf out of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s nightmare, as his government’s price hikes in December started an uprising which is gathering momentum by the week and may ultimately bring down the government.

What started as spontaneous protests against the price hikes and the lack of fuel and basic necessities in Sudan, has morphed into a nationwide revolt.

This could be replicated in Zimbabwe if the current crisis is not quickly and effectively addressed.

What is even more concerning is the reaction of Zimbabwe’s security forces to the civilian protests this week, very reminiscent of the scenes across Sudan of the security forces beating up young people and throwing them in detention cells.

Last week I reported that over 1000 protesters had been detained in Sudan in the space of three weeks. Just this week Zimbabwe’s security forces detained over 200 civilians, mostly youths, in the most draconian crackdown the country has seen since independence in 1980.

Even popular Zimbabwean Pastor Evan Mawarire is being detained in a dirty, leaking underground cell in Harare’s central police station.

Human rights organisations have condemned the gross illegal human rights abuses in Zimbabwe this week, which have included the police and army conducting brutal door-to-door operations. The recorded scenes were so shocking that even the EFF condemned the fact that the Zimbabwean military was being used against protesters. We know that Zimbabwe is highly militarised, but to see soldiers deployed on the streets of Harare and Bulawayo this week was nevertheless a shock for a SADC country.

This time the heavy hand of the state seemed to go beyond what was seen even under President Robert Mugabe, when the internet was blocked, the directive having come from the president’s office.

While the chaos in Zimbabwe continues, President Emmerson Mnangagwa has been in Russia trying to court investment and loans. In one of his recent tweets he announced that Alrosa, the world’s largest diamond mining company, would launch operations in Zimbabwe.

He also intends on participating in the World Economic Forum in Davos, on the same mission of drumming up investor confidence. But this will be a tall order given the violent reality on the ground.

Ebrahim is the group foreign editor at Independent Media

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