HomeAnalysisThe cost of the Mugabe era

The cost of the Mugabe era

A subtitle to this article could be: The Price of Tyranny or The impact of Bad Government. Whatever you call it in statistical terms, Zimbabwe resembles a country that has been at war.


Most people have difficulty grasping the impact of statistics and I am more than aware of the adage that statistics can lie, but right now, a month after the old man of Zimbabwean politics stepped down “voluntarily” from power, it is time to do a quick review of the cost to Zimbabweans of his 37 years in power.

At Independence in 1980, the country was growing at a steady 5% a year and had done so for quite a long time. If this rate of growth had been maintained for the next 37 years, Zimbabwe today would have a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of US$52 billion, instead it has a formal sector GDP of only US$14 billion (2016). That is a cost of US$38 billion in lost growth in the formal sector.

At Independence our population growth was among the highest in Africa at about 3,5% per annum — doubling every 21 years. Astonishingly — had this growth been maintained our population today would be 31 million. Instead it is about 12 million — where have 19 million people gone?

I think about five million are in the Diaspora and that leaves 14 million “disappeared”. Life expectancy has halved because death rates have trebled, while fertility levels have been maintained. Up to 1980, annual deaths of adults were about 100 000 a year. That explains another 7,4 million leaving 6,6 million people.

But before we leave that statistic — we need to ask ourselves why so many early deaths? We have had one of the highest rates of death of infants under five years old in the world for much of this period, maternal mortality during birth has been at genocidal levels and far exceeded the estimate of deaths during Gukurahundi massacres in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces from 1983 to 1987.

Stress is a major contributor and one piece of research I have seen found that half of all the males displaced forcibly in 2005 during a government-initiated clean-up operation code-named “Operation Murambatsvina”, died in the following two years that they were monitored.

Overall, due to family planning, communicable disease and urbanisation, coupled to better education of girls, fertility rates have declined, and this probably explains the remaining shortfall although deaths because of politically motivated violence probably exceeds 100 000 people since 1980. Any regime that deliberately causes the deaths of 7,5 million people in 37 years is a human calamity.

More than 200 000 deaths a year being laid at the door of any administration is surely a cause for action by the international courts.

Then there is the accumulation of debt. At Independence our total national debt was just US$700 million or less than 5% of our GDP. By 2016 our national debt was probably close to US$30 billion — 215% of GDP.

The debt is made up of State international debt of US$9 billion, private sector international debt of US$2 billion and domestic debt of about US$11 billion with compensation owed to commercial farmers that were forced off their land of about US$10 billion.

Despite this massive accumulation of State liabilities and some US$13 billion in aid since 1980, we have very little to show for all this expenditure — not one kilometre of new railway lines, no new roads to speak of, except maybe the road through Chivi. No new farm estates, not a single high rise building in the past 30 years, no major industries and no new power stations.

Where has it all gone — basically on consumption. Much of it corrupt and the rest based on patronage and the search for political power in the face of declining popularity within a state where democracy was being steadily eroded and all human rights abused.

When it comes to corruption, I think we can say that up to 1980, our civil administration was honest. Certainly, the senior civil servants with whom I rubbed shoulders would never have considered taking a bribe let alone the sort of corruption we have seen in recent years.

Transparency International estimates that corruption in the past 37 years could have accounted for over US$60 billion. This does not take into account the Marange diamond discovery in 2006 which produced over US$22 billion in revenues — nearly all of it simply vanishing. The spectre of former president Robert Gabriel Mugabe admitting that US$15 billion could not be accounted for probably accurately estimates the stolen funds from the diamond mines between 2008 and 2015.

No state of our size could expect development and progress under a regime that shamelessly steals money on this scale from state corporations, shady deals and simple bribes (US$10 million for an interview with a minister).

Our cities are littered with homes that would do Hollywood proud — vast houses on acres of land, many with features such as a helicopter pad on the roof and heated inside pools.

Politically-connected people drive around in luxury cars that would turn heads in London or New York. A month ago, one of Mugabe’s sons was seen in Bulawayo driving a brand-new Rolls Royce convertible with friends — drinking in public with radio blaring out music. He had never worked in his life. The image of former first lady Grace Mugabe spending US$150 000 in cash on a single visit to a store in a major city — screaming obscenities at a journalist who tried to capture the scene on camera, will not be forgotten.

In 1980, Mugabe owned nothing except a few suits purchased in London from his favourite tailor. Today he owns several luxury mansions in South Africa, as well as homes in Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Dubai.

In Zimbabwe he owns a massive multi-million dollar home in Harare and at his village in the rural area. Nearly all these assets are in other people’s names and that could be a problem for him and Zimbabwe in the future. His cash assets must run to billions. The legacy he leaves to his successor is going to be a tough nut to crack, especially if the Zanu PF regime continues to be isolated internationally and operating under several financial restrictions.

He leaves a government with a bloated civil service which is five times larger than it was in 1980, a Treasury that is broke with a fiscal deficit in 2017 that could reach 15% of GDP (a sustainable deficit would be 3%).

A legacy of state-owned enterprises that are nearly all technically insolvent and incurring US$250 million a year in new losses.

The economy is perhaps 70% informal with only about 10% of all adults in formal jobs — three quarters working for the state. We owe money to everyone — for fuel, food and power.

We have a quarter of our population on food aid and we import 70% of everything we eat. Our children come out of state schools unable to read or write and most are not numerate. Our hospitals are mortuaries and cannot even afford cleaning materials. Our banks are insolvent, and cash is almost impossible to get. Our national airline, Air Zimbabwe, is down to two operational aircraft that are poorly maintained.

But Mugabe is again in Singapore for a “check-up” at the most expensive clinic in the world, his wife is fuming at home in Borrowdale and the new regime is housecleaning on a big scale.

Zimbabweans are recovering from the hangover left by the days of celebration when Mugabe stepped down and are cautious about what lies ahead. The one thing we do know is it cannot be any worse than what we have had to cope with since 1980.

Cross is an economist, industrialist and Member of Parliament for Bulawayo South. These New Perspectives articles are coordinated by Lovemore Kadenge, president of the Zimbabwe Economics Society (ZES). Email kadenge.zes@gmail.com and Cell +263 772 382 852.

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