Imported used cars flood Zim market

HARARE - Cars have always been a status symbol in Zimbabwe.

The past five years under the coalition government has experienced an unprecedented boom in car imports.

During the colonial days, very few Africans owned cars.

And among the minority were business people, headmasters, teachers, nurses, medical orderlies and some clerks.

Because of poor salaries paid to the black working class, the cars were in most instances second-hand, except, of course, for the lucky few who had won first prize in the State lottery.

People looked up to those who owned cars with awe.

After independence, many Zimbabweans, are now integrated into professions that had been a preserve for whites and living in former whites-only suburbs, bought the many cars that were left over from the colonial era, mostly old European models, the Peugeot 404s, 504s, Renault 4s, Anglias, Vauxhauls, Zephyrs, Counsels, Italian Fiats and a few Japanese models, the Datsun 120y, Datsun pick-ups, and earlier Toyota Corrola models.

There was a sprinkling of American cars too — Ford Fairlane, Ford Biscayne (Munzanzanza), Ford pickups and a Studbaker here and there.

At independence in 1980, President Robert Mugabe was driven in a Peugeot 504, the model of which later became the workhorse of the burgeoning pirate taxi business in the country, thanks to the French government’s sanctions busting escapades.

Later, the then prime minister was to get a Merc.

Things changed, when government allowed Willowvale Motor Industries, to assemble Mazda cars.

It had been hoped that Zimbabweans would then be able to buy new cars at affordable prices.

Nobody bothered to ask why the company started by assembling the Toyota Cressida, from a rival Japanese company.

But the Cressida was considered a top-of-the-range car by most Zimbabweans.

As usual, politicians felt they deserved the first chance to own the new ride to enhance their status, if not their pockets.

In 1988, details of deep-rooted corruption in the upper echelons of government and the ruling party emerged in what came to be dubbed the “Willowgate” scandal.

“Willowgate” exposed how Cabinet ministers and other politicians abused their positions to source many cars each from a government-owned automobile assembly plant, Willowvale.

They resold the vehicles at great profit. The scandal was too big and volatile to sweep under the carpet and it forced Mugabe to appoint  a commission of inquiry, Zimbabwe’s first judicial commission, to investigate scandal.

When the Sandura Commission, named for its chairperson, Justice Wilson Sandura, completed its own hearings, five senior government ministers, including two of Mugabe’s three most senior lieutenants and a provincial governor, were forced to resign.

One of them was Maurice Nyagumbo, who committed suicide. His close friend, Enos Nkala, who was Defence minister, was defiant to the end.

The ministers showed their arrogance during a commission of inquiry chaired by Justice Sandura, with then Education minister Dzingai Mtumbuka telling interrogators: “One fool at a time.”

The Willowvale scandal was quickly followed with the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (Esap) which ushered in fresh hardships and cash shortages.

Foreign currency was hard to come by and the general populace had to make up with buying ramshackle South African cars.

Families would travel to South Africa, and pool their foreign currency allocations to buy cars.

Then came the long, sustained decline of the economy from 2000 to 2008.

Those who were well-connected got cars, new cars, while the unconnected scrambled onto minibuses and open trucks for transport home.

Thousands of urbanites were later bundled out of cities on government trucks during the Murambatsvina clean-up, partly to ease transport woes which could have easily sparked riots.

During the “long night”, an irate security guard at a private Harare hospital asked: “Do these people who drive these fancy cars know how much we are suffering?”

He was referring to a man who was driving a Toyota Virgo and was chewing a chunky cheese morsel.

When the GNU came into being in 2008, few Zimbabweans ever dreamt it would provide the best chance for them to own cars.

So, when Mugabe was pronouncing his Look East policy, most middle-class Zimbabweans took him seriously and looked to the Far East — Japan in particular, from where they started importing cars.

If truth be told, at no time in the country’s history have so many cars been imported into the country.

Figures may not be readily available, but Harare and other cities are brimming with imported cars and on weekends many Zimbabweans show-off their newly-imported cars.

Those in the Diaspora also use long holidays to drive back home to flaunt their brand new cars.

Many Zimbabweans for the first time in 33 years have been able to buy affordable Japanese imports.

But the government wants to ban them on the basis that they are causing high death rates on the roads.

The government says Zimbabweans must import cars that are five years old and or less.

Imported cars are arguably the biggest source of revenue in a country where salaries are an average $300 a month.

There are no accompanying statistics to back up their reasoning.

But initially October has been set as the deadline for grey Japanese imports.

Many drivers on the country’s roads have fake licences and the government is mulling retesting all road users.

But the government is yet to computerise the current drivers register and is failing to handle those who want to get new licences.

In the middle of all this, a new car scandal, dubbed Luxurygate surfaced where ministers and top-government officials bought themselves cars worth $50 million at a cost of $165 000 each.

This comes at a time when civil servants have been consistently denied a salary increment ostensibly because diamond revenues were unaccounted for.

Obviously ministers and top-government officials consider themselves of a better social status than the people they represent.

With uncertainty haunting the nation again, after Mugabe’s landslide win and the constant threat of a Zim-dollar return, many people fear the last four years were a lost chance to own a car even a second hand.


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