Because the Tourists Stayed Away
My heart sank when I saw Polite, last night’s restaurant manager cum waitress approaching me in the car park as I was about to drive off from the swish safari camp in southern Zimbabwe. I’d seen it all many times before and knew exactly what was coming. Her “Goodbye sir and thank you for staying here” was accompanied by a genuine and appealing smile but was predictably followed by, “Where are you going now?”
As soon as I told her I was returning to Durban her smile immediately changed to an expression of desperation. “Sir please! Please give me a job in South Africa”. She had already written her name and address on a scrap of paper and handed it to me as if it was the most precious thing she owned. How many times had I been faced with that question during my three years of researching for the guidebook and how come I never got used to the look of utter deflation when I delivered, in the most gentle way I could manage, the inevitable bad news?
I’d spoken to the lodge owner over dinner the previous evening and he told me that after years of struggling there was no way he could keep the place open with virtually no clients. The camp was soon to close so he had reluctantly given notice to Polite and the few other remaining staff.
Prior to the farm invasions in 2000, Zimbabwe proudly hosted 1.4 million tourists per year. That number of visitors requires a huge number of staff to look after them plus of course an army of workers in auxiliary industries. After the invasions tourist numbers plummeted almost overnight to the 200,000s and virtually all of those were folk who dashed in and out of Victoria Falls, mostly just for the day.
Needless to say, thousands in the tourism industry lost their jobs and taking into account their families and dependants, tens of thousands are estimated to have been left without any means of financial support.
There were of course some very good practical reasons for not holidaying in Zim- a useless currency, empty shop shelves and no fuel conspired very efficiently to keep people away but all that changed in early 2009 when the new power sharing government finally ditched the worthless Zim dollar and effectively adopted the US dollar as the official currency. Yet even now, nearly two years after this major political and economic change; and although the tourism sector is now more than ready to welcome back visitors, still we stay away.
Britons, bless us, are a principled bunch when it comes to boycotting nations with what we consider to be an odious regime and to us, Zimbabwe is simply beyond the pale. “No way am I going to support Mugabe” is the mantra trotted out by well meaning people on the political left, hard line right wingers and virtually everybody in between.
Don’t get me wrong here, I’m certainly not against tourism boycotts per se and there are countries I refuse to go to. But while I respect the right of each individual to make up their own mind, I feel people should base their decisions on facts rather than gut feel. They should be aware of the outcomes, good and bad when people stop visiting a country. So here are a few things about the Zimbabwe situation that perhaps we should consider.
One would presumably want one’s boycott to achieve something positive, if not, why bother? Yet after ten years during which a massive12 million tourists stayed away from Zim, I challenge even the most ardent supporter of this boycott to show me one positive outcome, however small. Of course there have been none because quite simply this regime couldn’t care less about international opinion and it certainly doesn’t rely on tourism income to pay for revenue. In many ways it actually suits them not to have foreigners snooping around the country on holiday.
While it’s understandable that hard working Brits don’t want their cash to support Zimbabwe's regime, most people would be amazed by how little of their holiday spend actually finds its way into government coffers. Visa fees yes, national parks fees yes and if you drive it’s unlikely that your road taxes will be spent on mending potholes but aside from that, one of the things the Zim government appears not very good at is collecting tourism tax revenue.
Support of course can take many forms, not just financial and there’s a view that simply by visiting a ‘pariah’ country you are helping to give it credence and acceptability. It’s a valid point but consider this. For years Zimbabwe has been off limits to most overseas media, especially from UK, and even today with the slight relaxation of media embargoes, reporters are still closely monitored. Not only is news leaving the country strictly controlled but its own citizens are effectively barred from receiving ‘unsuitable’ news from the outside world. Surely more visitors from overseas meeting and talking to ordinary Zimbabweans can only mean more dialogue and more information being disseminated into and out of the country.
And don’t forget that all the time we as reluctant individuals are earnestly doing our bit by not ‘supporting’ the regime, apart from the arms trade, it’s business as usual between UK and Zim with both your high street bank and national airline among the many major international companies more than happy to continue trading. But fair enough, you may still wish to stick to your personal principles and holiday some place else – somewhere presumably where the politicians are squeaky clean. Although I’m not sure where that country is.
Of course, Polite and her extended family see all this in a very different light. They really can’t grasp how boycotting their country is supposed to help them. All they know is that her husband died of AIDS last year and now she’s lost her job. Hers is a country where there’s over 90% formal unemployment, there’s no food on the table, school fees haven’t been paid for years and her few clothes are spotlessly clean but full of holes. So she’s driven to join the legions of desperate people who gain illegal entry into South Africa where she’ll hopefully get a job and be able to send cash back home. Dream on! In the unlikely event that she manages to slip under the fence and negotiate the Limpopo River without being caught by police or immigration; robbed, raped and beaten by the organised gangs who offer to get her across the border or attacked by crocodiles, she’ll find herself in one of the most hostile environments imaginable.
Many of the early economic refugees have managed to find good jobs but those days are long gone. South Africa already has 25% unemployment so the chances of Polite finding decent work are virtually nil. Without papers she will be mercilessly exploited by farmers in the land close to the border and then ostracised by farm workers for taking their jobs. In the unfortunate event that she makes it to the economic mecca of Johannesburg she’ll find herself sleeping on the filthy back street pavements that disappointingly are not made of gold. She definitely won’t find work there and will quickly resort to the only economic activity available, prostitution. Polite will no doubt be quickly introduced to hard drugs. If she has a small child with her, that will probably have to be rented out for use by a begging syndicate. Before long she’ll be set upon by xenophobic thugs who despise her for offering her labour too cheaply. In South Africa we euphemistically call this ‘xenophobic violence’. To these people, life itself is cheap and there’s every chance Polite will be murdered in a dingy back street just for the clothes she’s wearing. The police won’t bother as they’re already overwhelmed by crime and anyway, it rids South Africa of another Zimbabwean. She has no papers so officially she doesn’t exist and her death will not appear on any statistics. These guys here really don’t like Zimbabweans.
So please give a brief thought to the tens of thousands of Zimbabwean Polites, destitute and desperate in a hostile country, not to mention their children left at home, parentless and hungry in the care of their often frail grandmothers.
Unfortunately, the tourism boycott has played a major role in this process. Just maybe then, we should consider putting aside our loathing of one individual and instead do something truly positive for the ordinary people.
Zimbabwe is a wonderful country to visit and it’s extremely rewarding in many ways, not only for visitors but for all the Polites who can’t wait to welcome tourists back.
Paul Murray is author of Bradt's Zimbabwe guide.