/ 29 October 2007

Last BA flight from a grounded economy

The last flight out taxied from the sparkling new Harare airport, built to handle the non-existent tourists, lifted over the city and dipped its wings in farewell. With that, at 9am on Sunday, British Airways (BA) said goodbye to Zimbabwe, amid mutterings from supporters of President Robert Mugabe that the pull-out had less to do with the collapse of its economy than a British government plot to unseat the Zimbabwean ruler.

In seat 13H, Cephas Msipa, a lifelong member of Mugabe’s Zanu-PF, said he thought it probably was all a conspiracy but he was going to miss British Airways anyway, particularly when he reflects on the alternative. ”In these difficult times, Air Zimbabwe has developed what you might call a reputation for being unreliable,” he said.

What he means is that Zimbabwe’s national carrier is in much the same state as the country, with flights running days late for lack of fuel or maintenance, or diverted at Mugabe’s whim to a shopping trip in Kuala Lumpar or to attend the Pope’s funeral.

Annie, a white Zimbabwean who preferred not to give her surname for fear of retribution by ”Comrade Bob” as Mugabe is nicknamed, is going to miss BA for another reason. ”You know there’s toilet paper on this plane. I haven’t been able get toilet paper in the shops for weeks,” she said. ”I don’t know why it matters that this is the last flight but it does. It’s as if we’re finally being cut off from the rest of the world. I think for us [whites] it felt like the escape route if we ever needed it. It’s stupid really because we can get to South Africa easily enough but it just made us feel better having the BA link.”

Though symbolic, it’s not the first time BA has been forced out of Zimbabwe in the 75 years since the first flying boats opened up the aerial link with Southern Africa.

Services were discontinued in 1965 as Ian Smith declared independence for Rhodesia with the deluded pledge that not in a thousand years would a black man rule. BA was back 15 years later as Smith was defeated by the reality of economics as much as war; Rhodesia ceased to exist and the only black man to ever rule Zimbabwe, Mugabe, took power.

On Sunday, the last plane left behind another government sinking deeper into the delusion that everything is under its control. As the economy contracts amid hyperinflation and collapsing production, Mugabe has created a vast new bureaucracy to oversee price controls on non-existent goods in the shops.

His finance minister maintains an official exchange rate so out of proportion with the hidden market that the central bank governor has to send his staff out to buy dollars on the street.

The regime has declared ”the mother of all agricultural seasons” even though there is no bread in the shops because the wheat harvest has fallen short by two-thirds and production of tobacco, once Zimbabwe’s biggest money earner, has dropped to one-fifth of what it once was. Cigarettes are in such short supply that a marijuana joint is cheaper.

The government has even announced plans to sell electricity to Namibia next year although it doesn’t generate the power to keep lights on at home.

The reality is that a man living in a Harare township lucky enough to have a job earns, on average, Z$5-million dollars a month, or R33 at the hidden-market rate.

His transport to work in Harare costs more than that but he has to overspend if he wants to keep his job.

Other European airlines abandoned Zimbabwe as it sank deeper into the mire but BA stayed because historic ties with Britain, the old colonial power, assured a steady supply of passengers.

But the airline says it has been defeated by escalating costs, particularly the price of having to ship fuel in by road from South Africa, and the unreal maths of the Zimbabwean economy.

An Air Zimbabwe economy class ticket to London and back officially costs £7 500 at the government exchange rate but just £225 on the alternative rate, half the price of a BA ticket (which could only be bought in pounds sterling or US dollars), after the Zimbabwe dollar plummeted from $5 100 to the pound at the beginning of the year to close to $2-million today.

Msipa is suspicious of the economic claims, as is the Zimbabwean government. He doesn’t understand how BA isn’t making money. ”It’s interesting that it’s pulling out at the same time [British Prime Minister] Gordon Brown came in and made a more concerted effort to cut ties with Zimbabwe. To us it would seem it’s part of the ratcheting up of sanctions.

Msipa admits there is a crisis though, and that his dad might be part of the problem.

His father, who shares the same name, is a liberation war hero and now the Zanu-PF governor of Midlands province where he has overseen the confiscation of white-owned farms and the collapse of agriculture. Msipa concedes this may have been a mistake.

”Being an old nationalist he would be in the mainstream of this soil-based development, that everything is about the land. Whereas our generation says we should get into computers and call centres. I don’t see myself being a horse-drawn plough,” he said.

The younger Msipa is a property developer who travels regularly to London. At home he also sells houses. He suspects many of those buying are Zimbabweans living abroad, and those selling are in desperate need of cash. That has kept the worst of it at bay for him and his five children.

”We have a relative advantage. I can get things done … I have contacts,” he said. ”But how I’m going to get to London now is a problem. No one wants to go through Johannesburg. They steal your luggage there. I suppose it will just have to be Air Zimbabwe.” – Guardian Unlimited Â