From grace to grass


HARARE – When the desperate deal with the greedy, the conclusion is foregone.

The desperate always lose.

But then, the greedy have a habit of tripping themselves in the end — sometimes.

And this is what happened in 2009 when Zimbabwe dolarised the economy.

A year before, there were hordes of young people on the streets who bought foreign currency from the desperate and not-so-well-connected.

They made money. Collecting US dollars, British pounds and rands, they dished out a worthless currency which was then legal tender.

While the hapless citizens were left clutching useless paper, the lucky ones lived large, in city flats, driving their favourite car — the Toyota Mark 11.

Some of the money changers even had the temerity to turn away those of us who decided to cling to our US dollars. "Mudhara handichinje ten dombi. Ndinoda iri nani." I don't change small amounts, give me higher denominations ," I was often told.

They even boasted education did not matter. "Look at those with high school qualifications and  degrees," they said, " they have no money. But we who have no education are swimming in money."  Indeed they swam in it.

As they say, time moves slowly when one is in trouble. The majority found 2008 a long year,  "time seemed to stand still". We all know it doesn't. But that was a painful year. The expression "takararama nenyasha"  "we survived by the grace of God" seemed to have been coined for that year.

Dolarisation turned the tables against the money changers.  Those who hadn't saved for a rainy day found they could no longer maintain their lifestyles. Having been used to handling bundles of cash on a daily basis, most of which was not theirs, they found themselves without money and a roof over their heads. They must have prayed that the situation remain the same, while the desperate prayed for the situation to come to an end. But change is a constant even in a hopeless situation.

When their fortunes changed, many "dealers" made their way back to the high density suburbs, where they had come from to rent single rooms at $30, or R300 (at the prevailing rate). Suddenly, it seemed a lot of money,  and soon they found themselves unable to pay that amount as well.

The formerly greedy had become the desperate in the changing situation. Some sold their cars and were soon headed for the rural areas, and were sadly missed at their watering holes in the city.

Having educational qualifications suddenly gained value again. There were high hopes factories would re-open and jobs would be available. That dream has remained in limbo.

Simba Mupingu, had a good education, and only became desperate after a good run of fortune. As hyperinflation escalated and queues lengthened outside the bank at which he was manager, he decided he would make "a little money" from the desperate who wanted to withdraw their cash which was not available. They were many.

To make his family comfortable, he  rented a full house in the high density suburb of Chitungwiza, bought new furniture and  installed a satellite dish.

Towards the end of 2008, having decided to buy a plot, Mupingu approached a council official he knew. He was told some plots were going in Unit B, where Chitungwiza's well-to-do live. Unit B was an attractive proposition and he was promised a corner stand. Conventional wisdom  has it corner stands have a few extra square metres of space.

But circumstances suddenly changed after dollarisation.
The queues at the banks disappeared and most banks downsized and closed branches. Mupingu was laid off. He could no longer afford to pay his $350 monthly rent and he was hard pressed to get the plot from the council man he had talked to.

Initially, he had been promised a 400 sq metre plot, but he soon discovered the dimensions had changed. The plot had shrunk to 200sq m and it was no longer a corner stand. The greedy council officials had decided to reduce the area to maximize their earnings.

He was asked to pay $3 000 or R30 000 as the rate was 10-1 to the US dollar then. He had no choice and  paid in US dollars. He thought he would build his house and move in in a short time. But before he handed over the money, he had to sign a form indicating he was prepared to move in and build before the area was serviced. And he was told he had to quickly build because, if he delayed circumstances could change.

He did not mind then. But he later found out he could not complain about delays in servicing the area. There was no power, water, a sewerage system and roads. The truth was, there were no plans ever to service the area as it had not been planned as a residential area. The house occupied almost the whole 200sq m, leaving a two-metre border right round the building. He dug a septic tank behind the house and a soakaway on one side and a well in front, ensuring his car would neatly squeeze in.

Of the money he paid, only $200 went to the Chitungwiza City Council. The remainder was pocketed by the "greedy ones", as was revealed by a probe which was done by the main MDC and led to the firing of their 23 councillors. The MDC had earlier fired Israel Marange from the party and from his post as mayor for corruption. He later served a year for criminal abuse of office.   

Local Government minister Ignatius Chombo vowed he would continue working with the councillors as allegations made against them only reflected differences within their party.

The Chitungwiza officials who sold the  wetlands had not even bothered to inform residents of Unit B, or indeed any other residents,  about the change of plans for the areas as was required by bylaws. The wetlands in Unit B had been set aside for the construction of a clubhouse, a clinic and for the expansion of the adjacent Chinembiri primary school.

Nobody questioned the move when bulldozers started clearing the area.

Halfway through the construction of the house, Mupingu, one late afternoon, decided to check work on site when he found a group he didn't recocgnise. On approaching, he found an elderly man explaining to a young man what he had done with the money he had sent from the US.

Mupingu intervened and asked the old man what number his plot was. When Mupingu was  told, he politely pointed out the next plot where only the footing had been completed.  The son, fuming at his father's dishonesty, declared he was never going to send him money again. He drove off, leaving the old man looking like a dog's breakfast. Apparently, Mupingu learned from the old man he had worked for the Chitungwiza council for over 30 years and was due to retire. All along he had been living in a council house. His son had decided he move into his own house after retiring. The old man's greed got the better part of him. He had been drinking himself into a stupor frequently before his son walked out on him.

On another occasion, Mupingu found two couples using his uncompleted bedrooms. They scampered in different direction, leaving him chuckling to himself. His bedroom had been used before he could use it.

And once Mupingu roofed part of the house he, moved in with his family and hoped for the best. Because he had some qualifications, he  found a job and worked towards finishing his house.

The economy seemed to purr to life, notching a respectable 9 percent in 2009/10 after a decade of decline. Then, as the squabbles in the unity government intensified and elections loomed, investors became nervous again and the economy began to stall.

Mupingu is now wondering whether he will finish building his house as the economy seems to take another deep.
Rumour has been swirling in the dormitory town that demolitions are to start, or have started on houses built in the wrong places.
Mupingu and thousands others did not allocate the plots to themselves in the wrong places— so, they must be compensated, but by who, when the council can't even pay its workers.

Fungai Mbetsa, Manicaland provincial administrator, was brought in to put the council back on its footing. He earned his money and left a recommendation houses built on sewer lines and under electricity wayleaves be demolished. So now it will come to pass.

Town clerk Tanyanyiwa has been jailed for defrauding the council and is appealing. He faced 40 counts of fraud but only a couple could be proven.
Nobody seems responsible for the mess in Chitungwiza, save for the councillors who were fired. It's a fine mess they have created.

These days Mupingu sleeps with his ear to the ground. The demolition squad is returning to haunt the desperate. But will Mupingu hear their footsteps when they come for thousands who built in the wrong places? I wonder.

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