Zimbabwe’s Salvation

by Alaina Varvaloucas:

Margaret Mabvurunge has not seen her son Tinashe in over two years, when he left his small hometown of Kwekwe, Zimbabwe, to find a job in South Africa. Since then, Tinashe has had to fend for himself in Johannesburg, living on menial wages and working odd jobs. But while he is far from Kwekwe, his presence is still felt—in the form of groceries, money, and other supplies he sends home every month to support his family.

Tinashe is just one of millions of Zimbabweans who have fled to neighboring countries in the past few years. Political instability, corruption, and economic mismanagement have brought soaring inflation, dollarization, hunger, and an escalating cholera epidemic. Production on the country’s farms and mines has all but ceased, and foreign investors have packed up and left.

Prices in Harare supermarkets are all in US dollars, a reflection of the extreme inflation rates plaguing Zimbabwe (Varvalouca/TYG).

The Central Bank recently released a bill worth 10 trillion Zimbabwean dollars. By the time I left the country in January after a few weeks of conducting interviews, almost nothing could be bought without US dollars or South African rand, and something as simple as a cell phone SIM card could take days to locate on the black market.

Working for pittances abroad, Zimbabweans like Tinashe toil long hours to earn small wages, most of which they send to frantic family members back home. Until recently, supermarket shelves in Zimbabwe were virtually empty. Although they are starting to fill up again, prices are too steep for many Zimbabweans to afford shopping in stores.

With unemployment in Zimbabwe close to 85 percent, most families have found it difficult, even impossible, to survive without remittances from relatives who now work in South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, or even London. Pointing to the dilapidated cabinets lining her small kitchen, Margaret Mabvurunge told me that Tinashe and other relatives had sent many of the items inside. “Cooking oil, mealie meal, flour, sugar, everything we need that we can’t get here,” she explained. Basic goods are far cheaper in neighboring South Africa.

“We are paid in Zim money, but we must pay for things in dollars or rand,” chimed in Tinashe’s aunt. “How can we survive?”

Taking Care of Zim

In the run-down Mabvurunge home in Kwekwe, even one meal per day is hard to come by. Frequent power cuts and spreading cholera threaten the area. Tinashe’s little brother, Tawanda, told me the streets were empty because everyone had gone to South Africa and that he was sorry I couldn’t meet more of Tinashe’s old friends. Conditions are even worse in rural areas, where many are slowly starving.

Tinashe’s life in South Africa seems like a different world. In Johannesburg, the pace of life is frantic, groceries are inexpensive, and transport is easy. Tawanda told me he wanted to move there in March to join his brother.

For the past two years, Tinashe has been remitting goods from Johannesburg every month, at great personal cost. Out of his monthly salary of 800 rand ($81), he usually spends between 250 rand and 500 rand shipping food back home to his family. One 12.5-kilogram bag of mealie meal, which will last a family one to two months, costs 140 rand ($14). Buying goods like flour, sugar, and oil and paying to ship them becomes brutally expensive. Tinashe admits that the monthly ordeal is tiring and stressful. In Kwekwe, I asked his mother what would happen if Tinashe stopped sending home groceries. “We would starve,” she answered.

According to a 2006 study by the Global Poverty Research Group, the latest study on remittances (including cash and other goods) sent to Zimbabwe from abroad estimated that the percentage of Zimbabweans receiving some sort of remittance is around 50 percent in urban areas. The rate is likely even higher now. Tinashe said that every Zimbabwean he knows in Johannesburg regularly sends home groceries and food. “People in the diaspora are taking care of Zim,” he explained as he handed me a small bag of baby clothes to deliver to his family when I returned to Zimbabwe. Though several daily convoys leave major cities like Johannesburg and Gaborone, Botswana, packed full of food and medicine for family and friends still in Zimbabwe, having me, his friend of a few years, carry the package saved Tinashe about 200 rand.

The Cost of Conveyance

The convoy system works well for entrepreneurs who transport goods to families and supplies to stores in Zimbabwe: The owner of a convenience store I visited told me that what he buys for a few rand in South Africa he can resell to make a 1,000-percent profit in Harare. Another woman I spoke with, who runs an import-export business from China, is planning to start shipping supplies from South Africa as well because of the high demand.

But it is hard on those who need to send money or groceries back home. Selena Mukoko, a woman from Zimbabwe now living in Botswana, laments the cost of transporting goods every two or three weeks to her mother back in Harare. High transaction fees stop her from wiring money directly through establishments like Western Union, so she must pay convoys to physically take cash or food: a cheaper but still costly alternative.

The buses and freights on which she sends items are usually reliable— for the amount she pays, Mukoko said, “they’d better be.” But shipping prices are based on weight, and since the most commonly shipped goods are food and clothes, both heavy items, the final cost is fairly high. Still, it is cheaper to purchase products in South Africa or Botswana and to pay for shipping than to wire money to buy them in overpriced Zimbabwe.

Because of cost, many Zimbabweans have turned to the Internet for shipping options. Mukuru, an online delivery program, was started by a group of Zimbabweans in London who found dispatching goods home even more difficult given the greater distance. Using Mukuru, a Zimbabwean living abroad can log on and simply press a button to order a food basket, airtime, SIM cards, or fuel vouchers for family back home, inputting relatives’ contact information and paying for it all with a credit card. Mukuru then sends the purchaser’s relatives a transaction code number via text message, which they can use to collect food, fuel, cash, or a SIM card from various local agents working for Mukuru in Zimbabwe.

Mukuru has expanded to serve South African families as well and will soon open up in Kenya, Malawi, and Zambia. The site aims to allow expatriates anywhere in the world to buy groceries for relatives back home. “Zimbabweans are inventive,” Mukoko said with a grin. Since Mukuru opened almost four years ago, she has often logged onto the site to buy goods for her mother rather than shop on the streets of Gaborone.

Afloat, but For How Long?

The extra money from abroad means cash for food, petrol, or high school and university fees. But remittances cannot be expected to sustain a national population like Zimbabwe’s for too much longer.

The people keeping Zimbabwe alive from afar—those Tawanda said are missing from the streets of Kwekwe—once represented an optimistic future for their country. They were university students, teachers, doctors, mechanics, and engineers. Tinashe, who now works as a receptionist, was a psychology student. His friend Nicholas was a chief statistician at a major bank in Harare but now works as a part-time painter. Mukoko is a professor. All three want to eventually return to help rebuild their homes and to see their families. But instead of being able to use their skills to develop their country, these expatriates work wherever they can, hoping to earn enough to survive where they are and to keep their families from suffering in Zimbabwe.

According to a top American diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Harare, who asked that his name be withheld, remittances from people like Tinashe and Mukoko are “keeping this place afloat.” But money and basic supplies from abroad are not long-term substitutes for a working economy. Zimbabwe will never improve unless inflation is under control, people can find employment, and foreign investors return. Until then, the nation will be left in a state of decline as more and more Zimbabweans flee their country. As long as their families are impoverished and there is no work to be found, they know they cannot go back home.

Tinashe and Mukoko are among many Zimbabweans praying this economic exile will soon end.

Alaina Varvaloucas is a senior Political Science major in Timothy Dwight College.

All names have been changed to protect the privacy and security of the interviewees.