[DEBATE] : FT on Zim
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Mon May 21 20:29:53 BST 2007
FT on Zim: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/60dcdf9a-06fa-11dc-93e1-000b5df10621.html
Zimbabwe groans amid shortages and spiralling inflation
By Alec Russell
Published: May 20 2007 18:59 | Last updated: May 20 2007 18:59
The people of Nswazwi are once again on the move. Three decades ago
their tiny settlement of thatched mud huts, a few miles from the
border with Botswana, was caught up in Zimbabwe's liberation war. Many
residents fled across the frontier before returning home to enjoy the
fruits of freedom. Now, again, abandoned huts and empty kraals
(enclosures) testify to an exodus.
Since the days of Lobengula, the 19th-century Matabele king, lustrous
cattle have grazed in this remote corner of Zimbabwe. But now food
stocks are running low; the average household income is a few US
dollars a month; and the intimidation from the regime is intensifying.
Those who remain are clearly struggling. Local tracks are dotted with
people who cannot afford the bus fare to the local town. And so they
walk for hours in the sun, bearing scraps of food that they hope to
sell or barter – and this in a country that was until recently dubbed
the bread-basket of southern Africa.
These are tense times. Few people talk openly to strangers, lest
agents of the feared Central Intelligence Organisation are watching.
Hidden behind the corner of a cattle kraal, a young girl said she
wanted to speak out. "There are so many who are going," she said.
"They say they will come back one day but I don't think so. It is so
difficult to get food now. We are finishing off last year's maize and
then we will have no stocks."
The situation in Nswazwi is mirrored across Zimbabwe, where security
forces tightly monitor the main roads and most journalists, including
this correspondent, have to operate undercover. One veteran of the
opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), who acted as a guide
for the FT, said: "Every year we say this must be the end." He recalls
how his first car cost $Z5,000, a thousandth of what half a tank of
petrol costs now – or rather what it cost when he spoke, for the next
day the prices went up. "Mugabe can't last much longer," he added. "Or
maybe he can . . . "
In the latest grim signal of Zimbabwe's vertiginous decline, the
official rate of inflation was last week put at 3713.9 per cent.
Economists believe it may be much higher. With unemployment at over 50
per cent, three or four million out of a population variously
estimated between 12 and 15 million have fled the country in search of
work. Perversely, their remittances are a crucial prop to the regime.
Yet the government blandly delivers statistics as if inflation were
four per cent and not four thousand.
Gideon Gono, the Zimbabwean central bank governor, said on Thursday
that inflation had been fuelled by chronic food shortages. The
government attributes these to the sanctions imposed by the European
Union and the US, as well as to the drought affecting southern Africa,
and denies a link to the land expropriations that have led to the
near-total collapse of Zimbabwe's commercial agriculture. The
sanctions include a ban on arms sales, a freezing of assets in
European banks and a travel ban on senior officials in the government
Mr Gono said he would continue large-scale printing of money despite
the warnings of the International Monetary Fund that this would merely
increase inflation. "We offer no apology, we offer no remorse for our
intervention in all spheres of the economy when we do the unorthodox,"
he told MPs.
Some commentators have argued that, such is the economic chaos, the
regime must be near its "tipping point". But comparisons suggest
Zimbabwe may well fall a lot lower before this happens. The country is
not policed with the ruthlessness of Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Nor has it
been reduced to the state of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the
Congo) under its late dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. By the end of his
ruinous regime in 1997, many roads and railways built by the Belgians
had been reclaimed by the jungle and visitors were routinely fleeced
by officials on arrival at Kinshasa's Ndjili airport. Despite all Mr
Mugabe's catastrophic decisions in the past decade or so, unlike Zaire
in its last days Zimbabwe still somehow staggers along with the odd
vestige of normality.
One evening at the Bulawayo Country Club earlier this month, a young
white couple were discussing their wedding plans with a caterer. "So
do you want fish as well as pâté?" she asked. "And when are you going
to do the speeches? Do you want me to wait before bringing in the
meat?" Similar exchanges have been overheard in the club's panelled
interior for years and will no doubt be heard for years to come. But
the most myopic visitor or resident could not now miss the evidence of
a society under terrible strain.
On the fringes of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second city, queues form
outside shops on the rumour of deliveries of sugar or other foods.
Banknotes are exchanged in brick-sized wads. Many shops change prices
twice a day. Most business is done by barter. One world-weary
businessman says that after years of marriage he has changed his
mantra to his wife. "I no longer say: 'You are spending too much.' I
now say: 'You are not spending quickly enough.' Whenever we have cash
we spend it."
For seven years since Mr Mugabe first faced a serious challenge to his
rule with the formation of the MDC, Zimbabwe's opposition has been in
a state of increasing despair. Since 2000 there have been three
elections, two parliamentary and one presidential. With the economy in
freefall, each should have been a stiff challenge for Mr Mugabe. But
he won all three easily, relying on a formula of populism, thuggery
and skulduggery at the polls.
