Million Dollar Shampoo
I went across the road yesterday to get some airtime recharge cards. Tariffs have gone up again. In January, $50,000 lasted two days easily. Then the rates went up, and it was up to $100,000 a day. The charges have just been doubled again, and $200,000 burns through the phone much more quickly than I’d like to think about.
There was electricity on the side of the road where I work, but not in the shops on the other side, so I left empty handed. But in the shop, a woman in her sixties or so, her grey hair cut into a neat shoulder length style complemented me on my short hair (number one shave plus one month’s growth). It got one of the shop attendants talking, who said she was also thinking about cutting her hair short. Not only is it quick and easy to maintain, she said, you also save on shampoo.
This caused the two women to launch into a discussion of the ever rising cost of shampoo. A million dollars or more, the one said. And you have to wash your hair at least twice a week! The other complained. I never realised just how lucky I was. I’m not exactly a glamour queen. And the $200,000 bar of soap that I bathe with seems to do just fine on my head as well. So it’s one stop beauty secrets. Their conversation made me curious though, so I had a look in the shops. Sure enough, the cheapest decent sized bottle of shampoo I could find was $995,000
And of course, it’s not just shampoo. Or airtime. Bread went from $80,000 to $140,000 per loaf over night. Commuter taxis, the most common form of transport, have gone from $50,000 to $70,000 a ride or more. Every time you turn, the price of something has gone up, and there’s no guarantee that the metaphorical belts can get much tighter than they already are.
All of which might make you think that the time is ripe for mass action, some kind of non violent collective action in which the people of Zimbabwe finally stand up for themselves and demand the responsive, accountable, democratic government we deserve. Except that, as people get more and more poor, and more and more hungry, do they also get less and less able to think beyond individual survival for themselves and their family. I’m not entirely convinced that a hungry woman is always an angry woman. Sometimes she’s just hungry, worried and desperate.
Since the Morgan Tsvangirai led MDC held their Congress in March this year, they have been speaking of a “winter of discontent.” The winter part is certainly covered—temperatures have dipped below 10 degrees most nights, and those victims of last year’s Operation Murambatsvina who are still homeless are feeling the bite. But leveraging discontent is something the MDC has yet to really master.
As the IWPR article “Opposition Protests Set to Fail” recently pointed out, "Tsvangirai has been like a boxer who, with his opponent against the ropes, fails to deliver the killer punch." Zimbabwe has presented a host of dream opportunities for organisers of civil disobedience, including two rigged Parliamentary Elections, a rigged Presidential Election, and shortages of food, medicine, cash, fuel, water, electricity and just about everything else. But the opposition has not been able to leverage any of these as the spark to ignite popular resistance.
Even Bulawayo Archbishop Pius Ncube, long a fierce critic of government, is expressing doubts in the MDC’s capacity to effectively maximise on the discontent this winter. In an interview with Catholic News Service on 12 June he is quoted as saying: "It is hopeless: There is no one to inspire confidence." He said Morgan Tsvangirai "is big talk but has no vision."
Tsvangirai himself seems to be rethinking the hastily announced plans of a “winter of discontent.” He is quoted by SW Radio Africa as saying: “We don’t want a one-off activity that then dies off. We want a sustainable programme until the goal is achieved. . . . [Any action will be] “determined by our own state of preparedness and nothing else.”
I am all for actions that are carefully prepared and thoughtfully executed. Destabilising a regime like Zanu PF doesn’t happen over night, and there are many, many examples from other countries that remind us of the importance of coordination, planning and thoughtful preparation. This preparation is not glamorous work, however. It is not the stuff of press conferences or international tours. It is slow, thankless, tiring effort sustained over a great many months or even years. As Kurt Schock reminds us, “Between 1983 and 1990 activists in South Africa used at least twelve different tactics within major campaigns aimed at challenging the entrenched power of the white regime.”
Zimbabweans are hungry for bread, mealie meal, and effective leadership that organises carefully planned, well coordinated actions of resistance. I have no doubt that it is possible. But how much longer can we wait, and how much hungrier will we all be before it is achieved?
Activism, Civil Disobedience, Zimbabwe