- Bob's your uncle
19 Jan 2003
The cars in Zimbabwe have ground to a halt - and that's not necessarily a
bad thing, writes Leon de Kock
When an alternative US magazine asked a cross-section of its readers what
they experienced as the greatest single irritation in modern city life, the
answer was unanimous: motor cars.
They're turning the planet into a dirty soup, they clog up everyone's lives,
they maim and kill, they cost a fortune and the traffic they cause inspires
Which is why it was such a pleasure this December to visit the city
nicknamed "Skies" - that lush, flat and spacious place called Bulawayo.
In Bulawayo (as in all-too-slow Hurry-Hurry, or Harare), at least half the
city's cars are dead on their feet.
They've been abandoned to the hungry but immobile petrol queues.
All over the city you see them, spread around long suburban and city blocks,
like drugged dogs. Cars that have become utterly useless.
And it seems entirely appropriate. These steel creatures of destruction and
menace have finally been stopped in their tracks.
The kharmic principle is perfect: what stopped the cars was a lack of
foreign currency to buy fuel. And what plugged the foreign currency was the
greed of people in power.
Business-minded politicians on the inside track get their US dollars at the
"official" rate - the rate at which exporters must surrender a percentage of
their forex earnings - which at about Z55 to US1 is a steal, and then sell
it at the "parallel market" rate, which at about Z1 300 to US1 is a small
fortune. There are few quicker ways to get rich, I was told by a prominent
But the result is that there is almost nothing left in the way of hard
foreign currency to buy fuel.
On the street, the petrol queues are so long, and the supply of fuel so
erratic, that there's little point in waiting there along with your car. So
you get out and take a walk. Go home and drink a Pilsener in one of the
city's lush tropical gardens.
In the unlikely event that fuel should arrive at one of the garages, you'll
get a call on your cellphone . The city is buzzing with intelligence about
the movement of fuel. But unless you're connected to the black market for
petrol - which involves hefty bribes and premiums - don't hold your breath.
Surprisingly, the result is exhilarating.
Teenagers now have a venue to hold parties that can't be policed by parents.
They park their cars in a queue, buy some beers at a nearby store, and Bob's
Everywhere, people are getting out of their cars to talk. Life is slowing
down. There's not much choice in the matter. People are walking the streets
Cycling is in fashion, and exercise has become a functional necessity. The
people, though hungry, remain friendly. And the streets are stupendously
quiet. You can actually hear the insects buzzing.
As you traverse the suburbs on your borrowed bicycle, you encounter the
spectre - almost like a scene from a science-fiction version of 20th-century
anthropology - of abandoned metal hulks, interspersed with large rocks
occupying car-sized spaces.
You imagine yourself as the narrator of a documentary in 20 years' time:
"Those rocks - that's how some people tried to keep their place in the
queue," you'll say.
"Those rubber-soled metal scraps used to blow out poisonous smoke into the
air. I swear. Their drivers used to race up and down narrow strips marked
with broken white lines. Sometimes they'd crash and die, or end up in
wheelchairs. Unbelievable, hey?
"That's when the planet was still infected by what we have now come to call
the Age of Choking Greed. The Oil Era. It almost killed us.
"Quite accidentally, this country - Zimbabwe - showed the world a new way of
living: a return to community values.
"People couldn't traverse their cities in a hurry any more, so they got to
know each other better.
"Suddenly, they were compelled to share their resources. They became like
"Slowly, what we now call the Nuclear Family Implosion was prefigured. The
Great Age of Ubuntu followed.
"Robert Mugabe will always be remembered for this unwitting act of largesse
to the human family.
"He took greed so far that it turned in upon itself and became an ironic
form of generosity. That was just before Mugabe was toppled in a series of
food riots across the country. At about the same time, George W Bush's
invasion of Iraq unleashed the Great Oil Conflagration.
"Truly, the world's present prosperity - indeed, our lovely, clean air - was
the result of these events, leading philosophers to formulate the thesis of
Ironic Historical Necessity.
"Viva Robert Mugabe! Viva George W Bush!"