Now more than ever, Mr Mugabe's back is against the wall. His Zanu-PF
party is in disarray. Ten days ago, party meetings in Bulawayo, an
opposition stronghold, and the central town of Masvingo broke up in
chaos amid clashes between supporters of the two factions vying to
replace the president. Also, his sovereignty has for the first time in
his 27 years in power been compromised: regional leaders have mandated
South Africa to mediate between Zanu-PF and the MDC ahead of
presidential and parliamentary elections due next March.
Yet barring a move from within Zanu-PF – and insiders suggest that
this, despite the party's unhappiness, is unlikely for the moment –
the earliest the 83-year-old can be expected to leave office is after
the elections. In the meantime, the opposition is struggling to speak
with one voice and overcome regional scepticism as to its viability as
a political force. All the while, Mr Mugabe's supporters are doing
their best to ensure that it is in no state to contest the election.
"The regime has thrown all caution to the wind," says David Coltart, a
veteran human rights lawyer and a leading MDC MP. "It has been pushed
into a corner and is now lashing out. As with so many dictatorships,
the closer they get to the end the more vicious they become. They are
deadly serious now. This isn't an aberration. This is an attempt to
crush the opposition before elections."
He was speaking shortly after police beat two of Zimbabwe's best-known
human rights lawyers in Harare. This was merely the latest act of
state-sponsored brutality since March 11, when Morgan Tsvangirai, the
head of one of the MDC's two wings, and other leaders were beaten in
the streets of the capital. These are dangerous times for the
opposition as Human Rights Watch, the US rights group, made clear in a
report this month that recorded the summary arrest and torture of
hundreds of activists since the attack on Mr Tsvangirai.
Day by day, the fabric of the old law-abiding and functioning order
becomes more threadbare and people more desperate. Earlier this month,
on Suzanne Street on the northern fringe of the city hundreds of
people had gathered outside a high metal gate. Briefly it opened and
some bags were thrown out. The crowd surged forward. Behind the gate
was a chicken farm. The crowd was waiting for chicken heads and feet
for the pot, or to sell on. "There is a new rule," said a pastor
watching in dismay. "If you buy it, don't eat it, but sell it, make
your mark up."
The pastor was on his way back from delivering food to impoverished
victims of Murambatsvina (Operation Clear Out the Trash), the
government's brutal 2005 campaign to raze informal settlements in the
main cities. Hundreds of thousands of people had their homes destroyed
and were then dumped in the countryside. Now many are eking out an
existence on land confiscated from white farmers a few years ago.
Ten miles outside Bulawayo, Edward Sibanda, 52, is living on a dusty
five-hectare plot with his wife and four children. It used to be part
of a successful commercial farm. His experience highlights the folly
and crime of both Murambatsvina and the expropriations. A decade ago
the commercial farmers accounted for half Zimbabwe's foreign currency
earnings. Now most of their land is in small plots and all but
uncultivated. Mr Sibanda ticked off on his fingers what he needed to
make a go of it: "We have no rain, no tractors, no petrol, no tools,
He is one of many who can no longer afford monthly school fees
($Z15,000 – just over 50 US cents at the unofficial rate) for his
children. Zimbabweans were long regarded as some of the best educated
people in Africa and in his early years, Mr Mugabe rightly took pride
in his government's investment in schooling. Now, a malnourished and
uneducated generation is growing up. A nurse burst into tears as she
described the implosion of the health service. "We've got kwashiorkor
[a type of childhood malnutrition] again. I didn't see it 25 years ago
when I was trained. Now you are seeing the telltale signs, golden hair
and pot bellies."
South African officials are increasingly concerned about the crisis on
their northern border. Western criticism of the country's policy of
"quiet diplomacy" over the past few years has infuriated Pretoria,
which argues that trumpeting its concern would be counter-productive.
But privately, officials concede the crisis sends all the wrong
signals to the foreign investors they want to attract. They also fear
it risks overshadowing the 2010 football World Cup in South Africa,
which they hope will be a showcase for the post-apartheid state.
Now they are pushing forward with their mediation plans. They have
held several meetings with the opposition factions and written
formally to Mr Mugabe seeking his response to their mandate.
Meanwhile, western agencies have done their sums and calculated that
the world will need to stump up one billion US dollars a year for a
decade after the regime falls.
The best-case scenario is for the region somehow to force Mr Mugabe to
step down in favour of a coalition between reformist elements of the
Zanu-PF and the MDC. But no one is holding their breath. A senior
former cabinet minister believes Mr Mugabe has only one goal: to stay
until he dies and so avoid the risk of prosecution. As a senior
opposition figure concedes, Mr Mugabe knows all too well that the
MDC's promises of amnesty are meaningless.
"I think we are in for growing violence and eventually some sort of
conflagration this year, next or even the year after," says one
diplomat with long experience of Zimbabwe. Given Zimbabweans' relative
quiescence in the face of the growing tyranny, until recently that
might have been dismissed as alarmism. Moses Nzila-Ndlovu, an MDC MP,
fears that is no longer the case.
"There are so many people who have been traumatised and brutalised by
Zanu-PF. If the MDC were cheated at the elections again there could be
carnage. There is so much anger. And even if Mugabe goes, it may not
end there. Look at it from the perspective of the ordinary people. You
have a pot, boiling. Lift up the lid and the steam boils over."
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
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