/ 27 March 2020

South Africa’s lockdown may push Zimbabwe to the edge

Malaicha trade goes digital
En route: The informal malaicha trade has traditionally been conducted by drivers of vans and minibuses who transport goods from South Africa to Zimbabwe. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

As South Africa’s 21-day national lockdown comes into effect, the ramifications of this decision will be felt strongly across the Southern African region, most acutely by its northern neighbour, Zimbabwe

Although the unprecedented decision to lockdown Africa’s most advanced economy comes with serious consequences, it was largely welcomed as a necessary short-term move for the ultimate long-term gain it is expected to achieve in mitigating the potential calamities brought about by Covid-19, particularly among the most vulnerable groups.

As the region’s economic and political powerhouse, when South Africa sneezes all her neighbours catch a cold. And more so for Zimbabwe — a country that is already facing its worst economic and political crises in a decade

My recent visit to Zimbabwe brought home the stark reality of the situation on the ground — a deepening trust deficit and economic turmoil. Most of the basic commodities are either in short supply or beyond the reach of the majority of people as prices skyrocket daily. People live in fear of the known: an economic implosion, as experienced in 2008, that has serious political and social corollaries. As a result, people now live in heightened anxiety as their livelihoods are threatened by a combination of natural and man-made calamities. Many people are losing trust in leadership, institutions and systems that make a normal society functional. No one has trust in the recently reintroduced Zimbabwean currency in a hyperinflationary environment, including the very government that introduced it.

South Africa’s lockdown will undoubtedly affect her northern neighbour in more ways than one. Zimbabwe is a net exporter of food, thanks to former president Robert Mugabe’s well-intentioned but poorly executed land-reform programme. The country has never recovered from it, and this year the World Food Programme and other donor agencies will feed more than half of the population, who otherwise would face starvation. Much of that food is sought in South Africa, where the lockdown will obviously affect flow, despite assurances that movement of goods will continue. 

Secondly, the frontline service industries hardest hit by the measures to contain the pandemic are the sectors in which most Zimbabweans who sought economic refuge in South Africa are employed. Most South African restaurants and hotels employ Zimbabweans. Most e-hailing transport services, such as Uber, rely on Zimbabwean drivers in the big metros. And many farm and domestic workers across the country are from Zimbabwe. Although these are not high-end earners, their huge numbers contribute significantly to Zimbabwe’s foreign currency-starved economy, because they sustain families back home. And numbers don’t lie — diaspora remittances were three times more than the foreign direct investment that the Emmerson Mnangagwa government attracted in the past financial year.

Zimbabwe is already on the edge, and a loss of any income has potential to push it over the cliff. 

Thirdly, the Beitbridge border post is the busiest in Southern Africa, and Zimbabwe’s main economic artery. On average, 10 000 people cross daily, mainly informal traders. The lockdown has stopped them, yet the economy up north is now largely informal. This will worsen the already existing shortages, causing prices to shoot through the roof.   

I have argued many times that the situation in Zimbabwe would be different if South Africa were not a good neighbour. Chaos of enormous proportions could have erupted if South Africa had refused to open its borders to accommodate Zimbabweans; or if South African had not helped to facilitate the political solution in 2009 that created the government of national unity.

Now Zimbabwe needs its neighbour more than ever before.

Despite the many challenges he faces at home, President Cyril Ramaphosa should use his current chairmanship of the African Union to push for the stabilisation of political and economic fortunes across the Limpopo. The time for meaningful dialogue is ripe. By resolving the situation in Zimbabwe, Ramaphosa will be resolving some of the pressures brought on his own country through the influx of asylum seekers and refugees. To have a neighbour who neglects to feed their children, while always hoping that they will be fed next door, is not sustainable. Although another government of national unity may not be feasible in Zimbabwe at the moment, its political leaders should be pushed — through a trust-building process  of dialogue — to jointly find solutions to its prevailing ills. 

My visit in early March invoked Norwegian sociologist Professor Johan Galtung’s wise words: “In a democracy, people tend to believe what their leaders say, even if it may be wrong, while in a dictatorship, people tend to doubt what their leaders say even if it may actually be correct.” The trust deficit I witnessed in Zimbabwe is so deep that even when authorities were assuring the nation that Covid-19 cases had not been confirmed anywhere in the country, many people doubted the official account. That is the huge cost of mistrust. 

As the lockdown began in South Africa, Zimbabwe had three confirmed cases and one death from Covid-19. On March 24, medical doctors went on strike, again. It can’t be any worse.  

Dr Webster Zambara is a senior project leader at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town