Two and a half years ago, on November 19th, 2017, the once unthinkable happened. Robert Mugabe, at the time one of the oldest dictators in the world, resigned the Presidency of Zimbabwe after more than three decades in power—three decades which had seen the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy, the attempted genocide of the Ndebele people, and the ostracizing of the country to a pariah state with some of the lowest life expectancies in the world.
The catalyst for the abrupt resignation was at once made apparent. Mugabe, who in recent months had grown increasingly paranoid of a power grab by his Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, passed a resolution placing his wife Grace as his direct successor in the event of his demise. This move caused outrage within the ranks of ZANU-PF, Mugabe’s party, as many viewed Mnangagwa as Mugabe’s natural successor while Grace Mugabe was best known as a tabloid mainstay after her well-covered shopping sprees in Dubai, Paris, and Johannesburg (where she allegedly assaulted a maid at the hotel her entourage was staying at). In response, Mnangagwa temporarily retreated to South Africa, while the Zimbabwean military mobilized and took control of the streets of the capitol, Harare. Mugabe, initially defiant, submitted his resignation several days afterward, an event which was followed by massive celebrations in a country which had, since its independence known nothing but Mugabe’s dictatorship; witnesses in the streets of Harare say that the excitement was palpable.
However, Mnangagwa’s assumption of power was not without its skeptics. For decades, he had been Mugabe’s right-hand man, supervising the Gukurahundi massacre of the 1980s and overseeing disastrous economic reforms which had resulted in sextillion percentile inflation. The population was divided over whether or not Mnangagwa was the face of a new age for Zimbabwe or, as one man told me, “a different driver of the same bus.” Mnangagwa promised sweeping reforms in his inauguration speech, proclaiming “Today, the Republic of Zimbabwe renews itself.” Yet, two years after this speech was given, many of the reforms promised by Mnangagwa have not happened, and living conditions in Zimbabwe have deteriorated.
One of the most pressing issues for the Mnangagwa administration to confront was Zimbabwe’s currency instability. After the aforementioned Weimar Republic-level inflation of 2008, Zimbabwe had unofficially devolved the US dollar, a move which brought stability, but was not without complications in a country where the average monthly salary was $253 a month. Additionally, price controls leveled by the Mugabe regime had led to a shortage of basic goods in the vast majority of supermarkets within Harare, further exacerbated by global sanctions.
While Mugabe had attempted to introduce government backed bonds which were pegged to the dollar, lack of trust in the government’s ability to guarantee the bonds’ value impeded their widespread use. This past summer, Mnangagwa’s government outlawed the US dollar, and simultaneously introduced a new, government backed currency. The government then used this new currency to back all savings and checking accounts held in Zimbabwe, which, due to its instability, caused a 40% decline in the value of any domestic monetary assets in the country, by one estimate bringing 95% of the country below the poverty line. This was followed by skyrocketing prices—a loaf of bread which cost the equivalent of $0.90 in January of 2018 now costs the equivalent of $16.00, and it now costs roughly $1,000 to fill up a 60-liter fuel tank.
This is far from the only problem which Zimbabwe has faced during Mnangagwa’s presidency, which I hope to detail in later articles. However, if his administration’s handling of the Zimbabwean economy is any indication of what is to come, the spark of hope ignited by the new president may soon be extinguished by the lack of substantive improvement in the country’s living conditions.