Harare – a tale of two cities?

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Was Charles Dickens writing about Harare when he penned A Tale of Two Cities? Well, no he wasn’t – Harare was founded in 1890, some 30 years after his book was first published, but it’s certainly a fairly apt way of summing up the capital of Zimbabwe, with expats rarely venturing into the hostile city centre and sticking to the leafy suburbs.

According to The Economist Intelligence Unit Harare is a city on the up, but the stats still don’t make good reading. In 2011 Harare was ranked bottom of 140 global cities in the EIU liveability survey which takes in to account such factors as education, healthcare, infrastructure and stability. Fast forward three years to 2014 and while Harare has leapt past Damascus, Dhaka, Port Moresby, Lagos, Karachi and Algiers it still only sits at 134th out of 140. In our own Location Ratings research of over 400 locations the Zimbabwean capital fares just as badly. I must say that based on my recent visit these survey results surprised me. On the surface the city seems fairly pleasant, with blossoming jacaranda trees, tarmacked roads, working street lights and a lack of traffic congestion. This applies to both the city centre and the northern suburbs where expatriates spend most of their time.

Jacarandas in Harare

Jacarandas in Harare

I stayed at the Holiday Inn in the city centre and had plans to do a little data collection on foot as the streets didn’t feel intimidating at all but after a couple of meetings with estate agents I was told that this would be a very bad idea. Underneath the pleasant veneer lie hidden dangers – apparently. Petty theft, muggings, car jackings and numerous other nefarious goings-on are a common occurrence in the city centre. This, I’m sure, is one of the factors as to why the city is ranked so low in the EIU survey.

However, it seems that Harare is very much a tale of two cities and when you head north into the tree-lined avenues of the very British-sounding expatriate-favoured suburbs, such as Borrowdale, Mount Pleasant and Avondale, that threat seems to disappear. Still, one mustn’t get too complacent. A typical expatriate residence will have two metre high perimeter walls topped with razor wire or electric fencing, window bars and a 24 hour rapid response security alarm. These salubrious neighbourhoods are a far cry from the dusty potholed streets I was expecting and are a reminder of more promising times back when Zimbabwe became independent in 1980 and Robert Mugabe inherited the “jewel of Africa”. Throughout the 1990s Zimbabwe was seen as one of Africa’s brightest prospects and in 1997 the country had the fastest growing economy in Africa and its medical and education programs were the envy of most of the continent.

London? No, it's Harare!

London? No, it’s Harare!

Ten years later, though, and the fairy-tale had well and truly ended. The seizure and redistribution of Zimbabwe’s commercial farms and the participation in the Second Congo War began a spiral into decline. The economic collapse reached a peak in November 2008 when month-on-month inflation reached a staggering 79.6 billion % (yes, seventy nine billion six hundred million percent!). Prices of goods were doubling within 24 hours and the government were printing bills worth 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollars (that’s 100,000,000,000,000!). This Modern Money Theory blog-post explains in greater detail the specifics of hyperinflation in the context of Zimbabwe.

During the years of peak hyperinflation (2007-2009) Harare became a singles only assignee posting as expatriate families headed back to their home countries. Those expatriates who stayed behind had to face all sorts of day-to-day tribulations from no water in the taps and constant power cuts to endless fuel and bank queues. Most startling of all, for many, was the lack of many goods in the shops. Stories of trips to neighbouring Botswana and South Africa to stock up on loaves of bread were not uncommon.

This situation couldn’t continue and in January 2009 the government lifted a ban on trading foreign currencies. Initially there were many currencies which became legal tender including the US dollar, the South African rand and the Botswana pula but it was the US dollar which soon became the main currency, as it still is today. There are no US coins in circulation though and if your change is less than a dollar you are given South African rand, a rather strange quirk I came across often during my visit.

Harare airport

Harare airport

I met a couple of expatriates who had lived through the hyperinflation years and they said that although life is far from perfect nowadays it is far better than six years ago. Nevertheless, while inflation may now be under control there are still many disadvantages affecting the country – unemployment being one. Although exact figures are hard to pinpoint it is generally accepted that Zimbabwe has the highest unemployment rate in the world, with most figures being quoted between 60-80% and some as high as 95%.

On the other hand, a more positive, and somewhat surprising, statistic is that Zimbabwe has the highest adult literacy rate in Africa, according to the African Economist. A lack of education is usually one of the key reasons leading to a weak economy and high unemployment so let’s hope that the youth of the country will herald a turnaround in fortunes for the nation in the future.

About wanderingmark

World traveller, researcher, photographer, collector of interesting facts and cost of living data research for ECA International (www.eca-international.com).
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