Haunted by a very black Black Friday
Black Friday, usually around November 24 every year, is not a shopping bonanza in this neck of the woods. For us, November 14, a Friday in 1997, was a very Black Friday. The painful anniversary is on this coming Tuesday.
On the day, Robert Mugabe ordered nearly four billion local dollars to be paid – unplanned, unbudgeted, off the books, equivalent to US$ 500 million – to veterans of the independence war. Quickly there was a run on the banks that sent the currency into free-fall, going from a stable 8-1 for the American dollar for a decade to 18-1, 36-1 to 52-1 by nightfall.
It tumbled over the next days to hundreds then thousands to one.
Farcically, the central bank was to print that history-making 100 trillion dollar bank note that could hardly buy a loaf of bread.
About half of our ever-growing population were children in 1997 and don’t know Black Friday stands as the root of their economic hardships today, the beginning of the end of the economy as we knew it.
Mugabe had panicked after genuine vets protested with placards and spears and threatened violence against corruption by his party leaders in a pension fund meant for them.
One senior politician claimed he was severely crippled in the war but he still played tennis and competitive league squash in peacetime. Another was 107 percent handicapped, if that’s possible without being dead. Mugabe’s police chief classed himself as 92 percent disabled, saying he had to have treatment for swollen feet caused by the mental anguish of his war experiences. He was completely able-bodied – ‘normal’ – on the police parade square and at official state functions and banquets.
I was at the funeral wake of Aidan Cown, a kind and amusing thespian, a repertory actor, on Black Friday. One of the mourners came late with the black news. Aidan would have enjoyed the dramatic Shakespearean darkness it cast over the proceedings.
When the veterans got their payouts, brand new televisions were carried out of the shops on the buyers’ heads and the bus station on Fourth Street had rivers of vomit from too much alcohol.
The vets received Z$50,000 each, about US$ 6,000 at 8-1 back then.
None of it went into sensible self-help or welfare schemes.
Food prices, all prices, soared out of control in a pattern of record inflation that was to continue for the next 25 years.
This week the local currency, never having recovered, officially wavered at 5,700 to US$ 1 with the black market starting at about 9,000-1.
No point in crying over spilt milk – that’s if you can afford milk.