“Zimbabwe Is Beautiful”by Sean O'Toole / 10.07.2009
One word: Zimbabwe. Let’s start with good news. Last month, well-known ad agency TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris was awarded the Cannes Grand Prix for Outdoor, amongst many other accolades, for their Trillion Dollars Campaign for The Zimbabwean. Founded, edited and published by Wilf Mbanga, the paper is an exiled London-based daily offering alternative news coverage of the crisis in that country.
The print edition of The Zimbabwean is currently subject to a punitive 55% luxury import duty, putting it beyond the reach of ordinary Zimbabweans living in Mugabe’s truth-averse autocracy. In an attempt to raise the profile of the paper, particularly amongst exiled Zimbabweans living in South Africa, creatives at the ad agency devised an agit-prop billboard and poster campaign that uses Zimbabwe’s useless currency as both medium and message.
“Thanks to Mugabe this money is wallpaper,” read the bold san-serif type on a prominently sited outdoor billboard featuring Zimbabwe dollars as the print substrate. A similarly executed street poster bluntly offered: “Z$250,000,000 cannot buy the paper to print this poster on.” Last year Zimbabwe, which gained independence in 1980, Mugabe its first – and to date only – president, had an inflation rate of 231 million per cent. One Zim dollar will by you 0.00000003 US dollars. Life in Zimbabwe has been reduced to increasing fractions of nought.
The thing with numbers though is their abstraction. Life in Zimbabwe is anything but. In 2003, when the currency was still denominated in hundreds and thousands not billions and trillions, I visited Musina with my mate Paul Botes, a photographer from the Mail & Guardian. One night we found ourselves at the Beit Bridge Inn & Casino, on the wrong side of the Limpopo River. Options aren’t big in this part of the world on a Saturday night.
The casino, at least back then, was packed with rows of one-armed bandits crowded by people. Z$5 and Z$10 machines, deeper into the high ceiling warehouse Z$20 machines, also a roulette and blackjack table (on which there was a minimum bet of Z$500, or about R1.25 in 2003). No music, just lots of cigarette smoke and men slaking down SAB beers in preference to the local brands.
Seated at the blackjack table, an overweight white trucker wearing ethnic print shorts, a blue winter coat and oily mess of hair. He keeps nodding off at the table, despite warnings from the croupier. A while later a man in a white T-shit, big shoes and a confident stride arrives. He bumps the trucker off his perch, takes his seat. Words pass between the two. Bar fight, I nudge Paul.
“Fuck you, you’re a tribalist,” spits the surly man in big shoes.
“And you’re a racist,” mumbles the bearded trucker.
“I don’t care if you’re a cop,” says the white trucker, lifting his burly frame from his chair. “I’ll still flatten you.”
“Go fuck your mother,” laughs the black policeman.
“Don’t tell me to fuck my mother,” responds the trucker, the light illuminating his pockmarked face.
“Go back to your truck,” taunts the policeman disinterestedly. “You’re a hippo out of water. Look at you, you can’t even afford to stay in a hotel.”
More hard words pass between the two. Just as calm appears to have prevailed, the trucker drunkenly lurches towards the policeman.
“Don’t tell me to fuck my mother, you cunt. I’ll fuck you up.”
“Don’t come near me!” shrieks the policeman. “You’re contaminating me!”
“Don’t tell me to fuck my mother,” says the trucker in stuck record mode. “I’ll flatten you.”
Exasperated, the croupier’s assistant rings a brass bell – the type once used to summon servants to clear the table and serve tea. Few if any of the other gamblers are paying much attention to the ruckus. A uniformed security guard arrives. He politely asks the trucker, tears streaming from his eyes, to leave.
“He mustn’t tell me that,” the trucker mumbles as he is patiently goaded towards the door.
“Hey, come and play,” taunts a player seated near the policeman, who is engrossed by his losing streak. Digging into his pocket he throws down some more freshly printed Z$500 notes. He loses, again.
Without much fanfare or discontent the policeman finally retires from the game. As he disappears into the Saturday night, a toothless card player serenades the silence. Beer hoisted overhead, he drunkenly mumbles: “Zimbabwe is beautiful!”
Pics courtesy TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris