The largest part of Victoria Falls is located on the other side of the river from Livingstone, in the country of Zimbabwe. Few tourists go to Zimbabwe, because it is run by a dictator named Robert Mugabe, who is desperately holding on to power. Many people expect a coup d’état soon, as the country has been devastated over the last ten years. Zimbabwe is on a list of the top ten failed nations on the planet.
Zimbabwe once had one of the most successful economies in Africa. Due to its good climate, it was self-sufficient in food production, and exported crops including tobacco. It also has mineral resources including diamond mines. In 1990, after 10 very successful years of independence from Britain, the Zimbabwe dollar was still very strong against the world’s currencies.
Between the years 1997 and 2008, Zimbabwe suffered a complete economic collapse due to political instability and corruption, and policies that discouraged or inhibited economic activity. For example, in an effort to gain more support from blacks, Mugabe instituted a program of land reform in 2000, where he forcibly confiscated and transferred the best farm lands, which were previously in the hands of a small white minority, to black political and military friends of his. Many black farm workers and white farmers were killed. Of course, none of the new owners were famers, so agricultural production dropped drastically. Tobacco production is today less than one fifth of its previous level.
Mugabe stole millions from the Zimbabwe War Victim’s Compensation Fund, and when this was discovered, was forced to print more money to pay out the benefits. The Zimbabwe dollar quickly dropped by half. This started a cycle of hyper-inflation, with prices increasing out of control. The government responded by banning the use of foreign currencies, to try to force the people to use a currency that was rapidly losing value, and by printing yet more money. Prices were doubling every day, requiring stores to change their prices every few hours, and employees to renegotiate their salaries daily. The Zimbabwe dollar quickly descended into worthlessness and in January 2009, had to be abandoned. Today, Zimbabwe dollars are sold on the streets as souvenirs. I was given a 100 Trillion Zimbabwe dollar note as a gift. At one point, 100 Trillion Zim dollars would only buy a loaf of bread, but it’s worthless now.
Of course, during this period, foreign investment withdrew from Zimbabwe. Without a source of funds or foreign currency, the Zimbabwe government could not pay its debts, and no one could purchase foreign goods. Food shortages were widespread. The grocery stores that remained open had little to sell. Gasoline was rationed and unavailable in most parts of the country. Social institutions like education started to fail, because teachers and other civil servants were not being paid. People survived by converting all their money to hard assets, like equipment or non-perishable foodstuffs, that would hopefully retain some value, and by operating on a barter system. Barter, in addition to being tremendously inefficient (i.e. time consuming), even further reduced government tax revenues
Mugabe has remained in control through the use of intimidation and force. He rigged the last two elections, to remain in power. In the most recent election, in 2008, the election results were delayed by six weeks while Mugabe’s people tried to find a way to concoct a Mugabe win. Since his defeat was so complete, this wasn’t possible, yet he somehow negotiated a coalition with his opposition, with Mugabe remaining as President and the real winner becoming Prime Minister.
Due to the lack of foreign exchange, many of Zimbabwe’s infrastructure and other critical systems have broken down. A few months ago, about 3000 people died of cholera near the capital city of Harare, as the equipment to treat the water could no longer be maintained.
Despite this tale of woe, tourists to Zimbabwe haven’t been directly affected. In other words, no violence has been perpetrated against tourists by the government, and overall crime levels have remained about the same. However, as you can imagine, tourism rapidly declined to a trickle, and another key economic sector, and source of foreign currency, was devastated.
Media reports about Zimbabwe have been very negative. When we told people that we were going to Africa, they said, “You’re not going to Zimbabwe are you”? Some asked us, and some told us, not to go to Zimbabwe. We’ve met very few people in Africa who have been there recently. Those who had told us that the biggest problem is that the Zimbabwean banking system is not functioning, so it is impossible to get money in Zimbabwe. There are no bank machines, because they have no currency. Neither travelers’ cheques nor credit cards are accepted. Everything must be paid for with cash, using foreign currency brought into the country.
Knowing the history, and in careful consideration of all these factors, we decided to go to Zimbabwe anyhow…