I CAME back from a trip to New York on September 25 and, while I was there, I attended a couple of the Zimbabwean delegation events leading up to the United Nations general assembly, including the Zimbabwe Investor Forum and a diaspora event held by President Emmerson Mnangagwa and Finance minister Mthuli Ncube.
They managed to infuse their audience with a sense of optimism, which quickly dissipated when the new monetary policy was announced after they returned home.
From the minute I landed at the airport, I was told that the price of goods in the shops in Zimbabwe had skyrocketed and within a week, I saw it for myself. On my next visit to a supermarket in Borrowdale, the price increases did not feel drastic at first, but by the second week the prices were eye-popping.
They had already begun rationing a few items, which immediately drew my attention and had me buying things that I do not buy often like cooking oil. Some items were not priced and I discovered at the till I had been charged $33 for a pack of 18 rolls of toilet paper, so I put that back.
At this point, everyone in Zimbabwe is carefully scanning prices on the shelves. Some supermarkets have been having a prices field day, with the exception of one or two, which is smart of them because they now have customer loyalty for life.
The other day at the gym, I was asking the owner of a retail outlet in town how business was going and she told me that they were working long hours these days because business was so good.
From the point of view of the retailers, it must be great to have this windfall, but consumers’ incomes have not increased, so there is a point where they cannot keep hiking prices. And now everyone is charging in United States dollars when it is illegal to trade on the black market. I cannot pay those crazy rates for dollars. Then there are the petrol queues. I have been posting pictures of petrol queues on social media for weeks prior and ever since the bond note was introduced. I always leave my car with a full tank before I travel because I knew the day would come. People are waiting all day in fuel queues.
When I returned from the US, one of the news updates that people were excited to tell me was that all the street vendors had been cleared from town while I was way.
This was not good news because I immediately thought about what all those vendors would do to earn their livelihood. As I expected, the rate of crime increased. Our salon in town was burgled two Saturday nights in a row and I spent a morning at the emergency room at Parirenyatwa Hospital with a security guard who got injured by thieves.
Apart from having to move him around ourselves for treatment and examination, we had to pay at each stage in order for him to be attended to. My next challenge was when I woke up on October 4 and found most of the electrical appliances in the house had suddenly stopped working.
By Friday, almost everything, including the gate motor, geyser, water pump, light bulbs and inverter, was broken. I was running around trying to replace the most urgent things which would normally be expensive by themselves, but overwhelming when they need to be replaced altogether, especially in this climate of hyperinflation.
I had no idea how it had all broken down at once, so I was upset. The mystery was solved when I came home from the hardware store that Saturday and was told that the guy who heads our suburban neighbourhood watch had come by the house to look for me.
There is a Gunhill and Alexandra Park Whatsapp group which I had not looked at for a month, so I checked that and found several posts informing residents that last Wednesday night, thieves had broken into the Zesa substation in Gunhill, where they drained the oil and stole the cables that regulate voltage, causing a massive power surge that destroyed electrical appliances at 50 houses and caused over half a million dollars’ worth of damage.
Zesa substations are vandalised on a regular basis in Harare, yet the power utility is taking no steps to secure them, so some residents contribute money to secure their own and pay for rapid response alarms. We were asked to donate up to $40 per household, which I did, but then we decided to look into the liability of Zesa for the losses sustained by homeowners.
At a hardware shop, a 12V battery which was $51 one day cost $101 the next. Many shops had closed down for a while to avoid panic buying by customers, so I struggled to find some items. My laptop needed a new cable and that cost $53. The bills keep mounting, and I still have not gotten everything working again.
The Gunhill-Alex Park security group met with the founders of a new civic action group called Citizen Justice, made up mostly of lawyers who pursue public interest litigation and crowdfund the costs.
For their first case, they successfully sued then deputy minister of finance, Terence Mukupe, for assaulting a clerk in the workplace. Throughout Zimbabwe, residents are experiencing prolonged power outages because Zesa substations are being vandalised, yet Zesa does nothing to secure the substations. I called the suspended Zesa chief executive, Josh Chifamba, who ironically also lives in Gunhill and all he could say was that the vandalism is a pity, but they could not secure the substations because Zesa was owed over a billion dollars by customers. The nature of the thefts leads many to believe that they are being carried out by the company’s employees or electricians because they know exactly which cables to cut without getting electrocuted.
Apparently, they mix the transformer oil with diesel for fuel. I called a few residents who gave me their descriptions of what happened in the early hours of the morning on October 4. One person was going from room to room in his house with the light bulbs exploding and, in another frightening case, a little girl woke up her parents when the alarm clock next to her bed was billowing out acrid smoke.
We could all have burnt in our beds that night. This same situation has happened in Avondale, Mount Pleasant and many other parts of Harare, but Zesa is asking residents to bear the responsibility of many unsecured substations all over town. The Gunhill-Alex Park security group made a map of all the substations in Harare and went to inspect them. They found one substation wide open, with children playing nearby and another one, where the doors had been removed to make a bridge over a ditch nearby.
There are many residents in Harare who are frustrated with services provided by Zesa, but they do not know what to do and it is the situation that briefly led me into politics. In the US, there is a trend to mobilise women into political life, where they are running schools to teach women how to run for office. When I ran for Harare City Council as an independent recently, there was no roadmap, so I had to learn everything on my own. Women lack mentors and exposure in politics.
By having procedures would be very helpful. Zimbabwe as a society appears to be breaking and even the way people drive now is very telling. Zimbabwean drivers have become lawless because there are no consequences for their actions and nobody cares about each other on the roads.
Part of the reason traffic is so bad now is that drivers do not give way and everyone ends up getting jammed up. We keep saying that Zimbabwe is open for business, but any investor who gets stuck on our roads would think otherwise.
When I lived in Nigeria, the Lagos traffic had a very negative effect on visiting American investors. Who wants to put money in a country where you cannot even navigate its roads?
Then there was all that talk about a teacher at a local school who came out as gay in front of the whole school.
Again, I had ignored the chatter on my former campaign Whatsapp group, where members voiced strong opinions on both sides until several people mentioned it to me, then I read the posts. When the international community looks at a country as a potential investment destination or donor recipient, they also consider its human rights record, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights. These biased opinions even affect the review of US sanctions, namely the Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act, which we need to have lifted in order for money to flow in.
The country needs to rise up the rankings in investment competitiveness. We have to think about how the nation is viewed. Ranting on social media can have an impact on the investment dollars which flow into the country if a group of people appear to be victimised. Elon Musk recently learnt about the dangers of social media the hard way, when a careless tweet cost him the chairmanship of his company, Tesla, as well as a US$20 million fine from the US Securities and Exchange Commission.
Peters is a business and investment consultant. She can be contacted on Twitter:@debbienpeters and email: firstname.lastname@example.org