Letter from Africa: Zimbabwe's season of no cheer?

Christmas lights in Harare, Zimbabwe - Tuesday 16 December 2014 Image copyright AP

In our series of letters from African journalists, film-maker and columnist Farai Sevenzo says that it is not only the rainy season that is dampening people's spirits in Zimbabwe in the run-up to Christmas.

The rains are the topic of discussion all over southern Africa at the moment - they cannot be avoided.

The rivers are bursting, the potholes are growing under the weight of the downpours and the long-suffering clients of the Harare Municipality are relieved to be filling containers with God-sent rain instead of relying on the suspect water which flows fully tanned from their taps.

The massive amounts of fresh water though have not brought fresh sparkle to the festive season in Harare.

Bonuses dried up

The rains arrived soon after the ruling Zanu-PF party of President Robert Mugabe had confirmed him as their presidential candidate for 2017 - by which time he will be just six years shy of being the same age as the 1917 Russian Revolution.

Image copyright farai sevenzo
Image caption There have been heavy storms in the capital over the last few weeks

And the farmers who would ordinarily rejoice at the arrival of the rains are few on the ground and pressed for cash.

Christmas bonuses have all but dried up, and the finance minister told the nation back in November's budget that up to 4,600 companies had closed down since the Zanu-PF victory of 2013, with the loss of 60,000 jobs.

Civil servants, the bedrock of the working force, find their salaries unable to meet the cost of living and there is a government scramble each month to pay them at all.

The Grain Marketing Board, responsible for feeding the nation, is to ask its 3,600 employees to go on compulsory fortnightly unpaid leave each month starting in January 2015.

It has not paid its workers for the past four months and owes farmers who delivered grain a year ago some $37m (£23.6m).

The Harare City Council made some of its executives redundant last month because they could no longer meet the high salaries, but paid several of them up to $500,000 each in golden handshakes.

These are disheartening figures in the season of good cheer, and it shows in the faces of the crowds milling around the rain-soaked shopping centres with half-empty shopping baskets containing only the basics.

Image copyright farai sevenzo
Image caption Artificial Christmas trees are for sale in some of Harare's supermarkets

The economy, to be blunt, is precariously balanced over a precipice even with the introduction of the US greenback as the currency of choice back in 2009.

There is a sickening disparity of fortunes between the haves and the have-nots.

Harare now boasts a Jaguar and Land Rover showroom, the roads are clogged with four-wheel drives of every make, Bentleys negotiate potholes behind taxis, while the very poor sell grilled maize or piles of tomatoes by mud-soaked roads for a few sweat-stained dollars.

It is a minor miracle then that Santa Claus has not been necklaced in these parts for being a capitalist imperialist hoodwinking the masses to spend for this one day in December, when there is no money available.

Image caption The government is hoping that huge mineral finds will help turn around the economy

There is a whole government drive to promote the most incredible mineral find in Zimbabwe's history, known as Zim Asset, which stands for "Zimbabwe Agenda for Sustainable Socio-Economic Transformation".

But the plan to cash in on the platinum, diamonds and gold spewing out from the earth remains uncoordinated, with allegations that mineral wealth is being concentrated in the hands of top officials rather than the coffers of the nation's treasury.

Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin

Those of you who may have caught the headlines from Zimbabwe's capital will know by now that the country has two new vice-presidents and that there have been many political machinations under way.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Father Christmas decorations are festooning some shopping centres in the capital

The president has fired several of his top lieutenants, including his popular deputy Joyce Mujuru, and appointed his chief security man Emmerson Mnangagwa as his number two.

We could at this point reach for some Russian Revolution analogies and say Mr Mugabe's Lenin got rid of his Trotsky and appointed his Stalin, but the only analogy that really holds true is that revolutions are capable of eating their own.

President Mugabe's speeches have been about treason, treachery and witches, and his voice increasingly appears to be coming from a ventriloquist as time and age takes its toll.

In the run-up to the congress, Grace Mugabe made uncompromising attacks on her husband's perceived enemies, sowing the demise of Mrs Mujuru and up to 20 top officials thought to have sympathised with her.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Grace Mugabe led the attack against Robert Mugabe's perceived enemies ahead of the Zanu-PF Congress

In tactics Zanu-PF once reserved for the opposition, mobs harassed these high-level figures, there were allegations of armed abductions; nomination papers were sabotaged or prevented from reaching officials on time, the party constitution was ignored.

Such a "bloodbath" - in the words of the local press's melodramatic reportage - was about power and life after Robert Mugabe. The economy and the immediate problems of survival for the many took a back seat at the congress.

The ruling party's politburo jostled for positions, sharp elbows being deployed before the congress , which turned out, in the words of one disgruntled Zanu-PF member, to have been nothing but a "praise and worship show" for the ageing leader.

The name Mugabe is as widely known throughout Africa for the sheer presence of its owner's personality, his defiant streak, his extraordinary longevity. Throughout the rest of the world it is a synonym for far less flattering denotations of the excesses of Africa's autocratic leaders.

Some alleged that the dispatching of Mrs Mujuru was a "bedroom coup" organised by the first lady in preparation for life after Robert Mugabe.

So what will happen to the so-called "first family" when its head falls away to join the ancestors?

Will the new leaders respect them?

Will they be allowed to keep their enormous lands and wealth?

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Some Zimbabweans are loath to spend cash at Christmas, wanting to save it for food and school fees in January

These are the questions, many suggest, which compelled the first lady to enter the ring to succeed Mr Mugabe.

She has settled for chairperson of the Zanu-PF Women's League for now with Mr Mnangagwa, the silent securocrat, the last man standing in a bare-knuckle fight that is without precedent in the party's 48-year history.

It has been theatre for Machiavelli lovers.

The first family, it turns out, is holidaying in Singapore this Christmas, but for most people it has become a time to hold on to American currency, to remind themselves that, come January, the problems of jobs, food and school fees will once again take centre stage in a nation that always seems to be waiting for divine intervention.

And the future is not written in print or stone, it is as fluid as the rains.

The purged politicians have disappeared from the media space, but it was left to the deposed vice-president to sum up the nation's mood when she emerged after the congress like a battered and jilted lover.

"Life," Mrs Mujuru said, "goes on."

If you would like to comment on Farai Sevenzo's column, please do so below.

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