/ 22 July 2012

Cars clog Zimbabwe’s streets as economy sputters back to life

Movement for Democratic Change-aligned Finance Minister Tendai Biti has presided over the recovery of the Zimbabwe economy.
Movement for Democratic Change-aligned Finance Minister Tendai Biti has presided over the recovery of the Zimbabwe economy.

A cacophony of blaring horns and revving engines drown out every other sound as frustrated motorists battle to negotiate a downtown intersection where the rush-hour traffic converges into gridlock.

In what some say is a sign of Zimbabwe's economic recovery from a nearly decade-long crisis, cars are jamming the roads, posing a new headache for cities where a few years ago traffic was so thin that Zimbabweans joked you could lie in the middle of the street without getting run over.

"I used to drive 30 minutes from my home to the city but now it takes me nearly double the time because of the traffic congestion," said taxi driver Ernest Nyeche.

"Driving in the city these day is taxing. There are too many cars. Something needs to be done about the roads to ease the congestion," he said.

Nyeche has taken to charging his passengers more during the rush hour to make up for the extra petrol consumed while stuck in traffic.

After Zimbabwe trashed its worthless local currency and allowed trade in foreign currency such as US dollars, the economy started picking up.

Goods returned to the shelves in supermarkets which in 2008 were reduced to empty sheds, while shuttered firms reopened.

Personal incomes have similarly rebounded, pushing up the demand for cars.

"Average incomes for the middle class have increased significantly from as low as $10 per month in 2008 to the average $1 000 per month," said Brains Muchemwa, an economist with Oxlink Capital.

"Households have … more discretionary income and the fact that Zimbabwe is now importing 3 000 cars per month from as low as 250 in 2008 is a sign that the economy is now vibrant on the back of increasing consumer expenditure."

But independent economist Eric Bloch said the numbers of cars was not necessarily a sign of economic rebound.

"People are now getting loans and access to hire purchase," Bloch said.

Adding to that, aid organisations and government ministries have bought fleets of new vehicles for their employees.

'Deceptive' boom

"All that collectively has resulted in a nearly excessive number of vehicles but this is not a reflection of economic recovery," said Bloch.

"It's deceptive … It's reflective of a minority of the population who are very wealthy and are investing in themselves. We have a situation where a few have become excessively rich at the expense of the majority."

Businessman James Munemo agrees that many are cashing in on bank loans and hire purchase facilities to buy cars as a form of investment, while others simply will not risk their savings after many lost out when their deposits were wiped out by Zimbabwe's infamous hyperinflation.

"Buying a car is now the most sensible way to invest for the middle income earners who can't afford to invest in bigger things like houses or any other fixed assets," said Munemo.

"That is why we have so many cars on the roads. Everyone who has a bit of cash to spare is rushing to import a car. People have lost confidence in the banking system and they would rather lock up their capital in the form of a car than put it in the bank."

Cars — most of them used — are normally imported from Japan, Singapore, South Africa and Britain.

Banks stopped giving loans when hyperinflation hit the country to a point where prices would rise several times a day.

They only resumed after the power-sharing government of President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai switched to the foreign currency system.

Fuel which was scarce during the country's worst times, then became readily available.

"It appears the first thing that gets on to someone's mind when they get money is to buy a car," said Brendon Nyajeka, a dealer in the capital.

The growing number of cars have come with their other problems.

Police blame it for an increase in highway accidents, while roads not used to heavy traffic are potholed.

According to the government data, there are up to a million vehicles in the country of 12.7-million people.