Friday, June 16, 2006

Zim elites buy Mercedes

“The businesses that I have demand such a car. I am celebrating my own success. Everything that I have, I owe to God,” Mr Chiyangwa explained. Israel Tswarayi, a flower vendor who spends his day dodging police anti-hawker patrols, views Mr Chiyangwa’s purchase differently. “It’s disgusting,” he says. “That money could have been used to buy food for everyone in Harare for a month. But he used it for one car.”

Mr Chiyangwa is one of Zimbabwe’s privileged elite, almost entirely black and mostly connected to President Mugabe’s ruling Zanu (PF) party, that flaunts its wealth through the cars it drives.

Zimbabwe is effectively bankrupt. Its once-proud export industries have been reduced to little more than a care-and-maintenance level. Official hard currency to import essentials such as antiretroviral drugs and water-purifying chemicals for cities is almost impossible to acquire.

But last month the central bank agreed to fund a loan scheme for MPs and senators to import new cars, allocating $350,000 (£190,000) for the first tranche alone.

The number of imported luxury cars in Harare would raise eyebrows in Epsom. The parliament’s car park glitters with scores of government-issued ministerial and privately owned Mercedes saloons and SUVs, BMWs, Toyota Landcruisers, Jeep Cherokees and the most expensive Japanese double-cab 4x4 pick-ups.

The same dazzling array of vehicles assembles outside Harare’s exclusive private schools to collect children at the end of the day, at the capital’s high-priced shopping centres at the weekend and at outings of the Shumbas, a golfing society of black senior executives from the country’s big public companies.

Harare’s luxury car dealers say that business has seldom been so good. “We’ve had this showroom for 12 years, and last year’s business has been the best,” said one, who wished to remain anonymous. “Usually, if I had five C or E-Class Mercs in the showroom, I would sell them in a day.”

About 30 per cent of his trade is with the Government, corporations or non-governmental organisations. “The rest is private — 95 per cent black and most of it is speculative business,” he said.

In a country where inflation exceeds 1,000 per cent, “cars are a currency”, he said. “They are your most certain asset. This is the only country in the world where the value of vehicles appreciate after they get sold.

“When a new vehicle is ordered and paid for overseas, it can change hands four times before a single kilometre is on the clock.”

The most expensive car in the Herald’s classified column last week was a new Mercedes- Benz E500, at Z$38 billion (about £70,000), a snip next to President Mugabe’s five-tonne armoured 7.3-litre S600, which is estimated to have cost three times more than Mr Chi-yangwa’s newer model.

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